The semi-finals of a World Cup are infinitely more important than any other match, including the final. The reason is simple – with a semi-final victory the player has secured a place in next year’s Candidates, which is the main goal for all participants. Once the main goal is achieved, they can calmly play for glory and money in the final.
Two of the four players will be heart-broken after tomorrow’s tie-breaks. There is nothing worse than coming so close to the goal and missing it.
Of the four, Aronian is the most surprising participant. A player notorious for his breakdowns in all qualification events he seems to have overcome his psychological frailty. I think the defining moment for Aronian was his match with Matlakov. When he couldn’t make a draw with Black in the second classical game in order to win the match he showed true inner strength. He wasn’t broken even when Matlakov came from behind in the second rapid game and he won the blitz convincingly. This win gave Aronian the much-needed confirmation that he is strong enough to overcome his nerves and the other matches saw a confident Aronian. And confident Aronian is maybe the best player in the world.
The Frenchman stumbled in the semi-final in the World Cup in 2013, losing to eventual winner Kramnik. In 2015 he lost in the quarter-final to Giri. In Tbilisi he eliminated both Grischuk and Svidler and before the event he achieved his biggest triumph to date by winning the Sinquefield Cup. He is on an excellent run and facing the confident Aronian is a battle of the players on best form recently. Both players are excellently prepared and it will be interesting to see how they will approach the tie-breaks from an opening perspective – still playing highly forcing lines as the Grunfeld in Game 1, or going for the popular “get a game” lines of Nf3 and g3. Vachier is less likely to adopt the latter approach, but Aronian’s excellent novelty in the popular line in the Spanish in Game 2 may give him some headaches in his preparation (plus there is always the Giuoco Piano).
After the collapse in Saint Louis Wesley So is back to his usual self. The technical win against Fedoseev was impressive and his narrow escape in the second game against Ding Liren may give him a psychological advantage for the tie-breaks.
Ding Liren is a typical “белоцветчик”, a player who presses very strongly with White and often makes it count. His pressing is very technical and he had a stable tournament where he was rarely in danger. He missed a (very concealed) win against So in the second game and this may affect him, though you can never be sure with the Chinese players. The tie-break between these two is something I am very curious about – will one of them lose composure? Who will crack first? And what if it goes all the way to Armageddon?
Tomorrow we will know the two players who will play in the Candidates next year. And then the final will be for money and glory.