Putting all of last year's turmoil both on and off the board behind him now, Wesley So looks set to make 2016 the year for his major breakthrough at the very top of elite chess. And the 22-year-old ex-Filipino did so with just a touch of élan yesterday, with an unbeaten +2 performance to claim victory at the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, to now lead the Grand Chess Tour standings going into the final tour stop of the London Chess Classic in December.
With the overnight lead, So’s safety-first game-plan in the final round against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the tricky rising French star, was to avoid any complications and secured a draw - and he went about this in a truly professional manner, by systematically exchanging all the pieces off in the notorious ‘Berlin Endgame’, to become the clubhouse leader.
He left it for others, such as Veselin Topalov, Levon Aronian and Vishy Anand to risk all to play for a win and to take the Sinquefield Cup into a playoff. For a while, it looked as if this scenario was going to play out, with Topalov looking as if he was the one who could catch him - but at the decisive moment in a rook and pawn ending against Aronian, the Bulgarian lacked the technique needed to convert the win to tie for first place.
And after a dramatic day of play So was congratulated by sponsor Rex Sinquefield as the eventual victor for his first super-tournament win of his career. And with Rex’s congratulations, there also came the added bonus of 13 GCT points and $75,000 for his efforts, not to mention the sole lead of the tour going into the final event in London in early December!
So’s path to victory was made all the more easier with his moral-boosting opening round win over Hikaru Nakamura - a result that set the tone for the two US rivals. From here, So went on to win and almost overtook Nakamura in the world rankings. For Nakamura, it would lead to a frustrating tournament, and in the penultimate round he lost a marathon encounter to Levon Aronian that he should really have drawn - and Nakamura took his frustrations out on Ding Liren in the final round with a scintillating sacrificial game.
1. Wesley So (USA) 5.5/9; 2-5. Vishy Anand (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 5; 6-7. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 4.5; 8. Ding Liren (China) 4; 9. Peter Svidler (Russia) 3.5; 10. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 3.
GM Hikaru Nakamura - GM Ding Liren
4th Sinquefield Cup, (9)
Semi-Slav Defence, Anti-Moscow Gambit
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5 8.Bg3 b5 This is the battleground for the Anti-Moscow Gambit. For a pawn, White obtains a powerful pawn-centre, a space advantage and superior development. This all makes it easier - and more fun - for White to play and for Black to be extremely careful. 9.Be2 Bb7 10.h4 g4 11.Ne5 Nbd7 12.Nxd7 Qxd7 13.Be5 Qe7 14.b3 This sideline to the mainline was pioneered by former US Women's Champion Irina Krush - and it seems as if it has caught Nakamura attention, as the game now takes a big tactical twist. 14...cxb3 15.axb3 a6 16.Qc1!? The only move seen here has been 16.0-0 - but Nakamura, with his ever-alert tactical antenna, looks to have found a new dynamic possibility. And recapturing the pawn just helps Black develop his pieces where he wants them for an easy game: 16.Bxg4 Rg8 17.Bf3 Nd7 18.Bc7 Rc8 19.Bg3 (Not 19.Ba5 c5 20.d5 Ne5! with a nice advantage.) 19...Qb4 20.Rc1 Rxg3! (One of the least understood - and most important - sacrifices in chess: the positional exchange sacrifice.) 21.fxg3 Bg7 22.e5 Rd8 and Black's pieces are ideally placed to hit White's central pawns. 16…Rg8 17.0-0 Nh5 18.d5! A common theme in such positions to rip apart Black's defences - and what Nakamura would have given to have started his campaign (he lost in the opening round to eventual winner, Wesley So) this way rather than ending it? 18...Qxh4? It's a move that just doesn't look right, does it? - and especially as White has all his pieces ready to strike the Black king caught in the centre of all this mayhem. Safer to me looked the more reserved option of 18...Rc8 trying to shore up the defences. However capturing on d5 would have led to a quick rout: 18...exd5 19.exd5 Qxe5 20.Re1 Be7 21.Bxb5! Qd6 22.dxc6 Bc8 (22...Bxc6? 23.Ne4 wins.) 23.Ne4 Qg6 24.Qe3 Kf8 25.Ng3! Bb4 (25...Nxg3? 26.Qxe7+) 26.Qe8+ Kg7 27.Qe5+ Kh7 28.Nxh5 Bxe1 29.Nf6+ Kg7 30.Nxg8+ Kxg8 31.Qxe1 and White is easily winning. 19.g3 Qg5 20.dxc6! Qxe5 There's no respite in exchanging queens with 20...Qxc1 as 21.cxb7! will win at least a piece. 21.cxb7 Rb8 22.Nd5!! (See Diagram) The coup de grace, and apparently missed by Ding Liren - and I would imagine Nakamura had probably looked at such possibilities when he researched the line with his trusty bank of silicon beasts during his home prep. And from such tactical positions Nakamura thrives on; and the pressure now becomes relentless for his opponent. 22...exd5 Ding Liren, who looked somewhat exhausted in the final round and lacking energy, missed that he could have offered more of a stubborn defence with 22...f6 and an escape hatch for his king, though White is still easily winning: 23.Rxa6 exd5 24.exd5 Kf7 25.Re6 Qxd5 26.Qc7+ Kxe6 27.Qxb8 Kf7 28.Rd1 and Black can't stop the b-pawn from queening without the loss of serious material. 23.Qc8+ Ke7 There's nothing left to salvage now. If 23...Rxc8 24.bxc8Q+ Ke7 25.Rxa6 White has a forced mate in 10. 24.Rxa6 Nxg3 May as well go with a bang than a whimper. 25.Bxb5 Ne2+ 26.Bxe2 f6 27.Re6+! The final, decisive tactic - Nakamura is going to emerge from the smoke with a big game-winning passed pawn on b7. 27...Qxe6 28.Qxb8 1-0