Ding Liren is the 2019 Grand Chess Tour Champion

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
12/9/2019 – Ding Liren defeated Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the match for the title at the Grand Chess Tour in London. The Chinese star dominated the confrontation from start to finish, securing first place after the rapid stage. In the battle for bronze, Magnus Carlsen got the better of Levon Aronian despite blundering mate in the first encounter of the day. The world champion was the biggest earner in this year's tour nonetheless, collecting a little over USD 300,000 throughout the series. | Photos: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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A worthy champion

Ding Liren established himself as one of the most likely aspirants to give Magnus Carlsen a run for his money in a hypothetical World Championship match. At this point, it is safe to say that Carlsen, Ding and Fabiano Caruana are on a class of their own — it is no coincidence that they are the three players to have maintained a 2800+ rating consistently throughout the year.

Garry Kasparov joined the commentary team on Sunday and, in typical style, shared his categorical opinion regarding the GCT champion: 

Ding deserves to win the Grand Chess Tour this year. He had a tremendous year. He just blew it up against Radjabov in a match which he dominated, so he could have added up the World Cup to his collection. Remember he beat Magnus in this spectacular tiebreak in Saint Louis.

The former world champion was right in pointing out that Ding could have easily won this year's World Cup, when his second place was one of many successes of 2019. The Chinese star showed good results consistently, finishing shared third in Wijk aan Zee, shared second in Shamkir and showing strong play in classical chess at the Altibox Norway Chess Tournament. Of course, this list does not include his good results in the Grand Chess Tour series, in which he was only outclassed by Carlsen prior to the London finals.

Given these precedents, Kasparov mentioned that it is a pity that we did not get to see a Ding v Carlsen direct encounter. We cannot argue with that, although, given the jammed schedule of the elite players this year, perhaps the match-up would have been more a test of endurance than an actual test of the stars' strength in a face-to-face setting.  

Talking about the busy schedule, the Russian lamented the fact that it might be advisable not to hold the London finals next year, as most likely one or two of the qualifiers will need to face the high-tension event a week or so after having played the World Championship match. Later on, the organizers of the tour announced that next year's series will include five tournaments — two classical events and three rapid & blitz competitions.

Woody Harrelson, Levon Aronian, Magnus Carlsen

Actor Woody Harrelson played the ceremonial first move in Carlsen v Aronian  | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Ding Liren 16:12 Vachier-Lagrave

Final C1 C2 R1 R2 B1 B2 B3 B4 Total
Ding Liren ½ 1 1 ½ 0 0 ½ 0 16
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ½ 0 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 12

The eventual champion had a six-point lead before the sixth day's action, and he all but secured the title with a win in the first rapid game of the series. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave knew he needed to go all-in if he wanted to get a real chance of coming back in the match, which pushed him to kick off the day with the Benoni:

 

The Frenchman's 10...f5 is rarely seen in grandmaster practice, as it allows 11.d2, followed by 12.e4, when White easily gains a comfortable edge out of the opening. Of course, 'MVL' was trying to get into unexplored territories, but that is a strategy that can only backfire against an in-form Ding Liren. 

Soon after, Vachier-Lagrave saw it necessary to play 15...f8 to defend his d6-pawn, which prompted Kasparov to state: "If you have to play ...Bf8, that's already a very bad sign". The Chinese grandmaster captured the weak d6-pawn anyway on move 26:

 

Vachier-Lagrave had just played 25...d8, removing his queen from the awfully passive b8-square, but after 26.xd6 it was clear only a miracle would save the French grandmaster against his strong opponent. 'MVL' kept looking for saving resources, but ended up resigning on move 39.

Ding secured the title with a draw in the next rapid encounter. There was nothing 'real' to fight for in the remaining four blitz encounters, and in that relaxed state Vachier-Lagrave scored three consolation wins. He later commented:

[Ding] played amazingly yesterday. He also played very well until he concluded the match. Then, in the blitz, we were just chilling — you know, it's very hard for both of us to really be focused once the match is over. But he struck when it counted, and he struck very hard, so congratulations to him. I was outplayed.

Ding Liren v Vachier-Lagrave - Rapid and blitz games

 

Ding Liren

The ever-smiling Ding Liren | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

The champion did not consider the match to be a walk in the park by any means:

To beat Maxime was a very tough task. I didn't do well against him in the previous tournament, [which] made this win more difficult and more important.

During the small prize-giving ceremony, Ding mentioned he trusts his abilities, when in form:

I play very well when I can totally focus on the games. If I don't do that, as you [could] see in the last games, I lose badly. It shows that when I'm in my best shape I can compete with anyone else.

Strong tests await both finalists, as Vachier-Lagrave will be trying to reach the Candidates at the last stage of the Grand Prix in Jerusalem, while Ding's next strong event will precisely be the Candidates. The Frenchman concluded:

Basically my chances to qualify to the Candidates are about 50%. [...] Still, I think I have pretty good chances. I just need to get some rest now, because the tournament starts in three days and it's been a hell of a year for me.

Ding mentioned he will have "many months to rest and to prepare" for the eight-player qualifier to the World Championship match. Will we see him next year facing the world champion in a fourteen-game face-off for the crown?

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

MVL had the support of his compatriots | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Carlsen 17:11 Aronian

3rd place C1 C2 R1 R2 B1 B2 B3 B4 Total
Magnus Carlsen 1 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 0 17
Levon Aronian 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 11

Magnus Carlsen also had a big lead before the final day in London, and for a while it seemed like he would repeat Ding's feat of getting a ten-point lead in the first game of rapid. However, a one-move blunder turned the tables in Aronian's favour:

 

Black has a completely winning advantage, with his pair of rooks a much stronger asset than White's lone bishop. But White does have some threats, and at this point there is only one move that maintains Black's advantage: 39...♚h5. Carlsen had five minutes on his clock, but instead of taking his time to calculate the win, he quickly blundered the game away with 39...g6. Aronian immediately played 40.f8+ h5 41.e7, threatening mate on h4. The world champion resigned.

Both Peter Svidler and Alejandro Ramirez were shocked by what they had just seen, with the latter commenting, "I've never seen him blunder checkmate". Anish Giri used this chance to showcase his witty sense of humour in a tweet:

Carlsen did win the second rapid game, and after drawing the first blitz encounter he secured match victory with a subsequent victory. He was not too happy with his result:

I felt like I'm in pretty bad shape at this point anyway, so I think the right two people played the final.

Levon Aronian, Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen's reaction after blundering mate | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Nevertheless, the world champion earned USD 302,500 during this year's tour, getting about USD 7,000 more than Ding, despite the Chinese star having received USD 150,000 to Carlsen's USD 60,000 in London. The world champion won three out of the five GCT events in which he participated.

Grand Chess Tour 2019 

Carlsen v Aronian - Rapid and blitz games

 

Commentary webcast

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


Scoring

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


Links



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.