‘I haven’t felt this kind of tension in a long while. This was real!’ Those were Magnus Carlsen’s words, after barely scraping through his semi-final match with Ding Liren at the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, which concluded last weekend. The event was hosted on the chess24 website and boasted a $250,000 prize fund. (Carlsen’s company, Play Magnus, merged with chess24 last year). The world champion assembled a formidable line-up, including five players from the recently postponed World Championship Candidates tournament.
It is clear that Carlsen finds Ding to be a troublesome opponent. China’s top player has notched up several victories in speed chess, including a memorable triumph in the playoff of last year’s Sinquefield Cup. This time, their semi-final match was played over four rapid games, and the champion was severely tested once again. The first was drawn, but Carlsen committed an awful blunder in the second game despite several minutes of thought. That meant that a win for Ding in the third would have sewn up the match, which looked plausible after Carlsen badly fluffed the opening. But that one turned around, leaving them tied 1.5-1.5 before this, the fourth game.
In the middlegame, White’s central pawns are the crux of the matter. The bishop on b8 can only gawp at the pawn on e5, but Ding’s pieces are contorted by the need to support this edifice. Neither player can feel in control. Carlsen admitted that he should probably have repeated the position at move 28, but instead he grabbed rook for knight with 28…Nc3. That let Ding drive a wedge into d6, gaining excellent compensation, but he later lost his way in the complications.
Ding Liren–Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Invitational, May 2020
1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Be2 Bd6 7 O-O O-O 8 b3 b6 9 Bb2 Bb7 10 a4 a5 11 Bd3 Rc8 12 Qe2 c5 13 Nb5 Bb8 14 Ne5 Qe7 15 f4 dxc4 16 bxc4 Ne4 17 Rad1 Rcd8 18 Ba3 Nxe5 19 fxe5 f5 Reaching a strange kind of impasse. It isn’t easy for either side to improve his position. 20 Rb1 Qg5 21 Rb2 Rf7 22 Qe1 Rfd7 23 Re2 h6 24 Bb2 Bc6 25 Bc2 Kh8 26 Rf3 Qg6 27 Rh3 Qg5 28 Rf3 Nc3 29 d5 Nxe2+ 30 Qxe2 Bb7 31 Rg3 Qh4 32 d6 Be4 33 Bd1 Bc6 34 Rh3 Qg5 35 Rg3 Qh4 36 Rh3 Qg5 (see diagram) 37 Nc3 A brave winning attempt. The knight will add firepower on the kingside, but the Bb8 sees a glimmer of hope. 37… Rf8 38 Qf2 Qd8 39 Ne2 Kh7 40 Nf4 Bxd6 41 Nxe6? 41 exd6 Rxd6 42 Be2 is promising for White, though still very complicated. 41… Qe8! 42 Nxf8+ Bxf8 43 Qxf5+? A decisive mistake, but both were desperately short of time. 43 Bc2 was still playable. 43… g6 44 Qf1 Bg7 A tidy move, but 44… Rd2 was stronger immediately. 45 Bc2 Rd2 White resigns
Carlsen faced Hikaru Nakamura in the final. Nakamura thrives in fast time controls, beating Fabiano Caruana in the other semi-final. But he has always struggled against Carlsen, and this time was no exception, succumbing 2.5-1.5 in a match where both sides showed great skill in honing small advantages.