World no. 3 Ding Liren beat world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana for the second time in a classical game this year as the Chinese star took a big step towards the best tournament win of his career. His competition for now comes from the ever resourceful Ian Nepomniachtchi, who ground out a 132 move win from a position where it seemed he’d have to grovel for a draw against Wesley So. Current and former World Champions Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand were among the players frustrated by draws in Round 9.
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Ding Liren’s win against Anish Giri earlier in the tournament has widely been hailed as a masterpiece, and his victory over Fabiano Caruana in Round 9 didn’t fall far short:
In the opening it was Fabiano who was first to play a new move, but Ding Liren’s bold response saw him emerge with a space advantage in an otherwise symmetrical position. He explained afterwards that he wanted to win, which was why he went for the “unclear” 31.f4!?
What made it a great game was that Caruana was also out for blood, and instead of exchanging pieces he went for 31…Rd2!? here, following up after 32.Qf3 Rd5 33.R1c7 with 33…Kh7, which the Chinese star took as a clear indication that Fabi wanted to play Qe1, Rd1 and give mate. 34.Kh2! made life tough for Black, however, and a few moves later only some true brilliance could have kept the position balanced:
The immediate 37…Qb1? here runs into 38.Nxf7 and after 38…Rd1? there’s even mate-in-8 after 39.Rh8+. But the trick was to play 37…Qb4!, hitting the f8-rook and provoking 38.Rxf7, and only then 38…Qb1!, when it appears White has nothing better than to force a draw by perpetual check.
Ding called that, “very difficult to find”, and if Ding, who defended like a chess god against Magnus the day before, thought it was difficult, that suggests it was near impossible for a human. Instead Fabi played 37…Rb5, but even after 38.Qf1! Qd5 39.Nxf7 Nd7 40.Rd8 Rb8 41.Rxb8 Nxb8 42.Qb1+ Qf5 it seemed Black should be able to weather the storm:
If knights are exchanged it’s an instant draw, but 43.Qb7! kept the game alive, and after 43…Nc6 44.Nd6 Qc5 45.Ne4 the best chance for Fabiano was to give up a piece with 45…Qxe3. When he played 46.Qc2? Nf6+! instead the game was Ding’s, as he went on to prove brilliantly:
That not only took Ding Liren into the sole lead at that moment on +2, but brought him within 1.5 points of the world no. 2 spot on the live rating list:
Ding’s aspirations may be higher, and this year he’s beginning to answer the previous criticism from Magnus that the Chinese star isn’t yet beating the very best players or winning the very best tournaments. His qualification by rating for the 2020 Candidates Tournament already looks assured.
As you can see from those rankings, another player in the form of his life is Ian Nepomniachtchi, who caught Ding Liren by beating Wesley So:
Ian Nepomniachtchi recalled after this game that his draw against Wesley So in Zagreb had been “extremely painful”. He had allowed a perpetual check in a totally won position back then, but if he was out to avenge that result it didn’t look promising for the first 24 moves, during which he admitted he “misplayed badly in the opening”:
Nepo explained that he was shocked by Wesley’s 25.Qa5!? here, since So could have played 25.Qd6 or Nc3-e4 with, “a huge, huge positional advantage for only a pawn, and this pawn is going to fall”. A few moves later rooks had been exchanged and material was level, though not for long. A careless queen retreat by Wesley allowed Nepo to pick up the a2-pawn, and after that the day would only get worse for the US star. The position still must have been drawn, and at one point Wesley even incorrectly tried to claim a 3-fold repetition, but in the end, playing only on the delay, he cracked and had to concede defeat in a Sinquefield Cup record 132 moves!
Afterwards Ian was sticking to his story about his tournament aspirations:
You may not believe me but seriously I don’t really care, as I’m very tired overall.
The best dialogue with Maurice was to follow:
Would you be happy winning the Sinquefield Cup?
I don’t mind!
There are plenty more people in St. Louis who wouldn’t mind winning the Sinquefield Cup, but in every remaining game at least one of the players was left with reason to feel deeply frustrated. Magnus Carlsen has now notched 9 draws in a row and dropped 13.5 rating points, and while he can partly put that down to brilliant defence by his opponents he’s also missing some chances. A case in point was the game against Levon Aronian, where the Armenia star thought 20 minutes before going for 20.e5!?
After 20...dxe5 21.Nb3 Nc5?! 22.Qxe5+ the game fizzled out into a draw, but Levon had spotted what the computers were also pointing out:
I thought my e5 was a bad move. I spent maybe 30 minutes on it, and then once I played it I realised that he could [play 21…Qxe3 22.fxe3 Nc5 23.Nxa5 Ba6!], with a very unpleasant position for White… At first it seems that I can collect the pawns and I have this pair, but in fact Black has domination in the centre.
Levon showed that to Magnus after the game, and reported, “He said he was not even close to seeing it!”
Magnus was far from alone in missing a chance, however. Once again, despite all the missed wins in previous games, Vishy Anand did very well in the opening against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov:
He did play 16.Nh4!, but some inaccuracies and fine active defence by Mamedyarov saw the game end in a 47-move draw.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is in need of a win or two to boost his chances of qualifying for the Grand Chess Tour finals in London, and it seemed he’d found the perfect opening to do it with after he broke the rule of thumb of capturing towards the centre with 9.fxg3! in a Caro-Kann. Hikaru Nakamura appeared unprepared for that try, although the line has gained some popularity and featured in a high-profile game just a couple of weeks ago in the Russian Women's Championship:
Although Nakamura adopted a different plan of defence he also came under heavy pressure, but Maxime couldn’t maintain the precision required to grab a full point.
Finally it was the same story in Giri-Karjakin, with Anish Giri pulling off the impressive feat of surprising his opponent with the very early novelty 7.b4:
At some point it seemed Sergey Karjakin had replied too boldly and would get crushed by his opponent’s bishop pair and space advantage, but in the end the “Minister of Defence” did his thing to bring the game to a 44-move draw.
That means that with just two rounds to go the field has become more spread out, though there are still 7 players within a point of the lead:
In Tuesday’s penultimate round Ding Liren has Black against Levon Aronian while Ian Nepomniachtchi is White against MVL. It’s also going to be the last game with the white pieces for Magnus Carlsen, as he takes on Wesley So. Tune in to live commentary here on chess24 at 13:00 in St. Louis or 20:00 CEST!
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