THERE IS STILL TIME TO START A SPRING PROGRAM!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

‘Tis the season to be singing Christmas carols. And China’s very much in-form world No 3, Ding Liren, could well be the one a-wassailing merrily on a high following his emphatic victory over Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Grand Chess Tour Final, the marquee event of the London Chess Classic, as the man from Wenzhou dominated his opponent with a near-flawless performance to successfully capture the 2019 Tour title.

Turning in arguably one of the most amazing displays of powerhouse chess in an elite-level event that was on a par with some of Magnus Carlsen’s dominating victories, Ding beat MVL 16-12 in the final, with the match effectively being over as a contest before it even got to the blitz session, though the Frenchman did at least have some form of redemption with a late rally in the blitz.

In the end, though, Ding proved to be unstoppable as he smoothly cruised to the title and first prize of $150,000 with the runner-up taking home $100,000. Both finalists automatically qualify for the 2020 Tour, and they are joined now by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who – despite a near scare that put his long unbeaten run in classical games in jeopardy – had an equally emphatic 17-11 margin of victory over Levon Aronian to take the third prize of $60,000, with the Armenian winning $40,000.

Ding’s classical takedown of MVL in game 2 (see today’s game) proved to be the catalyst for his victory – and that early pivotal moment in the final is also destined to be one for the anthologies with more than a touch of elan attached to it! The game received many plaudits, none more so than from IM Malcolm Pein, the London Chess Classic tournament director, who described it to be “[a] wonderfully deep game, one of the finest ever here.”

Many are already speculating that Ding could be the player to finally realise Beijing’s “Big Dragon” project that started back in 1974 – as they emerged from behind the Bamboo Curtain and into the international chess arena for the first time – with a state-run strategy to become the global chess superpower by 2010, much in the way the Soviets took over the post-war hegemony of the game.

While China currently holds both Olympiad titles and Ju Wenjun the women’s world crown, the glittering prize they covet most of all is Carlsen’s crown – and with further success in capturing the Grand Chess Tour title, all the talk now is on the increasingly steady rise in stature of Ding, who will head into the new year and the coming 2020 Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg with an added boost to his confidence.

Photo: Ding Liren, the 2019 Grand Chess Tour champion | © Lennart Ootes / GCT

GM Ding Liren – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Grand Chess Tour Final, (2)
English Symmetrical
1.c4 c5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e5 6.0-0 Nge7 7.d3 d6 We have, basically, a reversed English Botvinnik System – but here White has an extra move that nullifies any strategic stranglehold normally associated with the Botvinnik System. 8.a3 a5 9.Rb1 0-0 10.b3 Rb8 11.Bb2 h6 12.Nd2 Be6 13.Nd5! The d5 square is a vital in the English Opening, and if you can control that square, then White has the upper-hand. 13…b5 14.e3 The major difference between the two set-ups is that Ding can stop MVL occupying d4 with his knight. 14…Qd7 15.Re1 Bg4 16.Qc2 Rfc8 17.Ne4 Nxd5 Forced, as MVL can’t allow the deadly threat of a Nf6+. 18.cxd5 Ne7 19.Nd2 Bh3 20.Bh1 A nice, strategic retreat, with the bishop defending the crucial d5-pawn. 20…Nf5 21.a4! Ding is now chipping away at MVL’s queenside pawns, looking to force a commitment out of them – and when that happens, he’ll use the c4 square for a dominant outpost for his knight that will simultaneously attack d6 and a5. 21…h5 The problem with 21…b4 is that after 22.Nc4 White will now be following up with Bg2, seeking the trade of bishops, and then play e4, inviting …Nd4 where Bxd4 will leave the classic good knight vs bad bishop scenario. Rather than that, MVL decides to open things on the queenside to try and trade off opposing pawn weaknesses on b3 and a5 – but Ding handles this next phase of the game supremely well. 22.axb5 Rxb5 23.Ra1 h4 24.Bc3 The Black a-pawn is by far the more vulnerable, as Ding can use his bishop to attack it and pin MVL down to defending it. 24…Ra8 25.Ra4! A nice rook lift that not only blockades the a-pawn, but it also prepares to double rooks on the a-file to ratchet up the pressure on the wayward pawn…and at the same time, that rook could equally swing over to the kingside. 25…Qd8 26.Bf3 Another subtle move, and the reason behind it may not necessarily be so obvious. Sure, after Rea1 and maybe Qa2, the bishop could retreat to d1 to support b3 and allow Nc4 – but another threat lurking large now is the threat of g4 dramatically cutting off support for MVL’s marooned bishop on h3. 26…Rab8 27.Rea1 Bh6 28.Re1 There was a threat of …Nxe3 followed by Bxe3+ and …hxg3 with a very ‘murky’ position and chances of the complications saving Black, hence Re1. 28…Qg5 29.Ne4 Qd8 30.Ra3 Ne7 31.Nd2 Nf5 32.Qd1 Continuing to support the threat of g4. MVL can see this, but there’s not much he can do about it, as he’s pieces are all disjointed with no prospects of finding good squares. 32…Bg7 33.g4 Now both of MVL’s bishops are effectively out of the game – and the next phase of the game turns into nothing short of an attacking masterclass now from Ding. 33…Nh6 34.Kh1! The idea is make way for Rg1 and now attacking on the kingside – and MVL has to tread carefully now, as along with this, suddenly there’s threats of Ne4 eying up the possibility of Ng5 or even Be2, f3 and Nf2 winning the wayward …Bh3. Faced with those options, MVL is true to his nature as he now opts to lob in a grenade or two. 34…f5!?! A radical solution from MVL – but will all those lines now being opened towards the Grenchman’s king come back to haunt him? 35.gxf5 gxf5 36.Rg1 Qd7 37.Qe2 Kh8 38.Ra4! Now rook returns to the theme noted earlier of a dramatic switch to the kingside…and in dire straits, MVL continues to lob grenades. 38…Rxb3 There’s no time to play 38…Qd8 looking to defend both the h- and a-pawns, as now White swiftly moves in for the kill with 39.Bg2! Bg4 (If 39…Bxg2+ 40.Rxg2 h3 41.Rg3 Ng4 42.f4 and all the lines are opening towards the Black king.) 40.f3 h3 41.Bf1 Bh5 42.Bxh3 and the Black position is set to implode. 39.Rxh4 Rxc3 40.Rxh3 The rooks domineering the h- and g-files are just too powerful. 40…a4 41.e4 Rc2 42.Rh5 f4 Forced, otherwise exf5 and Qe3 was quickly winning. 43.Qd1 Rbb2 44.Nc4 a3 You got to admire MVL’s determination to try and stay in the game by keeping things very complicated. 45.Bg4 Qd8 46.Nxb2 Rxb2 47.Be6 a2 48.Rxg7! [see diagram] Boom! A quite brilliant denouement from Ding, as all of the elements of his carefully built-up attack comes together with one of his trademark tactics to snare MVL’s king. 48…Kxg7 And for those perhaps wondering why 48…Rb1 isn’t good for Black, the answer comes with the equally stunning retreat of 49.Rg1! Qf8 (There’s no time to capture the queen nor promote the pawn to a queen! If 49…Rxd1 50.Rxh6# and 49…a1Q 50.Rxh6#) 50.Qg4! Rxg1+ 51.Qxg1 and effectively White has an extra rook and no way for Black to successfully promote the pawn that doesn’t avoid mate, such as 51…Kh7 52.Bf5+ Kh8 53.Qg6!! a1Q+ 54.Kg2 f3+ 55.Kxf3 Qd1+ 56.Kg2 etc. 49.Qg1+ Kf8 50.Rf5+! 1-0 And MVL finally throws in the towel, as the rook is taboo due to the quick mate with 50…Nxf5 51.Qg8+ Ke7 52.Qf7# etc.

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