Magnus Carlsen won the final game of the first day to open up a 5-point lead over Ding Liren as their Champions Showdown match finally began on Saturday in St. Louis. The other matches had reached the 10-minute stage, but although Alexander Grischuk was flagged by Fabiano Caruana in an overwhelmingly won position there was little of the mayhem we’d seen the day before. Instead Fabiano and Wesley So managed to mount comebacks just when it looked as though their matches were done and dusted.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen had given a simul in Hamburg, Germany on Thursday but by Saturday had made it to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He said he’d slept well, but wasn’t yet firing on all cylinders:
I feel rested, but there’s really no energy. I’m just happy to have gotten through this day.
His opponent is Ding Liren, who Magnus had taken as a second for a week-long training camp in Qatar in 2015 and had handpicked for the match. He explained why:
I’ve trained with him before and been amazed, frankly, by his talent. I haven’t been able to play many tournament games with him and I thought it would be an excellent way to find a new challenge… He has an extreme calculating ability, he’s very good at judging dynamic positions and he also has good technique. He doesn’t have many flaws and that’s why he has 2780.
Their match began with four games where each player had 30 minutes, and you can replay them using the selector below:
Ding Liren said he’d studied his opponent’s games carefully and added, “I think my style is a little bit similar”. What he meant perhaps became clearer in the first game, where Ding Liren had Black in a position that looked destined to end in a draw, but then imperceptibly he began to outplay his fearsome opponent. It became critical, and while at first Magnus found an extremely tricky defence he was objectively lost after playing 46…Bf2:
Magnus’ hopes are based on the pin of the e7-bishop and tactical tricks such as Bxc5 and then d6, but another pin, 46…Rh2!, would be winning for Black. Perhaps Ding Liren feared e.g. 47.Kf1 h3 48.Bh4, but it turns out after 48…Rh1+! Black can give up the e7-bishop since the h-pawn will queen.
Instead after 46…Kf6, getting out of the pin, Magnus found 47.Kf1!, giving up the f-pawn, but after 47…Rxf3 48.Kg2 Ding Liren had no better way to prevent Bh4+ than 48…Rg3+, and his pawns were enough for the exchange, but no more. A fierce strategic and tactical skirmish from which both players could take positives.
In the second game Magnus seemed to win a minor psychological battle when he offered Ding Liren a pawn which computers saw no reason not to accept, but the Chinese no. 1 declined and eventually the game was drawn in 85 moves. Game 3 looked like the moment Magnus would take over when his d-pawn broke clear, but it ended in a strange oversight. Just when Carlsen could have won a piece he offered a queen trade, which Ding Liren had no choice but to accept:
The only reason to go for this is that Magnus must have thought White was winning, so the question is what he missed. Perhaps he hallucinated that 51.Nf6+ Kh8 52.Rg8 was mate, forgetting the queen on c4 could come back and take the rook. Or he thought that after 51.Nf8+ Kh8 52.Ng6+ the king had to come to g7 and the discovered check 53.Nxf4+ would win the game. Of course Liren put his king on h7 and there was nothing better than to repeat moves.
It could have been a disappointing end to the day for Carlsen, but there was one more game, and this time Ding Liren played a reversed Grünfeld and lived to regret tempting a black pawn all the way to d3. It should still have been defendable, but as Magnus said of the potential draw:
Fortunately he couldn’t quite find the way to clinch it, and then eventually I got everything I wanted.
It was the backup of the surprisingly fast a-pawn that tipped the scales, and in the final position White can’t stop both pawns:
You can watch Magnus talking about that game (and relive all of the Saturday action) below:
As you can see, he was looking forward to the challenge of faster games on the coming days, and had some harsh words for anyone complaining about losing on time due to the lack of an increment or delay:
I think there are no excuses… If you want to approach it like a game with increment and blame other people when you lose on time I’m not going to have any sympathy with that!
The other three matches entered the 10-minute stage, but the expected repetition of the mayhem we’d seen the day before in So-Dominguez never happened. Perhaps it was because the players had had a stern talking to, with an instant replay system installed and clear instructions on what was and wasn’t allowed. You could see Magnus asking some hard questions about what had happened before his own first game started:
Surprisingly, none of the match leaders, who were all expected to do better as the time controls shortened, managed to outscore their opponents. In general, it was a strange day’s play!
You can replay all the games with computer analysis using the selector below:
The one match that is essentially over is Nakamura-Topalov, since Hikaru takes a 13-point lead into the final day. Veselin would have to win seven of the 12 remaining 5-minute blitz games (with 2 points for a win) to overcome that deficit.
That didn’t stop the encounter being fun, though, with the first four games on Saturday all won by the player with the black pieces:
27…f5! was an unusual but instantly winning attack on both knights by Topalov.
The last four games were then drawn, with Veselin’s spirits boosted as he found a number of great escapes. He summed up, “at least today I put up some resistance”, while Nakamura gave some good blitz, and general life, advice: “It’s important not to lose your mind!”
The other two matches looked as though they were completely over at the halfway stage. Perhaps chastened by the events the day before Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez drew their first four games, and then in the fifth So was pressing for a win before he played 34.Rd1??
34…Nf3+! 35.Kh1 Qxd1 picked up the rook and left Wesley trailing by 16 points.
In the other match Alexander Grischuk won three of the day’s first four games to take a 13-point lead, and everything that could go wrong was going wrong for Fabiano Caruana. In Game 3 he had a drawish position it seemed only he could win, especially as Grischuk was behind on the clock, but then disaster struck with 52.Rb5??
52…Re1+ was mate-in-2.
In the next game Caruana tried to flag Grischuk in a bad position, but the Russian kept his wits about him and eventually spotted a way to win a piece and the game.
Game 5, though, was the moment the day turned. Grischuk got in some sharp preparation with 6…Bxf2+! and Caruana admitted, “I was just dead lost for the whole game”. The final position was no exception:
He didn’t lose, though, since Grischuk, in Caruana’s words, “was hesitating a little too much in a completely winning position”, and finally he lost control in a time scramble. Alexander is famed for his ability to keep calm and composed with his time running out, but this wasn’t one of those occasions. Just watch that rook fly!
Caruana felt that “tilted him a little”, and suddenly from a position in which Grischuk was about to go 16 points up and essentially decide the match with a day to spare, he went on to lose three games in a row. Grischuk only stopped the rot in the final game, though there as well he couldn’t be entirely satisfied with a draw from a position where he had excellent winning chances.
The same scenario played out in the other match, when suddenly it was all Wesley So, who went on to win the last three games. Leinier Dominguez admitted he might have struggled to adapt to success i.e. the situation where the match was almost over, but he also had a more basic explanation:
I don’t think fatigue was an issue. I wasn’t playing very well today. I was under pressure for the whole match - even the game I won I got really lucky… I think Wesley was playing well today and way faster than me.
Suddenly the resilience of Dominguez under pressure had gone, and for instance 46…Rc8? was a simple tactical mistake:
The e6-bishop has been left en prise, but of course the rooks are also eyeballing each other. The fly in the ointment? 47.Bc5+!, and since Wesley would just be able to take the bishop next move Dominguez had to give up the exchange with 47…Rxc5. There was no saving the game.
It wasn’t the Cuban’s best day, but in general he’s impressed Wesley So, who chose him and later seemed to regret it!
Before coming to this match I didn’t realise that Dominguez is this strong… There are probably easier opponents out there.
Wesley noted that he still has “a tough uphill battle to climb” on the final day, so let’s take a look at the scores and how they were calculated. Note there were 5 points for a win in the 30-minute games, 4 in the 20-minute games, 3 in the 10-minute games and finally 2 for a win in each of the 5-minute games on Sunday:
Alexander Grischuk: 2*5 (10) + 3.5*4 (14) + 4*3 (12) = 36
Fabiano Caruana: 2*5 (10) + 2.5*4 (10) + 4*3 (12) = 32
Hikaru Nakamura: 2.5*5 (12.5) + 4*4 (16) + 4*3 (12) = 40.5
Veselin Topalov: 1.5*5 (7.5) + 2*4 (8) + 4*3 (12) = 27.5
Leinier Dominguez: 2.5*5 (12.5) + 4*4 (16) + 3*3 (9) = 37.5
Wesley So: 1.5*5 (7.5) + 2*4 (8) + 5*3 (15) = 30.5
Or to put that graphically, courtesy of Spectrum Studios:
Despite the bad end to the day Grischuk still retains the 4-point lead he gained on Day 2, meaning Caruana needs to win two more blitz games than his opponent. Nakamura, as we noted, is already home and dry unless Topalov pulls off an utterly sensational demolition of an opponent considered a much better blitz player than he is. It also is, as So noted, going to be an uphill struggle for him, since the 7.5-point gap means he needs to win an extra four games to take the $60,000 winner’s prize in his match against Dominguez.
The fast and furious 5-minute games will be accompanied by six 20-minute games for Magnus Carlsen and Ding Liren, whose match continues on Monday and Tuesday. Watch all the action with commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24: US stars | Carlsen vs. Ding Liren.
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