Ding Liren is Grand Chess Tour champion

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

The 2019 Grand Chess Tour (GCT), a series of seven tournaments, two classical (Croatia And Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, Missouri) and five Rapid/Blitz (Ivory Coast, Paris, Saint Louis, Bucharest and Tata Steel in Kolkata) culminated with the top four players by cumulative score fighting it out in London. At this point I should emphasize that, unlike the FIDE Grand Prix (which winds up in Jerusalem next week), the Grand Chess Tour is not part of the world championship qualifying cycle. On the other hand, this private enterprise, run by the dynamic IM Malcolm Pein of the London Chess Center, offers lucrative cash prizes, more than enough incentive for any player.

The Finals took place at the Olympia Conference Centre in Kensington from 2–8 December as part of the London Chess Classic Festival. The matches consist of eight games, two classical (worth six points), two rapid (four points) and four blitz (two points). In case of a tie, a rapid mini-match (10+5) and Armageddon (5 versus 4) will be played. The prize fund is $350,000, with $150,000 for first place, $100,000 for second, $60,000 for third and $40,000 for fourth.

In classical chess the players receive 130 minutes for the entire game, with a 30-second delay from move 1, then 25+10 (25 minutes with 10 second delay) for the rapid and 5+3 for the blitz.

Semifinal Results:

Maxime Vachier Lagrave FRA 2777 beat Magnus Carlsen NOR 2870 15.5-14.5

Ding Liren CHN 2801 beat Levon Aronian ARM 2772 19.0-9.0

Match for 3rd place:

Magnus Carlsen beat Levon Aronian 17.0-11.0

Match for 1st place:

Ding Liren defeated Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 16.0-12.0 to become the 2019 Grand Chess Tour Champion.

Ding Liren won once in the classical portion and once in the rapid to open up a 10 point lead before the four-game blitz section started. Since a blitz win is worth only two points, that meant that MVL could no longer overhaul his opponent’s lead. This may have caused Ding to relax his concentration and allow Vachier-Lagrave to win three of the four blitz games to narrow the final score.

This was a great finish for the Chinese No. 1 Ding Liren who has been experiencing the year of life.

His “strong” cycle started with the Norway Chess 2019 held in July in Stavanger. Here the organizers worked out a new scoring system: the winner of a game got two points while the loser walked away with none. If there was a draw, then immediately afterwards an armageddon rapid chess game (White started with 10 minutes while Black had seven minutes — the catch is White had to win while Black only needed a draw to be declared victor). The winner of the Armageddon game got 1.5, the loser 0.5. So the possible results were 2:0, 0:2 and 1.5:0.5 or 0.5:1.5. GM Ding put in a strong performance in the classical chess and actually tied for 1st with Magnus Carlsen in the classical chess with 5.5 out of nine, but it was the armageddon games that did him in. Magnus Carlsen decided six of his seven armageddon duels in his favor and so racked up overall victory with 13.5 out of 18 possible points.

The Sinquefield Cup which followed a few weeks later did not have any new-fangled scoring system, just the usual one point for a win ½ for the draw and 0 for the loss. Ding Liren tied for first with Magnus Carlsen at 5.5/9 and shocked the world champion by winning the rapid/blitz tiebreaks 3-1. This was the first tie-break that Magnus Carlsen had lost in well over a decade.

After that came the FIDE World Cup, a 128-player single-elimination tournament which took place in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia from Sept. 9 to Oct. 4 this year.

Ding Liren eliminated Shaun Press (New Zealand), Sergei Movesian (Armenia), Alireza Firouzja (Iran) and Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) in the 1st 4 rounds. In the Quarterfinals he met and defeated Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 1.5-0.5 and eliminated countryman Yu Yangyi in the semi-finals 2.5-1.5. In the finals Ding Liren was doing most of the pressing but his opponent Teimour Radjabov proved to be a very slippery foe and prevailed 6-4. Anyway, as per FIDE rules the 2 finalists qualified for the 2020 Candidates, so both Radjabov and Ding will be going to Yekaterinburg this coming March.

And now Ding Liren is the 2019 Grand Chess Tour Champion. His total winnings from the tour came up to around $300,000, or about P15 million, not bad at all.

Here is his decisive win over GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the second game of their classical match.

Ding, Liren (2801) — Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime (2777) [A37]
Grand Chess Tour Finals (2.2), 07.12.2019

1.c4 c5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e5

MVL plays this system for Black regularly. In fact, he is one of its main popularizers — as you may have noticed not a single pawn or piece has been exchanged, there are possible pawn breaks all over the board, the pieces can swing from one side to the other — both players can find lots of content and the better player will win.

6.0–0 Nge7 7.d3

Let me tell you about the “computer crash” incident. Three years ago in the Saint Louis Sinquefield Cup GM Levon Aronian prepared something against this pet line of MVL. The game proceeded 7.a3 0–0 8.b4 (White does not usually lash out this early. Instead 8.d3, 8.Rb1 or 8.Ne1 are more common) 8…d5 (8…cxb4? 9.axb4 Nxb4 10.Ba3 Nbc6 (10…Nec6 11.Nd5 Black’s awkward pieces are not so easy to untangle) 11.Bd6 Re8 12.e4 followed by Nc3–b5–c7 is very strong for White) 9.cxd5 Nxd5 10.Ng5? (This is Aronian’s “prepared move.” According to Aronian he had prepared a similar idea a few years ago but before the game his laptop crashed and so he just played whatever he could recall. Apparently his memory was faulty — I tried to replicate his analysis and think that he meant to play 10.Nxd5 Qxd5 11.Ng5. He forgot to insert the exchange on d5) 10…Nc7 11.Nge4 c4! (11…cxb4 12.axb4 Nxb4 13.Nc5 White has good compensation for the pawn) 12.d3 cxd3 13.Bg5?! Aronian realizes that taking on d3 leaves himself with a weak d3–pawn so he tries to muddy the waters, but this makes it worse (After 13.Qxd3 Qxd3 14.exd3 Ne6; or 13.exd3 Ne6 White’s weak d3 pawn means that Black has an edge) 13…f6 14.Be3 f5! 15.Bg5 Qd4 16.Be3 Qd8 17.Bg5 Qd7! 18.Nc5 dxe2! overlooked by Aronian 19.Nxe2 Qxd1 20.Rfxd1 f4! trying to trap the g5–bishop 21.gxf4 h6 Black is already winning. Take that that white’s a1–rook is also in danger of capture by black’s fianchettoed bishop. Aronian, L. (2792)-Vachier Lagrave, M. (2819) Saint Louis 2016 0–1 49.

7…d6 8.a3 a5 9.Rb1 0–0 10.b3 Rb8 11.Bb2

White does not have any advantage in this position. In fact, consulting the giant Megabase games database which is the biggest collection of tournaments in the world Black is scoring 80% here.

11…h6 12.Nd2 Be6 13.Nd5 b5 14.e3 Qd7 15.Re1

In an earlier game White exchange knights and it became apparent it was a mistake when after 15.Nxe7+ Nxe7 16.cxb5 Qxb5 17.Bc3 d5 Black obtained a powerful center. Raeva, E. (2297)-Szabo, G. (2542) Plovdiv 2011 1/2 58.

15…Bg4 16.Qc2 Rfc8 17.Ne4!

After the game Ding explained that the idea behind the move is to threaten N(any)-f6+, winning the queen. This provokes the knight exchange, after which his other knight goes to Ne4–d2–c4 after a3–a4 has duly weakened the Black queenside.

17…Nxd5 18.cxd5 Ne7 19.Nd2! Bh3 20.Bh1!

Exchanging bishops helps Black. Here is what might happen: 20.e4 Bxg2 21.Kxg2 but the problem is that then the white kingside is being weakened and after 21…f5 22.a4 f4! Ding: “he has some counterplay on the kingside, his play is very easy”

20…Nf5 21.a4 h5

MVL decides to concentrate on the kingside. He doesn’t see anything to do in the queenside after all — 21…bxa4 or 21…b4 leaves the c4–square for White’s knight.

22.axb5 Rxb5 23.Ra1 h4 24.Bc3 Ra8 25.Ra4 Qd8 26.Bf3 Rab8 27.Rea1 Bh6! 28.Re1

Here we see one aspect of Ding’s style — he is not in a hurry. The explanation for the “takeback”: “This move (27.Rea1) looks so natural, to develop the rook to the open file, but after 27…Bh6 it seems not so easy if I let him take e3, so I just want to keep the tension and go back and find another idea. At least I can just wait to see which idea is the best.”

Let’s check out the sacrifice on e3 after 28.Rxa5 Nxe3! 29.fxe3 Bxe3+ 30.Kh1 Qf6 31.Rxb5 Rxb5 32.Qd1 hxg3 33.hxg3 Qh8!! Black suddenly has a strong attack. There is no need to explore this line further as White can avoid it without losing any advantage.

28…Qg5 29.Ne4 Qd8 30.Ra3 Ne7 31.Nd2 Nf5 32.Qd1 Bg7 33.g4!

Ding’s idea is that due to the entombment of Black’s bishop on a3 he would have to go for …f7–f5 and White assesses that his pieces are more mobile and it is he who will have the advantage on the g-file.

33…Nh6 34.Kh1 f5 35.gxf5 gxf5 36.Rg1 Qd7 37.Qe2 Kh8 38.Ra4!

Nice. White’s other rook now joins in on the action in the kingside. This is already the beginning of the end for Black.

38…Rxb3 39.Rxh4

[39.Nxb3?? Qxa4]

39…Rxc3 40.Rxh3 a4

[40…Rg8 does not do the job. White just brings up more pieces to bear on the hapless king. 41.Bh5 Bf8 42.Bg6 Qg7 43.Qh5 etc]

41.e4 Rc2 42.Rh5!

Opens the h3–c8 diagonal.


Ding calculated 42…Rbb2 43.exf5! Rxd2 44.Qe3 Rxf2 45.Rxh6+ Kg8 46.f6 White gets there first

43.Qd1 Rbb2 44.Nc4 a3 45.Bg4!

The final penetration.

45…Qd8 46.Nxb2 Rxb2 47.Be6 a2 <D>


Now comes the coup de grace


“I checked it many times since I played too quickly yesterday” (Ding).


If Black tries to get in ahead with 48…Rb1 then 49.Rg1! Rxd1 50.Rxh6#

49.Qg1+ Kf8

[49…Kh7 50.Bf5+ Kh8 51.Rxh6#]

50.Rf5+! 1–0

MVL resigns because of 50.Rf5+ Nxf5 51.Qg8+ Ke7 52.Qf7#


Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.