The Return of Chinese Chess

By: Yosef Bluth  |  February 20, 2024

By Yosef Bluth, Staff Writer

The Tata Steel Chess Tournament is the first major chess tournament of each calendar year. Held in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, the tournament attracts some of the world’s top players and is sometimes called the “Wimbledon of Chess.” The tournament follows a 14-player single round-robin format, wherein each participant competes against each other over the course of 13 rounds. This format leads to some very exciting games, especially towards the end where players know they have to defeat a specific opponent in order to catch up in the standings. One aspect of the event that is important to note is its two separate sections which occur simultaneously – the  Masters section and the Challengers section. While the Masters section commands the most attention, the Challengers section offers its own allure due to a unique feature  – the victor of the Challengers section earns the opportunity to compete in the Masters section the following year.

The 2024 Tata Steel Masters Tournament featured a remarkable lineup of players. It included the defending Tata Steel champion, Anish Giri, three young superstars from India– Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, Vidit Gujrathi, and Dommaraju Gukesh– along with the former two-time World Champion Challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi, women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun, and last year’s Tata Steel Challengers winner, Alexander Donchenko, among others. The competitors formed a very strong group, with an average Elo rating of 2712. To put this in perspective, to achieve the Grandmaster title requires an elo of 2500. The top players in the world are informally referred to as Super Grandmasters once they achieve a rating of 2700, a rating that currently has less than 35 players in the world. This tournament’s average rating was even higher than that. Two interesting contenders, Chinese Grandmasters Ding Liren and Wei Yi, joined this already stacked field.

Right from the beginning of the tournament, Ding Liren’s participation was significant. Ding Liren, the current World Chess Champion, entered the tournament with the 4th highest Elo rating in the world at 2780. He became the world champion by beating Ian Nepomniachtchi in the 2023 World Chess Champion match in a closely contested match that was decided in the 4th and final tie-breaker game. However, he had not participated in any tournaments from then until the Tata Steel tournament – an 8-month period where the World Champion didn’t play a single game. Right from the start, there were questions about his performance. Would he maintain the same level as when he won the championship, or would he struggle against the top players in the world?

Wei Yi’s participation received much less fanfare. Wei Yi was one of the most exciting players in the mid-2010s. He became a grandmaster at the age of 13, making him the 9th youngest person in history to achieve this. He is the youngest player to reach a rating of 2700, accomplishing this feat at the age of 15. He has won the Chinese Chess Champion multiple times and is also the former champion of the Asian Chess Championship. However, he has been inactive since the beginning of 2020. Chess experienced a surge in popularity in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.” However, those who started following chess during that time might not be familiar with Wei Yi up until this point. This tournament is the first major classical tournament that Wei Yi has participated in since 2019.

In many respects, the stories of these two players mirror each other. Both are Chinese Grandmasters, they are the number 1 and 2 rated players in China, and they have even worked together in the past, with Wei Yi being part of Ding Liren’s support team during his World Championship match. Both were making their return to competitive chess after an extended hiatus. Both were looking to make statement wins to demonstrate their ability to compete at the highest level. So how did they do?

Ding Liren had a promising start. After drawing the first two games, he beat Gukesh in the third round. However, this momentum wouldn’t last. In the next round, Praggnanandhaa would get revenge for his fellow Indian grandmaster by taking down Ding. Ding’s performance declined from there, with Ding dropping games to French prodigy Alireza Firouzja and Ian Nepomniachtchi in their first encounter since the World Chess Championship. Ding secured a second win in round twelve, followed by a draw to close out the tournament. However, he still finished with a losing record overall. His performance earned him a 9th-place finish, finishing half a point behind 8th-place Nepomniachtchi.

Wei Yi’s tournament unfolded quite differently. His tournament began with some ups and downs, with a win in round 1 immediately followed by a loss in round 2. He won again in round 4 but suffered another loss in round 6. However, he would pull it together for the end of the tournament, with 4 wins and a draw in the last 5 rounds. He finished the main tournament with 8.5 out of 13 points, which put him in a 4-way tie for first with Gukesh, Anish Giri, and Nodirbek Abdusattorov. Tiebreaks were decided through a blitz knockout tournament. In the semifinals, Wei Yi faced Abdusattorov, who was the strongest blitz player of the four players remaining based on Elo rating. Furthermore, Wei Yi hadn’t played a ranked blitz tournament since 2019. Despite this, he would go on to beat Abdusattorov 1½ – ½ and advance to the finals. In the finals, Wei Yi faced Gukesh, whom he had lost to in round 2 of the tournament. Once again, Wei Yi would go on to win this match 1½ – ½, earning himself a victory over Gukesh and winning the Tata Steel Masters Championship.

This tournament was somewhat disappointing for Ding. While he didn’t perform terribly, many had hoped for Ding to make a triumphant comeback and prove to everyone why he is the World Champion. Instead, it highlighted how rusty he is, showing that he needs improvement for future competitions, and definitely needs to improve if he hopes to keep his title in the next World Championship match.

Over the Tata Steel tournament, Wei Yi exceeded expectations. With low initial expectations due to his extended break, his impressive performance surprised many. His break, lasting 5 years, was significantly longer than Ding’s, lasting nearly half a decade. Despite that, he came back and showed everyone why he’s the youngest player to ever reach 2700 Elo. Because he was so young when he started, Wei Yi is still a relatively young player, despite his long break. Although it’s too late for this year, if he can keep playing at this level we might even get to see him make a push for the World Championship title in the next cycle. And if Ding Liren can get back on form and defend his title, we might be seeing the top two Chinese players going head-to-head in a match for the World Championship.