Wesley So came within a whisker of beating Ding Liren in the first game of their World Cup semifinal but was ultimately unable to convert his positional edge into a full point. That means it’s advantage Ding Liren as he has the white pieces on Wednesday, a situation shared by MVL, who scored an effortless draw with Black after following Peter Svidler’s advice for 24 moves. Levon Aronian claimed simply to have blundered a pawn and what followed looked like a bluff, but the position was resilient enough for events to end peacefully.
You can play through all the games from the 2017 FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi 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:
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Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave couldn’t be more closely matched across all forms of chess, as you can see from our head-to-head display:
The stakes are enormously high in FIDE World Cup semifinals, and the way Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s game developed looked like you might expect from two players who knew a loss would deal a huge blow to their chances of playing in the 2018 Candidates Tournament. They were seemingly hurtling towards a draw in a long, theoretical line of the Grünfeld Defence, but what followed was something of a mystery, at least if we take the main actors at their word.
Levon’s first significant think of the game came before he decided to play 24.Rbc1, allowing 24…Qxe4:
As you can see, Peter Svidler had been there before and the eBook accompanying his video series here on chess24 gave 24.Rbc1 as an example of White “doing nothing” and allowing Black to capture the pawn on e4. Maxime paused for no less than 9 minutes before he did so, and then Levon relatively quickly played 25.Qc3!? Was he making it up as he went along?
After the game, though, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave revealed that he’d been surprised by 24.Rbc1, since, "it just seems to blunder a pawn… the only question is whether I was better after that". Maxime said he initially “assumed it was some sort of preparation”, but after 25.Qc3!? and Aronian "played all these moves without thinking" he realised "it must not have been preparation".
If we can believe a word Levon Aronian says on his own openings - a big "if"! - then he had indeed simply blundered a pawn and then taken an over-the-board decision… in other words, Lawrence was right!
Maxime admitted to being a bit flustered - “normally you don’t just get a pawn for free!” – and that he may have been “too conservative”, playing 25…Qb4!? instead of 25…Bc5, the move championed by the computers… and yes, Lawrence!
Perhaps to save everyone’s blushes the game soon took a quick but meandering course to a draw: 26.Qa1 Bc5 27.Qxa7 Qb2 28.Kh1 Bxf2 29.Qb7 Qe2 30.Rf1 Rf8 31.Qc6 Bc5 32.Rce1:
A puzzling encounter that left Maxime with the advantage of White in Game 2, though as he noted, “beating Levon with White is an uphill task”. He may also have earned himself a new nickname:
You can watch the interview in full below:
The head-to-head comparison for Wesley So and Ding Liren is curious in that although Wesley has a significant rating lead in classical and especially rapid chess, Ding Liren is a blitz wizard:
Wesley will want to stop matters going that far, and he came close in the first classical game. He played the Giuoco Piano and it seemed it was going to be a day of quick draws all round in Tbilisi when the position soon became so quiet that Ding Liren felt he could commit the slight faux pas of offering a draw with the black pieces on only move 14.
So said he “wanted to play a few more moves”, and he came up with the idea of offering a queen trade with 18.Qb5:
Wesley commented, “maybe there was no need for that” of his opponent’s decision to exchange off the queens immediately, and the game went on.
It’s one curiosity of the chess World Cup that what starts as a huge event with players milling around everywhere is rapidly reduced in numbers until the final stages take place with almost nobody left. In football, of course, the venue is full of spectators and the excitement grows, but while the internet audience for the chess World Cup remains large the numbers of spectators in the venue seems to be close to zero.
It recalls an anecdote Ruslan Ponomariov told about his match against Boris Gelfand in the 2009 World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk:
And then there was also a curious situation during the first game of my final match against Gelfand. He made a move and went off somewhere. I replied quickly and also left the board to go and drink some water. Coincidentally, the arbiters had also gone somewhere at that point, and there were absolutely no spectators in the hall – nobody! It struck me as a very depressing spectacle for chess.
We may get some more spectators for the final when the venue switches to a hotel in the centre of Tbilisi, but meanwhile the players were keeping internet fans on tenterhooks on Tuesday. Wesley So’s positional advantage grew and grew, although he was impressed with his opponent’s defence:
Ding Liren played 32…f6 33.f5 Kd7, with Wesley commenting:
But then he played f6 and put the king on d7 – a very wise decision, to keep his queenside pawns defended, because his pawn on a4 is slightly overextended.
Wesley was searching for wins on both sides of the board but couldn’t find anything clear-cut and decided to advance on the kingside as the time control approached. Ding Liren correctly counterattacked, but a potentially match-turning moment occurred after 40…Nb3+:
At the time it seemed this would have been much stronger if it had come on move 39, since it would be a brave man who went for the exchange sacrifice Rxb3! on the time control move. As it happened on move 40, though, Wesley So had plenty of time to consider all the ramifications of the move, but instead took just 2 minutes and 49 seconds to play 41.Kc3. It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen the sacrifice, though. In the post-game interview he reeled off variations, including: 41.Rxb3 axb3 42.gxf6 gxf6 43.Rg7 Rh2+ 44.Kc3 Ra2 45.Rxc7+ Kb8 46.Rc6!, commenting, “my king hides on b4, but still it’s very dangerous, because he has a passed pawn and counterplay”:
Actually, as you can see, White is simply winning there, but if the king had fled towards the centre with 45…Kd8 and later Ke8 it seems Black survives, but no more. White comfortably forces perpetual check.
Ding Liren is a brilliant tactician and may well have navigated all the difficulties safely, but at least he would have been tested. In the game he got to demonstrate counterplay that was just in time after 41.Kc3 Nd4 42.gxf6 Rh2!
Black’s threats can’t be ignored, since e.g. 43.fxg7 is a quick mate: 43…Rc2+ 44.Kb4 c5+ 45.bxc6 Nxc6# It was possible to play on with 43.Ne3, but Wesley decided it was time to force a draw with 43.Nxb6+, when after 43…cxb6 44.fxg7 Rc2+ 45.Kb4 Rxb2+ the king can’t avoid the rook checks.
Wesley had let what seemed a huge advantage slip, but he wasn’t planning to let it affect him in the next game. Asked about his strategy he commented:
Every game is tough, but it’s just another game - prepare hard and play my best!
You can watch the full interview below:
Wednesday’s games are sudden death encounters with two places in the 2018 Candidates Tournament at stake. The odds are perhaps on both matches now going to tiebreaks, but with so much tension anything could happen!
Catch the second game live here on chess24 from 13:00 CEST onwards on Wednesday. You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps: