19 Dec

The So-So Year

Punctuated by 12 months of seismic political upheaval across the globe and with many of our sporting, artistic and cultural heroes departing, thankfully, chess-wise at least, 2016 turned out to be a “So-So year”. Wesley So’s year, to be precise: the year in which he dramatically raised his game, picking up notable plaudits from his fellow professionals and former champions Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik alike, and now regarded by many as a potential challenger for World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s crown.

After 21...Rf7!

In 2016, So won just about everything, and he rightly deserves the title of Player of the Year. He won the two strongest tournaments in 2016, the Sinquefield Cup and the London Chess Classic, and an individual gold medal at the Baku Olympiad to go alongside his Team Gold won by the USA, and he went over the landmark 2800 rating barrier to become the world No4.

And now, with a safe last round draw at the 8th London Chess Classic against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, he’s finished the year with the double whammy of taking the London title and the 2016 Grand Chess Tour title, cashing in further by scooping an additional $100,000 bonus for his efforts. His total tour winnings for 2016 came to $295,000, and obviously elated, though always modest, So commented “I am very excited and proud. Winning the Grand Chess Tour is my best achievement yet.”

And the 2016 Grand Chess Tour also ended on a high for the USA to go with their Team Gold from earlier this year at the Baku Olympiad, with So not only taking first place and the lion’s share of the prize money, but second place also going to Hikaru Nakamura ($144.166), and third place going to Fabiano Caruana ($108,750). The final tour standings and prize money allocation can be seen by clicking here.

Final standings:
1. Wesley So (USA) 6/9; 2. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 5.5; 3-5. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Vishy Anand (India), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 5; 6. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 4.5; 7-9. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Michael Adams (England) 4; 10. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 2.

(Opposite: Wesley So receives his LCC trophy from TD Malcolm Pein)

The First Move Chess column will be on a short pre-Christmas break through this week - however, we will be back 25-30 December to cover the World Rapid & Blitz Championships from Doha, as Magnus Carlsen defends his titles and also aims to become the first player to win all three world titles in the same year.

GM Veselin Topalov - GM Wesley So
8th London Chess Classic, (6)
Giuoco Piano
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano - one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century - means 'quiet game' in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3...Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 a6 Played not just to preserve Black's active bishop, by keeping it on the a7-g1 diagonal, but also preventing White from playing b4-b5 and winning the e5 pawn. 6.a4 d6 7.Bg5 Ba7 8.Nbd2 h6 9.Bh4 g5 10.Bg3 0-0 11.0-0 Nh7 12.h3 h5 With Topalov having a nightmare performance in London, his confidence shot and haemorrhaging rating points at an alarming rate, So opts to unbalance the game to give his Bulgarian opponent something that might worry him. 13.d4! The rule of thumb in chess dictates that if your opponent goes for an early flank attack, then hit immediately in the centre - and here, Topalov reacts correctly. 13...exd4 14.Nxd4 g4 15.hxg4 hxg4 16.Nxc6 bxc6 17.e5 d5 18.Be2 When things are going bad for you, they go bad for you. This is the start of what turns out to be a faulty plan for Topalov, who mistakenly believes he can pick off So's g-pawn. Instead, the natural and more active 18.Bd3 eyeing Black's kingside, was the correct continuation. Play could continue with 18...Qg5 19.Nb3 f5 20.exf6 Nxf6 21.Nd4 where, with the two bishops, better pawn structure and the more secure king, White can't be any worse - and certainly much better than what now happens in the game, that's for sure. 18...Qg5 19.a5? Topalov believes he is simply going to pick off Black's g-pawn after Ra4. But as Topalov had admitted in his defeat before this one, his brain simply wasn't working right in this tournament - and he'd missed how strong So's response now is. 19...f5! 20.exf6 Forced, otherwise ...f4 and ...g3 comes into play. 20...Nxf6 21.Ra4 Rf7! This is basically what Topalov had missed: Black has a simple winning and direct attack by swinging his rook to the h-file. And not only that, he can also play ...Rg7 over-defending the g-pawn, which would allow the embarrassing winning attack of ...Nh5 hitting the bishop on g3, which now can't take on c7 because c7 is defended after 21...Rf7. 22.Re1?? It's hard to criticise in such a bad position, but this just hastens Topalov's demise here. He's lost all ways now, but he could have prolonged the inevitable a little longer by playing 22.Nb3 and 23.Rd4 22...Nh5! We now see the wisdom of Black's bishop finding a safe haven in the opening with 6...a6 - now f2 and the Bg3 is under attack. 23.Bxg4 Nxg3 24.Re8+ Kg7 25.Rxc8 Bxf2+ 26.Kh2 Qe5! The discovered check is deadly, as Topalov's king gets lured into a mating net. 27.Kh3 If 27.Rxa8 Nf1+ 28.Kh1 Qh2# 27...Ne2 0-1

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