Levon Aronian’s World Championship hopes are over for the next two years after failure in his ground-breaking visit to Baku for the World Cup.
Levon Aronian, triumphant winner of the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis earlier this month, needed to reach the World Cup final to qualify for the Candidates Tournament and retain chances of challenging Magnus Carlsen for the world title.
In any knock-out tournament, one small mistake can doom your chances and Aronian, despite being one of the favourites in the 128 player field, was reckoned to have less than a 6% chance of winning in the Azeri capital. Add to that travelling to a city which saw pogroms against Armenians little more than a quarter of a century ago and Aronian was always going to have security as a worry as well as chess.
Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia have become more tense recently, with the Azerbaijan government declaring that negotiations over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have failed and they may need to turn to military force.
Citizens from Armenia or of Armenian origin are normally not granted visas for Azerbaijan but the Azeris when agreeing to host the World Cup (and the Olympiad in 2016) agreed to make it possible for Armenians to compete.
The organisers declared that the visiting Armenians would be completely secure, though Aronian took no chances, bringing his own bodyguard.
Publicly Aronian was diplomatic when quizzed in Saint Louis about the possible problems before he travelled to Baku: “Surely it’s not very easy for we chess players to do our best, because our countries are in conflict. However I get along well with Azeri players and Armenian artists and musicians also go to Azerbaijan. I will perform as a person who wants to bring peace to the region, showing that I respect the neighbouring country.”
The organisers, who had expended plenty of effort assuring the Armenian Chess Federation that their Grandmasters would be safe in Baku, were true to their word, with security screening for all World Cup audience members and positioning of the Armenian tables as far from any spectators as possible. More than that, the World Cup organisers attempted, as much as was possible, to make the Armenians feel welcome.
Before the event, the Armenian players had expected to confine themselves to the Flame Towers Hotel for the duration of the tournament – a golden cage, to be sure, given the luxurious nature of the hotel. However within a few days they had enough confidence to take walks in the park nearby the hotel. The park was not a complete escape from the worries of the world – it contained hundreds of plaques commemorating the (mostly) young Azeri soldiers who died in 1992 fighting against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Speaking before the tournament, Aronian was determined to improve on his 2013 third round World Cup exit.
“This is a very different story to the 2013 Tromso World Cup because there I was already qualified [for the Candidates tournament] by rating,” said Aronian.
“The openings play a big role in a knock-out tournament. There are very few people that you can beat in the classical phase.” (The KO World Cup is played with two classical – slow time limit – games per round. If those games are tied, tiebreakers at faster and faster time limits are played.)
“With [top 100] guys you may win with White but it’s not guaranteed and with Black if they want to make a draw they’ll definitely be able to do it.”
Aronian explained that this didn’t mean he had to go hard at winning each mini-match in the classical phase. “I don’t mind playing rapid [tiebreakers] if I have to.” (When Aronian won the 2005 World Cup as a 22-year-old he was more direct, needing only two tiebreakers in his seven successful rounds.)
Sure enough, in the second round Aronian found himself playing rapid tiebreakers against the Ukraine’s Alexander Areshchenko.
Areshchenko, 29, has had his own problems, being forced to relocate his family from the war-torn east of Ukraine to the safer city of Lviv.
The first tiebreaker against Areshchenko turned out to be the end of Aronian’s world title dreams. Misplaying a good attack, Aronian found himself a pawn down and was ground down by Areshchenko. Playing Black in the return game, Aronian never looked like winning and in fact lost again.
The Baku World Cup turned out to be a disaster (chess-wise) for the Armenian contingent – including the US players of Armenian origin, who also required a special visa to be allowed to participate. All the Armenians were knocked out by the second round, perhaps showing that, despite the best efforts of the Azeri organisers, it was possible to feel safe in Baku and yet not comfortable enough to perform at maximum strength.
Nonetheless, on his final day in Baku, Aronian went for a tour along the waterfront and into the old town of Baku. When your World Championship chances have been lost for two years, why not live dangerously and have some fun?