Ding Liren won a splendid game with the white pieces against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to take a six-point lead in the Grand Chess Tour final. Magnus Carlsen escaped from a lost position vs. Levon Aronian and increased his unbeaten streak to 107 games.
The last day of the Grand Chess Tour playoff starts at 15:00 CET, which is 9 a.m. Eastern and 6 a.m. Pacific. You can follow the games here as part of our live portal. Commentary is provided by GM Robert Hess and IM Danny Rensch at Chess.com/TV.
Thanks to the particular points system used in the Grand Chess Tour finals, Ding took a commanding lead of six points going into the final day, when the two rapid games are worth four points each and the four blitz games two each.
The 27-year-old GM from Wenzhou won a “wonderfully deep game, one of the finest ever here,” as the tournament director in London, IM Malcolm Pein, described it.
The opening was a Symmetrical English, where Black chose Mikhail Botvinnik‘s setup with the pawns on c5, d6 and e5 and the knight on e7 vs. White’s King’s Indian. Instead of trying to push b2-b4 (a typical plan), Ding took a calmer approach and just developed his dark-squared bishop with b2-b3.
Protecting his light-squared bishop from being traded helped keep the kingside safe, and then Ding made positional progress with the nice move 21.a4 that secured the c4 square for his knight.
As he saw no other plan, Ding then moved to action on the kingside, which worked perfectly. With a nice rook sacrifice, he finished a very good game.
“I checked it many times. I remembered yesterday I played too quickly,” said Ding about the rook sac. His state of mind is now a combination of “happy and also tired,” he added.
The game in the match for third place received a lot of attention as well, for the simple reason that Carlsen was in big, big trouble of not just losing but losing for the first time in 494 days.
“First of all, it was I think, objectively speaking, an awful game quality-wise,” Carlsen said afterward. “I just made so many mistakes, and I think he made a number as well. Obviously I was lost, completely lost, but I hung in there and managed to get this queen ending.”
From the 3.f3 Anti-Gruenfeld, Aronian made clear he was going for blood as he pushed his h-pawn up the board on move 11. It had been played just once before, five years ago by Dutch IM Jan-Willem de Jong, who ended winning with a crushing attack.
Carlsen reacted differently and sacrificed a pawn right away. His Fischer-esque 15…Nh5!? was condemned by the engines, but the Norwegian GM felt he was still doing OK practically speaking until Aronian’s rook lift on move 23, which Carlsen had missed.
“After this, I realized I was just lost, and I had to play for tricks,” said Carlsen.
He sac’ed another pawn and then another one, but neither helped. However, Aronian failed to convert.
His 34.Qf2 was not bad in itself but was the first step in the wrong direction. Carlsen came back into the game with the excellent 35…Rd4, but then refrained from taking White’s f-pawn as he tried to “hustle a bit” by keeping the rooks while his opponent was “drifting,” as he put it.
Aronian gained a winning chance once again but miscalculated as Carlsen found another defensive idea, 44…Qg6. The queen endgame that arrived was very difficult, if not impossible, for White to win.
Including two games in the Norwegian league in November, Carlsen has now brought his streak to 107 standard games without a loss since July 31, 2018, when Shakhriyar Mamedyarov took him down in Biel.
As pointed out by Tarjei Svensen, for the first time in his career Carlsen has gone a full calendar year without losing a standard game. The fewest until now was just two losses in 2012 and 2018.
During earlier games the streak had been on Carlsen’s mind but not this time, he said:
“I really didn’t play like someone who was not trying to lose today. I played very, very riskily and quite recklessly and poorly, so I wouldn’t say. But I think it’s befitting to end the year in classical [standard] chess with a pretty harrowing escape since I had a few of those, and that’s what you need to keep a streak going.”
Carlsen probably won’t be playing any standard chess until the Tata Steel Chess tournament in January, when in round four he can break Sergey Tiviakov’s record of 110 games.
Sunday is the last day, when the players will play two rapid games (with four points for a win, two points for a draw and 0 points for a loss) and four blitz games (with two points for a win, one point for a draw and 0 points for a loss).
Ding and Vachier-Lagrave are competing for the $150,000 first-place prize and the title of Grand Chess Tour champion, while Carlsen and Aronian are playing for the third-place qualifying spot to the 2020 GCT in addition to a $60,000 prize.
Elsewhere at the venue, 48-year-old Michael Adams won the British Knockout Championship after beating Luke McShane in the semifinal and then David Howell in the final.
Originally the plan for the British Knockout was to follow the Grand Chess Tour with two classical games followed by a final day of rapid and blitz (as was the case for the semifinals), but the organizers decided to change the format of the final.
Instead, Adams and Howell were to play four rapid and up to six blitz games, but Adams decided matters by winning the last two rapid games.
All British Knockout games for download/replay