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    Friday
    Sep222017

    World Cup, Round 6 (Semi-Finals), Day 3 Tiebreaks: Ding Liren, Aronian Win, Advance to the Finals, and Qualify for the Candidates

    At last, the World Cup has lived up to expectations: there was an Armageddon game! But before we get to the match between Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, let's discuss Ding Liren's triumph.

    So Long, Farewell:

    (The lengths I will go to for a "good" pun.)

    In game 1 of the Ding Liren vs. Wesley So match, So had good winning chances with White before letting his opponent escape with a draw, and in game 2 it was the reverse. This pattern didn't continue in game 3, at least as far as colors were concerned. Ding was Black and still had So on the ropes, but let him escape - more than once. He was so disgusted by this that he had a difficult time readjusting for game 4, especially when he was surprised in the opening, and offered a draw on move 9. So accepted, and they were on to the 10' + 10" games.

    It's harder to say if So had an advantage with White in game 5 after the opening. Maybe he had a tiny edge, maybe not, but Ding Liren's very energetic play starting with 20...Nxf2 put So on the defensive. Maybe he could have held with more time on his clock; in the game, Ding won convincingly, culminating in a queen vs. rook ending that he converted with ease. In the rematch, So was unable to create any problems for his opponent, who drew comfortably from a position of strength.

    Aronian vs. Vachier-Lagrave:

    Their classical games were on the tame side, but the rapid and blitz tiebreak was anything but. Vachier-Lagrave struck first, winning a good game with White in a Closed Ruy Lopez with 6.d3. (In fact, all the games where MVL had White went that way.) Aronian needed to win to stay alive, and win he did - quickly. In a 3.f3 Anti-Gruenfeld turned some sort of Modern Benoni, Aronian went for the jugular. His 15.Bc4 was a fascinating novelty, and while Vachier-Lagrave played six good moves in a row, the 7th move, 21...g5, was an error. That put him at death's door, and a further mistake on move 24 ended it.

    From 25'+10" to 10'+10". Aronian started with White this time, and went for the Russian System against the Gruenfeld. His choice in this game was rather iffy, and reminiscent of his anti-Gruenfeld line in game 1: many moves of well-known theory resulting in a position that doesn't require anything special from his opponent to keep the draw. He was always comfortable and doing whatever pressing there was to be done, but MVL held the draw without slipping into danger. The next game looked similar for a while: Aronian equalized comfortably, and it looked like an easy draw was on the way. It was - until White played 27.Qxb5? That gave Black very good winning chances, but errors on moves 29 and 33 let Vachier-Lagrave escape.

    On to the 5'+3" games. Aronian gave up trying to tackle the Gruenfeld and played the Barry Attack (via the London System) instead. This is a regular part of his blitz repertoire, but it's not clear that Vachier-Lagrave was well-prepared for it. Aronian got a very good position in the early middlegame, and was winning an excellently played blitz game until his 41st move. After a further error, he was even losing, but MVL returned the favor with big mistakes on moves 46 and 48, allowing Aronian to escape with a draw. Aronian again had some chances in the second blitz game, though they weren't as pronounced as in game 7. Once again, a draw resulted.

    And so at long last, the tournament had its first Armageddon game. Vachier-Lagrave won the coin toss and elected to take Black. Aronian got White and five minutes; MVL Black and four minutes, with no increment for either side until move 61. (Three seconds per move after that.) Most importantly, Black received draw odds, which means that unless Aronian won the game, Vachier-Lagrave would win the match.

    Aronian repeated the Barry Attack, and this time MVL was well-prepared, not only equalizing but getting the upper hand. White faced the further difficulty that the best way to neutralize Black's pressure would make the game more drawish. Fortunately for Aronian, Vachier-Lagrave played ambitiously rather than just sitting, and that gave White some chances. Practically speaking, Black lost the game on move 40, though he did get one last chance for a quasi-miraculous draw on move 54. Missing that, the game finished, oddly enough, in a queen vs. rook ending. A player can go years without reaching that ending or even seeing it in another game, but here both matches were decided in that same way.

    The most important part of the World Cup has finished, as the two Candidates spots have been determined. That said, the extra $40,000 going to the winner ($120k vs. $80k) is, to borrow an old Bullwinkle joke, antihistamine money: nothing to sneeze at! The finalists have tomorrow (Friday) off, and then start their best-of-four game match on Saturday.

    Today's tiebreak games are here, with my comments.

    Wednesday
    Sep202017

    World Cup, Round 6 (Semi-finals), Day 2: Again Draws; This Time Ding Liren Misses a Big Chance

    Today's games were an echo of yesterday's. Once again Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian made a short, effortless draw that suggests that even if collusion wasn't involved, both players were very willing from the start of the match to postpone the real battle to the tiebreaks. And once again Ding Liren and Wesley So played a fighting game in which White was pressing and had an opportunity to win or at least enjoy a very serious advantage, but failed to convert the chance. (I've annotated the games here.)

    Tomorrow's action will thus decide the fate of both matches, and with it the identity of two of the Candidates. The money going to the winner, as opposed to the runner-up, will be a nice chunk of change, but the biggest prize is getting to the finals, and thus the Candidates. The most important action of the entire tournament takes place tomorrow, so be sure to tune in!

    Tuesday
    Sep192017

    World Cup, Round 6 (Semi-Finals), Day 1: Two Draws; So Misses a Big Chance

    The game between Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was a waste of the white pieces from a purely chess perspective, but maybe Aronian wasn't feeling well and needed another rest day. He went straight for Vachier-Lagrave's main opening weapon against 1.d4, the Gruenfeld, and went into the well-traveled paths of the 7.Nf3, 8.Rb1 line. For quite some time now theory has claimed that Black is completely fine, and Aronian's mini-novelty on move 24 didn't do much (if anything) to undermine that assessment or put it to the test. Sometimes a novelty leads to equality if the other player finds all the right moves, but finding those moves may not be easy at all. This does not seem to be true in this instance. Black had many completely satisfactory ways to continue, and if anything he could have been more ambitious than he was. The players agreed to a draw eight moves later.

    The game between Wesley So and Ding Liren was a very different story, even if it had the same ending. So was White in an Italian Game, and Ding Liren played an interesting idea that goes back to Akiba Rubinstein (not in that exact position): ...Qd8-b8, to put the queen on a7. It wasn't bad, but So found an excellent way of replying with 17.Qb3 followed by 18.Qb5, offering a trade of queens (Black's queen had subsequently reached a6). Black should have declined the offer, leaving it up to White, because after 18...Qxb5 19.axb5 and the essentially forced 19...b6 White now enjoyed pressure on the a-file, the looming possibility of a b4 pawn break, and beautiful outpost square on d5. So maneuvered a knight to d5, got the maximum out of the queenside, and then gained space on the kingside. Black was in trouble, and if that wasn't enough So was handed a great winning chance not on move 40, but on move 41 - right after the time control. Unfortunately, he quickly rejected the winning 41.Rxb3 for 41.Kc3 after less than three minutes, after which Black's concrete counterplay allowed him to draw. After 42...Rh2 So finally took some time to think, but now it was too late, and the game speedily finished in a perpetual.

    The final match is a best-of-four, but the semis are still best-of-two. Will MVL and Ding Liren punish their opponents, or will we see tiebreaks? Meanwhile, here are today's games, with my comments.

    Sunday
    Sep172017

    World Cup, Round 5, Day 3: Vachier-Lagrave Defeats Svidler in Tiebreaks

    Four is the number of the remaining players, but not the number of consecutive Candidates events for Peter Svidler. Instead, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is in the final four, one match away from his first Candidates tournament. (Not that it will be easy, as his next opponent is Levon Aronian.) He defeated Svidler after a pair of tiebreak games, both of which continued the theoretical duels of their classical games.

    In the first, Vachier-Lagrave was White in a Giuoco, with Svidler repeating the 10...a5 idea that he and Grischuk have now played a combined five times against MVL in the past week. White enjoyed a very mild plus through most of the game, but the eventual draw was no surprise.

    In game 2, Svidler again played the English, and MVL repeated the Symmetrical line with 5...Nb4 and 6...Nd3+. Svidler again played the curious 9.h4, and after the same six consecutive moves with the same knight, Black varied from their classical game. In that game, Black chose 10...Nbc6, while time MVL played 10...e6, as played in the only other game to have reached that position. Svidler already started to think here, which wasn't a particularly good sign for his fans. (But maybe I should say something like "fans of his play". Fans of his commentary may be thrilled; one may hope that he'll appear before the microphone somewhere for the semi-finals or at least the finals.) After 11.Bf4 a6 12.Nxd4 cxd4 13.Ne2 Nc6 Black had no problems to speak of. My suspicion is that if 9.h4 survives, it is 10.d3 that will go the way of the dodo. Black was soon better, and after 23.Qxd6+? Svidler was just about lost. Short on time as well, he was unable to put up much resistance, and Vachier-Lagrave won quickly and smoothly. (The games, with my notes, are here.)

    Tomorrow is a day off for everyone, and on Tuesday we get Aronian vs. MVL in one semi-final, and Wesley So against Ding Liren in the other.

    Saturday
    Sep162017

    World Cup, Round 5, Day 2: Aronian, So, and Ding Liren Advance; Vachier-Lagrave - Svidler Goes to Tiebreaks

    If there was a surprise in today's round, it was that everything one would expect came to pass. Levon Aronian had to work to neutralize Vassily Ivanchuk's attempts to get revenge with White, and he succeeded in that task. Ivanchuk played a long time, but never came close to winning the game. Favorites Wesley So and Ding Liren drew easily with Black on Friday, and used the white pieces today to defeat Vladimir Fedoseev and Richard Rapport, respectively. Finally, the most evenly matched pairing, between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Peter Svidler, finished in a second straight draw, so they'll go to tiebreaks tomorrow.

    A complication with the tidy narrative: while the MVL-Svidler game was short, there was an exchange of errors on Black's 19th and White's 20th moves. White had a crude but powerful tactical idea at his disposal, and had he found it the match most likely would have come to an end, and the show would go dark tomorrow. Instead, the action continues.

    The players finally get their first official, universal rest day on Monday, which means that Aronian, So, and Ding Liren will have two days off to get ready for the semi-final. Aronian won't know the identity of his opponent until the MVL-Svidler tiebreak concludes, while So and Ding Liren will prepare for each other - and no doubt already are.

    Games here.

    Saturday
    Sep162017

    Notre Dame 49, Boston College 20

    That's more like it!

    Season record: 2-1.

    Next victim: Michigan State, which "coincidentally" had a bye this week so they could be healthy and well-rested. Three other teams later in the year have arranged their schedules to produce similar "coincidences". Funny how that works.

    Saturday
    Sep162017

    ND to Poach the Eagles, Starting Now

    Notre Dame's task this week is to whip Boston College in a road game that starts approximately...now. The game is on ESPN, for those who are interested. For those who aren't interested - if any such persons exist - it's still on ESPN.

    Reading material on the subject, here.

    Friday
    Sep152017

    World Cup, Round 5, Day 1: Aronian Crushes Ivanchuk, Svidler Misses a Chance

    With 120 of the participants gone, the tournament has a much quieter, almost lonely feel to it now, and all the more so considering that two of today's four games were drawn before move 20. Richard Rapport didn't exactly pull out all the stops against Ding Liren, offering a draw (which was accepted) after his 11th move, and Vladimir Fedoseev didn't exactly put Wesley So's Petroff out of business. That barnburner lasted a whopping 19 moves. (Or 18 and a half, but who's counting?)

    Levon Aronian's game with Vassily Ivanchuk wasn't a marathon either, clocking in at just 24 moves. The Sofia rules aren't relevant, however, as the offer a handshake was Ivanchuk's resignation. An English turned into a sort of odd Open Catalan where Black made all his queenside moves, but without developing his kingside. If the goal was to achieve ...c5, it was a smashing success. Unfortunately, keeping one's king in the center can have adverse consequences, and Aronian ripped open the center before Black's king could scurry off to safety. Between Black's bad king and White's powerful, passed d-pawn, Ivanchuk was in all kinds of trouble. In the final position Black's king was relatively safe and material was still even, but White was likely to win 1-3 pawns on the queenside in the very near future. Black's kingside was still an uncoordinated mess, and White's d-pawn pinned down Black's army. It was a nice, high-energy game by Aronian, but a poor game by Ivanchuk; at a minimum a case of poor preparation.

    The last game to finish was Peter Svidler's battle against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Svidler enjoyed a serious advantage thanks to Black's weak pawns on the queenside, and he maintained a healthy advantage until 32.Rc6?! (or maybe '?'). This allowed Vachier-Lagrave to survive with the help of a little trick, 33...Nb5! White's pressure quickly dissipated, and the game was agreed drawn just after the time control, on move 41.

    The games, with my comments, are here.

    Thursday
    Sep142017

    World Cup, Round 4, Day 3 Tiebreaks: MVL, So, Svidler, Fedoseev, and Rapport Advance

    It was an exciting day of tiebreaks, though it was disappointing that only one match made it past the two 25-minute games, and it was settled in the 10' + 10" round. We need to see at least one Armageddon game before the tournament ends!

    Anyway, to the round. Peter Svidler had the easiest time of it, beating Bu Xiangzhi 2-0. In the first game, Svidler won with Black after Bu got tangled up in the center. White tried to bail out with an exchange sacrifice, and it almost worked. Bu was about to esacape until he played 40.Ra5??, walking into a lethal self-pin. Walking into mate in one on the next move didn't help, but the damage had already been done - even 41...Rb4 would have done the job. In the second game, Bu tried the Dutch, hoping for a complicated position, but when he met the Improved Lisitsyn Gambit by turning the game into a Philidor Counter-Gambit he got in trouble - fast. He was already clearly worse by move 7 (maybe by move 5, but let's be generous), and after a huge error on move 9 he was completely lost. Svidler may not have played in the most incisive way, but he didn't have to, and he coasted to victory.

    Wesley So was also a smooth winner, outplaying Baadur Jobava in their first game with the white pieces, demonstrating the power of the bishop pair (and later of bishop vs. knight) to grind out a victory. Game two was an "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse" draw: So was better from early on, and could have played for a win had he needed to. Instead, he allowed Jobava to draw by repetition in a position where he was still better, but the problem for Jobava was that varying from the repetition would lose on the spot.

    In one of the matches featuring underdogs, Evgeniy Najer held an edge in his white game with Richard Rapport until his ill-advised 23.Bxh6, which should have been met by 23...Rxf3. For a while after that Najer had good chances to win, but Rapport gradually clawed his way back to equality and a draw. The second game was completely crazy, and Rapport handled the complications much better than Najer to win deservedly. There was one big hiccup near the end, however. 45.Rb7+ followed by 46.Re2 won comfortably, but after his 45.Rb6? Najer had 45...Re1+ first, and only after 46.Kg2 was 46...Nb4 correct. In this case he would have equalized. Now White can't play Re2, and if he takes on a5 Black has an immediate perpetual with his rook going to e2, e1 and/or e3, as needed.

    In the other battle of the underdogs, Vladimir Fedoseev defeated Maxim Rodshtein 2-0, though unlike Svidler's 2-0 victory it wasn't easy. First of all, it's a mystery why Rodshtein didn't play 37...Qxc3 in the first game, leading to a dead draw after 38.Rxc3 Bxf2 39.Nxe6 Rxc3 40.Bxc3 fxe6. Even after 37...Bxc7 39.Bxc7, trading queens would have given him excellent drawing chances in the opposite-colored bishop ending. The draw wouldn't be guaranteed on account of the rooks, but keeping queens on as well made it harder, not easier, for him to defend. Eventually the queens came off, but under more favorable circumstances for Fedoseev. It still wasn't easy for White to win until Rodshtein's 69...Kf7, allowing White to play 70.Rf8+ and 71.Rf6. After that, the conversion was routine. Rodshtein did a great job of creating a complicated mess in game two, and he had good chances to win as soon as the early middlegame. The game went back and forth, and Rodshtein missed a very good chance on move 33, when taking on b5 followed by d6 would give him a winning advantage. From there on, he played too passively, and Fedoseev took over the initiative. White had to play 41.Bg2 to stay alive, and after missing that chance he resigned three moves later.

    Finally, in a match that would have been better as a semi-final or even a final, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Alexander Grischuk had a heavyweight battle in keeping with their ratings. They drew the 25-minute games, and saved the best for last. In the first 10-minute game, Grischuk's attempt to solve his strategic problems with tactics failed. In particular, 28...Rg6, going for counterplay, was strongly met by a great pawn sacrifice from MVL. From 30 to the end of the game, Vachier-Lagrave blew his opponent off the board with one threat after another in a great display of the power of the initiative. The second game was a battle between the initiative - again, on MVL's side - and static goods. Grischuk's 10.Bxc6 wrecked Black's queenside structure, but at the cost of the bishop pair, weak light squares, and a few moves later, a badly sidelined queen. Vachier-Lagrave found a great exchange sac, but misplayed it a few moves later and wound up in an inferior ending. After two further inaccuracies, he wound up in a lost ending with bishop and pawn against Grischuk's rook and pawn. Grischuk made a very serious practical error when he didn't play 44.h3, after which proving a win with hardly any time on his clock was as good as impossible, and MVL advanced to the fifth round.

    The games are here, but I've only annotated the second Svidler-Bu Xiangzhi game, along with the two MVL-Grischuk 10-minute games.

    Tomorrow the quarter-finals begin, with these pairings (in bracket order): Svidler - Vachier-Lagrave, Ivanchuk - Aronian, So - Fedoseev, Rapport - Ding Liren.

    Will Svidler continue his question to reach his fourth consecutive Candidates event? (Admittedly, once he was the organizer's wildcard pick, but the other two times he qualifed through the World Cup.) Or will Vachier-Lagrave stay alive as he hopes to reach the Candidates for the first time in his career? Can Ivanchuk survive the top remaining seed, Aronian, and show that his glory days are still going? And will the young upstarts Fedoseev and Rapport (22 and 21 years old, respectively) be put in their place by their elderly opponents (So and Ding Liren; 23 and 24 years old, respectively)?

    Wednesday
    Sep132017

    World Cup, Round 4, Day 2: Aronian, Ding Liren, and Ivanchuk Advance

    There were three decisive games today, and there are three players advancing to round 5, but there isn't a one-to-one correlation between the two "threes". Ding Liren defeated Wang Hao in a good game with White in a Catalan, but if Wang Hao had known about an earlier game - or simply found the right idea on move 22 - the game probably would have finished in a draw, and they'd be off to tomorrow's tiebreaks.

    Levon Aronian also won, defeating Daniil Dubov in a long game. Aronian reached a theoretically won ending, and while he had time at the start to figure out how to win it, he didn't hit on the right plan. Over the course of the next many moves, he even allowed Dubov numerous chances to draw, but Dubov - who had the time and ability to work out his drawing opportunities - thought it was the better strategy to keep blitzing Aronian. It backfired. It took Aronian seemingly forever, but around 40 moves later than he could have won, he finally hit on the right strategy - though he still managed to give Dubov one more (missed) drawing chance after that. Should Dubov have taken his time? The problem is that if he did, at a moment when he didn't have a draw, it could very well have given Aronian the chance to work out the winning plan. So I think Dubov was generally right to blitz - given his correct assumption that the ending was generally lost. But there were several positions where it looked like he could have an escape, and that's where it would have made sense to slow down and look. It's a risk, but there I think it's worth taking. Anyway, he's out, and Aronian advances.

    The day's third winner was Maxim Rodshtein, who leveled his match with Vladimir Fedoseev. The game was an odd echo of the previous day's game: both won with Black after creating complications starting with a dubious ...g5 pawn sac. Fedoseev seemed too intent on playing for a draw - certainly in the opening - and it allowed Rodshtein to make lots of trouble for him. His reward: tiebreaks tomorrow.

    The third player to advance is Vassily Ivanchuk, who was beating Anish Giri today, too, but he made Giri an offer he couldn't refuse: allow an immediate repetition or be dead lost. Giri chose to keep most of his rating points, and called it a tournament. Ivanchuk, meanwhile, will play Aronian in the quarter-finals in the only match that's set so far.

    The other four games finished in draws and will result in tiebreaks. Alexander Grischuk vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was a 13-move draw; apparently Grischuk is reverting to his gruesome but effective strategy from Kazan Candidates matches a few years ago, where he would draw all his classical games with White without a fight and then hang on desperately with Black, aiming to reach the rapid and blitz tiebreaks.

    Bu Xiangzhi vs. Peter Svidler was also a short draw, but this doesn't seem to have been by design. Bu was outplayed in the opening, and was pulling on the emergency brake before things got out of hand.

    Baadur Jobava outplayed Wesley So and had him on the ropes, but So saved the game by creating a fortress in the ending.

    Finally, Evgeny Najer and Richard Rapport had a hard-fought draw. It looks like Najer generally had the better chances, but Rapport was never at death's door.

    Games, with mostly brief comments, here.

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