Reports Dec 7, 2019 | 9:44 AMby Colin McGourty

GCT Finals 4: MVL’s 4-queen miracle save

Ding Liren created and then spoilt a wonderful chance to take a 6-point lead after Game 1 of the Grand Chess Tour final as he allowed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to escape with a draw in a position with four queens on the board. It was Magnus Carlsen in the third place match who scored the first ever classical win of the Grand Chess Tour final four, with Levon Aronian finding some brilliant defensive resources but finally cracking in time trouble. 

Ding Liren and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave began the final early, during the Pro-Biz Cup on Thursday | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

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

And here’s the live commentary on Day 1 of the final matches:

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 3:3 Ding Liren

A gentler handshake | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would later comment: 

The game was so bad, simply, and I just got much worse out of the opening for absolutely no reason, and then it’s a big, big struggle.

Although Maxime, playing White, had a compromised pawn structure and a knight on a1, the chances of the game merely fizzling out into a draw looked high until the Chinese no. 1’s choice on move 34:

34…g5! was a move Ding Liren later said he was “very happy with”, and overall he justifiably felt he played “a very good middlegame”. The best option for White was to play 35.hxg5!, a move that Maxime almost made instantly. He stopped himself in mid-action, however, and sank into a 29-minute think before finally opting for 35.Qd2?!, when after 35…gxh4 36.c5 Bxc5 37.Qg5+ Kf8 38.Qxh4 he was a pawn down with tough times ahead. It was a tricky position, however, as you could see after 38…Ke8 39.Qa4:

The amazing 40.Qh3!! comes close to equalising on the spot, since after 40…Qxb3 41.Qc8+ it turns out Black can’t escape checks from the white queen. Instead play continued “normally” with 40.Nxc5 dxc5 41.Qxh5 Qxe4 and Maxime confessed he was considering resigning before he saw he had some chances of muddying the water by pushing his g-pawn. 

The jacket comes off! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

That shouldn’t have worked either, but by the time the pawn reached g6 White’s counterplay was real.

The one winning move here was 66…fxg6!, but both players agreed that wasn’t what Black had been hoping for. Ding Liren:

I just missed this 66.g6. I played 65…Kd3 too quickly – at least I had to calculate something. I thought it was just winning, but I totally missed g6 and it turned out to be the best way to take, but I don’t want to enter this position, since there’s no clear way to win. He had no clear way to draw, but I think it’s my best chance. Especially in time trouble it’s easier to play for Black.

Maxime said capturing on g6 looked “very close to a draw”, and also that 66…c2, as Ding played after a 9-minute think, “looks totally winning, I should say”. There were soon four queens on the board after 67.gxf7 c1=Q 68.f8=Q but although Ding gave the first check with 68…Qh1+ it turned out that after 69.Kg3 Qe5+ 70.Qgf4! there was no win:

Maxime’s explanation for why White was doing ok here contained some arcane knowledge about queen endings!

The pawn on f3 is crucial in my endeavour – and also my queens are very well-placed, especially the queen on f4. In queen endgames f4, f5, c4 and c5 are the best squares for the queen in general, and here it protected me from lots of checks, and of course the position of the king on d3 is also unfortunate, because many times I had some Qf5+ to cover a check, or Qd6+.

Ding revealed that what he’d missed when going for all this was that he couldn’t drive the white king to its doom with 76…Qa2+:

Ding had expected the white king to come to the d-file, when Black can give mate, but instead MVL played the only move 77.Kf6!, and it turned out that his king was safe if he kept shuffling it between f6 and e6. A remarkable game ended with a draw in 90 moves.

It was a tough game to analyse afterwards!

Maxime was happy to escape, but under no illusions about how he’d played:

Of course it’s good news not to have lost this game, but that’s probably the only positive I can take from it. The play I showed today is unworthy of the finals, so I’ll have to correct that tomorrow.

Ding was pleased with his play in the middlegame, but of course disappointed to have missed the chance to take a 6-point lead in the final:

Somehow I spoilt many winning positions recently. I don’t know what happens, but ok, tomorrow is another game!

Magnus Carlsen 6:0 Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian came to the game with a shirt designed to kill | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Magnus Carlsen did take a 6-point lead in the battle for 3rd place, although the speed with which the players played in the opening suggested Levon was ready for the London System 3.Bf4 approach taken by Magnus. It was White who gained an advantage, however, and Magnus was later able to trade in a two-pawn advantage for an exchange sacrifice that left him with something approaching positional domination. Levon was also sharp, however:

43…Rb7! offered Magnus various gifts that came with a dose of poison. 44.Qxd6?? Qxf2+ is mate-in-4, while taking the exchange with 44.Bxb7 Qxb7+ seems to lead to complete equality, e.g. 45.Kg1 Bxg3! 46.fxg3 Qf3. Instead the World Champion went for the endgame with 44.Qxa7 Rxa7 45.b4. Levon was already down to his last three minutes, with no additional time added in London except for the 30-second delay each move, and couldn't maintain his accuracy.

Here 45…Rb8!? instead of 45…Rc8 looks to have been a mistake, and although Black still had chances to defend the position after 46.c4 it was one that Peter Svidler and the other commentators assessed as hopeless in practical terms to play against Magnus in time trouble. The World Champion went on to win in 66 moves, which perhaps helped him overcome the frustration of losing the semi-final to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and only playing a match for 3rd place… if there was any frustration at all! 

Now this was frustration! Magnus Carlsen and DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis couldn't prevent stalemate against Levon Aronian and Insight Strategic Associates Managing Director Justin Baptie during their game in the ProBiz Cup | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

Magnus also found time to play some football since the semi-final loss:

If Levon goes into Sunday’s rapid and blitz still trailing by 6 points he’s going to have a mountain to climb, but he’ll have a chance to hit back with the white pieces in Saturday’s 2nd classical game. Of course ending Carlsen’s 106-game unbeaten streak is easier said than done.

The London Chess Classic is also coming to an end elsewhere, with the FIDE Open already over. 14-year-old Indian GM Praggnanandhaa shared £3,500 with 18-year-old Australian GM Anton Smirnov after both players drew their final-round games. That kept Pragg above 2600 on the live rating list, though he’s also playing in the Sunway Sitges International Chess Festival in a few days’ time.

14-year-old Praggnanandhaa became the 2nd youngest 2600 player of all time | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

The British Knockout Championship has had a perplexing format that’s seemed to change by the day and sometimes the hour. First classical matches were removed from the finals and then the 3rd place playoff turned into an exhibition match between Gawain Jones and Luke McShane. It was a match with a twist:

Here in the first game you might naively assume that both players have earned the right to castle on either side of the board, but in fact the match was being played with a rule change suggested by Vladimir Kramnik – completely removing the option of castling! 

"Hi guys, just a tiny change to announce before your game - no castling allowed!" | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

So you can’t trust the computer evaluations, and Luke’s 13.Kf2!? is at least explicable, even if after 13…Ng4+ 14.Ke2 Qb4 the white king was suddenly in the firing line. There was nothing smooth about what followed, but Gawain Jones went on to win that first game, before David Howell hit back in the second – with the juxtaposition of that clash and the 2nd Howell-Adams game catching Anish Giri’s eye:

Overall the evidence in favour of “anti-chess” wasn’t so strong, however, since Mickey Adams won the other three games to take a commanding 12:4 lead in the British Knockout Final. Only a collapse in the final six blitz games on Saturday could now stop Mickey taking home the £10,000 first prize.

It's been very close recently, but Mickey Adams is still the English no. 1! | photo: Lennart Ootes, London Chess Classic

The action on Saturday (and Sunday) starts two hours earlier than usual at 15:00 CET and you can follow it all live here on chess24!

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