Ju Wenjun stole the show at the 2017 World Rapid Chess Championship in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when she won the women’s category last December. The 26-year-old Shanghai resident was granted the prestigious grandmaster status by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) in November 2014. She is China’s 31st grandmaster and the 31st woman worldwide to hold the title. Ju is ranked second in the world according to the FIDE’s January ratings. Her next assignment will be against Chinese compatriot defending champion, Tan Zhongyi in the 2018 Women’s World Chess Championship.
She tells STYLE that a focused work ethic and careful planning (while having fun) helped her rise through the ranks of professional chess masters.
1. How did you get into playing chess and what motivated you to turn professional?
I started playing chess when I was seven in 1998, when there was an interesting chess class in school. I liked it very much and kept at it. At the 2004 Shanghai Qiyuan, by the Shanghai Chess Sports and Management Center, they needed young women to play in the tournament. I was very lucky to join them. I became a professional chess player that year.
2. What goes into becoming a chess grandmaster and what was it like when you received that recognition?
Keep working on your chess. Play more international tournaments. The grandmaster title makes you feel you are more professional and more confident. Not just on the chess board but also in real life.
3. What is training like, and how many hours do you usually put in preparation for a game/tournament? Are lessons with another master chess player essential?
Usually, I train by myself. I follow top chess events. If there are some interesting games, I will do some deep analysis. Usually, I prepare one or two hours for a game, to decide which opening I will go for. I think when you are on a certain level and you want to develop your chess skill, then lessons with another master are necessary. Another master can guide you to avoid many mistakes and widen your vision.
4. A lot of sports with Western origins (polo or ice hockey) require an initial investment that can run deep (equipment, lessons, travel expenses), and are considered ‘prestigious’ sports in Asia. How comparable is chess as a lifestyle game in China?
Chess is an ‘intelligent’ sports in China. More young kids are studying it. Chess is already offered as a daily course in some schools. When I tell people I am a professional chess player, they think you are very smart. Studying chess is simple. You just need a chess board and you can start with your friends. So in comparison to ‘prestigious’ sports, I would prefer using the word ‘intelligent’ sports.
5. Chess is a game of strategy (playing against an opponent), but also of playing against time. What is your personal philosophy on time and time management?
Time management is very important. I like my strategy and plan to be perfect so I usually spend a lot of time on calculating, and sometimes I run out of time. I think it is good to play fast, but it is definitely not easy. My idea is: if you are confused in a position, just follow your heart.
6. You seemed to have had a lot of fun playing against a robot (German-made KUKA) back in 2015. At that time you were ranked fourth in the world in August 2014. What went through your mind and how different is it playing a machine against people?
Well, that was a happy time. The robot only had one hand so it could move chess pieces. There was a chess engine connected to computer. Actually, I knew it had a high level before the game started. It was fun, at the opening I thought it was ok for me, then suddenly in the middle game I was slightly worse and lost my pawns one by one. I was studying chess with Robot KUKA and really had a good time.
7. Living in China’s fashion capital, Shanghai, how would you describe your personal style?
When I play in a tournament, I like to dress well as it gives me more confidence. I enjoy shopping, especially in the city centre on Nanjing and Huaihai roads where there are many shopping malls. When I shopping I believe in my intuition. If I like clothes at first sight, I try them and they usually fit me. I prefer wearing dresses and I also like shopping with friends, where we can share ideas.
8. As one of the world’s top chess players, this takes you around the world often. What are your favourite places to visit and why? Where do you like to stay?
I prefer places with warm weather and sunshine, like Shanghai, Los Angeles and Geneva. Over here, I like Shanghai, because I was born here and my friends are here.
9. What do you do when you want to relax?
I will hang out with my friends, go shopping and eat delicious foods. When I am alone, I like to listen to music or watch a movie. I also like going to the gym and spa.
10. Apart from playing chess, do you have any plans for any future ventures?
I don’t have any plans apart from playing chess. In 2018, I will have the Women’s World Chess Championship with Tan Zhongyi, I think I need to focus just on chess. I can’t predict the future, but I like studying new things.
11. Do you have any tips for chess players who are contemplating going professional?
Chess is fun. If you want to become a professional chess player, remember it is not just work, but also interesting. There is no simple way to achieve success, you need to keep working. When you win a game or a tournament, you will be proud of yourself.