Crouching Ding, Hidden Levon
The World Cup Semifinal reported by Eteri Kublashvili
The first rest day on the World Cup, September 18, was over in what feels like no time at all. Anyone willing could join a tour around the Georgian capital city’s main places of sightseeing - Mtskheta and Jvari. Whatever the semifinalists were busy with, only they can tell; meanwhile, your correspondent headed for the city to take some pictures of the everyday Tbilisi life and support the country’s economy to the best of her modest financial means.
First, my way lay through the Vake district, and then - into the central part, namely - to the David Agmashenebeli Avenue, formerly known as Plekhanov Prospect. The Georgian meaning of Agmashenebeli is David VI the Builder. The tsar, who united separate princedom into a single state, was born in Kutaisi; therefore, this ancient western city’s airport bears his name. It is worth mentioning that the tsar was canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church. A monument to David the Builder on a mighty horse, located on the city's outskirts, has been welcoming those arriving in Tbilisi for several years now, although its previous site was in the center. Just imagine Pushkin observing Muscovites not from the square bearing his name, but from Leningradskoye Highway.
The Vake is relatively new, built up only in Stalin's times and, as far as I know, is considered the city’s nearly most prestigious high society district. The Tbilisi State University, named after I. Javakhishvili, is part of it. The Vake feels to bear resemblance to the 15th arrondissement of Paris, with almost no places of sightseeing and as many tourists on the one hand, but a lot of beautiful buildings, offices, pretty small shops, and art galleries on the other; there is also a famous Vake Park, and the Turtle Lake. For some reason, the cafes we came across were predominantly of French or German origin. According to information from trusted sources, the Georgian female ex-world champions live on the main street of the Vake district - Ilia Chavchavadze Avenue.
Ilia Chavchavadze is a representative of one of the most famous princely families of Georgia (let us recall that Alexander Griboyedov was married to Nina Chavchavadze, a member of this house). Ilya Grigoryevich Chavchavadze was a poet and, in today's language, a public figure. He advocated for the independence of Georgia. He was killed in 1905. Like King David, he was canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church. In addition to the Avenue in Tbilisi, one of the Batumi streets is also named after him, as well as many other geographical localities on the map of Georgia, no doubt.
The photographic pictures are attached to the report, as usual. Even though the most well-known places have not been included in the picture gallery, I hope an opportunity to publish them on our website’s pages will present itself sooner or later.
Semifinal day one
As is well known, the semifinal paired Vachier-Lagrave – Aronian and So –Ding Liren. It is noteworthy that the semifinal participants’ birthdays are scattered throughout October, whereas the years of birth stretch from 1982 to 1993.
Both day one battles were drawn.
The Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave encounter was an interesting duel in the Grünfeld Defense. The opponents spent little time in the opening, and it seemed as though the line with Black giving up a rook for a minor piece and a pawn had been studied by both players far and wide. Nevertheless, after the game was drawn on move 32, Levon Aronian came into the open about neglecting the e4-pawn’s protection in the opening (even though it was move 24).
Aronian – Vachier-Lagrave
“I should have defended the e4-pawn here, but I played 24. Rbc1 instead. I noticed my pawn hanging only after that. I had to put on a poker face and pretend that nothing happened. In a word, I confidently blundered a pawn, but the position was such that this loss did not turn into something terrible.“
Wesley So, playing the white pieces, was methodically trying to take down the fortress built by Ding Liren in Gucci Piano, but failed to break down the resistance of the Chinese.
The American grandmaster, “I was pressing most of the game. The opponent offered a draw on move 14, but I wanted the play to go on. I found the Qb5 idea, and he traded queens, which he should have avoided doing, obviously. It gave me a pleasant pawn structure and a lot of space, as well as a nice d5 outpost for my knight. I started my kingside operation, but my opponent came up with a wise king transfer to d7. I could not make any progress in this position; even though I had many interesting ideas, I did not see them working out for me. My kingside breakthrough was probably premature because the tactics was actually playing into his hands.
So – Ding Liren
I could meet 40…Nb3+ with an interesting exchange sacrifice 41. Rxb3, which seemed to me like leading to a draw as well”.
The grandmaster demonstrates an exemplary line: 41…axb3 42. gxf6 gxf6, and says that White is no in time with 43. Rg7 owing to Black’s counterplay along the second rank. Thus, after 43…Rh2+ 44. Kc3 Ra2 45. Rxc7+ Kb8 46. Rc6 Rc2+ the white king heads for b4. So considered this line dangerous because of the b-passer and threats to the white king. Nevertheless, the engine disagrees with the grandmaster and declares White to be winning.
Anyway, the intuition did not let Wesley down as instead of 45…Kb8 Black should retreat to d8, which gives rise to very exciting lines leading to equality. Thus, after 46. Rc6 Raxb2 47. Rxd6+ Ke8! 48. Re6+ Kf7 49. Rxf6+ Ke8 50. Rxb6 Rb1 51. Re6+ Kf7 52. Rf6+ Ke8 it seems like a draw by perpetual.
However, if White comes up with an immediate 43.Rg8+!, followed by 43…Kd7 (43...Kb7 44.Rg7) 44.Kc3 Rh2 45.Nb4!, he retains good winning chances.
The game was a draw by repetition: 41. Kc3 Nd4 42. gxf6 Rh2 43. Nxb6+ cxb6 44. fxg7 Rc2+ 45. Kb4 Rxb2+ 46. Kc3 Rc2+ 47. Kb4 Rb2+ Draw.
The return game between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian was a draw on move 19.
It is unknown whether Wesley So had any regrets about the previous game, but he was having a hard time in the return game, having to summon all his defensive skills. Ding Liren was exerting some pressure in the Catalan, but slowed down somewhat in a many-piece endgame:
Ding Liren – So
White should have ventured into the 31. f5! territory, which would have sharpened the game considerably and required precise defense from Black.
Meanwhile, Ding Liren preferred a more conceptual approach, which supplied his opponent with several tempi to consolidate. Still, several moves later an opportunity presented itself to White to carry out yet another combination to transpose into a better rook ending. This position is now on our website’s “Position of the Day” tab. However, Ding missed this opportunity, and the position levelled out as a result. Extensive maneuvering was followed by a draw agreed in a rook ending.
By definition, the World Cup semi-final tie-breaker matches cannot be an easy walk in the park, and this time the grandmasters did not disappoint chess fans either.
The European rapid matchup was way bloodier over the American-Asiatic one.
Game one was taken by MVL, but Levon managed to come back immediately.
Vachier-Lagrave – Aronian
The Frenchman gradually outplayed his opponent in the closed Ruy Lopez to capitalize upon the open e-file and Black's cramped position: 64. Qe6!, and Black resigned.
Game two was a false start as the clock would not operate, the grandmasters having made several moves with the time standing still. The clock was put into operation, but the gained time increment was not added to the players. In similar cases, the time addition or non-addition is at the arbiter’s discretion.
Levon managed to tie an interesting fight in the Benoni, in which White sacrificed a piece for the sake of attacking the enemy's king (see "The Position of the Day"). Black defended in not the best possible way, his queen stuck in the center of the board. The finish was spectacular:
Aronian – Vachier-Lagrave
24…Qd4 gave White’s queen a tempo slide into the heat of the battle: 25. Qe2! Qb4 26. Qh5. White resigns.
In game one Ding Liren had excellent winning chances as Black. Wesley So sacrificed a pawn in the opening without getting any compensation for it. Besides, the Chinese gained the bishop pair advantage. However, in a practically won endgame, Ding Liren lost his way, upon which the tied white pieces sprang to life, saving Wesley in the end.
In rapid game two the opponents agreed to a draw as soon as move 9.
In the first 10-minute game between Aronian and MVL the clock incident happened again, but the arbiters were on the alert. The opponents opted for a theoretical line of the Grünfeld Defense with Black sacrificing a pawn. The Frenchman’s ingenious combination of offense and defense allowed him to keep his position together as Black.
Game two, at least its middle part, was dictated by Levon, but Maxime Vachier-Lagrave stood his ground.
The first 10-minute game So – Ding was rich in events. Ding Liren, playing the black pieces, sacrificed a pawn for active play, then traded two minor pieces for a rook and a pawn. Wesley So performed imprecisely, gave back two minors for a rook, but even an extra pawn in a many-piece endgame was not White’s guarantee of safety. The Chinese developed a dangerous attack against the king and achieved an edge. The game was decided by So’s blunder in a difficult position.
So – Ding Liren
After 39. Rf3? Rc3 40. Kg2 Qc6 41. h4 Kg8 42. a4 f6 43. a5 Kg7 44. a6 Rc2+ 45. Kg1 Rc1 White lost a queen and the game.
In game two the Chinese made a draw from the position of strength, becoming the first World Cup finalist and winning a ticket to the Candidates Tournament.
Following his win, a happy Ding Liren confessed that after the first rapid encounter he was in a very bad mood because of the missed victory; therefore, his opponent, according to the Chinese grandmaster, should not have so quickly agreed to a draw in rapid game two.
Meanwhile, he did need this draw to get some time to rest and prepare. This said, prior to the '10 +10' mini-match he first prepared as White in case he would have to bounce back in game two after defeat in the first. The victory in game one was followed by Ding’s checking the position on the Chess Bomb. What a self-composure!
Let us add that in 2016 Wesley So and Ding played a friendly match in China, which was won by Ding Liren. This, too, gave the Chinese an added boost of confidence.
The Chinese grandmaster also added that his result came as a surprise to him. Prior to the World Cup he thought the Grand Prix series to be his only way into the Candidates Tournament. Therefore, the Tbilisi performance exceeded all his expectations.
It is interesting that his coach would not allow him watching the World Cup coverage from China, but the chess player couldn't help doing it, because it gave him additional motivation at times.
The second finalist was determined in Armageddon, the first in this World Cup, by the way.
Game one in blitz is likely to turn into a nightmare for both players. Levon Aronian achieved a winning position, but, being very low on time, miscalculated in complex lines and ended up down an exchange. However, it was then MVL’s turn to make a mistake and give the material back. As a result, the match ended in a draw in a queen ending.
Blitz game two had a more tranquil flow without superiority changing hands and also ended in a draw.
The moment came for the Armageddon game to be played. Levon Aronian had white pieces. The duel gathered many spectators, but there was an absolute silence in the playhall, interrupted only by the sound of pieces landing on the board and the tickling of the clock.
Levon succeeded in outfoxing his opponent in a tricky rook ending, and after move 60 the game ended by his confident victory in a queen versus rook opposition. The second finalist, like the first one, could not restrain his joy. He was very warmly congratulated by all Caucasian fans.
In his interview for the tournament’s official site broadcast Levon noted that their rapid and blitz games with Maxime made up for what was not the most exciting battles in the classical chess.
“Coming back after defeat was tough, but you just start playing chess when you have nothing to lose. In general, the day was a dramatic one. I am happy it is over and that I am a winner. There is no recipe as to how one is supposed to win Armageddon, you just need luck to be on your side. You need to play fast and hope your opponent is going to blunder somewhere along the way. As for the World Cup qualification, I won this event 12 years ago. That is, the circle should close, which has nothing to do with me, but is the way the nature has it,” was commented by Levon Aronian.
September 22 is a rest day on the tournament. The final starts on Saturday, September 23, at the hotel Biltmore. Levon Aronian has white pieces in game one. There are four classical games and a tie-break, should it ever come to that.