Magnus Carlsen called Maxime Vachier-Lagrave “a great player” and “a deserved winner” as the French no. 1 won an epic playoff battle to reach the Grand Chess Tour final. His rival for the $150,000 first prize will be Ding Liren, who blew Levon Aronian away by winning both the rapid games and then clinching victory with a draw in the first blitz game. There were two more blitz wins for Ding before Levon finally claimed a consolation win at the end. He’ll now play Magnus Carlsen in what he called “the losers’ match” for 3rd place.
You can replay all the games from the 2019 Grand Chess Tour Finals using the selector below:
And here’s the live commentary on the semi-final rapid and blitz games:
“Honestly, I’m a bit ashamed of my play today,” said Levon Aronian after losing to Ding Liren within just three games on the third day of their semi-final match in London. The Armenian no. 1 made no excuses, saying he felt physically healthy again but that his opponent had simply played “much better”. Ding himself later commented, “overall today I played very well”, and you could see how sharp he was in the first 25-minute game. Levon’s 18…Ra7?! (18…Rb8!) was an inaccuracy:
The immediate 19.Bxf7+? doesn’t work here, but Ding spotted that it does work after first undermining the c5-bishop with 19.b4! Black has no choice but to respond 19…Bxb4 and allow 20.Bxf7+! Rxf7 21.Nxf7 when Black can’t capture on f7 due to 22.Qc4+ picking up the loose bishop on b4.
After 21…Qf8! it was far from over, however, with Levon later commenting:
I thought I was playing ok but I overestimated my position – I should have tried to equalise, while I just blundered a single mover.
That might still have referred to b4, but it was only after 25…Qf7? that Black was lost:
Levon has taken away one of the defenders of the c8-bishop and, surprisingly, it turns out Black can’t avoid losing a piece after 26.Rc6! Play continued 26…Rxc6 (26…Qxe6 27.Rexe6 Rxc6 28.Rxc6 doesn’t help) 27.Qxc6 Qf8 28.Rc1! and 28…Nc5 was just a temporary nuisance on the way to White winning the piece and the game. It summed things up for Levon that he ultimately lost on time while making a move that blundered mate-in-2 (if you can talk of a blunder in a position where everything loses):
“The second game I played very badly - I took unnecessary risks”, commented Levon, but the match ultimately turned on a sequence of just a few moves. Ding Liren had again played imperiously, but after 28.Rd2 he slipped:
He explained afterwards that his plan on playing 27…Rd8 had been to follow up with 28…Bf8!, which is absolutely crushing. Instead he played 28.c5?, when after 29.Ne4! Bf8 White was already better. It was only a brief glimmer of hope, however, as 30.Qc3?? threw away the game:
Now 30…Nd5! cleared the black rook’s path to b1 with tempo, and there was nothing better than the 31.Qc2 Rb1+ 32.Qxb1 that occurred in the game. 7 moves later White resigned.
That left Levon needing to win all four blitz games simply to force tiebreaks. He commented:
When you lose doing one-move blunders it’s not that it’s impossible to come back from it, but you’re not in the state of mind.
Ding Liren sealed match victory at the earliest possible opportunity by building up a big advantage with White in the first blitz game and then happily allowing the position to be blockaded – we almost got a perfect position with all the white pieces on light squares and the black pieces on dark squares!
Although there was no longer anything at stake the remaining games were still played, with the pain going on for Levon as he lost the next two games before finally grabbing a consolation win.
He’ll need to get back on track on fast if he’s hoping to win $60,000 by defeating a certain Magnus Carlsen in the match for 3rd place.
Magnus told Maurice Ashley after his defeat:
To be honest I felt pretty early on that this wasn’t really my day. I just felt really, really sluggish, and yeah, I think he missed some chances to put the match away earlier on, but I was just not good enough at the critical moments and I could feel it from early on.
From that we can conclude that a sluggish Magnus is still a match for anyone, since he started off by pressing with the black pieces as the first rapid game ended in a draw. He went for an aggressive h-pawn push against Maxime’s Grünfeld in the next game, and though it ended in a draw again at the end he had the moral victory of being the side with Rook + Knight against Rook.
Maxime becomes more dangerous the faster the time control, however, and it was the first game of the blitz where he finally got in some opening preparation of his own. Magnus repeated the 6…Be7!? Ruy Lopez line he’d tried in the second classical game but ran into 12.Bd2! That seemingly quiet move is potentially the refutation of Black’s whole system, and after 15…Bd6 Maxime went all-in:
16.f5! gxf5 17.Rf1 and finally Magnus took the exchange on e5. White’s advantage grew to dangerous proportions, but one slip by Maxime was all the World Champion needed to rescue a draw.
Next up was something we don’t see often – Magnus getting ground down in an equal endgame:
33.Ra7!? already looks inaccurate, and after 33...b3 34.Rxa5 Rxc7 35.Rb5 Rc2+ 36.Kf3 b2 it turned out Black could slowly bring his king to support the pawn and White was in severe danger. Magnus couldn’t hold on and found himself trailing with just two games to go.
Champions aren’t beaten that easily, however, and in the very next game Maxime went astray. He confessed, “I tilted after I played a couple of truly horrific moves”. The first he mentioned was the unnecessary 16.Bxf6? while after 18…Qc7 he made the second:
19.Na4?! isn’t so bad, but the point was that Maxime spotted too late that he could have played 19.Rd7!! Qxd7 20.Qxe5, attacking both Black’s rooks and winning a pawn. Black is still doing ok after 20…Bf6, but in the game it was Magnus who now went on to grind out a win and level the scores.
In the final blitz game Carlsen looked to have a big advantage in the early middlegame, but it fizzled out into a 72-move draw.
That meant the match had gone to playoffs, with the action slowing down to two 10+5 games. There was no lowering of intensity from the players, however, as the Najdorf that followed was truly epic. Magnus explained why he’d allowed his opponent to play his favourite opening:
Because I sort of believed in the concept for White. I knew clearly with my shape and everything that it was probably not the best idea, but I was just very excited to play those positions. As you could see from the penultimate game, I had neither really the time, nor the strength, nor the ability to find the best way and he just navigated the complications a little bit better than I did.
It was nevertheless Magnus who was the frontrunner, with MVL later admitting he’d overlooked the idea of 16.g4! hxg4 17.Rxg4:
What Maxime had missed was that 17…g6 runs into 18.Rxg6! and 18…fxg6 19.Ne6 traps the black queen, though 19…Bh4! would limit the damage there. 17…g6 was in fact better than Maxime’s 17…Bf8?, which he mentioned afterwards allowed the “very strong idea” 18.Bg5! Qc7 19.Rh4!.
As you can see, it was already getting incredibly complicated, but after more adventures we reached a stage when Magnus was just one or two final blows away from victory:
29.Nxe6! Bxe3 30.Rxd6! was completely winning, since the black queen can’t move due to checkmate on d8, while 30…Bc6 runs into various wins, including 31.Nd5!. Instead 29.Ndxb5?! was a step in the wrong direction, while the win had finally slipped for Magnus when he played 35.Nc5?
35…Rxc5? fails to 36.Rxd8, but after 35…Rxd3! 36.Nxd3 Nxa3+ Black was right back in the game, and Magnus knew it.
Maxime had soon restored the material balance, and Carlsen’s 45.c4? was the final straw:
After 45…Qa4+ 46.Qa3 Qxa3+ 47.Kxa3 f6! the c-pawn was falling and once again Maxime showed his endgame prowess to convert his advantage into victory.
Maxime summed up:
We all blundered a lot of things, probably, but it was a truly very, very tense fight, double-edged, all you could ask for!
That meant the second 10-minute game really was a must-win with Black for Magnus if he wanted to force an Armageddon game, but instead it was Maxime who was soon much better and went on to secure a draw - “rather smoothly”, as he described it.
Maxime credited the victory in part to the fact that he felt no pressure:
Of course it was maybe a bit helpful that this is not my main priority. Of course it’s a great pleasure to be here and of course I’m playing to win the event, but for me it’s mostly about going to the Candidates. So I’m actually happy to be here to take my mind off the Candidates, the Grand Prix, but yeah, I was not feeling any sort of pressure other than the fact that I was playing a lot of games against the best opponent you can get.
Magnus was full of praise for his opponent:
He’s a great player and he’s a deserved winner. I think he showed as you said great resilience in several games, also coming back – he was on the brink of winning the match and then losing with White, coming back then again and calming things down and outlasting me basically in the match. Absolutely it’s far from perfect, but at this format he’s very, very good, and I know that if I don’t have a perfect day myself it’s going to be very, very tough.
So it’s Maxime who will now play Ding Liren for $150,000 in the final, while Magnus and Levon will battle it out for $60,000 in the 3rd place match. Those start on Friday, after the Pro-Biz Cup on Thursday.
Meanwhile it’s Howell-Adams in the final of the British Knockout Championship after even winning the first rapid and blitz games wasn’t enough for Gawain Jones to recover from a loss in classical chess against David Howell. Mickey Adams beat Luke McShane, meaning he can laugh off this incident of playing 58.Kh2? instead of the winning 58.Kh3!
Luke survived with 58…Rh1+! 59.Nxh1 (59.Kg2?? Qg1#) 59…Qxh1+ 60.Kxh1 Stalemate!
In the FIDE Open 14-year-old Praggnanandhaa won a sharp game against Jules Moussard to not only take the sole lead on 6.5/7 but become one of the youngest players ever to cross 2600 on the live rating list:
Tune in to the Grand Chess Tour final and 3rd place match from 17:00 CET on Friday here on chess24!
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