General Dec 2, 2019 | 8:01 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen, MVL, Aronian & Ding battle for GCT glory

Magnus Carlsen is targeting a 3rd Grand Chess Tour title and the top prize of $150,000 as he takes on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Monday’s semi-finals. The other semi-final pits world no. 3 Ding Liren against world no. 6 Levon Aronian, with the Armenian no. 1 no doubt keen to forget his last place finish in Kolkata. Alongside the GCT finals we have Mickey Adams, David Howell, Gawain Jones and Luke McShane in the British Knockout Championship, which follows exactly the same classical, rapid and blitz format.

The centrepiece of this year’s 11th London Chess Classic is the Grand Chess Tour’s Final Four, which begins on Monday at 16:00 local time (11:00 New York, 17:00 Madrid, 19:00 Moscow, 21:30 Mumbai) in the traditional venue of the Olympiad Conference Centre (no DeepMind offices this year). 

Peter Svidler, Jennifer Shahade, Alejandro Ramirez and Maurice Ashley will be covering all the action (with additional streams in German, Spanish, French and Russian), which you can follow by clicking on a game in the selector below:

There's a last chance to take advantage of our 40% off Black Friday offer on all Premium Memberships this Cyber Monday! 

The format is the same as in 2018, with each match consisting of 2 classical games (130 minutes for all moves, plus a 30-second delay per move) on the first 2 days, then a final day of 2 rapid games (25+10) and up to 4 blitz games (5+3). There are 6 points for a win and 3 points for a draw in classical chess, 4 points for a win in rapid and 2 points for a win in blitz, meaning that each match will go at least as far as rapid chess.

The beard was back in the pre-Grand Chess Tour Finals interviews! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The final four was determined by performances in the year’s seven Grand Chess Tour qualifying events, which were dominated by Magnus Carlsen:

The top seed plays 4th seed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while 2nd seed Ding Liren plays 3rd seed Levon Aronian. Let’s take a quick look at what we can expect from the matches:

Semi-final 1: Magnus Carlsen vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ding Liren wondering how Magnus managed to get a stand-in for the the players' meeting? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

This is world no. 1 vs. world no. 4 and there is, of course, a clear favourite. Nevertheless, you could make a case for either player reaching the final:

Why will Magnus win? After Kolkata the World Champion is higher rated on all three rating lists (classical, rapid and blitz), with his crushing 8 to 2 wins in classical games against Maxime including wins this year in the GRENKE Chess Classic, Croatia Grand Chess Tour and Sinquefield Cup. Magnus has won the Tour twice before and even a stomach bug couldn’t stop him setting a record performance in India. His hunger for success hasn’t dimmed at the advanced age of 29, and he even has well-wishers cheering him on:

Why will Maxime win? The French no. 1 has some things in his favour, however. For one, he’s shown that at his best he can match Magnus, especially in blitz. He beat the World Champion three times in a row earlier this year, twice in Abidjan and then the blitz opener of Altibox Norway Chess. 

Allez les Bleus! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Maxime should also be somewhat fresher, since he didn’t travel to India, though he also didn’t rest completely. He led Baden-Baden in the first round of the 2019/20 German Chess League, where he scored a nice Najdorf win over Alexey Sarana and drew against Vishy Anand’s second Grzegorz Gajewski. After that win he gave a long interview that included showing his game:

There he reveals that this year he will play in the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Moscow (visa permitting) and he also talks, for instance, about the “heartbreak” he suffered by losing the Hamburg Grand Prix semifinal to Alexander Grischuk. To succeed in London he'll have to forget, for now, about the challenge he faces shortly afterwards to qualify for the Candidates from the Jerusalem Grand Prix.

Semi-final 2: Ding Liren vs. Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian is in London | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It’s worth noting first of all that Levon will play, since he’s joined Teimour Radjabov in withdrawing from the Jerusalem Grand Prix on medical grounds. In his case he’s withdrawing to undergo treatment for a problem that affects his breathing:

Once again there’s a favourite, with Ding Liren the world no. 3, though Levon Aronian has quietly climbed back to world no. 6.

A photo with Ding Liren, a real contender for the World Championship crown | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Why will Ding win? Ding Liren is the only player other than Magnus to be rated above 2800 on all three rating lists, and it’s beginning to feel like it might be the Chinese no. 1’s destiny to dethrone the Norwegian… or at least to try. He ended Carlsen’s decade-long unbeaten streak in playoffs to win the Sinquefield Cup and was the only player to beat Magnus in Kolkata – doing it twice! Of course first he has to beat Levon, which won’t be easy, though he has a 3 to 0 score in classical wins against the Armenian no. 1, and will certainly be the favourite if Levon puts in the kind of performance that saw him finish rock bottom in Kolkata.

Levon has something to prove after his performance in Kolkata | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Why will Levon win? It’s hard to imagine a repeat of Kolkata, however, with Aronian having posted poor performances in the past when there was essentially nothing at stake. That won’t be the case in London (winning the first match guarantees at least $100,000), and we might well see the Levon Aronian who won both the St. Louis and Superbet Rapid and Blitz events. Although he trails Ding Liren in classical chess, he has an edge in rapid and blitz. He also won a match against the Chinese no. 1 when it mattered, in their 2017 World Cup final.  

Can anyone stop Magnus? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The semi-finals take place from Monday to Wednesday, with Thursday then a rest day before the final is held from Friday to Sunday. There’s also a 3rd place match, with $60,000 for the winner and $40,000 for the loser.

As always there are accompanying events as part of what’s now the 11th London Chess Classic. The most notable is the British Knockout Championship, a £42,000 event with £10,000 for 1st place, which will see David Howell, Mickey Adams, Luke McShane and Gawain Jones battle it out in exactly the same format and on the same stage as the Grand Chess Tour players.

The semi-finals are Howell-Jones and Adams-McShane | image: official website

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that those star players would reach the semi-finals, since there was a 16-player rapid qualifier that chose 3 players to join the top 5 seeds in quarterfinal mini-matches. We nearly had a sensation, since 2412-rated FM Marcus Harvey crushed the prelim field with 8.5/9 (2.5 points above his rivals) and then came within a whisker of knocking out Mickey Adams. The two classical games of their quarterfinal were drawn before Marcus got Black in a final Armageddon game. Needing only a draw he was in fact winning, in a position where it seemed there were no tricks for White. 

41...Rxc2+ with 42...Rc3 next and Marcus would have had full control on the board as well as 30 seconds more on the clock. Instead after 41...Nxc2 42.Re2 he got a knight ending a pawn up, which should still have been at least a draw, but he misjudged the transition into a pawn ending and "tricky Mickey" found a way into the final four!

Marcus Harvey missed out on the semifinals by the smallest possible margin | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

There’s also the 9-round FIDE Open, where 14-year-old Indian prodigy Praggnanandhaa started as 3rd seed and is currently leading on 4/4 along with Anton Smirnov and Danny Gormally, despite flirting with disaster in time trouble in his 4th round game.

Vishy Anand isn't in London to celebrate his 50th birthday but his near namesake Praggnanandhaa has another chance to shine | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

Tune in to all the Grand Chess Tour Finals action from London from 17:00 CET each day here on chess24!

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