© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

On Chess: Race to the Candidates Tournament

2017 World Cup Champion Levon Aronian will go on to the Candidates Tournament in 2018
Lennart Ootes
2017 World Cup Champion Levon Aronian will go on to the Candidates Tournament in 2018.

Levon Aronian, from Armenia won the 2017 FIDE World Cup, defeating his Chinese rival Ding Liren in the finals. The World Cup was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, between Sept. 2-27.

The World Cup was a unique event this year as the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, chose to participate. He didn't have to, however, because the World Cup is primarily a qualifier in the world championship cycle and is used to determine the challenger to the reigning world champion. 

In World Cup tournament, there were 128 players, all hoping to reach the finals, which would mean direct qualification to the Candidates Tournament. The winner of the Candidates Tournament then faces Carlsen for the World Championship title.

The Tbilisi World Cup was filled with excitement and drama. Carlsen left the tournament after a shocking loss to a former child prodigy Bu Xiangzhi. Bu played ambitious chess in the first game with black, and sacrificed a pawn, ”Marshall-style!” Carlsen did not feel the danger, grabbed the pawn, and ran into trouble. Bu took his chances and won his game with a dazzling rook-sacrifice on move 36. Carlsen fought with all his might in their second game, but Bu defended well and with a draw, qualified for the next round. With the pre-tournament favorite eliminated, Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier Lagrave, and Americans Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, stepped up as main contenders for tournament victory.

Both So and Caruana hoped to reach the Candidates Tournament by winning the World Cup in Tbilisi. But even thoug they did not win the World Cup, they still could potentially qualify as the highest rated players in the world. The St. Louis-based Caruana had a good start in Tbilisi. He won his first two matches, but lost in the third round to Evgeny Najer. Wesley So, unlike his rivals, had a great run in the World Cup. He eliminated player after player and faced off with Ding Liren for a qualifying spot. Ding also felt the pressure, as he was one-step away from making history; he could become the first Chinese grandmaster to qualify for the Candidates Tournament.

Both Ding and So were in peak shape. First, So had chances to take the lead, but in the second game the roles reversed, and the Chinese player was calling the shots. It all ended in a dramatic tie breaker, which Ding won after he found a way to break through So’s defenses. Levon Aronian defeated Maxime Vachier Lagrave in an equally thrilling tiebreak. When the smoke settled, both Aronian and Ding qualified for the Candidates Tournament.

This is not the end of the line for the American players. Both So and Caruana are likely to qualify for the Candidates Tournament through other means, namely their high rankings on the rating list. The Candidates Tournament will be held in Berlin at the end of 2018 with seven players who qualified through various means and one wild-card player, chosen by the organizing committee. 

Denes Boros was third at age 14 at the Hungarian Junior Championship and became U16 Olympic Champion in Denizli. He scored his first grandmaster norm with 10 out of 11 points. He was a grandmaster journalist at Carlsen-Karjakin Match. He provided grandmaster commentary for the New York Times.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.