Chess is perhaps the only sport where the semi-final matches of a World Cup are more important than the actual final. While this may be difficult to explain to the outside world, we know that the main prize of our World Cup is not the title, but the qualification for the Candidates tournament. And the finalists get those spots.
We left off at the point of the semi-finals and they proved to be as tough as expected.
I would say that the main story of this year’s World Cup in Tbilisi is Aronian’s newly-found (or discovered) belief that he can do it in stressful conditions. His meltdowns in the Candidates in London in 2013, Khanty in 2014 and Moscow in 2016 are all well known. And we have come to get accustomed that Aronian is this fantastic player who cannot perform when the stakes are high.
In Tbilisi he managed to overcome the two difficult types of situations a player can find himself into in a knock-out tournament: not making a draw while being ahead (twice against Matlakov) and needing to win to stay in the match (against Vachier). The latter situation produced this spectacular game:
Winners are always lucky, in this case Aronian was lucky that Vachier was predictable and he could get his fantastic preparation in in the most important moment of the match.
But after this game they started making draws, one more improbable after the other. Take a look at this exchange of “courtesies”:
The Armageddon game was no different. Vachier was better for most of the game then it was a draw and then Aronian won. Nerves, luck, fate, whatever you call it, it just happened that it was Aronian’s day.
The other semi-final was a repeat of the friendly match held in 2016 in China when the home player beat the American 2.5-1.5. In his own words, that victory gave him confidence that he can overcome So again.
As strange as it may seem, the turning point of the match was the second rapid game which ended in a draw after 9 (!) moves. This warrants an explanation: in the first rapid game Ding was winning (with Black) but he failed to win. He was disappointed and depressed, plus he was surprised by So’s choice of the Ragozin Defence in the second game. Making a very practical decision, Ding offered a draw in a position he already didn’t like. And while generally a draw with Black is a good result, this situation was one of the exceptions, where in fact Black had to play on. But So didn’t know Ding’s state of mind and he took the superficial “draw with Black is good” probably thinking that a quick draw with Black is even better. But this quick draw gave Ding time to clear his mind off the previous game, get it out of the system and continue to play normally. Needless to say he won the next game, again with Black, and won the match since So’s Benoni failed to produce winning chances in the last game.
The final was won by Aronian because he wanted to win it more than Ding. He was pressing in the 4 classical games but Ding managed to hang on. When it came to the rapids, Ding collapsed. The last game was a must-win for Ding and he came very close, but again, it seems that as if destiny wanted Aronian to win another World Cup after 2005 and become the only player to have won it twice.
Now we have 3 certain players for next year’s Candidates, which will be held in Berlin from 10-28 March: Karjakin, Aronian and Ding Liren. Two more are very likely, So and Caruana will most probably qualify by rating in view of Kramnik’s collapse in the Isle of Man open. Two more will come out of the World Cup that finishes in November and only 4 players still have a chance: Mamedyarov, Grischuk, Radjabov and Vachier. The last player will be the organiser’s wild-card and in view of the Russian sponsorship of the tournament we can expect another Russian player in the mix. I am already thinking of visiting Berlin next spring.