World Cup Wrap-Up by NM Dana Mackenzie
by NM Dana Mackenzie on SEPTEMBER 27, 2017
Today Levon Aronian won both of his 25-minute playoff games against Ding Liren to become the first two-time winner of the World Cup. (He also won in 2005. I’m not including the two earlier World Cups that were held using a different format and only 24 players.) He left no doubt that he was the most deserving player. He won more games than anyone else, by a wide margin, and survived three win-or-go-home games (one against Maxim Matlakov and two against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave). While all of the other top players seemed to be playing not to lose, Aronian was the only one playing to win.
The World Cup is sort of an oddity because it’s also a huge triumph for the runnerup. By finishing second, Ding Liren qualified for the Candidates Tournament next year, which gives him an outside chance to become world champion. I believe he will be the first player from China to reach the Candidates Tournament — another milestone in China’s slow but steady rise as a chess power. I was very impressed by Ding’s semifinal victory against Wesley So, who until then had appeared invincible.
For the American players, it was kind of a ho-hum tournament. So played strongly but is probably disappointed with his failure to crack the Great Wall of China. He had Ding on the ropes in their first classical game, in which the computer says So had a winning exchange sacrifice, but he settled for a draw. The other top Americans went out earlier than expected, but Alex Lenderman (our lowest-ranked participant) made a big splash by upsetting Pavel Eljanov and getting through to the third round.
The other odd thing about the World Cup is the anticlimactic way that it ends. It’s so much fun in the early rounds when there are so many games going on at once, and lots of David vs. Goliath matchups, but then after four rounds 120 out of 128 players are gone, and the tournament hall starts looking really cavernous and empty. Even before the tournament ends, the rest of the chess world has moved on to the next big event, which this year is the Isle of Man tournament.
At the Isle of Man you can find many of the same people who were in Tbilisi. You have Fabiano Caruana playing against Vladimir Kramnik in round one, a matchup that in an alternate universe could have been the championship match in Tbilisi. You have Alex Lenderman playing against Pavel Eljanov again. (They drew, and in fact Lenderman is off to another great start, tied for third with 4 points in the first 5 rounds.) You have Magnus Carlsen dominating again, and this time he won’t be ousted if he just happens to play one bad game. Other people who didn’t do so well in Tbilisi are also out for revenge: Eljanov is tied for first with Carlsen at 4½; Nakamura and Caruana are close behind at 4. Finally, you have the people who weren’t playing in Tbilisi, such as Emil Sutovsky (tied at 4), trying to prove that they should have gotten a chance.
And meanwhile, back on a stage in Tbilisi, you have two people still playing in the World Cup, and it seems like such ancient history. Still, I’ll bet that everyone in the Isle of Man would have been happy to be on that stage…
In the end, what I’ll remember from the World Cup are a lot of great endings, a great Liren Ding (ha, get the pun?), a stupid scandal, and a riveting semifinal between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave.
And now, back to the real world. I’ll probably be posting less over the next two weeks because I have a big book deadline coming up. I also want to mention that one of my Facebook friends, Mike Zaloznyy, just won the Nevada state championship this weekend. Zaloznyy’s tournament came down to an Armageddon game that he won as White, just like Aronian. Congratulations, Mike! This is a great reminder that while the world’s best players are competing on the big stage, there is always interesting and competitive chess going on closer to home.