Magnus Carlsen got to unleash some unused World Championship preparation on Ding Liren in Round 8 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour, and although the world no. 3 survived the middlegame he was hunted down in the endgame. “A win is a win, but this one obviously is special,” said Magnus, who had never beaten Ding before in classical chess and has now crossed 2880 on the live rating list. There were also wins for Anish Giri (over Mamedyarov) and Wesley So (over Hikaru Nakamura), with Wesley just half a point behind Magnus with three rounds to go.
You can replay all the games from the 2019 Croatia Grand Chess Tour using the selector below:
There’s nowhere else to start but with the latest milestone in an incredible year for the World Chess Champion and world no. 1:
Going into this game the players had drawn their previous seven classical encounters, with the Chinese no. 1 getting real winning chances in at least two of those games. Both players had hit top form in Zagreb and with Ding having the white pieces things couldn’t have been more balanced... until the pendulum swung in Carlsen’s favour in the opening.
9…Nd5 was already a sign that something was up, varying from the main move 9…c6 as seen in Ding-Nakamura in Abidjan and perhaps more relevantly Gelfand-Dubov a week ago in Netanya. Daniil Dubov was of course one of Carlsen’s World Championship seconds. Another second, our own Jan Gustafsson, was drawing arrows in the German live show after Ding’s 10.Nxc4:
Those arrows proved prophetic, as we soon saw 10…c5 11.dxc5 Ba6!?. The combination of those two moves for Black had never been seen before, and although the computer likes White here Ding knew he’d fallen into an opening trap. Magnus confirmed that after the game:
Yeah, it was one of the unused ideas from the match, I suppose. It becomes very, very critical.
Ding had spent 20 minutes on 11.dxc5 and burnt up another 18 on 12.Ne3, which looks to have been the best move. Magnus described Ding’s chosen path as “a very decent line”, but even as the c-pawn made it to c7 it was clear it was a nightmare for White to play unprepared. That’s illustrated by the position after 17…g5:
Here Ding spent another 6 minutes, although computers give 18.Be5! as strictly the only move. One point is that 18.Bxg5?, which is playable after 18…Bxg5 19.Qxc5 Bxd2 20.Rfd1!, and Black can’t keep an extra piece, fails after 18…b3!. The difference is that after 19.Qc1 Black can again play 19…Bxg5 20.Qxc5 Bxd2 21.Rfd1, but now after 21…Rxc7 the white queen no longer has the a5-square since there's no pawn on b4:
These were the treacherous waters that Ding Liren had to navigate, but he managed, and came incredibly close to surviving unscathed. Magnus described 27…Re8! as “important”, and it was, but here and a couple of moves later Ding could have made huge improvements to his quality of life:
He could have forced an exchange of queens on c6 with 28.Qc6! Qxc6 29.Nxc6, when the knight is attacking two black pawns, and after Rc1 to follow it seems White should win one of them. Instead in the game Ding played 28.Qb7!?, and after 28…Qxb7 29.Nxb7 Bf8 it looks like by far his best chance to survive the game was to play the tricky 30.Nd8!, as pointed out by Magnus, taking advantage of the black rook being tied to the defence of the e2-bishop. After 30.Bc6!? Re7 there was no easy path for Ding, and his minor pieces looked clumsily misplaced against Black’s bishop pair.
The rest of the game was a reminder that despite Magnus having remodelled himself into a ferocious attacking player, he’s still arguably the best endgame player of all time. Ding was ground down in what overall was a near perfect game by the World Champion.
Don’t miss commentary on the clash from Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca:
The statistics for Magnus just keep on getting better, though you can see how tough it is to maintain or increase your rating at these heights!
Even the World Champion was surprised by how things are going:
Playing these two black games in a row against two of the leaders I thought it was going to be tough, so to get two points out of those games is an absolute dream… Today again I was lucky to use an interesting opening idea and then he had to spend a lot of time to solve that, and it’s not that he got a bad position, but he was always down on time and presumably he spent more energy than I did as well.
How did this win rank among the other three in Zagreb?
A win is a win, but this one obviously is special since I’d never beaten Ding in classical before, and with the black pieces, so I will still hold out judgment on how good the game was, but it felt like it was a pretty decent game and yeah, it’s a huge win!
Watch Magnus talking after the game:
It’s not all over bar the shouting, however, since Wesley So is just half a point behind, and has quietly been having a phenomenal tournament of his own. As Magnus put it:
It’s still a very close race, since Wesley…. You’d sort of expect to be dominating with +4 after 8 rounds, but he’s right in it, and I think I’m Black against him in a couple of days, so it’s by no means over, but I couldn’t hope for anything better!
Wesley has gained 17.6 rating points and rejoined the top 5 after scoring 3 wins and 5 draws, with the last win, over Hikaru Nakamura, spoiling Independence Day for his US colleague. This was another game that seemed at least in part to be determined in the opening:
Hikaru had had this position from a 5.Re1 Berlin in rapid and blitz games against Anand, Giri and Caruana, but no-one had played the move Wesley chose next, 12.Bb5. It clearly wasn’t a devastating novelty, but Nakamura began to play very slowly, while So kept blitzing out his moves. Soon Wesley was taking over, and with a central break and simple chess he managed to liquidate into a position where he was clearly better and eventually won a pawn. Nakamura entered a pawn ending to regain the pawn, but it was a high risk decision. If the ending was drawn it was only until move 47:
It looks as though after 47…a6! 48.Ke3 a5 49.Kf3 Kd4 50.Kf4 White queens the h-pawn a move before Black queens the c-pawn, with good chances of a draw. In the game, however, after 47…Ke6? 48.Kf4! Kf6 49.a3! a6 50.b4! c4 (other moves don’t help either) 51.a4! White was winning, though it seemed from the players’ body language that Nakamura didn’t realise that until after 51…Ke6 was met by 52.Ke3!
Wesley made all the only moves almost instantly, and he’s again showing glimpses of the form that took him to the world no. 2 spot in 2017.
Fabiano Caruana needed a win to keep up with his rivals for victory in Zagreb, but his attempt to follow Carlsen’s example against Nepomniachtchi and play a shaky position for a win with the black pieces almost ended in disaster:
Fabiano called his meeting 8.h4 here with 8…Nf6?! 9.Nd5 Nxd5 “just horrible”, and wished he’d followed Magnus in responding with h6 and then g5 if h5 appeared on the board. He summed up:
I was incredibly depressed during this game. The thing is I played this opening to try and get a fight, and then all that happened is I ended up suffering with no chances to win the whole game, so it kind of backfired!
Desperate measures were already called for by move 16:
16…c4!? 17.dxc4 Nc5 fundamentally only gave White the pawn and the compensation, but although Fabi’s hopes of tactical tricks were soon thwarted he dug in and eventually managed to save himself in an ending:
The worst was over by this point, and Fabi’s fearless knight wrapped things up single-handedly: 42…Nxb2! (surprisingly none of the discovered attacks on the knight are dangerous for Black) 43.Nxd5 Nc4+ 44.Kc3 Nxa3 45.Rb3 Rc6+ 46.Kd4 Nc2+ 47.Ke5 Nxe3! and with the last white pawn gone the knight’s work was done! Vishy decided not to play the ensuing theoretically drawn endgame with rook and knight vs. a rook.
The other two draws were nothing to write home about, with Ian Nepomniachtchi stopping the bleeding against Levon Aronian, while Sergey Karjakin didn’t allow the loss to Aronian to stop him playing the Berlin Endgame against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. This time he drew without difficulty.
That leaves one game:
“Don’t try this stuff at home – if you try a dubious line with Black you should really know your stuff!” is how Anish Giri summed up Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s approach to the opening in this game. It was the latest in a litany of opening disasters for Mamedyarov in Zagreb, with it all coming down to one move. 12…Bxf3! was essential, while after 12…Bh5?! 13.g4 Bg6 14.Nxd5 Qxd5 15.Bg2! Black was already in real trouble:
15…Be4?, that Giri felt might have been Mamedyarov’s plan, loses on the spot to 16.Rxe4! Qxe4 17.Ne5 and the queen is trapped, but the Azeri’s Plan B of 15…0-0-0? was almost as bad. After 16.Ne5 Qxd4 17.Qf3! the threat of mate on b7 means the knight is untouchable on e5, and despite a 27-minute think Mamedyarov could find no solution, for the simple reason that there wasn’t one.
In what followed it was a question of how and when Giri would go on to win. 24.Rxc6+! Kd7 left a choice:
25.Rd1! is a killer according to the computer, though it’s understandable you might fear miscalculating something. Instead Giri picked up a pawn with 25.Rxa6!? (it’s easy to see 25…bxa6 26.Qc6+ Ke7 27.Bg5+ is crushing):
My coach was very angry about the move Rxa6, but I thought it was very beautiful! I think Rd1 was more precise, but I didn’t want to sacrifice anything, instead I wanted to grab something. Even when I’m mating in 5… I just wanted to grab a pawn and be a pawn up and convert an endgame.
The game might have been unnecessarily prolonged if Mamedyarov had shown more precision, but instead he went down in flames a few moves later. This really hasn’t been the Azerbaijan no. 1’s tournament or year. He was world no. 3 and 2817 on the January 1st 2019 FIDE rating list. He’s now down to 2750.3 and world no. 15 on the live list!
Mamedyarov at least has company in last place from Nakamura, while at the top it’s still Carlsen in clear 1st and So in clear 2nd:
Levon Aronian is among the three players 1.5 points behind, but he could drastically change that situation if he managed to beat Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces in Round 9. Wesley So also faces a tough challenge, with Black against Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Don’t miss all the action here on chess24, where we’re going to have commentary in English, Russian, German and Spanish from 16:30 CEST!
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