Reports Aug 10, 2020 | 7:52 AMby Colin McGourty

MCCT Finals 1: Ding Liren shocks Carlsen

Ding Liren beat Magnus Carlsen in Armageddon as the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals benefiting Kiva got off to the most explosive start possible. Ding put his struggles in the chess24 Legends of Chess behind him while Hikaru Nakamura and Daniil Dubov played out a match that was every bit as exciting as their Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge final. Daniil won the first game in 17 moves and was within a move or two of making it 2:0, but in the end Hikaru triumphed in the final blitz game. There’s a long way to go, however, with Magnus and Daniil having four days to mount a comeback.

Day 1 of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals began with 5 decisive games in a row, while in the end there were 9 wins in 13 games.

You can replay all the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals games using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

50% of all Premium memberships purchased during the Finals will be donated to Kiva - help us make a difference!

Let’s take the matches one at a time.

Magnus Carlsen 3.5:3.5 Ding Liren (Ding wins in Armageddon)

Ding Liren had Magnus to thank for reaching the Tour Finals since the Chinese player’s miserable showing at the chess24 Legends of Chess meant that his only route to the final was for the World Champion to win the event. That’s what happened, and given recent form you might have thought the only question was whether Magnus would win their semi-final match 3:0, giving him two rest days before the final. It looked like desperate times for Ding…

But in fact the first game simply showed us that Ding Liren remains the formidable rapid and blitz player who has been more successful than anyone else in the world in the last couple of years at drawing blood against Magnus.

Ding commented:

This time I only prepared e4, because I had enough with d4 and c4, so I want to play some attacking games!

Magnus was also up for a fight, playing the Najdorf, and the line they played with 6.f3 almost transposed, as Ding pointed out, into Carlsen-MVL from last year’s Grand Chess Tour finals in London. In that game Maxime only put a pawn on h5 after pushing it to h6 first, while Magnus did it in one move.

Any time saved there was squandered, however, as Ding emerged clearly better from the opening. The Chinese no. 1 felt Magnus had missed 21.a4!

All Black’s replies are bad and leave White with a technically winning position, but winning such positions against Magnus is something you’d trust few players to do. Ding made it look easy, earning high praise from Yasser and Peter.

As so often in his hour of need, Magnus turned to the London System, and we got an offbeat line where Ding’s c7-pawn managed to find itself on d2 by move 8.

This game was to be all about Magnus, however, as he met 21…f6 with a devastating zwischenzug.

Ding was visibly deflated as he saw 22.Qh7! appear on the board. There’s nothing Black can do, since the bishop on e8 is stuck defending against the threat of Nd7+, forking the black king and queen. Ding eventually chose 22…Nb3 23.Qxg8 Nxa1, when simply 24.Rxa1 would win, but Magnus played the even more powerful 24.Qxe8! Again, the problem is that fork on d7, and the Chinese no. 1 resigned.

The quick turnaround between games gives little time for emergency repairs, and Magnus decided not to repeat the Sicilian of Game 1 but go for the Caro-Kann instead. It led to one heck of a fight, with Magnus sacrificing a piece.

Ding is nothing if not principled and grabbed the material with 24.gxh5?!, though it seems that was a mistake. Play continued 24…Rxh5 25.f4 Rxh4 26.Re2.

But here it stopped, with Magnus seeming to let the remaining 3 minutes and 48 seconds on his clock run down to zero while remaining completely calm. It turned out the move 26.Re2 simply hadn’t appeared on his screen, with the arbiters deciding the game should be restarted.

It was an awkward moment, since the position is critical. 26…g5! looks to be winning for Black, but when play resumed Magnus chose the next best move 26…Rdh8, and Ding was right back in the game and then, at the very end, looked to be winning.

With 5 seconds left on his clock Ding played 38.Ne5+? and after 38…Rxe5! 39.dxe5 Rg3+ 40.Kh4 Rg4+ had to accept a draw by repetition. Instead 38.Bxf4! Rxe2 39.Ne5+ leaves White a piece up with every chance of winning.

As on Day 1 of the chess24 Legends of Chess final against Ian Nepomniachtchi, Magnus then decided enough was enough for now and that it was better to play out a quick draw and take the match to blitz tiebreaks. Back then Magnus ended with 19 minutes 32 seconds on the clock, but this time he broke 20 minutes!

For the first blitz game Magnus returned to the Caro-Kann, which was a decent choice given Ding admitted afterwards he hadn’t rechecked his options. A tense battle came to a strange end after Ding’s 46.Re4.

White has an extra pawn, but Carlsen was in fact slightly better, as Ding admitted, when Magnus once again let his clock run down to zero. This time Magnus had no complaints about the result as he said he’d just failed to notice that his opponent had moved.

That meant Carlsen needed another win, and again he chose the London, again he succeeded, and again the winning manoeuver involved the h7-square:

18.Bh7+! Kh8 19.a4! Ba6 20.Qb1 and, with the queen out of the firing line, White is ready to play Nd4 and take complete control of the position. Black’s a6-bishop will be a helpless bystander. Ding felt drastic measures were required, but 20…g6? 21.Bxg6! just signed his death warrant, as Magnus picked up 4 pawns for the piece, giving him an overwhelming advantage in the ending. 

Not all the pawns survived, but in the final position the f-pawn is unstoppable.

So we went to Armageddon, and although Hikaru Nakamura was among those surprised by Magnus choosing the white pieces it made perfect sense in terms of the match up to that point. In the two games Magnus had played for a win with White he’d won easily, and once again he played the London System. This time, however, Ding had other ideas. He explained that passive play had failed in the previous games, so “I wanted to play another idea, to play actively”. He’d prepared the 9…e5! break, forcing 10.dxe5 dxe5:

Ding explained afterwards that his point was that 11.Nxe5 now would be met by 11…Nd5!, when the tactics work out for Black (e.g. 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Bg3 Bxc3!). That wasn’t an appealing line for a must-win game, but it might have been better than the 11.Bg5!? h6 12.Bxf6 Qxf6 chosen by Magnus, when Black had more space, a central pawn and the bishop pair. Ding soon got to play e5-e4-e3 and was completely winning when he accepted a draw that won him the set. Nakamura called it “a picture perfect game”.

Ding said it was “unreal” to beat Magnus in Armageddon. He knows there’s going to be a huge battle ahead, but we couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Hikaru Nakamura 3.5:2.5 Daniil Dubov

The same could be said for this match, which was a new episode in the battle we saw when Daniil won the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge final. Game 1 featured what appears to have been an unfortunate novelty in a hyper-sharp position.

This line had already claimed a victim when Wesley So blundered and lost quickly to Magnus earlier in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, while it famously saw Ding Liren survive by the skin of his teeth in last year’s Sinquefield Cup. The most recent game was Nepo-Leko in the Legends, but as Peter Leko explained on our live broadcast, everyone had played 10…Qd5!, since that was the whole point of the line – the threat of going on to take on a2 gives Black the time he needs to equalise.

“I forgot my theory”, and “I wasn’t awake enough,” said Hikaru, though he didn’t quite confirm that 10…Nd5?! was simply a blunder (it’s possible he forgot a follow-up). In any case, by move 12 White was dead lost, according to the computer, and if it wasn’t immediately obvious why, Daniil went on to demonstrate it on the board, playing perfect chess to post a 17-move win!

In the final position 17…Qxe5 runs into 18.Qxf7+ and mate on g8 next, but the queen can’t move without allowing mate-in-1 on f7 or mate-in-2 on g7 after Qg6+.

The first set of the match might easily have been all but decided in the next game, since in a sharp Sicilian Hikaru admitted he’d blundered, assuming Black was forced to exchange queens and take a draw when in fact Dubov could seize the initiative. Daniil didn't need to be asked twice, and although Hikaru thought Daniil had then gone too far with 31…Kf8! (instead of other king moves and a likely draw by repetition), Black in fact had very good options after 32.Rhd1.

32…Be8! is strong, but 32…Ra8!! is even stronger. Black defends the c8-rook again (White was threatening Qxc8+ and Rd8+) but more importantly prepares Qa7 and giving checkmate on a1. Hikaru pointed out things weren’t so simple, but his suggested 33.Rd7 Bxd7 34.Rxd7 is amply met by 34…Rc7! and Black wins.

Down to under 20 seconds Daniil played 32…Ke7? instead, and 33.Qg7! Be8 34.Rd6! was a killer.

Daniil replied 34…Qc7 then managed to resign in time for 35.Re6# not to appear on the board.

“I think there were two games that were well-played,” said Hikaru afterwards, and he was referring to Games 3 and 4. In the 3rd game Daniil played the opening fast, sacrificing a pawn, but slowed down when he began to throw pieces at his opponent’s king. The attack was running out of steam when a chance to play f4 was missed, but it still needed to be stopped:

24…Re5! was a fine exchange sacrifice, gaining the e5-square for Black to hold the kingside together while he could go on to win on the other wing. The rest was smooth sailing for Hikaru.

Daniil now needed to win on demand with the black pieces, and to his great credit he managed! This time he didn’t go out all guns blazing but instead steered into an endgame where he ultimately won in study-like fashion. Hikaru was able to win a piece on b7…

…but after 52…Rb3! White is completely paralysed.

Hikaru later gave up the bishop but found himself in a lost rook endgame, calling it “a very nice endgame”. Some went further still!

That took the match to blitz, but playing blitz against the world no. 1 in that form of chess is seldom easy. After a quiet draw in the first game, Hikaru got to show his own endgame skills as he steered a game in which he was initially struggling into a won position.

Daniil, with Black, even has an extra pawn at this point, but Hikaru’s bishops dominate the board and will stop the black pawns while the white queenside pawns march towards their goal. Set one ended when the a-pawn became a queen.

Hikaru said afterwards that he’d prefer best-of-3 to best-of-5, but “having the chance to regroup after having a bad day… I think is pretty nice”. That’s the consolation for both Daniil and Magnus – they’ll still reach the final if they can win three of the next four sets!

The battle continues Monday, with the live show starting at 15:30 CEST here on chess24. Don’t miss it!

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