Levon Aronian defeated Ding Liren in both 25-minute tiebreak games to win the 2017 World Cup final and $96,000 in prize money. In the first game he unleashed a novelty that proved too hot for his Chinese opponent to handle. Liren then came close to winning on demand in the second, but one imprecise move after some ingenious defence from his opponent made it mission impossible. Aronian had won the World Cup before in 2005 and called winning his second title and qualifying for the Candidates “just a dream”. Next up is his wedding on Saturday!
The 2017 World Cup was a gruelling 23 days of chess spread across only 25 days, with Levon Aronian playing on 20 of those days for a total of 35 games. You can replay all the action using the selector below:
Levon Aronian’s path to the 2017 World Cup final saw him beat Daniel Cawdery, Daniil Dubov and Vassily Ivanchuk in classical games and overcome Hou Yifan in tiebreaks without losing a game. His toughest opponents proved to be Maxim(e)s, with Alexander Grischuk immediately christening the Round 3 clash between Aronian and Maxim Matlakov the “match of the tournament”. Maxim twice won on demand, in the classical games and 10-minute rapid games, to keep the match alive before finally succumbing in the 5-minute games.
Grischuk was only ultimately proven wrong by the semifinal against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, where for the first time Levon went behind and had to win on demand himself before eventually emerging triumphant in the tournament’s only Armageddon game. Levon would comment after his overall victory:
I’m a little bit sad that we had to have this really crazy match with Maxime. I would prefer that he would qualify to the Candidates because he’s one of my favourite players and a good friend, but he has his chances [via the FIDE Grand Prix], so things look good for him.
The final against Ding Liren had an inevitable air of anti-climax since both players had already accomplished the main goal of qualifying for the 2018 Candidates Tournament, but there was still the incentive of a $32,000 difference in prize money – ultimately, after FIDE taxes, Aronian would take home $96,000 to Ding Liren’s $64,000. The classical games were tense, with Levon always on top – scoring effortless draws with White and coming within a whisker of winning with Black. Ding Liren demonstrated fantastic tenacity in defence, though, with Aronian later complimenting his opponent:
His resilience, especially in the fourth game, was something very, very impressive. I don’t think there are many players in the world who can hold that game.
The match went to tiebreaks, where Aronian finally managed to overcome that resistance.
The final day of tiebreaks was short and very sweet for Levon Aronian:
Game 1 began with Aronian borrowing a trick from World Champion Magnus Carlsen and arriving late for the game, before losing no time in surprising Ding Liren with the white pieces. 12.Rae1 was a novelty in an extremely sharp opening line:
Previously 12.Rfe1 had been played, with Levon illustrating one difference when after 12…exd4 he was able to play 13.Bb1 without trapping a rook on a1.
It’s unlikely the novelty had huge theoretical significance, but it already had Ding Liren burning up time on the clock, while Levon was still moving almost instantly when he unleashed 16.h4 (“You have to play h4 whenever you can!” as Aronian said at the 2017 Sinquefield Cup) and 17.h5!
Here the position is already the last thing Black needed in such an important game, with the computer recommending playing 17…Ba5 and then 18…Bg4, simply allowing White to capture on g6 and then f7. Ding Liren instead went for the much more human 17…g5!? and after 18.Ne5 Ba5 Levon, instead of moving the attacked rook with 19.Re2, opted for the flashy 19.Ng6!?
This was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole final day, since, in a position it might have seemed White was simply winning, Ding Liren took just 5 seconds to play the only move 19…Qd2! If some more brilliant defence from the Chinese star had rocked Levon Aronian he was also knocked off balance by another factor:
The first game was kind of not so difficult until the moment when the construction noise started and then I lost my concentration. I managed to catch my opponent in preparation and then I lost my concentration and allowed some unnecessary things because of the noise, and then I went to the bathroom, just washed my face, just relaxed and I think I played a decent game later on.
Levon seemed to leave the playing area when it was his own move, which commentator Evgeny Miroshnichenko and others noted was technically not allowed, though in the circumstances it was understandable:
It took 6 minutes for Levon to reply 20.Ne7+ and after 20…Kg7 he was able to avoid a queen exchange with 21.Qb3. Once again it was the dominant Levon Aronian who we’ve seen making the world’s best look average on the way to winning Altibox Norway Chess, the GRENKE Chess Classic and the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz this year. In huge trouble, Ding Liren effectively committed chess suicide with 26…Qxh5:
After 27.Kg2! there was nothing to be done about Rh1 picking up the queen, and the game ended 27…d3 28.Qc3 Kg7 29.Nf5+ Kg6 30.Rh1:
Ding Liren had talked the day before about it being “a good sign” that he’d again drawn Black in the first game of the tiebreaks, but his luck had run out. For the first time in Tbilisi he’d lost a game and was now in the new position of having to win to keep his World Cup hopes alive. Although he had White it was actually with White that he’d suffered most against Aronian.
Things were about to change, though, with Ding Liren now the one to move fast and push his kingside pawns. Levon was perhaps unfairly critical of his 16…dxe4, but he'd overlooked something in the position after 17.Nxe4:
16…dxe4 was a terrible blunder, because I thought that after 17.Nxe4 I can play 17…Nc7, and then I saw 18.Nc5, and I was like, oh my God, how can somebody blunder such easy things! Then I get real problems, because the knight on e4 is extremely strong and I’m not in time to get my pieces.
The move of the game and perhaps the final match was 21…Nef6!
It was a curious moment, though, since despite the move typifying Aronian’s great resourcefulness (some might say trickery), it was played one move late and, objectively speaking, shouldn’t have saved the game:
I realised that my 21…Nef6 move loses, because he has Qd2 in many cases, but otherwise I’m just going to die slowly, so practically this was a good decision and it managed to confuse my opponent, I think.
Ding Liren, who had plenty of time, correctly took with 22.gxf6 gxf6 but then went astray with 23.Bh2?!. He should instead have played either 23.Qd2! as mentioned by Aronian, or 23.Bg3! Peter Svidler joined the chess24 live commentary with Jan Gustafsson at this point (the decision not to stick to the original schedule for the games meant he missed the start) and soon explained the difference:
After 23…f5! (the point) 24.Bxf5 gxf5 25.Qd1 with the bishop not on g3 Black had 25…Rg8+ 26.Kh1 Rg4! and it was essentially game over:
Black was now clearly better, with Ding Liren’s last hope his 10-minute advantage on the clock. It proved insufficient, though, and the tournament came to an abrupt end after he blundered with 31.Rfe1?
31…Qh4! was the final killer blow, with Ding resigning after 32.Re8+ Kg7 33.Rg1+ Kf6:
Levon had done what Peter Svidler came so close to doing in 2015 and won the World Cup for a second time, something no-one else had achieved in the same mass knockout format, though technically it should be added that Vishy Anand won the first two 24-player events that were called the World Cup in 2000 and 2002.
Ding Liren admitted to being upset at how a perfect event had turned sour for him at the end, but said he later felt better and “very proud” at creating “Chinese chess history”. He made no excuses:
During the match Aronian played better than me so he deserved the win.
You can watch the full closing ceremony, including a brief moment when the wrong national anthem was played, below:
A curiosity is that Keti Guramishvili, Sopiko’s sister, was the Georgian to English interpreter. Sopiko herself will be recapping the action in a live show on Thursday morning.
For Levon, winning the World Cup was the crowning glory of a fantastic year, with qualifying for the Candidates Tournament rendering the one low point, his poor performances in the Grand Prix series, an irrelevance. He told Anastasia Karlovich:
This was one of the toughest tournaments and winning this tournament and achieving qualification to the Candidates Tournament was just a dream, because I was hoping this would happen but you cannot really dream that out of a single chance you can get it!
He paid a memorable tribute to all those who had helped him along the way:
Mainly of course my family, my wife-to-be Arianne and then my parents, my sister and then my team was supporting me. I’m very happy that things are looking good. I’m very happy with their work. I’m very grateful for their commitment to my goals. Being a family and a team of a chess player can be very tough, because we’re travelling all the time and then you take a leading role. Somebody has to, I won’t say the word “serve”, but also to submit to your needs, and I’m very grateful that in my life I have exactly the people that are sacrificing their well-being for me. I’m very blessed in that context.
It’s to his wife-to-be-Arianne that all his thoughts must now turn, since they’re getting married on Saturday!
Asked how big a wedding it was going to be by Eteri Kublashvili he responded:
In terms of the Caucasus, normal. Around 350 people.
He’d had the perfect excuse not to help with the preparations so far, but told Anastasia that he’d have to make up for lost time!
I have lots of debts that I have collected. I have to help Arianne in the coming days… There are plenty of things that I have to take care of. I was just saying, ok, I’ll take care of it in two days. I’ll play blitz! So I hope my speed will be good, and my wit will be in a shape to show some skills, quick skills.
Levon's wit has never let him down before! You can watch the full interview below:
So the gruelling World Cup marathon is over, and all that remains is to wrap up our prediction contest. The prediction bracket at Challonge has some nice ways of representing the results:
But it's the predictions that interest us, and out of 1415 attempts the winner was Magical Magyars by chess24 user Yago666, who has already received the prize of 1 year of Premium Membership. He got 90/127 picks right and finished 17 points clear of his nearest rival, managing to predict all the players and results of the semifinal and pick Aronian to win the event. Our congratulations, and thanks to everyone who took part and of course to everyone who's followed our World Cup coverage here on chess24!