Zagreb GCT: Carlsen's impressive year continues

by Antonio Pereira
7/5/2019 – In consecutive days, Magnus Carlsen defeated two players from the elite he had never managed to take down in a classical game ever before. After beating Ian Nepomniachtchi on Wednesday, he got the better of Ding Liren in round eight of the Croatian Grand Chess Tour. Second-placed Wesley So also got a win, though, which means Carlsen still has a mere half point lead in Zagreb. Meanwhile, Anish Giri inflicted Shakhriyar Mamedyarov's third defeat of the event. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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"A huge win"

Magnus Carlsen's incredible year continues, and we can only sit back and enjoy. With three rounds to go, he is closing on his eighth consecutive tournament triumph, an amazing feat in and of itself but, while doing so, he is also overcoming stumbling blocks he had not been able to surmount in the past — after drawing all seven games they had played before, the world champion defeated world number three Ding Liren for the first time. The Norwegian himself called this a "huge win" in the post-game interview.

The win over Ding means Carlsen is still the sole leader in Zagreb, but he cannot rest on his laurels, as Wesley So defeated Hikaru Nakamura to remain a half point behind in the standings table — the runner-up took down his compatriot from the white side of a Berlin Defence. Meanwhile, Anish Giri left the cellar by beating Shakhriyar Mamedyarov with White and Fabiano Caruana saved a half point from a dreadful position against Vishy Anand.

Results of Round 8

It is time to talk about records, again. Carlsen's highest official rating ever, achieved in April, 2014, was 2882. His highest live rating reached greater heights, as he got to 2889.2 points on April 21st, 2014. After his win over Ding Liren — only one of three players over the 2800 mark — the world champion has increased his rating by 9.3 points in Zagreb despite being a huge favourite rating-wise against most of his opponents. As usual, Norwegian journalist Tarjei J. Svensen is closely following his compatriot's performance

Carlsen needs 1,5 out of 3 (2876,7) to guarantee a rating gain, 2 out of 3 (2881.7) to tie his official 2882 world record and 2,5 to break it (2886,7).

In addition, we should not forget the fact that Carlsen has kept his undefeated streak in classical chess alive. He lost a "slow game" for the last time on July 31st, 2018, when he was defeated by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Biel. Since then, he has played 76 classical games.

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen is in a class of his own | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Against Ding Liren, the world champion had his opponent thinking as early as move 11. After Carlsen's 10...c5 in a Catalan, the Chinese grandmaster spent over twenty minutes before capturing with 11.dxc5. This had been seen before, but apparently Ding had not prepared specifically for this line. Immediately afterwards, the Norwegian unleashed the novelty:


Every time a game had reached this position, Black had continued with 11...♝xc5 and had gone on to lose the game. Carlsen, instead, instantly replied 11...a6, prompting his opponent to have another long eighteen-minute think before opting for 12.e3. The Norwegian confessed afterwards that this was part of his preparation for last year's World Championship match. Ding was way down on the clock and facing top-notch analysis.

Carlsen continued to play comparatively quickly until move 20, when, despite having been overrun on the clock, Ding Liren managed to keep his position under control. A highly complex battle took place and, when the smoke cleared (after a queen trade), material was even but Black had the pair of bishops. This was the endgame Black intended to convert after move 32:


The rooks had just left the board after 32...xe7 and Carlsen would need to show good technique to convert this into his third straight victory in Zagreb. Slowly but surely, the world champion activated his king and concocted a plan to overcome White's desperate defensive attempts. The game finished after 57 moves:


Ding Liren, Magnus Carlsen

The endgame of Ding Liren v Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Magnus Carlsen, Maurice Ashley

The celebratory interview with Maurice Ashley | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour 

Wesley So keeps up the pace

After his great run in 2016-17, when he became Carlsen's biggest threat atop the ratings list, Wesley So has not been able to shine as brightly in the elite circuit since. Nonetheless, he is currently in fifth place at the live ratings list and, thanks to an undefeated +3 performance, he is in sole second place at the Croatian GCT, only half a point behind the leader. He got his third win in Zagreb on Friday, when he took down Hikaru Nakamura.

The American grandmasters delved into a Berlin Defence with 5.e1 and followed a line Nakamura had played with Black no less than three times in the past — against Caruana, Giri and Anand. A heavy-piece endgame was reached on move 33, when White had the initiative and a better pawn structure on the queenside:


White infiltrated with 34.d7+ and this led to a sequence that would finish with So gaining Black's h7-pawn: 34...f7 35.d2 xd7 36.xd7+ f8 37.e5 d8 38.xh7.


Nakamura continued to look for simplifications with 38...e8, and soon enough the players went into a pawn endgame, which So had calculated would be enough to get the win:


After 42...xe5 43.fxe5 Black's king is in time to capture the e-pawn, but White nonetheless is well-positioned to get the full point. Wesley So demonstrated flawless technique during the next thirteen moves to claim his third win of the event.

Wesley So

Wesley So will face the leader in round ten | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Mamedyarov's boldness backfires again

A couple of years ago, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov switched from an all-out uncompromising style to a more conservative approach which ended up serving him well, pushing him to number two in the world ranking. In Zagreb, however, the Azeri grandmaster has been showing his teeth, playing aggressively with Black against Carlsen (round 4, draw) and against So (round 6, loss). 

Sergey Karjakin, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Two old friends — Sergey Karjakin and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In his game against Anish Giri, a Sicilian structure appeared on the board and, in the midst of a strategical middlegame, he decided to stun his opponent by castling long:


15...0-0-0 is clearly looking for trouble. Giri was shocked but, after thinking for over 23 minutes, managed to find the correct rebuttal, 16.e5. The idea is that after 16...xd4 White has 17.f3 and Black looks all but lost:


Perhaps Mamedyarov had not seen this line or had not assessed it correctly when he castled long, as he spent almost half an hour on 17...d5. However, the fight was already lost at this point. Giri continued with 18.xf7 and swiftly converted his huge positional advantage into a 31-move victory.

Anish Giri

Anish Giri returns to his working tool | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Caruana saves a half point against Anand

Out of a Rossolimo Sicilian, Vishy Anand (with White) and Fabiano Caruana established a sort of double-Maroczy bind structure with pawns on e4, c4 and d3 for White and on e5,c5 and d6 for Black. Caruana decided to relieve the tension immediately with 9...xd5 though, giving his opponent a chance to get a couple of tempi and a nice initiative on the kingside:


Black's knight will need some time to get back into the fray, while White will continue to push forward on the kingside. Anand did get an advantageous position subsequently, but Caruana defended tenaciously until getting a 54-move draw in a rook and knight v rook endgame.


Viswanathan Anand

Vishy Anand lost in round one and drew his next seven encounters in Zagreb | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave v Sergey Karjakin and Levon Aronian v Ian Nepomniachtchi were the short draws of the day. Coincidentally, Aronian and Nepomniachtchi will play the leading players of the event in round nine, as the Armenian will have the black pieces against Carlsen and the Russian will move first against Wesley So. 

Standings after Round 8


Commentary webcast

Commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, IM Jovanka Houska and GM Alejandro Ramirez

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Round nine takes place on Friday, July 5th at 16:30 CEST (14:30 UT / 10:30 AM EDT).



Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.


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