Reports Aug 30, 2019 | 10:52 AMby Colin McGourty

Ding Liren beats Carlsen to win Sinquefield Cup

Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren scored the best result of his career when he outplayed Magnus Carlsen in tiebreaks to clinch the 2019 Sinquefield Cup. It was the first playoff loss for the World Champion since 2007, with Magnus admitting Ding “was a lot better than I was today so he won absolutely deservedly”. The two rapid games were drawn before Ding won the first blitz game on time. Magnus needed to win the next game on demand but was instead put to the sword with some brilliant tactics that gave the Chinese star the title and $82,500.

26-year-old Ding Liren had every reason to smile after achieving the best result of his career so far | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the 2019 Sinquefield Cup using the selector below:

And here’s the commentary on the playoff:

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Magnus Carlsen last failed to win a playoff as a 16-year-old when he was beaten by Levon Aronian in a Candidates Match in Elista. Since then Team Magnus had become a well-oiled tournament winning machine:

The World Champion also came into the playoff for the Sinquefield Cup with the wind in his sails. After the growing frustration of nine draws in a row he’d broken through with wins over Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to snatch a tie for first place at the last possible moment. The unexpected success meant it felt like a bonus – as he told Maurice Ashley using casino terminology (it feels easier to play with winnings and not your own money):

I am playing with house money at this point, so I have no worries.

The same psychology was also working in Ding Liren’s favour, however. After somewhat crawling over the line at the end, the playoff came as a release:

Today was much different from yesterday, since yesterday I said before I was really stressed out. Yesterday I’m playing a tournament but today I just played a match, so I just finished the tournament with a very good result and I just went for more and it’s like a bonus... I achieved the main aim, so today I just feel relaxed and I enjoy the game.

Ding Liren finally showed you can beat Magnus in a playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The playoff began with Magnus playing White in the first rapid game, and set the tone for the whole day. In a Catalan the World Champion was worse by move 11 and then sank into an epic 7-minute think (the players had 25 minutes for the whole game) on move 14. No solution was found except to go for a position a pawn down where Magnus ultimately eked out a draw with a dark-square blockade:

He would later comment:

It has something to do obviously with the fact that he’s a very good player, but yeah, clearly I had a very difficult day today. I couldn’t get anything going, I was thinking too long and mainly just defending in most of my games, so it wasn’t close.

Levon Aronian’s later, “I can tell you this is the best position Magnus had today!” during Ultimate Moves was funny because it was true, more or less, though in the second blitz game, again a Catalan, White only hinted at getting a real advantage before the game ended in a 35-move draw.

Ding Liren composes himself between games | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Traditionally Magnus Carlsen’s advantage over his rivals grows the faster the time control, but it was only a couple of weeks since Ding Liren had scored 4.5 points more than Magnus in the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. That recent form carried over into the 5-minute blitz, where Magnus took a couple of minute-long thinks in the opening but could find nothing better than to give up a pawn in the hopes of grovelling for a draw. This time it wasn’t so easy, and Magnus was down to under 10 seconds when the situation became critical. Perhaps the first clear winning chance for Ding was on move 42:

42.g5! aims to weave a mating net, with 42…fxg5+ met by 43.Kf5!, threatening mate-in-1 with Rf8# There would have been no good way out, but instead Ding chose the similar 42.e5, which wasn’t an instant killer. The pressure was relentless, however, and again and again Ding was just one step from victory:

For instance, here 62.Bf6! would be decisive, with 62…Rd7 63.Rh7! a key detail. 

Arbiter Chris Bird points out the game is over | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Instead after 62.Kf6 Bc4! the position soon became one where there was no clear way to convert White’s advantage into a win, with Ding confessing:

Actually I didn’t see the win – maybe the final position is very hard to win already.

It didn’t matter, though, since after defending so well for so many moves (and missing the opportunity to claim a draw by 3-fold repetition) all it took was one moment of hesitation for Magnus to lose on time:

That meant he had to go all-out to win the second blitz game to continue the match, and his weapon of choice was the Ruy Lopez. He built an early space advantage and, although his g4 pawn push looked a little desperate, by the time that pawn got to g5 White would have been winning if not for one crucial idea:

Ding had already spotted, just in time, that he had the wonderful resource 32…Ba8!! (32…Bd8 is also playable, but again you need to see that 33.Qxa3 is met by 33…Ba8!). If 33.gxf6 Qb7! Black isn’t quite winning after 34.Kf1, but after 34…Qg2+ 35.Ke2 Qf3+ White needs to repeat moves, which would have given Liren the draw he needed.

Magnus therefore struggled on with the objectively inferior 33.Qxa6, which meant we got to see one more fantastic move. In the play that followed Ding gave up his queen for two rooks (the computer suggests it was better not to, but based on tricky tactics with the black a-pawn), but as it turned out there was still enough material on the board for one last attack. He would later comment, “I was very happy to play the final game with fire, not just settling for a draw or… survival”, and the way it all worked out makes it possible to believe in destiny. Ding admitted he didn’t have the time to check the line carefully, so he relied on his intuition:

38...Bxg5! 39.Qxd6?! (39.Ne2! was an only move, if you saw what was coming, but it would be hard for White to win from there) 39…Bf4! 40.Bc5 Threatening mate-in-1, and a winning move if not for… 40…Ne7!!

White’s mating threat is parried and there’s no good way to stop Rh1 mate, since the g3-knight is pinned.

The 2019 Sinquefield Cup was over | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It was such a beautiful finish that Magnus couldn’t help but smile:

What a way to win a tournament! 

That meant that Ding Liren had become the 6th different player to win the Sinquefield Cup in just seven years, bringing him $82,500 in prize money and 16.5 Grand Chess Tour points:

It also puts him in 2nd place in the Grand Chess Tour standings, with one more event to play, making his qualification for the London finals almost secure:

After the playoff Magnus was making no excuses:

I’ve got to say he was a lot better than I was today so he won absolutely deservedly.

It was the first time in eight predominantly classical events that Magnus hadn’t found a way to win, but he could take some consolation from how close he came:

I would have loved to win today, but I managed to salvage quite a bit in the last two days, so I’m not too disappointed.

It turns out you can't quite win 'em all | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

For Ding Liren, meanwhile, this felt like a watershed. He’s looking more confident and comfortable at the top by the day, including when speaking English. He also grew into the tournament:

He felt he started poorly:

I think my play was not that good, especially against Karjakin I was much worse, and against Vachier-Lagrave I was better out of the opening, but I could not find a plan. I didn’t feel I was in good shape…

Then, however, he had a game against Anish Giri that the likes of Garry Kasparov and Peter Svidler have hailed as a positional masterpiece. Ding also enjoyed it:

But my win against Anish gave me a lot of confidence, and this was the kind of game I used to play, my favourite kind of positions. I played well!

Almira Skripchenko asked Ding Liren how he'd celebrate and he pointed out he has an early morning flight to catch as he returns to China before the World Cup | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Giri pointed out that he didn’t feel he’d played badly, which was exactly what Fabiano Caruana said when he was ground down in a complicated position in Round 9. That win, Ding’s second over Fabi in 2019, ultimately left him exactly 1 point behind the world no. 2 on the rating list, and there’s obvious competition now for who is the more dangerous challenger for Magnus. Caruana is in the 2020 Candidates as the loser of the last match, while Ding Liren would need a monumental collapse now not to qualify by rating. Maurice Ashley asked him if he was thinking of the World Championship title:

First I have to win the Candidates! I know when Levon is at his best he plays very well in the closed tournaments, but every Candidates he didn’t perform well, he played very bad.

There’s no reason to assume that will be Ding’s fate, however, especially since his first outing in the Candidates saw him finish 4th with an unbeaten +1.

All that remained was for Ding to receive his trophy…

Or rather, almost all. Before that, there was Ultimate Moves, that once more saw Rex and Randy Sinquefield lead teams of grandmasters in a 6-game blitz match where the players alternated each five moves. Randy’s team won, despite coming up against a team featuring Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren and Garry Kasparov. That team also featured Yasser Seirawan, who didn’t have his finest hour in Game 2!

Instead of the winning 18.Nd5! Yasser went for 18.fxe7?, and was mercilessly trolled ever after, by both teams. Levon Aronian:

I have never seen such a perfect sequence for Yasser to chip in. I calculated when Yasser was going to appear and I created the conditions for Yasser to show his true self!

Garry Kasparov later on:

Game 2 was ruinous… I don’t want to blame Yasser, but I have to blame Yasser!

You can rewatch the Ultimate Moves show below (and check out the games here):

The summer may be coming to an end, but it still isn’t the end of the chess summer in St. Louis, since next Monday to Thursday (2-5 September) we’re going to get four 20-game rapid and blitz Chess960 matches in the St. Louis Chess Club. The highlight will be Kasparov vs. Caruana, when Garry will be hoping to make Fabiano eat his words from the start of the Ultimate Moves:   

I just want to give Garry an idea what’s going to happen next week!

Of course we'll also be broadcasting all the action live here on chess24.

See also:

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