As they say, this wasn’t in the script. Magnus Carlsen wanted three things out of this year: Win all the major tournaments; Win a new officially-sanctioned World Championship title; make himself look invincible ahead of the coming Candidates and a title challenge in the new year. Well, 2019 was certainly a big improvement over 2018, but it is not quite working out like that, is it Magnus?
Despite a stellar first eight months of the year, Carlsen has had something of a ‘bumpy ride’ during the last few months of 2019: Losing to potential title-rival Ding Liren in a playoff for the Sinquefield Cup title; being crushed by Wesley So in the first Fischer Radom World Championship Match; and now, after losing a dramatic semifinal tiebreaker to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, no Grand Chess Tour title.
The match, though, was certainly entertaining as the speed quickened. After two ‘nothing-to-write-home-about draws in the classical, followed by two somewhat tepid rapid games that also ended in draws, the match soon turned into a virtual rollercoaster ride as things sped up in the blitz and tiebreak sessions. MVL struck first-blood with the black pieces by winning game 6, only to see Carlsen hit right back by winning the next game. And as we went into the tiebreak decider, MVL gained the decisive upper-hand in the match by winning the opening playoff game – and with the black pieces! – and then went on to hold the draw in the next to take the match 15½-14½ to be the deserved winner, and he now goes forward forward to the final.
Magnanimous in defeat to MVL, Carlsen even found time to praise his nemesis/friend. “He’s a great player and a deserved winner,” he said. “He outlasted me in the match. At this format, he is very, very good. I knew if I didn’t have a perfect day, it was going to be tough.”
The second semifinal proved to be the complete opposite of the other match-up, with it panning out to a very one-way affair with Ding Liren once yet again turning in a standout performance to crush Levon Aronian by a score of 19-9 – the match effectively over after Ding won the brace of rapid games for what ultimately proved to be an unassailable lead; a lead that he only built on by winning a further two blitz games.
MVL will now play Ding Liren in the Grand Chess Tour Final that starts on Friday, the big marquee event of the London Chess Classic, with both finalists set to do battle for the $150,000 first-place prize and the title of GCT champion, while Carlsen and Aronian will have to duke it out on the sidelines for the third-place qualifying spot to the 2020 GCT in addition to a $60,000 prize.
Photo: It’s yet another standout performance for potential title-challenger Ding Liren | © Lennart Ootes/GCT
GM Levon Aronian – GM Ding Liren
Grand Chess Tour Finals, (4)
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.d3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e3 Effectively we have a Reversed Classical Sicilian – not the most dangerous or adventurous way to reach a reversed Sicilian from the English Opening, but Aronian – after falling behind in the match by losing the previous rapid game – is looking to try and tempt Ding into being over-ambitious. But it all tragically backfires for the afable Armenian, as Ding launches a sparkling attack. 6…Be7 7.Be2 0-0 8.Bd2 Be6 9.a3 a5 10.Qc2 Nb6 11.b3 Forced, otherwise Black will play …a4 with a big clamp on the queenside. And while White may have had the “extra move” in this reversed Sicilian, the switch of direction now to a Reversed Hedgehog Sicilian means that the extra move has now been rubbed out. 11…f5 12.Bc1 Bf6 13.Bb2 g5! Ding wastes no time in “getting on with it” by expanding on the kingside – and this leaves Aronian in a bind over what to do with his king. 14.Nd2 Bg7 15.h3 Qe7 16.g4?! Panic! Not an easy position for Aronian, but this makes life even more difficult than it was. He may have done better with the “waiting move” of 16.Rc1. 16…f4 17.Nde4 Nd5 18.0-0-0?! Castling right into the storm! But Aronian was probably more worried about his king being left stuck in the middle of the board with Ding threatening to rip the position open – but castling queenside only leads to a more dramatic ripping open of the position. 18…a4! 19.b4 Faced with 19.Nxa4 losing quickly to 19…fxe3 20.fxe3 and 20…Nxe3 , Aronian tries to steady his position – but Ding is poised and ready to strike. 19…Ndxb4! (see diagram) The first instincts from the engines tell you that the evaluation is “0.00” after the knight sacrifice – but the human gut instinct and rapidly beating heart tells you that it is going to be a bumpy ride, as Ding’s pieces menacingly begin to swirl around Aronian’s king. 20.axb4 a3 21.Ba1 Nxb4 22.Qb1 f3 23.Bf1 Ra6! Ding has two pawns for the piece, but he also has a raging attack and all of Aronian’s pieces are effectively sounding the retreat. 24.Nxg5 a2 25.Qb2 Rb6 26.Nxe6 Qxe6 27.Qa3 Aronian is just managing to hold on – but the pressure just becomes too much and he soon cracks. 27…Rd8 28.Rd2? The vital square was needed for the White king to escape the attack. The only try suggested by the engine was 28.Qa4 Bf8 29.Kd2! and make a stand from here. 28…c5? The clinical kill was the immediate 28…Bf8! and a deadly hidden attack on the White queen, as now 29.Qb2 (Now if 29.Qa4 Ra6 30.Qd1 Nd5! 31.Rxa2 Ba3+ 32.Kd2 Nxc3 33.Bxc3 Qxa2+ wins on the spot.) 29…Ra8 and Black has an overwhelming attack. 29.Ne4! Remarkably, with just one wrong move from Ding, Aronian is still in the game with the knight coming to the excellent e4 outpost and to eye-up a possible Nf6+. 29…Bf8 30.Qc3?? After picking himself up off the canvas, Aronian only now throws himself back on to the canvas! After 30.g5! Be7 31.Rg1 we are in the realms of any three results being possible, as the Nf6+ threat becomes a major annoyance. 30…Nd5! Tragically, Aronian has overlooked that …Nd5 uncovers a dangerous new threat into the mix of …Rb1+. 31.Qc2 If 31.Qxe5? Rb1+ 32.Kc2 Nb4+ 33.Kc3 Qb3#. 31…Rb1+ 32.Qxb1 axb1Q+ 33.Kxb1 Nb4 34.g5 Qb3+ Opera heroines have died a less agonising, less painful death than what awaits Aronian here. 35.Bb2 Ra8 36.Nc3 e4! A nice touch from Ding. If 37.Nxe4 Ra1+!! quickly mates. 37.g6 Bg7 Inviting another piece to the party, as Dr. John Nunn was wont to say about such crushing attacks. 38.d4 cxd4 39.exd4 Bxd4 0-1