GCT Finals: Trying something new

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/3/2019 – Two very different draws set the GCT semi-finals in motion at the Olympia Conference Centre in London. Levon Aronian played it safe with White against Ding Liren as he did not feel well after a bad night's sleep, while Magnus Carlsen decided to challenge Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in a rare line of the Sicilian Najdorf. The draw signed by the world champion and the Frenchman was as memorable as it was complex. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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An antidote to the Najdorf?

The punishing calendar of an action-filled year meant three of the four players in the Grand Chess Tour finals flew straight from Kolkata to London. Levon Aronian, who recently announced he will not be participating at the fourth leg of the Grand Prix due to health reasons, was the one needing to play it safe with White to avoid a major disaster. The Armenian said he had not slept enough, and went for a tame line against Ding Liren. The Chinese star was prepared for the sideline with 6.g3, and did not put a foot wrong in the ensuing struggle. Aronian forced a variation that led to a draw on move 24:


After 24.xa7 xc3, perpetual check put an end to the game: 25.xf7+ h7 26.g6+ g8 and so on. Aronian explained:

When you have enough energy to prepare for half an hour only, then it's one of those things...you just need to let it pass. As they say, it's like a fog, it has to pass, and then you fight.


Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian is well-versed in knock-outs | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Now on to the remarkable fight of the day. Many a time Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's reputation as the single most knowledgeable Najdorf player in the world has been referred to (perhaps only Caruana's prowess in the system can contest this statement). At the same time, Magnus Carlsen has shown this year that he is not afraid to go for sharp fights against all comers. On Monday, the world champion challenged 'MVL' to fight it out in an Open Sicilian, and then played an unexpected seventh move:


7.f3 is a move mostly seen in lower-rated encounters. Vachier-Lagrave thought for over seven minutes before responding with 7...h6, and after 8.e3 the position looks like an English Attack, except that Black used an 'extra tempo' on ...h6. Vachier-Lagrave later confessed he was not sure whether this favoured White or Black.

Carlsen declared:

I wanted to try something new, get some positions that he's not that familiar with, and I think that succeeded fairly well.

A couple of mysterious-looking manoeuvres were seen on move 14:


At this point, the world champion spent around 70 minutes on his next three moves: 14.g1 c7 15.g3 e5 16.g2. Carlsen was analysing the ramifications that would have ensued had his opponent gone for the critical 15...d5, when he had calculated 16.♗f4 e5 17.exd5 ♞xd5, with a crazy struggle.


Notice that Carlsen had foreseen this possibility when he played 13.e1, lining up his most powerful piece with the king in the centre. Ideas with ♗h3 and other tactical concepts would have come into play. 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen returning to the stage while Vachier-Lagrave ponders his possibilities | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

None of that happened tough, and after Vachier-Lagrave castled short, it was a race to see who got more play against the opposite king. It turned out Black was quicker:


This is the point in which the Frenchman could have pushed his initiative on the queenside more energetically. Instead of 22...b4 or 22...♜fd8, Vachier-Lagrave chose the safer 22...d5, planning to create a battery with the queen on the d5-a2 diagonal. The game continued 23.g2 c4 24.b3 c5 25.xc5 (now White is a piece up) ♛a2+ 26.c1 fd8.


The threats against the white king are certainly menacing, but Carlsen had foreseen this position and knew that 27.c4 was good for him. In fact, Vachier-Lagrave later confessed he had not seen this pawn push in advance, which largely influenced his decision to simply secure a draw later on, when he could have kept going. The Frenchman responded with the correct 27...bxc4, threatening ...c3.


Here Carlsen spent two minutes on 28.ed2, when 29.♘a4 would have given him chances to look for more. However, given the sharpness of the position, the world champion would have needed to find plenty of tactical shots in advance to go for this. As it happened, the draw was signed after 28...a1+ 29.c2 a2 30.c1 a1+, etcetera. 

Magnus Carlsen, Maurice Ashley

Magnus Carlsen interviewed by Maurice Ashley — a large audience wants to know what the world champion has to say | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The commentators recognized the amazing effort shown by both players, with the game reminding all involved how the use of slow time controls can lead to amazing struggles, the kind that keep everyone on the edge of their seats for the duration. A still befuddled Carlsen declared after the game:

I think it goes with the choice of opening. Clearly, when you play with no forced lines at the beginning and castling on opposite sides, then it's going to be very complicated. Definitely we were both angling for that, and that we got. In such cases, we often make some mistakes as well. That's the way it is.

GM Daniel King analysed the game in full:


Commentary webcast

Commentary by Jennifer Shahade, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez and Maurice Ashley

Schedule of the Grand Chess Tour Final

Times in UTC.

Date/Time Event Round
December 2, 16:00 Carlsen vs Vachier-Lagrave
Aronian vs Ding
Semi-final, Game 1
December 3, 16:00 Vachier-Lagrave vs Carlsen
Ding vs Aronian
Semi-final, Game 2
December 4 Semi-finals Rapid & Blitz  3-8
16:00 Rapid Game 1
17:30 Rapid Game 2
19:00 Blitz Game 1
19:30 Blitz Game 2
20:00 Blitz Game 3
20:30 Blitz Game 4
21:15 Playoff (If necessary)
December 5 Pro Biz Cup  
December 6, 16:00 Final Classical Game 1
December 7, 14:00 Final Classical Game 1
December 8 Final Rapid & Blitz  
14:00 Rapid Game 1
15:30 Rapid Game 2
17:00 Blitz Game 1
17:30 Blitz Game 2
18:00 Blitz Game 3
18:30 Blitz Game 4
19:15 Playoff (If necessary)

Closing ceremony to follow


6 points for a win, 3 points for a draw and 0 points for a loss in the two Classic games
4 points for a win, 2 points for a draw and 0 points for a loss in the two Rapid games 
2 points for a win, 1 point for a draw 0 points for a loss in the four blitz games



Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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