Reports Nov 15, 2017 | 11:57 AMby Colin McGourty

Champions Showdown 6: Fun end to a massacre

Magnus Carlsen crushed Ding Liren 67:25 and, if FIDE rules didn’t make Tuesday’s games in St. Louis ineligible, would have crossed 3000 on the blitz rating list, but strangely the final day of their match went much better for the Chinese no. 1. He scored only as badly as Alexander Grischuk and Leinier Dominguez had in blitz against Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, only once lost two games in a row and had far more chances than the scoreline suggests. Magnus admitted he was “not 100% thrilled with the way things went”, but also said he had a lot of fun!

When the World Champion flags you with a king against your king and rook | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The 6-day Champions Showdown rapid and blitz marathon is over, and you can replay all the games from the Carlsen-Ding Liren match using the selector below:

You can also rewatch the commentary on the final day’s blitz, with almost every single game highly entertaining:

In the mood for a battle

Carlsen: "I'm not 100% thrilled" | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Magnus had said after winning the match on Monday that since the remaining games had little sporting significance and weren’t going to be rated he might try to “mix things up” a little. He was true to his word, particularly with the black pieces, and commented:

I’m not 100% thrilled with the ways things went today. I mean, he had so many chances (laughs), but I’m happy with the score and I like those King’s Indian games. They weren’t correct, or anything close to correct, but they were fun and I tried to show that I can play that kind of chess - a bit at least.

The good news for chess fans is that Ding Liren had similar thoughts and had decided to attack with the Sicilian and King’s Indian himself:

After yesterday I was already lost, so today I came a little bit relaxed and I just wanted to play aggressively today. I think my level of play has improved a lot, at least compared to yesterday.

He also revealed his issues with jet lag were finally over:

I woke up at 7 o’clock in the morning - on the previous days I woke up at 3-5 – at any time around 3-5 in the morning. It’s just a small reason, I think.

The opening games already made it clear we were going to have an interesting battle. In the first Magnus looked to be cruising until he slipped up with 26.Ra2?

26…Rb1! 27.Nd3 Rc3! (this is why for instance 26.Ra3 would have been fine, even if 26.Ke2 was best) 28.Rxc2 Rxc1+ 29.Rxc1 Rxd3 and Black was up a piece. Magnus switched to damage control mode and managed to hold.

Ding Liren was finally getting over jet lag, just in time to fly to Europe! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

A repeat of the day before – Magnus suddenly becoming unstoppable after one shaky game – looked a possibility when he switched on beast mode in Game 2:

Carlsen didn’t need to be asked twice and went for the exchange sac 21…Rxd5! and half a dozen moves later gave up his queen for two rooks and smoothly converted his advantage.

Game 3, though, showed that Ding Liren wasn’t going to crumble. He played fast and well in a Sicilian and, when it seemed Magnus might escape, he held his nerve to finish things off. That would be the last game he won in the match, but, as mentioned in the introduction, he only once lost two games in a row and came extremely close to scoring more points:

As you can see, Black was very ok! The only win with White came in the penultimate game and Ding managed to lose six games in a row with White, if you also count the final 10-minute game from Monday. He commented:

I wanted to play the King’s Indian and Sicilian with Black and it went very well with Black. I won one game and lost one game, so it’s just equal, but with the white pieces I lost five in a row… I still played d4 because I just don’t want to change. I just can’t believe it! I just want to at least get a draw with d4. It was just unbelievable…

For the remaining day’s play let’s simply look at some themes rather than going in purely chronological order:

The Art of Flagging

If one piece of evidence were needed for Ding Liren having had excellent chances of scoring more points it was Game 5, where he reached an ending with a rook and king against Magnus’ bare king. Would the World Champion concede defeat? Absolutely not! You don’t get to be World Champion without having a ruthless will to win (or draw lost positions) and with his opponent’s time running out Magnus knew he could flag him… so he did. Ding could see the funny side:

Carlsen was reaping the benefits of his time management, and having fun:

I was at the fun side of it because I never really got to seconds. I think I never got below 10... Certainly that was part of my strategy - at least knowing at some point I have to speed up. It wasn’t probably that much of a challenge as I thought it would be, as at the time we got to the 5-minute portion I had already won the match and there wasn’t that much tension, so I would be eager to try it again.

Ding Liren felt “no increment maybe favoured (Magnus) a little bit”, with the second most egregious time trouble situation occurring in Game 8. During the live commentary the observers felt that Liren had been impractical when he didn’t force a repetition in a position where he was better but dangerously low on time. In the cold light of day, though, you can see that Magnus’ flagging skills were on full display as he skilfully avoiding any repetitions. He also remained alert, and after 77…d5+! he didn’t need the clock to run out:

The king has three good choices, but Ding chose 78.Ke3?? and 78…Rd3+ ended the game.


Game 4 saw Ding Liren launch a swash-buckling attack on Magnus’ king, and after 21…Bf6 it seemed as though the time had come to blow Black away with 22.e5? Alas, that natural move - Ding Liren played it in a single second – turned out to be losing on the spot:

22…Bd8! was not an innocent retreat but prepares to put the bishop on b6, when the white king suddenly has no refuge from the raking black bishops. After making one token move Ding Liren had to resign.

Was that a fantastic trap from Magnus? Well, we would have assumed that except that he confessed to Yasser Seirawan afterwards:

The truth is a lot different! When I sac’ed the exchange I thought that practically speaking this should be alright with two bishops and everything, and then for some reason I hadn’t considered e5 at all after Bf6, and then I thought for one second and then, ah, Bd8 just wins! That was lucky. It’s not that illogical, since he’s exposed both diagonals for these bishops that I have. The warning lights should definitely be going off big time for him… It’s a bit lucky that it just wins at once. Chess is not fair sometimes, but that’s the way it is!

"Chess is not fair sometimes" | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Another position that would have been a trap for the ages, if seen in advance or indeed at all, occurred in Game 7:

Here Ding went for the spectacular 23…Nd4?!! 24.exd4 Rxe1+ and eventually drew after 25.Rxe1 Qxh3. For once Magnus had missed something, though, with the World Champion guilty of playing an automatic recapture when he had a much better option:

25.Kg2!! let’s the prey on h3 become the predator, while the attempt to stop losing a piece with 25…Qe7 of course fails since the e1-rook is attacked twice.

Winning a won position

It’s been said that, “the hardest thing in chess is to win a won position”, which is one of those maxims that while containing a grain of truth is also patently false. Nevertheless, winning a won position in a blitz game against Magnus Carlsen is certainly up there on the difficulty scale, and proved too much for Ding Liren on multiple occasions. Game 10 was a particularly memorable example:

14.Bxh5! simply won a pawn. 14…gxh5 15.Nf5 is not going to be fun for Black, while after 14…Bxh6 15.Qxh6, as played in the game, 15.gxh5 would be mate-in-2, with the knight going to either f5 or h5.

What did Magnus do? He blitzed out 15…b6, and later commented:

I really liked that game where he got this Bh5 and I thought, “yeah, ok”. So then we play - I’m just trying to complicate it as much as possible and in blitz a winning position is not enough. If there’s no clear way to win it, it doesn’t really matter that much. So I gradually got my counterplay going and eventually he cracked – so that was fun!

Ding explained his side of the story as well:

I got some very promising positions, but then he played very quickly and he’s very good at manoeuvring and I was not so good at it during the blitz… It takes me a little bit more time to find a clear plan in such positions. If I can attack in some game with the black pieces I play quickly and stronger, I think. If I grab a pawn with Bh5 it’s still a very closed position and then I had to come up with a plan, and I think my plan Nf1-e3 is not so good. I should play h5 at some point and maybe Nd1-e3. My plan was not good and he came up with a very straight plan.

Black’s pressure was soon immense and Carlsen finished in style after 38.Rd1?

38…Bxg4!! was simply winning, with Ding Liren choosing the reply that allowed the point to be demonstrated in full: 39.fxg4 Nxe4+! 40.Kg2 Rb2! and there’s nothing to be done.

Ding Liren wasn't too disappointed with his last day, though he knew it could have been better | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Of course it wouldn’t be blitz if some games that were won by much more than a pawn didn’t go wrong for Ding as well. Here in Game 8 the Chinese no. 1 was crushing it and looked set to be the first player to win with the white pieces all day:

47.Bb5! would have overwhelmed Black (47.c6! also works to undermine the f6-knight), but after 47.Rg6+ Kf7! all the advantage had gone. That was only the start of a series of wild swings that ultimately ended with the Ding Liren queen blunder in time trouble that we saw above.  

Going with the flow

Maurice Ashley asked Magnus is he’d felt “the flow” when he was playing, and he responded:

At times there was too much flow! I would make some move immediately and then I’d think, “what did you just do?” So I think a more balanced approach might have been called for, but you can’t have everything, and at the end of the day I’m not too dissatisfied with the day today.

An example of that was seen perhaps in the final game:

Here Magnus blitzed out 15…Ne4 and then seemed to smile to himself, since after 16.Bxe4 dxe4 17.Qxe4, which cost a puzzled Ding Liren some time, Black was simply down a pawn. Again, though, Magnus went on to complicate his opponent’s life and gradually equalised, with the game ending in a draw.

The moment Ding Liren's 30-game ordeal was over | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Despite the enormous 67:25 scoreline – Nakamura had “only” managed 61.5:30.5 against Topalov – it wasn’t a bad day overall for Ding Liren, though if he comes through the Candidates to become Magnus’ challenger he may have some demons to exorcise first.

The ominous thing for Carlsen’s rivals is that it’s likely he would have scored better if he’d stuck to his approach the day before of simply playing solidly in the openings. We can expect him to do that in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 26th December, when the World Rapid and Blitz Championships begin. Magnus will be favourite to win both sections, with the potential to earn a staggering $500,000 (a $250,000 1st prize for each format) for 5 days’ play. The $2 million prize fund, and an agreement that women will not need to wear a hijab or abaya, is likely to attract a strong field despite the concerns about human rights and some nationalities being unable to play.

See also:

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