Reports Sep 22, 2017 | 9:13 AMby Colin McGourty

Tbilisi WC Semi TB: Ding Liren & Aronian triumph

Ding Liren and Levon Aronian meet in the final of the 2017 FIDE World Cup after emerging triumphant in a thrilling day of semifinal tiebreaks. Ding Liren knocked out Wesley So with a single win with Black in the 10-minute games, while the match between Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave went all the way to the first Armageddon game of the Tbilisi World Cup. MVL won the toss and picked Black, but Aronian won a rook and pawn and eventually queen vs. rook endgame. The finalists are in the 2018 Candidates Tournament, while the fight goes on for So and MVL.

MVL-Aronian had it all - a great battle played out in the best possible spirit | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

Replay all the games from the 2017 World Cup using the selector below. Click on a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results in Tbilisi:

Check out IM Sopiko Guramishvili's recap of all the semifinal action!

Thursday was billed as the most important chess day of the year, with not only World Cup final places but coveted tickets to the 2018 Candidates Tournament at stake. It didn’t disappoint, as we got to witness brilliancies, blunders and great escapes galore on an unforgettable day of chess. The only sadness was that anyone had to lose.

Ding Liren in historic triumph for Chinese chess

The match between Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren and Philippines-born US star Wesley So had already witnessed two intense classical games before it went to tiebreaks. In both of those the player with the white pieces was pressing and had real winning chances, but that changed in the first 25-minute game.

Ding Liren is quietly spoken away from the board, but a ferocious fighter at it | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

It was Ding Liren with Black who was on top in a Catalan after barely a handful of moves, though it took him 5 minutes to convince himself that it was safe to ignore the g2-bishop and hang onto his pawn with 8…Qd5!

Liren played flawless technical chess from there on until he was simply a healthy pawn up for no compensation, then he drove his c-pawn down the board and all but forced Wesley to saddle himself with one of the worst-placed knights imaginable:

Here Liren sank into a 2-minute think to try and find a way to finish off his opponent, later lamenting:

I was winning at one point but I missed that somehow I can play 41…Kd8 instead of 41…R8c4 to protect the rook, and then play Rxf3 - it’s an easy win - but with about 4 minutes on the clock I didn’t find the clear win and then I spoiled the advantage. That made me very frustrated.

In fact 41…Rxf3! immediately is also very strong, since after 42.Nb4 Black has 42…Rg8! and White can’t handle all the threats from the black rooks. In practical terms doing essentially nothing might have been best, since White is very close to zugzwang, but in the game there followed 41…R8c4 42.Rb2! Rxf3? 43.Rb7+! Ke8 44.Nb4! and the white knight was back among the living. There were still chances for Ding Liren to win, but it suddenly required great accuracy, while Wesley So wasn’t going to miss his opportunity to escape… even if you could see he was nervous too!

The long break between games was a tough time for Ding Liren, even though a draw with Black was an outcome he’d have welcomed before the first tiebreak game.

He had the white pieces and therefore theoretically the advantage in the next game, but instead he was surprised on move 6 and if anything worse after 9.Bxf6:

Here Ding Liren offered a draw and Wesley So saw no reason to reject a quick draw with the black pieces. The Chinese player later felt, however, that this was a turning point in the match:

In the second game he surprised me in the opening, so I offered a draw. I think if I were Black I would decline the draw offer because the position may be already fine for Black, maybe slightly better, even… I was in a very bad mood during that game, so it’s very important to draw this game, then I would have some time to rest.

Wesley was forced to spend the whole tiebreak on the defensive | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

The following game was the highlight of the whole match, with both players showing flashes of brilliance. Ding Liren had decided to play very aggressively with Black but after taking on b3 was hit by the surprise blow 19.Ng5!

Suddenly the support for the beautiful knight on d3 is about to be taken away, but Liren found a tactical solution to his problems: 19…b2! 20.Rab1 Nxf2! 21.Qxf2 Bxb1 22.Rxb1 e5!

The dance of blow and counterblow goes on, with the g5-knight now under attack. Wesley went for 23.Nh3!? and accompanied it with a draw offer, but Ding Liren wasn’t going to make the same mistake his opponent had in the game before. He’d correctly judged that White’s pawn structure was a liability, and some inaccuracies later (Liren recommended that Wesley put his rook on f4 as soon as possible) we reached a situation where White was close to lost despite an extra pawn. The crunch came when 39.Rf3? was met by 39…Rc3!

This time Black wasn’t going to release the pin until he could draw blood, as he did by forcing a queen vs. rook ending. That’s awkward enough to win that chess players tend to avoid it when possible, but it was to become the theme of the day! Despite the fast time control and the immense pressure of the situation, Ding Liren confidently manoeuvred with his queen until he could play the finishing touch 69…Qb8+!

70.Kg2 loses to 70…Qg8+!, picking up the rook, while if the king goes to the first rank the rook will be lost to 70…Qb1+, so Wesley So resigned – the first game either player had lost in Tbilisi!

That meant Wesley now had to win on demand with the black pieces, with Liren commenting afterwards, “because his style is a little bit solid I was very confident”. So did what he could by playing the sharp Benoni opening, but Ding was always better until exchanging off pieces to ensure a draw.

A great moment for Team China | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

It was a hugely deserved victory for Ding Liren, who becomes the first Chinese player ever to reach a Candidates Tournament. The 8-player event in Berlin next March will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger for the World Championship crown. Liren had been hoping to get there, but via the Grand Prix. As he commented:

It’s really a surprise for me, because before this tournament I thought my only way to reach the Candidates was to perform well in the last stage of the Grand Prix. I think l must score maybe +2 to reach that goal. But this tournament I played much better than I expected!

It’s been the result of a huge collective effort in China, including constant friendly matches arranged for their top players. Ding noted that winning a 4-game match against So last year had boosted his confidence, plus he received some inspiration from disregarding his coaches’ advice!

Some coach told me that I should ignore the coverage in China, but I just can’t do that because sometimes it’s motivating me to perform well. There are so many people supporting.

You can watch the full interview with the Chinese star below:

For Wesley So, meanwhile, it was a harsh blow, and he’ll look back with regret on not stopping for a long think in the first classical game, when an exchange sacrifice on move 41 could have given him a vital win. The situation isn’t too bleak, though. Reaching the semifinals of the World Cup is a great achievement, while he still leads Vladimir Kramnik in the race to take one of the two Candidates spots available to rating qualifiers:

That’s why Wesley’s failure is actually worse news for Kramnik, though the Russian no. 1 has his fate in his own hands. First he plays on the Isle of Man from tomorrow and then he’s currently listed as playing for Siberia-Sirius in the European Club Cup in Turkey from 8-14 October.

The other match proved to be every bit as closely matched as we’d expected:

Aronian beats MVL in chess Armageddon

Two quick draws had taken Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to tiebreaks, but as Levon would later comment, “I think our classical games were not that exciting, but in the rapid and blitz we kind of gave back our debt!” The start was explosive. 

Whatever happens on the board, Aronian manages to look cool and composed | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

We could see why the players had been coy about giving any details about their opening the day before as they repeated the line, but this time MVL went for 14.Bc6 rather than allowing things to fizzle out after 14.h3. In the previous game Levon hadn’t needed more than 9 seconds for any of his 18 moves, but this time round he soon slipped into a deeply unpleasant position:

Maxime took so long to finally deliver a killer blow that it seemed Levon might somehow wriggle out of his predicament, but ultimately 64.Qe6! was a fitting end to the game:

Although Aronian had lost games to Matlakov earlier in the event this was the first time he found himself in a must-win situation. He commented afterwards:

It wasn’t easy, but when you have nothing to lose you just go for it!

No time to spare in tiebreaks! | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

He was helped out in the plan by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who didn’t shy away from the sharpest theory in a 3.f3 Grünfeld. He was also helped by the spectacular novelty 15.Bc4!!

Maxime took the piece on g3 and was playing fast enough that it was unclear who had caught who out in this theory battle. A happy ending for the French no. 1 was still a strong possibility until his response to 21.d6:

With 20 minutes on his clock Maxime should have delved deep into this position, but it’s easy to allocate the time working backwards from the result – speed of play is one of the Frenchman’s biggest weapons. The move it seems Black needed to play here was 21…Ndf8!, when the computer sees nothing better for White than forcing a draw with 22. d7 (22.Qh6+ transposes) 22…Bxd7 23.Qh6+ Kg8 24.Rxd7 Nxd7 25.Qxg6+ Qg7 26.Bxf7+... 

26...Kf8 27.Qd6+ Kxf7 28.Qxd7+ Kg8 29.Qe6+ and checking on g4 and e6. A beautiful forced line, but one which would have seen Levon knocked out of the World Cup!

Instead Maxime played the fearless (read: insanely risky) 21…g5!? and after 22.Rhe1! b5 23.Bd5! Rb8 24.f4 Qd4? (24…Qf5! would have kept the game going) 25.Qe2! Qb4 26.Qh5! Black had to resign, with 17 minutes left on his clock!

The good thing about the fast game for Maxime was that he had a long break to recover before the 10-minute games, and there he didn’t lose faith in his opening preparation. In the first game he played another Grünfeld and followed one of his own games for 19 moves before continuing to follow a 2015 Aronian-Giri clash until move 24! Black was temporarily two pawns down, but it was soon one and opposite-coloured bishops ensured a draw on move 59. Levon at one point seemed to be getting a grip with Black in the second 10-minute game, but that also fizzled out into a draw in 36 moves.

Some heavy lifting for Maxime | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

In every great World Cup match there’s a moment at which all chess logic goes out of the window, and for Aronian-MVL that came in the first 5-minute blitz game. Levon switched to the London System and managed to build up a simply overwhelming position. Material is equal, but at a slower time control Maxime would long since have resigned:  

Simply 34.Rd8! is completely crushing. After mass exchanges on d8 White captures the c7-knight, while trying to avoid material loss with e.g. 34…Qb7 can be countered with 35.Bh6 or the even more crushing 35.R1d7. Here it seems something didn’t satisfy Levon, though, and after repeating moves he brought his bishop back to d2, aiming to reroute it to c3 and give mate on the long diagonal. Alas, 35…Nb5! put an end to that dream of an easy life.

When he finally did play his rook to d8 it was under much worse circumstances, but White was still winning until move 41:

41.Bc4! is pinning and winning, attacking the c7-knight. If Black defends the knight then Bh6! starts a mating attack. That was already something that needed to be calculated, though, and this was a frantic 5-minute game. Having lost the thread of the play, Levon instead played 41.Bxd1? and after 41…Qe8 42.Qc3? (it was time to exchange queens and hope to scrape a draw) 42...Qxe4 Black was suddenly simply a pawn and an exchange up. Playing on seconds, though, MVL returned the favour after 46.Be3:

46…Qd3! is all Black needs to do to keep his advantage, but instead after 46…Nxe3? 47.Bxf7+ Kxf7 48.fxe3 Qe5? 49.Qf1+! Kg7 50.Qxb5 there was a drawn queen and pawn endgame.

Perhaps the final escape helped Levon forget the huge missed opportunity that went before, since in the second blitz game he was back on form, applying pressure with Black. Maxime held, though, and for the first time in the Tbilisi World Cup we were going to Armageddon!

Maxime won the coin toss and picked the Black pieces, meaning he had only 4 minutes to White’s 5, but he knew that a draw would be enough to qualify for the 2017 Candidates Tournament. You can catch the final stages below:

At first it looked like a good choice, since Maxime played fast and confidently and reached a position where he was clearly better.

Later Levon would say of Armageddon:

You have to be lucky! There are no recipes for winning, like playing precise moves. No, you just have to play fast and hope that your opponent will make some mistakes.

What happened next was hard to grasp, but Maxime’s passed pawn got stalled on the queenside, Levon seized a chance to protect his pawns with his bishop…

…and when the bishops were taken off the board he found himself with a dangerous wedge of pawns in the centre of the board. There were chances for Maxime to wipe them out, but the game hadn’t gone even when they reached the 6th rank:

54…Raa4! was the last chance to save the game, threatening perpetual check but also ready to meet 55.Rf1+ with 55…Raf4 56.Rxf4+ Rxf4 and when White eliminates the a2-pawn (otherwise it queens first and Black wins!) Black’s king is on hand to capture on e6.

That was already a study-like save, though, and after the more straightforward 54…Ra8? 55.Rf1+ White was able to queen the e-pawn and, once again, we ended up with the decisive game of the match being a pure queen vs. rook ending! Levon made no mistake to claim his place in the final and the 2018 Candidates Tournament, where he'll join Ding Liren, Karjakin and five more players.

The aftermath... | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

Our Spanish broadcast of the crucial moments requires no deep understanding of Spanish!

For Levon, a player often criticised for his nerves in critical situations, it was a wonderful achievement, especially as this was his only route to the Candidates Tournament other than as a wild card. He commented:

The stakes were extremely high, so definitely one of the toughest and I would say most precious victories.

He’d proven himself - “he’s a very good blitz player, but I think I proved that I’m not that bad either! – and also picked a good day to do it. He was asked if the support of his fans had helped:

Absolutely, and if I had lost this would have been an extremely tough loss for me, because today is the Independence Day of Armenia, so this would have been a disastrous day for me!

It might have been even worse for national pride, since a loss would also have meant Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov automatically qualifying for the Candidates via the Grand Prix.

All's well that ends well for Levon! | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

For Maxime, meanwhile, it was a missed chance to qualify for his first Candidates Tournament, but he knows he can still make it through the Grand Prix, where a win in the final stage would guarantee him a place (and other results may be enough as well). He was already starting preparations…

Sportsmanship was on display all round:

The final match of the 2017 Tbilisi World Cup will take place in a new venue in the city centre, the Biltmore Hotel, and consists of four classical games starting from Saturday. It is, of course, a strange situation that the most important issues have already been decided:

On the other hand, there’s a $40,000 difference between 1st and 2nd place, and little was also expected of the Svidler-Karjakin final in Baku in 2015. What followed was one of the most insane matches of all time:

Levon Aronian will be in the same situation as Peter Svidler, since he has a chance to win the World Cup for a 2nd time after first managing in 2005. He commented:

I’ve reached the goal of the tournament and then there is a bonus, which wouldn’t be bad to collect as well! At the same time, I’m always reminded that this came after 12 years, so there’s a circle, so the circle has to be completed. It’s nothing to do with me - it’s just the way nature works!

Don’t miss the action live here on chess24 from 13:00 CEST onwards on Saturday. You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:


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