Ding Liren got revenge for the first game of the World Cup semifinal by torturing Wesley So with the white pieces until a draw was finally reached with only bare kings left on the board on move 58. That means they play tiebreaks on Thursday for a place both in the final and in the 2018 Candidates Tournament. Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave are in the same boat, though they’ll barely be warmed up after playing out an even quicker draw than the day before. In fact Levon didn’t need more than 9 seconds for any of his 18 moves, despite playing with the black pieces.
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The expected narrative of this game was that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would press for a win with the white pieces after Levon Aronian had blown his opportunity the day before. Instead, though, all it took was one surprise in the Ruy Lopez for Maxime to shut things down and put his hopes in tiebreaks.
If you check out the Database tab under our live boards and sort by rating you'll see the likes of Mickey Adams, Pavel Eljanov, Evgeny Tomashevsky, Gata Kamsky and Alexander Morozevich have played this position with Black. The top players to have tried 12…Nxd5, as played by Aronian? Zoltan Hajnal, Marina Guseva, Francisco Olivares, Paulius Pultinevicius and Lidia Tomnikova...
Maxime took that initial jolt in his stride, thinking for just over a minute before playing 13.Bxd5, but after 13…Rc8 14.h3 Levon showed his point with 14…Bd7!. It turns out taking the d4-pawn just solves Black’s structural issues, while he wins back the pawn a few moves later anyway. The game ended 15.Nxd4 c6 16.Bb3 Bf6 17.c3 Bxd4 18.cxd4 Qf6 19.Qd2, when, as you can see, Levon had 7 more minutes on his clock than when he started:
Not a classic classical match between these two great players, then, but it means we get to enjoy an enthralling tiebreak tomorrow.
So far Maxime has needed tiebreaks three times, beating Svidler and Lenderman in the 25-minute games and Grischuk in 10-minute games. Levon got his tiebreak fun out of the way early, beating Hou Yifan in 10-minute games in Round 2 and then Maxim Matlakov in blitz in Round 3.
In the first game between these two Wesley So had an almost overwhelming position with White from the early middlegame onwards and then missed a win in the ending. The same scenario unfolded in Game 2, except that it was Ding Liren who was better and, as he noted, the advantage was, “maybe not as large as yesterday”, while at a glance the potential “win” is also much less clear.
First things first, though, since this game also featured an opening surprise. In the Catalan position after 9…c5 Ding Liren found a move not played in 203 previous games:
10.Ne1!? Wesley took 11 minutes to respond 10…cxd4 and although he was soon playing faster than Liren he found himself in a tough position when he offered a queen trade with 17…Qb8:
Yasser Seirawan felt the Chinese star had very good winning chances and said that as Black you’d be crying here if Swedish endgame wizard Ulf Andersson was sitting opposite you. Ding Liren himself commented that he had “a dream Catalan position”, but also added, “I think I played well until the queens were off the board”.
Yasser felt there was no reason for White to rush to exchange on b8 here, as Liren did, but despite being somewhat critical of his own play it seems the Chinese no. 1 kept making progress and had interesting chances to break through such as 31.f5!?. In the game the key moment, unlike the day before, came just the wrong side of the time control, when Liren was down to his last minutes and Wesley played 36…Nb6!? – a move that ultimately secured the draw:
After thinking for over 4 minutes Ding Liren played 37.Rc6 and with 37…Rc7! 38.Rxb6 Rxc5 39.e5 g5! Black had equalised. The key test here, though, was 37.Rh8!! which only looks like a winning attempt if you spot that after 37…Rc7 you have 38.Rdd8! and can meet 38…Rxc5 with 39.e5!, threatening mate-in-1.
Black must play the only move 39…f5 and then it seems 40.Rb8! forces Black to give back the piece (40…Nd5+ looks like a simple refutation from a distance, but 41.Kd4! hits the c5-rook and the black king doesn’t have the tempo it needs to get out of the mating net).
When the dust settles after e.g. 40…Rc8 41.Rhxc8 Nxc8 42.Rxc8 material is suddenly equal again, and although White has all the trumps it’s still not clear if the position would be won, especially against a player with as fantastic technique as Wesley’s.
When asked about 37.Rh8 after the game Ding Liren merely queried what would happen after Black took his knight on c5...
Meanwhile, back in the game, it was still sharp and White had some chances, but So wasn’t going to let the draw slip now and confidently brought the game to its conclusion:
There are many ways to draw, but 54…f6! was the most elegant, with no way to queen the remaining white pawn after everything is exchanged on f6. Fittingly, after two fierce games, the players played on until bare kings:
Up to this point Wesley has needed tiebreaks twice, beating Matthias Bluebaum in the 10-minute games in Round 2 and Baadur Jobava in the 25-minute games in Round 4. Ding Liren also needed tiebreaks only twice, and got the job done fast both times, beating Martyn Kravtsiv and Vidit in rapid games. Neither of them have yet lost a game in Tbilisi.
Needless to say, the tiebreaks will be unmissable, since by the end of them we’ll know not only the finalists for the 2017 World Cup but two of the players in the 2018 Candidates Tournament. Catch all the action live here on chess24 from 13:00 CEST onwards on Thursday. You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:
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