Reports Dec 9, 2019 | 12:40 AMby Colin McGourty

Ding Liren conquers the 2019 Grand Chess Tour

Ding Liren has won the 2019 Grand Chess Tour after blowing away Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the final. The French no. 1 admitted his opponent, “struck when it counted and he struck very, very hard,” after the Chinese no. 1 won the first rapid game of the final day and drew the second to clinch victory before the blitz began. Magnus Carlsen took 3rd place, but not before prolonging his match against Levon Aronian by blundering into mate in a winning position. His 3rd place among 7 million players in Fantasy Premier League was much more impressive!

Ding Liren holds aloft the Grand Chess Tour trophy after becoming the first player to win the event when Magnus was a regular tour participant | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

You can replay all the games from the 2019 Grand Chess Tour Finals using the selector below:

And here’s the commentary on the final day:

Let’s take a look at some conclusions from the Grand Chess Tour Finals:

1. Ding Liren has become a beast

Ding Liren took one gamble in 2019, and it ended up being richly rewarded. He chose not to play in the FIDE Grand Prix series, meaning that while his schedule was heavy it wasn’t quite as heavy as that faced by the likes of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and other top players. By skipping the Grand Prix Ding was backing himself to qualify for the Candidates by rating, and that turned out to be a good bet – even if, in the end, it wasn’t necessary! Getting to the final of the World Cup meant Candidates qualification was ensured without having to wait to the end of the year.

Ding Liren keeps getting better and will go into the Candidates as one of the favourites to earn a match against Magnus | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Everything else has been a bonus, and we’ve seen Ding again and again prove any remaining critics wrong. A year ago Magnus Carlsen could say:

I like Ding, he’s a great player, but then on the other hand I had some fun in our little match in St. Louis, and his streak and his results recently speak for themselves, he’s doing great, but I think he himself would admit that he hasn’t really proven it in the very top tournaments yet. I think he’s eager to get the chance and prove his worth. In the last Candidates he showed that he could fight on equal terms with everybody, but he didn’t really show anything more, and I think he’s certainly eager to do that. Whether he will – I remain sceptical until I’m proven otherwise.

Since then, apart from getting to the World Cup final, Ding has also won the Sinquefield Cup, beating Giri and Caruana and then, of course, Magnus himself in the playoff. He proved that was no fluke by also beating the World Champion twice in blitz in Kolkata, while in the Grand Chess Tour finals he was in superb form. Levon Aronian was dispatched with two wins and a draw at the start of the third day of the semi-final, while Ding was then unlucky not to beat Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in both classical games. He finished the job in the first two games of the final day, with the smooth victory in the first showcasing the new level he’s reached.

MVL played a Benoni-style structure, but it came as no surprise to Ding Liren, who’s become extremely well-prepared both in particular openings and for his opponents:

Actually I expected this line. I thought he would play something unusual and create some dynamic positions, so here I thought for a while [whether] to play 6.d5, choosing between 0-0 to play some forced draw line or to push d5 to fight for a win, and in the end I decided just to play for a win.

That’s the new ambition we’ve seen this year, while his knowledge was also on display as the Chinese no. 1 immediately spotted that 10…Bf5?! by Maxime was a mistake:

With 11.Nd2! White prepared e4 with tempo, and Ding soon had an overwhelming position. The tactical skill that first took him towards the top of the chess world has gone nowhere, and he finished off almost flawlessly.

The next game was much more tense, but Ding successfully held on to get the draw that already guaranteed him the Grand Chess Tour title and the $150,000 first prize. Praise came from the 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov:

Ding's opponent Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was also deeply impressed:

I think I should only talk about Ding’s play because he played amazing yesterday and also played very well until he concluded the match, and then in the blitz I think we’re just chilling and it’s hard for both of us to really be focused when the match is over. He struck when it counted and he struck very, very hard, so congratulations to him. I was outplayed!

Of most interest, perhaps, was to hear Ding Liren’s own quiet confidence:

I feel very happy after six days of competition and I played very well when I can totally focus on the games. If I do not do that, as you can see in the last games, I lost badly. So it shows that with my best shape I can compete with anybody else.

That was hard not to hear as a challenge to Magnus, though first up will be his seven opponents in the Candidates Tournament in March. If there was any doubt about how seriously he’s taking that event it was soon dispelled:

The next big tournament I think is the Candidates, so I will have many months to rest and to prepare.

2. This wasn’t Magnus Carlsen’s most impressive 3rd place

Failures for Magnus Carlsen tend to look a lot like success for other people, and overall his return to the Grand Chess Tour had been impressive. He won clear 1st place in three of the five events he played, tied for first in another and was ahead of the field in points and even prize money – despite winning “only” $60,000 compared to Ding Liren’s $150,000 in the final event:

There were glimpses of his best in the narrow loss to MVL in the semi-final and the victory over Levon Aronian in the 3rd place match, but there were just as many shaky moments – such as almost losing his unbeaten streak. Garry Kasparov commented during the final day:

It’s a pity that Magnus is not in his best shape, so definitely I think he hasn’t recovered from India, from his being poisoned there eating something.

Magnus himself felt the right players were in the final and after beating Aronian summed up that, “I haven’t played particularly well, but fortunately for me, neither has he.”

So the World Champion’s 3rd place in the Grand Chess Tour was no cause for joy, but another 3rd place was simply stunning – he’d climbed to 3rd place out of over 7 million players of Fantasy Premier League, a game where you select a team of football (soccer) players from the English Premier League and get points based on how they perform each week (scoring goals, making assists, not conceding goals etc.):

Of course there’s more than a little luck involved, but Magnus seems to get very "lucky" in a lot of the games he plays!

3. Levon Aronian provoked a rare case of the World Champion blundering mate

No tournament in which you manage to combine green shoes and a flowery pink shirt has been entirely in vain | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

It’s been a tricky few weeks for Levon Aronian. He was spectacularly bad in Kolkata and didn’t redeem himself in his semi-final against Ding Liren. He was well-beaten in the first classical game against Magnus and then missed a gilt-edged chance to salvage some glory by ending the World Champion’s at that point 106-game unbeaten streak. In the first rapid game it looked as though things were going from bad to worse, as Levon cheerfully sacrificed both his rooks for what, objectively speaking, was nothing. Then, briefly, his fortunes turned!

Black has three legal moves: 39…Kh5!, which wins, 39…Kg5, which draws, or 39…g6??, which loses. Amazingly Magnus opted for the 3rd, playing it instantly despite having over 5 minutes on his clock. The refutation wasn’t hard to find, since after 40.Bf8+! Kh5 41.Qe7! the threat of mate on h4 can’t be successfully parried. A somewhat bemused Magnus took a while to adjust to the new reality and then resigned!

Oops... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

That meant Levon trailed by just 2 points instead of 10 points, but there was to be no happy ending. He blundered himself in the next rapid game and then a draw and win in blitz meant that Magnus had won the match with two games to spare.

4. The real test lies ahead for Maxime

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as we’ve seen, admitted he was outplayed by Ding Liren, but otherwise there was no reason for too many regrets. It was a bonus merely to reach London given how likely it looked that Sergey Karjakin or Vishy Anand would overtake him in the Grand Chess Tour standings, and he did, after all, manage to beat Magnus in the semi-final. 2nd place was worth a none-too-shabby $100,000, and Maxime also now holds the bragging rights for being the world rapid no. 1, at least until the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in St. Petersburg this Christmas:

Ultimately, however, London was merely a distraction from Maxime’s overriding goal of qualifying for his first Candidates Tournament. That depends on the Jerusalem Grand Prix, that starts in just a couple of days’ time. He rates his chances of qualifying for the Candidates at around 50%.

5. Playing games that don’t matter makes little sense

Maxime got to have a little fun at the end of the Grand Chess Tour as he scored 3.5/4 against Ding Liren in blitz, but by that stage those blitz games counted for absolutely nothing. The match had already been decided, just as Carlsen-Aronian had been decided before the final two games there. It’s a strange quirk of the Grand Chess Tour matches, and some of the events in Saint Louis, that matches don’t end when the result is known. In some ways it’s understandable as that guarantees the spectators something to watch, but it’s hard to think of another sporting event that continues after the winner is known.

Should matches be prolonged after the sporting intrigue is gone to ensure there's something to watch? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Anish Giri noted playing meaningless games has become something of a habit for Maxime, who was also forced to play a 3rd place match at the World Cup after suffering the heartbreak of semi-final defeat:

Perhaps it’s a format that could be altered.

6. 2020 is going to be less of a “hell of a year”

On the other hand, it may be that no change is required, since there might not be a Grand Chess Tour final event next year! That was a suggestion by the tour’s founder, Garry Kasparov, who felt that it would be too much to ask for a World Championship match player to immediately then play in the finals. The aim, clearly, is to get Magnus to play next year despite the World Championship (as he didn’t, except as a wild card, in 2016 and 2018). It’s also about protecting the other players, however, after 2019 had an insane schedule, with MVL exclaiming, “It’s been a hell of a year for me!”

The provisional plan for 2020 sees just three rapid and blitz events compared to five in 2019, which in turn would mean increasing the weight of the classical events.

7. There was tough competition for the cutest mascot

And finally, it was a day when not all the focus was on the players, or even the regular commentators. There was another star in Saint Louis:

While Ding Liren had a curious encounter:

Selfie with a champ | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

World renowned actor Woody Harrelson has become something of a mascot for Magnus Carlsen, making first moves during his 2016 and 2018 World Championship matches and now also in the Grand Chess Tour finals:

Woody Harrelson meets Magnus Carlsen... again! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

But the cutest moment of the final day came from someone less well-known making the first move!

So that’s all from the 2019 Grand Chess Tour! The next major chess action on the horizon is the Jerusalem Grand Prix that starts this Wednesday. We'll of course be covering all the action here on chess24. 

See also:

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