Reports May 27, 2022 | 7:33 AMby Colin McGourty

Ding survives Pragg comeback to win Chessable Masters

Chinese world no. 2 Ding Liren has won the Chessable Masters, the 4th event on the $1.6 million Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, after clinching the title in a dramatic blitz playoff against Praggnanandhaa. The 16-year-old Indian prodigy had earlier done everything right as he won the 2nd rapid match on demand to take the final to blitz, before coming within a whisker of winning the 1st blitz game. The 2nd could have gone either way, but it was Ding, playing until 5am, who claimed his first major online trophy.

You can replay all the games from the Chessable Masters using the selector below.

Going into the final day of the Chessable Masters Ding Liren only needed to draw the second 4-game rapid match to clinch victory, but instead Praggnanandhaa took the final to a blitz playoff — it stopped just short of Armageddon.

Ding Liren’s strategy of keeping Praggnanandhaa at bay by avoiding sharp fights had worked perfectly on the first day of the final, and, knowing he now only needed to tie the second match, Ding had every reason to take the same approach again. It was no surprise, therefore, that the 1st game on Thursday was a very careful draw.

The 2nd game also seemed to be fully under control for Ding, who was six minutes up on the clock when he played a new move, one that Jan Gustafsson, one of Magnus Carlsen’s World Championship seconds, recalled he’d seen before on his computer screen.

When Praggnanandhaa won a pawn it didn’t yet set alarm bells ringing, since Ding Liren, as we saw for instance against Magnus in the semi-finals, is a master at knowing when such positions are comfortable draws. Praggnanandhaa applied great pressure, however, until Ding slipped, with 60.e4! signalling that something had gone seriously wrong for Black.

There was no holding back White’s extra pawn and Ding resigned on move 79, with his hand on his forehead telling you all you needed to know without looking at the board.

Praggnanandhaa would say afterwards:

I’m definitely happy about the win, because I think to win like that against such a strong player, 2800, that position, I was just very happy. It’s kind of his style to convert these positions, and to do it against him felt nice.

That meant that for the first time in the final the roles had reversed and it was now Ding Liren who was hunting a win. In Game 3 he seemed to do everything right in the opening, but then perhaps missed the right moment to break and allowed Praggnanandhaa to hit back instead with 23…d5!

After 24.exd5 cxd5 25.Ne2 Ne4! 26.Qc2 Praggnanandhaa went for strictly the only move, giving up his queen.

After 26…Qxf2! 27.Rxf2 Nxf2 we had a fascinating, unbalanced position where Black had two rooks for the queen. It would have been very easy for Praggnanandhaa to lose his way in time pressure, but as Ding Liren later commented of his opponent:

He played like a very experienced grandmaster. He’s so confident about himself. Sometimes he’s down to less than 30 seconds and still thinks his position is better and he can control it. I’m really impressed.

More twists and turns led to a position balanced on a knife-edge.

It was impossible to work it all out at the board, with the computer here claiming that Pragg’s 37…Bxc4!? was a mistake (37…Nc5!) and that after 38.Qc3 g6 Ding also went astray with 39.a5!? (39.Qd4!) allowing 39…Rc5! The margins couldn’t have been finer, however, with 44…Nb4! a few moves later the only move to hold things together for Black — and in fact to make Black the player for choice.

We came down to a position where all the pawns had gone and Black still had three pieces for the queen. It was a theoretical draw, but far from easy to prove in practice, especially with the added pressure that if Praggnanandhaa won he’d win the mini-match and we’d go straight to tiebreaks. This is where Ding was on the top of his game, however, making no mistake until a draw by 3-fold repetition on move 106.

That meant Ding Liren now had a must-win game with Black to clinch the trophy without the need for tiebreaks, a situation in which the King’s Indian would be a popular choice — and Anish Giri renamed it!

Instead Ding went for an early 2…b6 and what turned out to be a very old system.

Another complicated strategic battle ensued, but Praggnanandhaa showed he was able to suck the life out of positions when required as he made a 44-move draw.

That meant we’d get two 5-minute blitz games and, if needed, an Armageddon game to follow. The momentum was with Praggnanandhaa, while Ding Liren, playing from Wenzhou, China, had been battling not only on the board but also with some flying invaders.

He explained afterwards there were both regular flies and mosquitoes. The other challenge was the time. It was way past 16-year-old Pragg’s bedtime — 1:30 am in Chennai, India — but it was 4am in China. Ding would say afterwards:

Exhausted! Today it was very, very hard, too hard to play, the last day of the tournament, also it’s nearly 5 am and after each game I had to take a rest, to lay down on the bed, to recover a little bit.

When Praggnanandhaa beat Anish Giri in blitz the two games had been somewhat disappointing — in both cases little happened until Anish made a one-move blunder and was lost. This time, however, both games were thrillers, with dynamic equality in the first until Ding Liren likely missed the brilliant shot 30.Bxe4!

The key point is that 30…Bxe4? loses to 31.Qxe6+! (after 31…Kh8 it’s even stronger to play 32.Bxf8! than to take on e4 immediately). Exchanging queens with 30…Bxa2 31.Bxa8 might have been a better practical choice than 30…Rxc5 in the game, since Praggnanandhaa’s a-pawn soon became a huge trump.

Mistakes were inevitable, however, and perhaps practically the main one was made on move 51.

51.Ra1!, putting the rook behind the a-pawn, would likely have won without too much trouble. Instead 51.a7!? led to complications, and after 51…Rb4+ (51…Bxa7!? might draw) 52.Kf5 Ra4 it turns out that 53.Rb1? let all the advantage slip (53.Rd1! was the move, for reasons that are tricky to work out with seconds on your clock). The path in the game also only failed because after 53…Bxa7 54.Rb7+ Kf8 55.Kg6 Ra6+ 56.Kh7 Ding spotted 56…Bd4!

It’s hard to believe at a glance, but Black is holding, and by the end the extra white knight was just a token advantage.

Ding commented:

I think the first blitz game was the turning point. I saved a lost endgame and that gave me a lot of confidence.

Pragg had the opposite emotions.

I’m definitely upset that I got two good positions in blitz and I couldn’t even win one. I think the first one I should have won. It was completely winning.

“The second one was totally crazy,” said Ding of the final blitz game that followed, and you couldn’t disagree, as Ding allowed the position around his king to be ruined. At first it was Pragg who seized the initiative, always an important factor in blitz.  

You could fully understand Pragg’s feelings afterwards.

Then the second one I think I had a very good position and a very good attack, but I don’t know where I misplayed it. Probably somewhere around 25…Ne2 is where I went wrong.

In fact that move was the best and only move in the position, with both players spotting some saving resources. A critical moment came after 29.Be3 when Pragg went not for 29…Rxb2!, hitting the bishop and ensuring the white c-pawn will have no pawn support, but 29…R2d5?

The computer gives 30.Qc2, defending the f5-knight, or 30.Bg5!, entombing the black queen (30…f6 31.c6!), as completely winning, but it was understandable Ding Liren was happy with his own solution here.

I think he might be winning at some point, but during the game I didn’t see how, and I’m very happy to find this 30.Rg5, I think without this move and 31.Be4, if I tried to queen without this idea, I might lose.

In the game 30.Rg5 Qxf3 31.Be4!, forcing White to exchange queens with 31…Qd1 32.Qxd1 Rxd1 made it clearly a game for two results after 33.c6, but it seems with perfect play Black would have had decent chances to hold.

This was a blitz game, however, and it felt inevitable that Ding’s queenside pawns would be unstoppable. After reaching multiple semi-finals, the world no. 2 had won his first ever title in three years of the online tour.

Understandably, when asked if he’d celebrate, Ding responded, “Not today! Maybe tomorrow.” 

The next major event on the horizon for Ding Liren is the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid to select Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger — or, if Magnus decides not to play another match, the Top 2 will play for the title. Ding kicks off with the white pieces against Ian Nepomniachtchi on June 17th. He was asked how he’s going to prepare:

Nothing special. I don’t want to train so hard, to train like a machine. I want to have a normal life and, apart from the preparation involved, I think the preparation for the mental and also for the physical is also important. You cannot spend all the time studying chess!

16-year-old Praggnanandhaa is well aware of that, since he’d managed to combine playing the Chessable Masters with studying for his school exams. Of course 2nd place was a disappointment given how close he’d come, but even if he didn’t seem entirely convinced of what he was saying his words were absolutely right (and something of an understatement).

I’m definitely exhausted, to be honest, but it’s definitely a good match and an interesting one and I’m definitely happy about my play overall in rapid. It’s a good result for me overall. It’s fine, I think, if I finish second, it’s a very good thing.

Pragg has also moved up to 2nd place in the overall Tour standings.

He’ll have many more finals to come, and in fact finishing in the Top 2 in the Chessable Masters already booked his place in the 2nd Major of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. That 8-player event is set to take place in Miami, Florida from August 12-20, shortly after the Olympiad in Pragg’s native Chennai.

Before that there’s a second regular tour event from July 10-17, while the immediate top chess event on the horizon is Norway Chess, where Magnus Carlsen tops a field that also includes Vishy Anand! It all kicks off in Stavanger with a blitz tournament on Monday 30th May.

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