FIDE World Cup Finals: Ding Liren's immaculate opening preparation

by Sagar Shah
9/24/2017 – Grand! That's what the setting for the finals of the World Cup 2017 is! The venue is in the Biltmore Hotel, which is right in the heart of the Tbilisi. The playing arena is arguably the most exquisite that you will ever see. A lot of chess fans turned up to watch the first game. Levon Aronian and Ding Liren provided a good fight, but the Chinese player who had the black pieces hardly had any problems to hold the draw. He showed some solid opening preparation and surprised Aronian. Analysis, photos and interesting videos from the capital city of Georgia. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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Magnificient settings

World Cup

The playing hall is one of the best that I have seen. With lot of space for the spectators and two LED televisions, there were many people who turned up to see the match. For the players too this was a new feeling. For nearly twenty days they were playing in the Hualing Hotel which had hardly any spectators. And now all of a sudden there were nearly hundred people sitting in the stands patiently following the match. Ding Liren said that the crowd motivated him to show his best chess in the finals, while for Aronian, so many people meant that there was more repsonsibility.

The finals is taking place in Hotel Biltmore. As Levon Aronian put it in his interview with Karlovich, "It's nice to be back in Tbilisi!" | Photo: Millenium Hotels

By contrast the Hualing hotel, situated on the outskirts of Tbilisi, was as if we were living in no man's land! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The playing hall is located on the second floor of the Biltmore Hotel | Photo: Amruta Mokal

This video gives you the feel of what it is like at the Biltmore Hotel — the press room, commentary room. We give you a full tour of the playing hall, commentary room, press room and you can enjoy the first few minutes of the game

The table and chair on which the finals are being played is nearly 40 years old | Photo: Amruta Mokal

If you look closely at the table you will notice some scratches on it, which shows that this is not brand new. Also from the design of the chairs it is clear that we are talking about something made many years ago. In fact the entire set of table and chair was made nearly 40 years ago. According to Zurab Azmaiparashvili, "During the period of Gaprindashvili and later Chiburdandidze eight such sets of table and chairs were made for the World Champinship Matches. Five sets were used by Gaprindashvili, Chiburdanidze, Alexandria, Ioseliani in their matches. This is the sixth one. Hence, although it is 40 years old, it is unused!

Georgia’s Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs Tariel Khechikashvili made the first move for Aronian: 1.c4 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The games had begun, but there was still soft music being played in the background. Aronian was amused and after the game said that the music was putting him in a relaxing mood! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Ding Liren also got a bit distracted by the music and asked the arbiter to shut it down. After ten minutes from the start of the game the music was gone. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Aronian tried to put pressure on his opponent by circling around the board

Game 1 explained in depth:

Aronian began with the move 1.c4 and Ding replied with the classical 1...Nf6 followed by 2...e6.


The Mikenas variation is just the kind of line that suits Levon Aronian perfectly. It leads to free flowing play and the Armenian fares the best when the pawn structure is fluid, so that he can get his creativity into action. However, the problem with playing Ding is that the Chinese is just so well prepared.


This move has been played only twice before. Once by Nakamura against Topalov in a blitz game at the Grand Chess Tour event in Paris. The other one was a game by Ju Wenjun at the Saint Louis Fall-A against Shimanov. Judging from Ding Liren's openings it seems like he is having a close look at the games of Ju Wenjun. Especially because he played 6.b3!? against Wesley So in the Catalan which is Wenjun's main weapon.

Aronian was not so sure how to respond to the move d5-d4. He continued in normal style, but this meant that his opponent equalized without any difficulties.

Ding Liren showed some fantastic opening preparation in the first game of the finals | Photo: Amruta Mokal


Black's plan was pretty simple. He moved his king to d7, bishop to e7, the rook from a8 went to f8, and Ding made the typical undermining move g7-g5.  White really couldn't do much about Black's play and it seemed to be going really well for the Chinese player. His only problem was finding a good square for the knight on c6.


But the move b5 had its own drawbacks. It allowed White the option to break with the move f4-f5. This was the most critical moment of the game. Had Aronian played this move he would have been entitled to at least a small edge. It was not that he hadn't seen the move, but he felt that Black should have enough counterlpay. So he did not go for f5. For all the analysis related to that move check the ChessBase game viewer below.

Once f4-f5 was not played, Black had nothing much to worry about and the game ended in a draw.

[Event "FIDE World Cup 2017"] [Site "Tbilisi"] [Date "2017.09.23"] [Round "7.1"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Ding, Liren"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A18"] [WhiteElo "2802"] [BlackElo "2771"] [Annotator "ChessBase"] [PlyCount "70"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "k.o."] [EventCountry "GEO"] [SourceTitle ""] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceQuality "1"] [TimeControl "40/5400+30:1800+30"] 1. c4 {[%emt 0:00:00] Aronian begins with a move that gives him flexibility, an ability to play the English or 1.d4 lines.} Nf6 {[%emt 0:00:34]} 2. Nc3 { [%emt 0:00:00]} e6 {[%emt 0:00:06] Ding Liren keeps it simple. He plays it solid. Of course he knows that he can expect the Mikenas variation.} 3. e4 { [%emt 0:00:03] Levon has played this move nine times in the past. I am sure Ding Liren expected it and had prepared against it.} d5 {[%emt 0:00:06]} 4. cxd5 {[%emt 0:00:11]} (4. e5 d4 {When White has not exchanged on d5, then e5 should be met with d4.}) 4... exd5 {[%emt 0:00:10]} 5. e5 {[%emt 0:00:09] When White has taken on d5 and then played e5, then d4 is not such a great move. Black must play Ne4.} Ne4 {[%emt 0:01:01]} (5... d4 6. exf6 dxc3 7. Bb5+ $1 c6 8. Qe2+ Be6 9. Bc4 cxd2+ 10. Bxd2 Qxf6 11. Nf3 $44 {And White has excellent compensation for the pawn.}) 6. Nf3 {[%emt 0:00:06]} (6. Nxe4 dxe4 7. Qa4+ Nc6 8. Qxe4 Qd4 $44 {is excellent compensation for Black.}) 6... Bf5 {[%emt 0:00: 10]} 7. Be2 {[%emt 0:00:05]} d4 $5 {[%emt 0:01:10] This move is much more forcing and limits White's options. It has been seen only twice. Once in the game between Topalov and Nakamura in Paris GCT in 2017 and the other between Shimanov and Ju Wenjun just ten days ago. It is very interesting to note that the move 6.b3 that was played by Ding Liren against Wesley So is also a line that is the favourite to Ju Wenjun!} (7... Nc6 8. O-O {has been seen in six game before.}) 8. Nxe4 {[%emt 0:02:29]} Bxe4 {[%emt 0:00:06]} 9. Bc4 {[%emt 0: 00:57] White puts his bishop on an active square, threatens to play Qb3 at some point and also to get in d3, when the bishop on won't be stuck on e2 like in the game Topalov-Nakamura.} (9. d3 {was Topalov's move, but after} Bd5 10. O-O (10. Qa4+ Nc6 $15) 10... Nc6 $11 {Black had a fine playable position.}) 9... Bd5 $1 {[%emt 0:03:29] The bishop on c4 is strong and it makes sense to exchange it.} 10. Qb3 {[%emt 0:01:38]} Bxc4 {[%emt 0:00:10]} 11. Qxc4 {[%emt 0: 00:04]} Nc6 {[%emt 0:00:13] Already Black seems to have a completely fine position.} 12. O-O {[%emt 0:00:29]} Qd7 {[%emt 0:01:14]} 13. d3 {[%emt 0:14:23] } Qe6 $1 {[%emt 0:03:18] Black's strategy is pretty simple, exchange all of White's pieces that are active. He did so with the bishop on c4 and now he does it with the queen.} (13... Be7 14. Bf4 O-O 15. Rac1 $14) (13... O-O-O { After the game Aronian said that even this move seems to be fine.}) 14. Qxe6+ { [%emt 0:08:00]} (14. Qa4 Rd8 $11) 14... fxe6 {[%emt 0:00:06]} 15. Ng5 $5 { [%emt 0:01:03] According to Ding Liren, this was a good idea by Aronian to snatch the initiative, rerouting the knight to e4 and bolstering the centre with f4.} Kd7 {[%emt 0:06:11]} (15... Nxe5 $5 16. Nxe6 Kf7 17. Nxc7 (17. Nxd4 Rd8 18. Be3 c5 19. Nb3 Nxd3 $11) 17... Rc8 18. Nd5 Bd6 $15) 16. f4 {[%emt 0:00: 09]} Be7 {[%emt 0:00:53]} 17. Ne4 {[%emt 0:04:06]} Raf8 {[%emt 0:18:15] Aronian didn't like this idea followed by g5 for his opponent. He felt that it was better to go Nb4 and bolstering the centre with c5 (just like Aronian did with Ng5 and f4). But I don't think Ding Liren's idea is bad.} (17... Nb4 $5 18. a3 $5 (18. Rf3 c5 $11) 18... Nxd3 19. Rd1 Nc5 20. Rxd4+ Kc8 21. Rc4 Nxe4 22. Rxe4 $11) 18. Bd2 {[%emt 0:02:43]} g5 $1 {[%emt 0:02:21] Very thematic, chipping away at the white centre.} 19. g3 {[%emt 0:11:53]} (19. fxg5 Nxe5 $15) 19... Rhg8 {[%emt 0:02:51]} 20. Kh1 {[%emt 0:03:37]} gxf4 {[%emt 0:08:52]} 21. gxf4 {[%emt 0:00:06]} Rg6 {[%emt 0:07:45]} 22. Rac1 {[%emt 0:02:18]} Rfg8 { [%emt 0:02:43]} (22... a5 {stopping b4 could have been a good idea, as White doesn't have to prepare that move.}) 23. a3 {[%emt 0:06:55]} (23. b4 {was a move that could have been played directly.} a6 24. Rc4 $14) 23... a5 {[%emt 0: 02:37]} 24. Rf3 {[%emt 0:03:09]} b6 {[%emt 0:02:58]} 25. Rh3 {[%emt 0:02:44]} R8g7 {[%emt 0:00:29]} 26. Ng3 {[%emt 0:02:12]} Nd8 {[%emt 0:06:16]} 27. b4 { [%emt 0:04:45]} (27. f5 exf5 28. Nxf5 Rf7 29. Nxd4 c5 30. Nb5 Ne6 $44 {gives Black ample of compensation for the pawn.}) 27... axb4 {[%emt 0:08:42]} 28. axb4 {[%emt 0:00:03]} b5 {[%emt 0:03:35] Ding Liren was not too happy that his knight didn't have a good square in the game. When Aronian played b4, Ding finally felt that his knight had found its home on c6 to attack the b4 pawn. For that he had to fix it and hence, he went for b5. But it turns out that White has some interesting ideas based on the move f5.} 29. Kg2 $6 {[%emt 0:06: 54] I was sitting in the press room and there were some really strong players there. Most notably Gaprindashvili, Ioseliani, Sosonko etc. and they all were wondering why Aronian didn't play f5. It's of course easy to assume that both the players had seen this move and it was confirmed by them in the post game comments. However, the computer remains unimpressed. This proves the point that what the silicon monster thinks is the best, is often the critical line of humans, but they refrain from it because of tremendous complexity.} (29. f5 $5 exf5 30. Nxf5 Rf7 31. Nxd4 {This is all forced. Now Black has some options.} Rg4 {was Aronian's main line.} (31... c5 $6 32. bxc5 Bxc5 33. Nxb5 $18) (31... Ne6 {was considered by Ding Liren.} 32. Nxb5 c6 $6 (32... Rg4 $5 {seems like a better move, which transposes to Aronian's line.}) 33. Na3 $1 $16) 32. Nxb5 Ne6 {This seems like the best line and even though White is two pawns up, I still feel that the position is not so easy to handle as Black's pieces are very active.} 33. d4 c6 34. Ra3 $5 {This was the move that Levon was calculating during the game.} cxb5 35. d5 {And it seems really dangerous for Black, but he has the only way to maintain the balance.} Rf2 $1 36. Ra7+ Ke8 37. Be3 Re2 38. dxe6 Rxe3 39. Ra8+ (39. Rc8+ Bd8 $19) 39... Bd8 40. Rd1 Ke7 41. Raxd8 Kxe6 $11) 29... Nc6 {[%emt 0:00:35] Now the b4 pawn is under pressure.} 30. Rb1 {[%emt 0: 02:19]} Rf7 {[%emt 0:02:01]} 31. Rh5 {[%emt 0:00:13]} Rg8 {[%emt 0:01:09]} 32. Rh6 {[%emt 0:08:46]} (32. Kf3 Ra8 {with rook coming to a2, White has to be careful.} 33. Rb2 Ra4 34. Ke4 Bxb4 35. Bxb4 Nxb4 36. f5 $13) 32... Bf8 { [%emt 0:01:58]} 33. Rh3 {[%emt 0:00:10]} Be7 {[%emt 0:00:57]} 34. Rh6 {[%emt 0: 00:04]} Bf8 {[%emt 0:00:31]} 35. Rh3 {[%emt 0:00:05]} Be7 {[%emt 0:00:27] And the players agreed to a draw. One can say nothing much happened in this game, but I would say, it was a moral victory for the Chinese player who was able to draw the game without too many difficulties with the black pieces.} 1/2-1/2

After the game ended we were able to get the thoughts of both the players on what had just happened:

Ding talks about his opening preparation, new settings, feeling cold in the new venue and his opponent Aronian

Underestimating his opponent was the reason why Levon Aronian has a -3 score against Ding Liren. This time he has much more respect for his opponent.

ECU president Zurab Azmaiparashvili, Chairman of the Anti-Cheating Commission Israel Gelfer, Continental President for Americas Jorge Vega, and FIDE Vice President D.V. Sundar | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Two-time World Championship finalist Nana Ioseliani visited the press area | Photo: Amruta Mokal

At some point the press area had come alive with a lot of strong players discussing the position. Although the discussion and arguments were in Georgian/Russian language, it all seemed very interesting, mainly because everyone had an opinion about the position. Along with Nana Ioseliani there was also Grandmaster Sosonko, Nona Gaprindashvili and Baadur Jobava's brother Beglar. Check out this video to know how the atmosphere was in the press centre.

The scene in the press room during the game

Levon Aronian had a lot of fans waiting for him after the game ended. Here you can see a girl draped with the Armenian flag taking a selfie with him. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Levon Aronian came in these shoes that caught everyone's notice. When asked about them he said, "It's a present from Arianne. I like to wear things that she gifts me." | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Ding Liren has been pretty much unforgiving with the white pieces at the World Cup. Levon Aronian will have his task cut out. He has to ensure that he gets a fighting position out of the opening if he has any chances to beat his Chinese opponent. With his experience of playing at the highest level Levon's middlegame skills are surely a tad better than Ding's. However, the opening plays a crucial role. Only if the Chinese player is taken out of his comfort zone than Aronian has a chance to beat him. If Ding gets a risk free position with a small edge like he did against Wang Hao, Richard Rapport and Wesley So, he is just too good in such technical positions.

Format of the finals

The finals of the World Cup 2017 has a different format from the other rounds. Instead of the usual two classical games, we will witness four. And in case of a 2-2 tie, the match will go into the tiebreaks on September 27th. Levon Aronian has the white pieces in game one. The winner takes home USD 120,000 (net 96,000) and the runner-up receives 80,000 (net 64,000). 

Make your predictions

A word of caution: Ding Liren after his win against Wesley So told us that he saw the predictions of his semi-final match and was not pleased to notice only 25% of people thought he could win! Of course, the Chinese player proved himself by playing some fantastic chess. Noting his form in this tournament and his past record against the Armenian grandmaster, do you still think Aronian is the favourite?


The two players and their path to the finals


Sagar Shah is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.
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doeGrimes doeGrimes 10/4/2017 04:25
Why there are not any games on pgn?
algorithmy algorithmy 9/24/2017 10:16
Aronian's off the board behavior is very rude in this tournament. It's as if he is trying to confuse his opponents with such behavior.
I thought that a world class player would be above these silly strategies executed by amateur players in open tournaments!
benedictralph benedictralph 9/24/2017 10:16
Aronian has his ups and downs. Of the two, he's probably more likely to have succumbed to the temptations of wine and women too, it seems to me. This might affect his performance.
algorithmy algorithmy 9/24/2017 09:48
These too many questions about the clothes and shoes are absurd and somehow disturbing. Don't ask them again Sagar!