They say it’s never really over till it’s over. And after a safety-first draw in the opening game of the FIDE World Cup Final in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, top seed Ding Liren looked to be cruising to a second successive major victory in as many months after he totally outplayed Teimour Radjabov in game 2, with a typical reassured powerhouse performance to take first-blood in the deciding four-game match of the competition.
In late August, Ding beat Magnus Carlsen in a playoff to capture the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis – and now in Khanty-Mansiysk, he looked all but set for yet another milestone title to add to his growing CV with a very clinical and efficient win over Radjabov in game 2, as he outplayed his Azeri opponent in a very sharp line of the English Opening to take control of the match. A decisive result and performance that had many commentators fully expecting China’s in-form world #3 to ease his way to the World Cup title.
But rather than adding to China’s 70th-anniversary celebrations this week, Beijing had to put the champagne back on ice after Ding suffered a reversal of fortunes to throw his opponent an unexpected lifeline in the match. Keeping faith with his reliable Marshall Attack from the opening game, Ding easily equalised, and with it, everyone fully expected the players to split the point – but inexplicably, through a series of bad moves from the normally machine-like reliable Ding, a surprised Radjabov probably couldn’t believe his luck as he was all but gifted a free point.
The match is now finely poised at 1½-1½ with the concluding game four of the classical time control taking place on Thursday. Although both finalists have a guaranteed candidates spot, there’s still the little matter of the $110,000 first-place prize and title also up for grabs. If Radjabov can hold his nerve to draw game 4, then everything will be set for a dramatic tie-break to follow on Friday, 4 October, where anything can still happen.
And similarly, in the third-place match between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Yu Yangyi, that too could go either way following three draws and heading into the final game of the match tied at 1½-1½, and possibly heading towards a tie-break playoff.
World Cup final:
Ding 1½-1½ Radjabov
Third Place Match:
MVL 1½-1½ Yu
GM Teimour Radjabov – GM Ding Liren
FIDE World Cup Final, (3)
Ruy Lopez, Marshall Attack
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 Nothing wrong in repeating a heavy-theory line such as the Marshall Attack, especially as in elite-level chess it is a notorious drawing machine. And indeed, Ding easy equalises in the game, only to make serious blunders that all but gifts Radjabov a free point to bring him back into the match. 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 12.d3 As we explained in our previous column on Monday that covered game 1, this timid little move, an original creation of the great David Bronstein, is not as innocent as it looks. 12…Bd6 13.Re1 Bf5 14.Qf3 Qh4 15.g3 Qh3 16.Be3 In game 1, Radjabov opted for 16.Nd2 and Ding easily equalised and then successfully traded most of the pieces for a comfortable draw. But like many gambits, often the best solution is to return the pawn just to get your pieces active – and this is what Radjabov does. 16…Bxd3 17.Nd2 Qf5 18.Bd4 Rfd8 19.a4 h6 20.h4 Rac8 21.Qxf5 Bxf5 There’s isn’t really much in this position, if anything at all – and the reality was that all the experts expected Ding to easily draw this position to edge ever-closer to victory. But strange things can – and often do – happen in a critical match-play situation, and here, as unlikely as it seems for the normally reliable Ding, he makes a series of inaccurate moves and ends up having to defend a very difficult ending. 22.Ne4 Bf8 23.Nc5 Nb4! The tactics look spectacular, but everything is all ‘controlled’ and should have led to the players sharing the point. 24.Re5 g6 25.axb5 cxb5 26.Ne6 The position has reached what would be best described as ‘critical mass’ – and with it, Ding inexplicably starts to falter as the game swings away from him. What Radjabov played was his only slim hope to press Ding, as the alternative of 26.Nxa6 is strongly met by 26…Nc6! 27.Rxb5 Nxd4 28.cxd4 Rxd4 and Black’s bishop-pair, active rooks, not to mention the White knight being very short of squares, is more than enough compensation for the pawn. 26…Bxe6 27.Rxe6 fxe6 28.Bxe6+ Kh7 29.Bxc8 Rxc8?! This is where it all starts to go pear-shaped for Ding – almost as if he suddenly lost his cloak of invincibility he had shown over the past year or so. I don’t know what must have been going through his head here, with the only correct move being 29…Nc2! as it forces 30.Rc1 Nxd4 31.cxd4 a5 32.Ba6 Bg7 and the opposite-coloured bishops should easily hold the draw after 33.Bxb5 Bxd4 and the double attack on b2 and f2 makes it impossible for White to even consider playing for a win, as 34.b3 Rf8 35.Rf1 Rf3! will pick-off either the b- or the g-pawn. 30.cxb4 Rc4 31.Bf6 Bg7 32.Be7 Rc6 This is tougher to defend for Ding, but with accurate play, he can still hold on. 33.Ra2 Kg8?! Again, another slip. Correct was 33…Bd4! with the threat of …Re6 and …Re2. 34.Bc5 Kf7 35.Kg2 Ke6 36.b3 h5 37.Kf3 Kf5 38.Rd2 With Radjabov’s rook in from the cold, the game is just slipping from Ding’s hands. 38…Be5 39.Rd5 Ke6? The errors are all starting to prove costly for Ding now. More accurate was 39…Kf6! as 40.Ke4 can be met by 40…Re6! 41.f4 Bb2+ 42.Kf3 Bc3 43.Rd1 Kf5 44.Rd3 Bb2 45.Rd5+ Kf6 46.Rd8 Bc3 where with Black’s rook and bishop more active here, White still has a lot of work to do to show that he is winning, if even at all. 40.Ke4! [see diagram] There’s a whole world of difference between the activity of Radjabov’s pieces and Ding’s pieces now – and compare this position to the previous note, where the more accurate …Kf6 was played. 40…Bf6 41.f4 Bc3 42.f5+! Kf7 Unfortunately for Ding, if 42…gxf5+ 43.Rxf5 will pick-off the h-pawn, as 43…Be1 falls into the trap of 44.Re5+! Kd7 45.Kd5 winning the bishop. 43.Rd7+ Kg8 44.Bd6! Radjabov is in his element now, with this very accurate move – cutting the scope of the Black rook, and also allowing a path for the White king to threaten a mating net – very efficiently closing down the game. 44…gxf5+ 45.Kxf5 Bg7 46.Kg5 1-0 Ding resigns with the h-pawn falling, leaving him with a hopelessly lost ending.