Ding Beats Carlsen In Playoff To Win Sinquefield Cup
Ding Liren wins his first Sinquefield Cup. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Ding Beats Carlsen In Playoff To Win Sinquefield Cup

| 101 | Chess Event Coverage

Ding Liren clinched the 2019 Sinquefield Cup as the first player since 2007 to beat Magnus Carlsen in a playoff. The Chinese GM earned $82,500 and 16.5 Grand Chess Tour points as he won the two blitz games.

Ding was the underdog; there's no denying that.

For starters, Carlsen hadn't lost a single playoff since his Candidates' match with Levon Aronian in 2007. Since then he played 10 tiebreaks, and won all 10.

Less that two years ago, Carlsen had crushed Ding in a rapid and blitz match, also in St. Louis. Back then, one of the reasons for his big loss was the Chinese player having too much respect for his opponent.

”I got to say that he was a lot better than I was today so he won absolutely deservedly.”

—Magnus Carlsen

Fast forward 21 months, and look at the progress Ding has made. Now the world number-three, hot on the heels of number-two Fabiano Caruana (whom he beat at the Sinquefield Cup), he might have gotten all the confidence he needed after holding Carlsen to a draw in their classical game—with splendid defense.

Add to that Ding's shared second place in the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz (held just before the Sinquefield Cup), where Carlsen only came sixth in what was his worst event in a long time. Maybe Ding's victory wasn't so surprising after all? 

Ding Carlsen playoff 2019 Sinquefield Cup
The start of the first game of the playoff. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Ding's own explanation was perhaps the most convincing. He felt no pressure.

“Today I am much different than yesterday," Ding said. "Yesterday, as I said, I was really stressed out. I was playing a tournament, but today I’m just playing a match. I just finished the tournament with a very good result and then I just went for more. It’s like a bonus. I got the main prize and also I achieve my aim. So today I just feel relaxed and I enjoyed these games.”

Ding in between games 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Ding, in between games, feeling little pressure. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Carlsen took the loss graciously.

”I got to say that he was a lot better than I was today so he won absolutely deservedly," Carlsen said.

Carlsen playoff 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Carlsen with Maurice Ashley. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

The world champion also pointed out that despite winning his last two classical games, he was still lacking his top form.

”It has obviously something to do with the fact that he is a very good player," Carlsen said, "but clearly I had a very difficult day today. I couldn’t get anything going, I was thinking too long and mainly just defending in most of my games. It wasn’t close.”

Winning his last two classical games was important to Carlsen. “That’s why I cannot feel too disappointed now," Carlsen said. "I would have loved to win today but I managed to salvage quite a bit in the last two days so I’m not too disappointed.”

Carlsen 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Carlsen: "I couldn't get anything going." | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

The players started with two rapid games of 25 minutes on the clock with a 10-second delay per move from move one. The drawing of lots had given Carlsen White in the first game. He immediately faced stiff resistance from Ding, who found 19...exd5! and 21...g5! to even get a slight initiative:

Carlsen on his turn also equalized comfortably in an Open Catalan, and so the players moved on to two games with five minutes on the clock with a three-second delay per move from move one.

The first blitz game went Ding's way right from the start. In an English resembling a Catalan, Carlsen got into a passive position. He decided to sacrifice a pawn, but that didn't work out well and as early as after Ding's 16.Rac1, Carlsen's clock went under one minute (vs. 3:40 for his opponent).

Ding Carlsen playoff 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Carlsen got under pressure straight out of the opening, and had less than a minute on the clock after just 16 moves. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

For a while Carlsen held things under control in an opposite-colored bishop endgame with rooks (and still a pawn down), but Ding was making progress. From move 48, Carlsen had to play with only nine seconds left on the clock. (Note that with delay, as opposed to increment, you cannot win back time.) Ding had 52 seconds there.

And yet, Carlsen kept on defending strongly but as the engines later revealed, Ding missed two clear wins in this endgame.

Ding must have been slightly nervous as well, as he missed 55. Bb6 Re8 (55... Bd5 56. Rxg7+) 56. Bd4 and with g7 falling Black can resign.

The game was about to end in a draw as the Chinese GM couldn't see a win anymore, but then Carlsen suddenly lost on time.

Ding Carlsen playoff flag time 2019 Sinquefield Cup
The arbiter points to the clock: Carlsen has flagged. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

“I was very lucky that he flagged; I didn’t see the win,“ said Ding. “Maybe the final position is very hard to win already. I missed a win I think. When the arbiter told him that he lost one time I was very surprised since I just focused on the game and not on the clock.”

In a must-win situation, Carlsen went for a Ruy Lopez in the second blitz game and, surprisingly, allowed the trade of his light-squared bishop—Bobby Fischer's favorite bishop. The Norwegian GM must have thought it was OK with a closed center, but it would cost him dearly later in the game. 

Ding grabbed space and found natural squares for his pieces, while this time the clock situation remained more or less equal. Then, Carlsen went for a trick that won an exchange:

Ding has just played 28...bxa3 allowing 29.Nc6.

Ding spending 45 seconds on 29...Bxc6 suggested that he either missed the move, or tried to find the best way to give up the exchange. In any case, it wasn't bad at all to sacrifice as he won an important pawn in the center that made his own light-squared bishop very strong.

Ding Carlsen playoff 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Carlsen failing to find a defense in the final position. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Two moves later it seemed Carlsen had prevented his opponent from also taking the e4 pawn, but Ding took it anyway as he had seen the beautiful retreating move 32...Ba8!, which he played instantly.

Did 32.g5 refute taking on e4? Instantly playing 32...Ba8!, Ding said: no!

Unfortunately the camera angle of the St. Louis film crew was only focusing on the board itself so Carlsen's facial reaction wasn't visible to the online viewers, but according to commentator Yasser Seirawan, "this move shocked Magnus."

As it turned out, Carlsen could have taken the black knight allowing a battery on the long diagonal, which wouldn't have been that clear in fact. He didn't, and after a trade of Black's queen for two rooks he missed another important defensive move. Suddenly Ding got a winning mating attack, based on another beautiful retreating move, 40...Ne7

The checkmate was so pretty that Carlsen resigned with a smile. He gave Ding two handshakes: one for the game, and after standing up, one more for the tournament.

Ding Carlsen playoff handshake 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Carlsen gives Ding a second handshake for winning the tournament. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Ding, who had revealed a few days ago that he has been working on his own, without seconds in St. Louis, has improved his English as well. He can easily be excused for the following, perhaps not fully grammatically correct quote, where he seems to be referring to the famous advice: to earn a draw, one needs to play for a win.

“Of course it feels very good after playing such a good game," said Ding. "I am very happy to play the final game with fire, not just settle for a draw, survive a draw; but I have to play, get the initiative and have to fight for the draw.”

Ding Maurice Ashley 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Ding, looking at the final moments himself. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour.

Looking back at the tournament, the Chinese player was as modest as always.

“I hadn’t expected it," said Ding. "During the first two or three games I think my play was not that good, especially against Karjakin I was much worse and against [Vachier-Lagrave ] I was also better out of the opening but I could not find the plan."

Ding continued: “I didn’t see I was in a very good shape but my win against Anish [marked as the best game of the tournament by Kasparov –PD] gave me a lot of confidence. I played well. After the rest day I sometimes started considering to win the tournament but it’s not so realistic until I beat Fabiano, then I was in a tie for first place. I just wanted to draw all my games and at least to tie for first.”

”My win against Anish gave me a lot of confidence.”

—Ding Liren

Ding won $82,500 vs. $67,500 for Carlsen. Both players got 16.5 Grand Chess Tour points.

2019 Sinquefield Cup Final Standings Prizes
The 2019 Sinquefield Cup final standings & prizes. | Image: Spectrum Studios.

Playoff coverage:

You can find all games here as part of our live portal. More photos from the event can be found here. The official site is here.

Previous reports:

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