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Ding Liren wins Sinquefield Cup 2019

by V Saravanan - 30/08/2019

Ding Liren carried the day in Saint Louis, surprising spectators by winning a rapid and blitz tiebreak against World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen was consistently behind on the clock which proved a decisive factor, as a tentative move in the first blitz game actually resulted in his losing on time, despite the 3-second delay. After that Ding needed only a draw to secure his first Sinquefield Cup and a nearly certain ticket to the Grand Chess Tour final in London later this year. IM Venkatachalam Saravanan reports all action from the venue. Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Carlsen's first tie-break loss in over a decade

Ding Liren - The softspoken powerhouse | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Magnus Carlsen hasn't lost a rapid playoff in what seems like forever. It not only shows the world champion's strength in quicker formats of the game, but also the ability to deliver results at critical moments. He doesn't seem to follow any particular philosophy towards rapid chess, except for one typical fact — he hardly plays sharp variations. Ding on the other hand Liren seems to have a clear pattern in rapid chess — dynamic and principled openings with white pieces and solid setups with black.


The first game reflected Carlsen's preferred approach to rapid chess as he steered clear of any sharp setup with white pieces against Ding's Slav, instead entering quieter waters.


The rapid games had the time control of 25 minutes per player with a time delay of ten seconds per move. Both Carlsen and Ding appeared a tad tentative in the opening phase, taking their time and obviously trying to arrive at a position unfamiliar to the opponent, more than anything else. 

The start of the tie-break | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Some of Carlsen's decisions were puzzling, however.

Carlsen - Ding, playoff rapid game 1

Position after 9.dxe5

9...Qxd1 10.Kxd1?!


White voluntarily gives up castling, and temporarily brings the king to the centre. It was difficult to understand the thinking behind this move. Simpler was 10.Nxd1 Nd5 11.Bd2 with a game, where white should hold the better side of equality.


10...Nd5 11.Ne4?


Simply wasting time - what is White aiming to achieve with this move?


11...Bb7 black is fine already, aiming for simple and sound moves: 0-0-0, ...c6-c5 etc.

Position after 14...c4

15.Kc2? White should immediately challenge Black's queenside domination with 15.b3 cxb3 16.axb3 and hope for the best.


15...0-0-0 (15...f5! was even better) 16.Rhd1 f5! and psychologically Black was already doing better.

Position after 16...f5

By this point, Carlsen was clearly indicating his discomfort at the board, raising his eyebrows, twirling a piece in his hand and looking at the clock ticking away. He finally decided to stop playing for initiative and found a way to fight for a draw: 17.Nd6+?! Sacrificing a pawn, Carlsen aims to simplify into an ending with opposite-coloured bishops and rooks, hoping to achieve a draw. 17.Ng5 Bxg5 18.Bxd5 was a much better way to play for equality.


17...Bxd6 18.exd6 Rxd6 19.Bxd5

Magnus Carlsen - desperate measures | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Position after 19.Bxd5

Here, after a two-minute thought, Ding came up with 19...exd5!?

Ding Liren - Creative thinking | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Commenting on the game, Maurice Ashley drew viewers' attention to this move, a typical chess engine concept, not bothering about the optics of shutting down the bishop on b7 with a pawn on d5. Rather, Black looks at the long term advantage of activating his rooks to invade into the centre and kingside.


It is one thing to understand the possibilities in a position with the help of a chess engine, but another to find such a move over the board in just two minutes, that too in a rapid game against the world champion, in a high tension encounter! After this particular moment, it was difficult to watch this match without an extra admiration for Ding.


20.Bc3 Re8 21.e3 g5! 22.Rd4 Re4?! - but he lost the plot here. Instead, 22...Rh6 23.h4 gxh4 24.Rxh4 Rxh4 25.gxh4 Rg8 and black preserves good chances to invade in the kingside.


After the game ended in a draw, there was a clear feeling that the momentum had perceptibly shifted in Ding's favour; if he could trouble Carlsen and almost get a sizable advantage with the black pieces, he would surely enjoy his white pieces?

The second game was a fundamentally dull affair, with pieces traded at regular intervals and the balance never tipping in anyone's favour till the end.

The blitz games

Now, the interest shifted to the two remaining blitz games, where Carlsen too is a formidable force. But looking at the way he has played the whole tournament and the rapid games, I felt that Carlsen's victory was not a foregone conclusion, as it has been for many years running.


The Blitz games had the time control of five minutes per game with a three-second time delay per move. Carlsen played the first blitz game surprisingly poorly from the opening stages, and was down by a pawn in quick time. Ding had difficulties in conversion, but he reached an advantageous ending.

Ding - Carlsen, playoff blitz game 1

Position after 41.h5

41...Bb3?? Black would have survived with 41...g5.


42.e5?? White could have won with 42.g5 fxg5 43.♔f5 (threatening 44.♖f8 mate) 43...♝e6+ 44.♔e5 winning.


42...fxe5? Better was 42...g5+.


43.Kxe5 and it looked like a sure win now. But Ding still couldn't deliver the knockout punch.

Position after 87.Bc5

Just when White was struggling to find a way to win in a better position, Carlsen was about to execute 87...Rg2 when he overstepped the time limit!

Ding Liren during the breaks of tiebreak | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Once Ding won the first game, there was a clear realization that Carlsen wasn't in his element on the day, and to score a win with white pieces in the next game looked like a tall order.

Carlsen - Ding, playoff blitz game 2

Position after 16...Nb7

A typical position from the Chigorin variation of the Ruy Lopez. Since White has still not fully mobilized his forces, his next move was surprising.




This hardly looked like a position in Ruy Lopez where white could generate any activity on the kingside. Carlsen's move came off as more like desperation due to the score of the match, rather than fitting the demands of the position.


17...Nc5 and White is forced to part with the light-squared bishop now: 18.Ng3 Nxd3 and Back is considerably better.

Position after 31...Bxe4

A complicated position, where both sides have to be careful. The long diagonal with white's light-squared bishop absent always favours Black, practically, over the board.

32.g5 Ba8!?


Ding played this instantly, and a shocked Carlsen hardly gave his best after this:

33.Qxa6?? Better was 33.gxf6, but there is the practical problem of 33...Qb7 34.Kf1 Qg2+ 35.Ke2 Qf3+ 36.Kf1 Qg2 which will lead to a draw - a Ding victory at this point. 36.Kd2?? Bd8 37.Qxa3 Qd5+ will end in a victory for Black.


In the game, after 33...Nd5, Black's advantage became overwhelming.


The actual game became much more adventurous. It is pointless to analyse a blitz game deeply, but let us look at the finish.

Position after 38...Bxg5

At this point, watching the game up until now in the media centre, I made my way to the playing hall, to be present for the result either way, but on the way saw a great spectacle.

Henrik Carlsen (seated) and New In Chess' Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam with Garry Kasparov kibitzing the game | Photo: V. Saravanan

Kasparov was obviously enjoying himself, and the finish brought out cheers and laughter from him.


Black has excellent compensation for the queen, but Carlsen blundered his way into a beauty.


39.Qxd6?? Bf4 40.Nc5 Ne7 and Carlsen resigned, as he cannot prevent mate here.

Magnus Carlsen with a disappointing loss | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Though he lost the playoff matches, Magnus Carlsen was magnanimous and objective in his praise for Ding Liren, calling him 'a lot better than I was today'. “I had a very difficult day today. I couldn't get anything going, I was thinking too long. Mainly I was defending in most of the games”, said Carlsen. However, he took solace in the fact that he 'managed to salvage a lot in the last two days (of Sinquefield Cup) — I am not too disappointed'.


The affable and shy-sounding Ding Liren was obviously happy with his performance, saying 'he didn't expect to win' the tournament."In the first two games, I think my play was not good...My win against Anish [Giri] gave me lot of confidence. This was the kind of game I [am] used to playing. The very kind of position I play [well]. After the rest day, I beat Fabiano and became the co-leader, which was good. After that game, I wanted to draw all the [rest of] the games!"


Ding is the first person to defeat Carlsen in a tie-break in a long time — how did he feel about that?

"Yes, I know this! He has won [tiebreaks] ten out of ten in more than ten years. But today was different from yesterday. Since I finished the tournament yesterday with [a] very good result, today I went for more! Today I just felt relaxed and enjoyed [playing]."

Thus, Ding Liren pulled off one of the best achievements of his career in a fitting way. And also kept himself firmly in front, for a place to the finals of the Grand Chess Tour at London. And maybe even the birth of a strong idea that Carlsen might have found his next challenger.


By the way, this play-off match was conducted only to decide the winner of the event. Otherwise, the GCT Points as well as prize money were shared equally among Ding and Carlsen.

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