It’s beginning to look as if Wesley So intends to start 2017 in much the same way as he ended the old year of 2016, as the American No.2 easily overpowered the Indian No.2, Pentala Harikrishna, to take the sole lead as the 79th Tata Steel Masters moves - temprarily! - from Wijk to the Feyenoord De Kuip Football Stadium in Rotterdam, as the fabled tournament reaches out to the Dutch communities by once again going on the road.
After beating Harikrishna, So moved majestically into the lead after overnight leader Pavel Eljanov’s dream start came to a grinding halt, as he lost to Levon Aronian. And as So takes the lead, he does so by further extending his remarkably unbeaten streak in classical chess now to 48 games, with the last player to beat him being Magnus Carlsen in July of last year.
In 2016, So won just about everything, and he could well be tipped ahead of World Champion Magnus Carlsen as the favourite to win the Chess Oscar (Player of the Year). He won the two strongest tournaments in 2016, the Sinquefield Cup and the London Chess Classic, and along the way the Grand Chess Tour title. And as if that haul wasn’t enough, he also won individual gold medal at the Baku Olympiad to go alongside his Team Gold won by the USA.
This is arguably one of the most impressive runs for a player in the game today since Carlsen crashed into the No.1 spot - and So looks as if he firmly has designs on Magnus’ coveted world crown and world No.1 spot. So started 2017 as the world No.4 behind Vladimir Kramnik and, since Wijk started, he’s replaced the Russian ex-champion as the new world No.3 on the unofficial live rating list, and now within easy striking distance of fellow countryman Fabiano Caruana in the No.2 spot.
Round 5 Standings:
1. Wesley So (USA) 4/5; 2-3. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine) 3.5; 4. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 3; 5-10. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Dmitry Andreikin (Russia), Wei Yi (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland) 2.5; 11-12. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Baskaran Adhiban (India) 2; 13. Richard Rapport (Hungary) 1.5; 14. Loek Van Wely (Netherlands) 0.5.
GM Wesley So - GM Pentala Harikrishna
79th Tata Steel Masters, (5)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.c4 c5 5.Nc3 d5 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 dxc4 The problem with the immediate central thrust of 7...e5 is the intermezzo of 8.Qa4+! Bd7 9.Ndb5 0-0 (Not 9...a6? 10.Nd6+! Kf8 11.Qa3 Nc6 12.Nxb7+ Qe7 13.Qxe7+ Nxe7 14.cxd5 and Black is lost.) 10.Bg5! d4 11.Nd5 Bc6 12.Qa3! and Black is left in a difficult position. 8.Qa4+ Nbd7 9.0-0 So doesn't want to regain his pawn immediately, as this allows Black to unravel his position. The extra pawn on c4 isn't going anywhere anyway, so So concentrates on completing his development and harrassing Harikrishna on the d-file. 9...0-0 10.Rd1 Nb6 11.Qa3 Qd6 Harikrishna looks to exchange queens in an attempt for some relief, hoping to return the pawn to complete his development - but So builds on his activity and easy piece-play to pile on the pressure. But Black has no other option, as 11...Qc7 12.Ndb5 Qe5 13.Bf4 Qh5 14.Nc7 e5 15.Bd2 Rb8 16.Qxa7 Nbd7 17.N3d5 leaves Black in dire straits, and not in a good way with Mark Knopfler playing lead guitar! 12.Qxd6 exd6 13.a4! So is in no hurry to reclaim his pawn, as both the d- and c-pawns will be easily picked off. With this in mind, So gets on with his plan of harrying his opponent, and he soon cracks under the relentless pressure. 13...a6 Stopping the easy winning plan of a5-a6 etc. And if 13...a5 14.Ndb5 Ne8 15.Bg5! f6 16.Be3 Black's position is in a dreadful mess. 14.Bf4 d5 15.a5 Nbd7 16.Rac1! Yet again, So doesn't want to immediately recapture his pawn - but as Black's can't make any constructive move, he simply builds the pressure so that when d5 does eventually fall, then c4 will follow. 16...Rd8 17.Bc7 Re8 18.Bd6 Ne5 What else is there? If 18...Bf8 19.Bxf8 Kxf8 20.Nxd5 Nxd5 21.Bxd5 Re5 22.Bg2 Rxa5 23.Rxc4 Rc5 24.Rxc5 Nxc5 25.Rc1! Nd7 26.Rc7 Rb8 27.Bxb7! leaves a winning ending, with white's rook on c7 controlling the game. 19.Bxd5! The best capture, as now Black is left worrying over either Nc7 or Nb6 from White. 19...Nxd5 20.Nxd5 Bg4 21.Rd2 It’s somewhat moot, but this could arguably be described as the only inaccuracy from So in the whole game, as he missed the forced continuation of 21.Nc7! Nd3 22.exd3 Bxd1 23.Rxd1 Red8 24.Nxa8 Bxd4 25.Ba3 Rxa8 26.dxc4 Rd8 27.Rd2! with a technically won bishop ending of the same colour on the horizon. 21...Red8 Harikrishna, still recovering from being pummelled in the opening, has spent a lot of time on his clock as he fought for survival, and many thought he missed his best chance here with 21...Rad8 - it's certainly a little more tricker for White to deal with, but the end product is much the same as what happens in the game: 22.Nc7 Rf8! 23.Bb4! (If 23.Bxf8?! Bxf8 24.f3 Bh3 25.Rdd1 Bc5 26.e3 Bb4! leaves a very unclear position - Black certainly has compensation here for the material, as it's not easy for White to defend here.) 23...Rd7! 24.Bxf8 Kxf8 (Not 24...Bxf8? 25.Ne8!) 25.Na8 Nc6 26.Nf3 Rxd2 27.Nxd2 Bxb2 28.Rxc4 Bxe2 29.Re4 Bd3 and much the same as happens in the game. 22.Nb6 Rxd6 23.Nxa8 Nc6 24.Nf3 Rxd2 25.Nxd2 Bxb2 26.Rxc4 Bxe2 27.Re4 Bd3 28.Re3 Nb4?! The time pressure was telling now for Harikrishna, and he missed the slightly more accurate 28...Bc2 stopping Rb3. Now 29.Nb3 Bf6 30.Nb6 and White's much better, but there's still work left to do to convert this to a win. 29.Nb6 Bd4 30.Re7 Now once b7 falls, the game becomes an easy technical win. 30...Nc6 31.Rxb7 Nxa5 32.Rd7! Nc6 33.Nb3 Bf5 34.Rxd4! This clears matters up very quickly - the rest of the game is a mere formality now. 34...Nxd4 35.Nxd4 Bd3 36.Kg2 Kf8 37.Kf3 Ke7 38.Ke3 Bf1 39.Nf3 Kd6 40.Kd4 f6 41.Nd2 Be2 42.Nd5 f5 43.Nc3 Bh5 44.Nc4+ Ke6 45.f4 Kd7 46.Kc5 h6 47.Nd5 Ke6 48.Nc7+ 1-0 A fine powerhouse performance from Wesley So!