John Henderson
By John Henderson

You can be forgiven for whistling the catchy 1970 novelty swing piano “one-hit wonder” from The Pipkins alluded to in the title, as there was an added spring in Ding Liren’s step now, with China’s world #3 finally ending Magnus Carlsen’s seemingly invincible tie-break run, as he outplayed the world champion in dramatic fashion to win the playoff to capture the GCT marquee event of the $325,000 Sinquefield Cup held at the Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri on Thursday.

Carlsen, proving he’s arguably one of the best clutch players in chess, staged a remarkable late comeback by winning his final two games against Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave respectively to force a playoff with front-runner Ding, after the pair finished with a +2 score and tied for first place on 6.5/11 – but it takes something special to beat Magnus in the tie-breaks, and the 26-year-old Chinese star showed why he’s now talked up as being the coming man of chess, as he more than easily held draws in the two rapid games, and then outplayed the world champion 2-0 in the blitz.

This proved to be Carlsen’s first tiebreak loss since 2007, and it ended what seemed his invincible run of ten successive playoff victories in elite-level events. The defeat to Ding also ended Carlsen’s current run of six back-to-back classical tournament victories, stretching back to his three-way tie for first in the 2018 Sinquefield Cup, and through to this year’s major events at Wijk aan Zee, Shamkir, Grenke, Stavanger and Zagreb.

Despite the setback, there’s some comfort for Carlsen with his rejuvenated form throughout 2019 – and his second-spot placing in Saint Louis now also guarantees the Norwegian a place in the four-player GCT final. Ding also looks set to join him in the final that will be staged during the London Chess Classic in December – but MVL destiny is not in his own hands now, as the Frenchman has played his allocated five tour events, and can only watch from afar at the prospects of being squeezed out in the final two events of the GCT season by Aronian, Caruana, Karjakin or Nepomniachtchi.

All the talk now though is on the rise of Ding with one of his – and China’s – biggest super-tournament victories. Not only did he earn $82,500 for first-prize but he also collected a crucial 16.5 GCT points to move into second place in the standings, and set to join Carlsen in the final later in the year.

Ding’s performance in St. Louis also moves him up the world rankings, and he’s now just one Elo point short of displacing Caruana as #2 on the unofficial ratings – and he’s also now virtually assured of winning the rating qualification spot into the eight-player candidates tournament in 2020, with his unassailable lead in the standings ahead of the chasing pack.

Many are now speculating that Ding could be the player to finally realise Beijing’s “Big Dragon” long-term project to be the dominant chess superpower, in much the same way as the post-war Soviet hegemony of the game. China currently holds both Olympiad titles while Ju Wenjun holds the women’s world crown – but the crown they covet most of all is Carlsen’s crown, and with Ding’s win over the world champion, this will only boost his growing confidence that he can launch a successful title challenge.

Sinquefield Cup final standings:
1-2. Ding Liren* (China), M. Carlsen (Norway) 6½/11; 3-4. V. Anand (India), S. Karjakin (Russia) 6; 5-8. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), A. Giri (Netherlands), F. Caruana (USA) 5½; 9-10. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), H. Nakamura (USA) 5; 11-12. W. So (USA), L. Aronian (Armenia) 4½

Tour Standings:
1. Carlsen ($205,000) 54.5; 2. Ding Liren ($132,333) 37.8; 3. Vachier-Lagrave ($100,000) 36.8; 4-6. Aronian ($82,500), Caruana ($68, 750), Karjakin ($68,000) 25.5; 7. Nepomniachtchi ($58,583) 24.5; 8. Anand ($70,000) 24; 9. So ($85,000) 23.5; 10. Nakamura ($50,000) 17.5; 11. Giri ($41.083) 14.5; 12. Mamedyarov ($41,250) 13.5.

Photo: It’s the biggest super-tournament win of Ding’s career – now could he have Carlsen’s crown in his cross-hairs? | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Ding Liren – GM Fabiano Caruana
7th Sinquefield Cup, (9)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3 b6 7.Bd3 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Ba6 9.Bxa6 Nxa6 10.Qe2 Qc8 11.0-0 Qb7 12.a3 c5 13.Nb5 Rac8 14.b4 Nd5 15.bxc5 bxc5 So why not the obvious 15…Nxf4, you might ask? Well, admittedly, at first sight, it looks tempting, but after 16.exf4 bxc5 17.Rab1! Rcd8 18.f5! suddenly Black’s position is beginning to creak at the edges, especially with 18…exf5? losing on the spot to 19.Nc3 and there’s no way to avoid losing a piece, with either the Na6 or Be7 left hanging. Faced with this scenario, Caruana attempts to keep the position as solid as he can. 16.Rab1 Rc6 Of course, all the engines will tell you that Black has to play 16…Qa8 – but with the queen badly placed and out of the game on a8, this isn’t the sort of move that looks appealing to the human instinct. 17.Be5! Rb6 Ding wants to entice 17…f6? that’s hit by 18.e4! fxe5 19.exd5 exd5 20.Nc3! Rb6 21.Qxe5 and White has a big advantage after 21…Rd8 22.Rxb6 axb6 23.Qe6+ Kf8 (Forced, as 23…Kh8?? 24.Ne5! and Black’s lost.) 24.Re1 leaving Black with too many weaknesses and holes in his position; especially with the engines telling you that Black’s best try now is 24…cxd4 25.Qf5+ Kg8 26.Ng5! Bxg5 27.Qxg5 Rd7 28.Re8+ Kf7 29.Re5! Re7 (The knight is taboo, as White mates after 29…dxc3 30.Qf5+ Kg8 31.Re8#) 30.Qf4+ Kg8 31.Nxd5! Rxe5 32.Qxe5 Qd7 33.Qxd4 Nc5 34.Qe5 h6 35.h3 and it is not just that Black is a pawn down in the ending, it’s also the fact that White’s queen and knight have complete domination. 18.a4 Nac7 What else is there? Caruana’s knight has to somehow find a way back into the game, and the only other option was 18…Nab4?! 19.e4! Nf6 20.Bxf6! gxf6 21.e5 f5 22.Nd6! and Black’s position is barely hanging by a thread. 19.dxc5 Bxc5 20.Rbc1! Nxb5 21.Rxc5 The whole point of Ding’s play, as 20.Rbc1 gives him a big space advantage on the queenside now. 21…Nd6 22.a5 Rc6 23.Bxd6 Rxd6 24.Rfc1 h6 25.h3 Rfd8 26.Ne5 The position is just getting uncomfortable for Caruana – but to his credit, he hangs in best he can, almost saving the game when many might well have collapsed under the pressure. 26…Nf6 27.Nc6 R8d7 28.a6 Qb6 29.Ne5 Rd8 30.Rc8 Qa5 31.f4 Also good looked 31.Rxd8+ Qxd8 32.Qc4! and Black has to be careful he doesn’t walk into a lost ending with the a-pawn so far up the board. 31…Rd2 32.Qf3 R2d5 Unfortunately for Caruana, he can’t take the a-pawn that would have solved everything, as White has 32…Qxa6?? 33.Qa8! Qa5 34.Qb7! and f7 falls with lethal consequences. 33.R1c7! Ding is ruthlessly squeezing and stretching Caruana to the limit now – and something has to give under the extreme pressure. 33…Kh7 34.Kh2! Touché! Rather than rush into anything rash, Ding just removes his king from any troublesome checks scenario. 34…Rxc8 35.Rxc8 Qxa6 36.Ra8?! The only misstep from Ding in the whole game. The forcing line was the immediate 36.Rf8! Nd7 37.Nxd7 Rxd7 38.Qe4+ f5 39.Rxf5! Rd4! 40.exd4 exf5 41.Qxf5+ Qg6! 42.Qe5! (Unfortunately for White, trading queens with 42.Qxg6+ Kxg6 43.Kg3 a5 leaves him one square short of stopping the running a-pawn.) 42…Qf6! Again the a-pawn runs home in the event of the queens being traded. 43.Qe4+ Kg8 44.Kg3 a5! 45.Qa8+ Kh7 46.Qxa5 Qxd4 47.Qf5+ Kh8 48.Qe5 and while any queen ending is never easy to win, White has the advantage and ever reason to believe this position to be winning. 36…Qb7 37.Rf8 Rb5? With the digital clock metaphorically ticking down and the flag hanging, it is never easy to find the accurate saving move in such a difficult position. If Caruana had found 37…Qb4! he would have saved the game, as now 38.Rxf7 Qb1! 39.Qg3 (No better is 39.Rxa7 Rd1 40.Kg3 Rf1 41.Qe2 Re1 42.Qf3 Rf1 43.Qe2 Re1 44.Qa2 Qc1 and now White has to bail-out with the perpetual check with 45.Kh4 Rxe3 46.Rxg7+ Kxg7 47.Qa7+ Kh8 48.Ng6+ Kg8 49.Ne7+ Kf8 50.Ng6+ Kg8 51.Ne7+ Kh8 52.Ng6+ etc.) 39…Nh5! Thankfully, the queen covers g6! 40.Qg4 Rd1! 41.Qxh5 Rh1+ 42.Kg3 Qe1+ 43.Kg4 Qe2+ 44.Kh4 Rxh3+!! 45.gxh3 Qe1+ 46.Kg4 Qg1+ 47.Kh4 (There’s no escape from the checks, as 47.Kf3? Qd1+! picks up the queen on h5!) 47…Qe1+ and a saving perpetual check. Unfortunately for Caruana, this ‘Hail Mary’ save came at just the wrong moment for him, as he raced to make the time-control. 38.Qf1 Qd5 39.Nxf7 Nd7 40.Rd8 Rb8 The time-control has been safely made – but at the cost for Caruana of now facing a lost ending. 41.Rxb8 Nxb8 42.Qb1+ Qf5 43.Qb7! [see diagram] A powerful winning move from Ding, as White’s queen and knight combine to exploit all the weaknesses in Caruana’s precarious position. 43…Nc6 44.Nd6 Qc5 Worse was 44…Qd5 as 45.Ne8! forces mate. 45.Ne4 Qc2 46.Nf6+ Kg6 47.Ne8 Qc3 48.e4 Caruana is helpless, as Ding just cuts off the escape squares for his stranded king. 48…a5 49.Qd7 The end is nigh, as the street-sign soothsayer would say. 49…a4 50.Qxe6+ The rest needs no explanation as Ding effortlessly polishes off the game. 50…Kh7 51.e5 Nd4 52.Qd7 Kg6 53.Qxg7+ Kf5 54.Nd6+ Kxf4 55.Qf6+ Ke3 56.e6 Kd3 57.e7 1-0 Caruana resigns, realising that the pawn can’t be stopped.


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