Wesley So has indeed started 2017 much in the same way as he finished 2016 with yet another super-tournament victory to his name, as he dominated the 79th Tata Steel Masters in the Dutch hamlet of Wijk aan Zee from start to finish. In the final round, So ended his campaign on a high with the easiest of easy wins, as his opponent, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, quickly self-destructed in the opening to gift the American his first Tata Steel title.
It was ‘Wesley’s Wijk’ all the way, as the US No.2 didn’t put a foot wrong by finishing with an awe-inspiring, +5 unbeaten winning score of 9/13. He took the title half a point ahead of his nearest rival, Magnus Carlsen, who yet again had a misfiring performance that now has to be a major cause for concern for the World Champion - and this rivalry could be a portent of things to come, as it is now clear that So has risen to become the main contender to be the Norwegians’ next title-challenger.
To me, Wesley's chess style is a bit risk-free but he is opportunistic and is now converting wins with alarming, Capablanca-like clarity. He’s the modern-day ‘Chess Machine’, and he’s become a formidable force in the game with a remarkable Carlsen- and Kasparov-like unbeaten run of 56 games in classical chess, with his last loss being to Carlsen last July in the Bilbao Masters Final.
But by So’s own admission, “That loss was a huge turning point.” Not long after this, he secured the services - thanks to being the 2016 awardee of the Frank P. Samford Chess Fellowship - of Soviet-era top trainer Vladimir Tukmakov and then then went on a remarkable streak of winning everything he played in: the Sinquefield Cup, Team and Individual Gold at the Baku Olympiad, London Chess Classic, Grand Chess Tour, and now the 79th Tata Steel Masters.
In the process, So has dramatically risen up the world rankings and, coupled with his fellow countryman Fabiano Caruana also losing on Sunday (to Nigel Short in the Gibraltar Masters), he had the double celebration of not only winning Wijk on the same day but also becoming the new world No.2 in the unofficial live ratings at 2822, tantalisingly now just 16-points behind the once-seemingly untouchable Carlsen.
"I have high respect for Magnus. I learn a lot from his games,’ said So after his victory. “He used to be my inspiration (...). He's still the best in the world." That may be the case for now, but self-made man Wesley So definitely has his sights firmly fixed now on taking Carlsen’s crown and his coveted No.1 ranking in the game.
Final Standings: 1. Wesley So (USA) 9/13; 2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 8; 3-5. Baskran Adhiban (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Wei Yi (China) 7.5; 6-7. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine) 7; 8. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 6.5; 9-11. Pentela Harikrishna India), Dmitry Andreikin (Russia), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), 6; 12. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 5; 13. Richard Rapport (Hungary) 4.5; 14. Loek Van Wely (Netherlands) 3.5.
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi - GM Wesley So
79th Tata Steel Masters, (13)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 Forty years ago, this aggressive early bishop sortie was nothing more than a sub-note in the opening books. It became eponymously ascribe to the one-time Brazilian champion Octavio Trompowsky, who played it almost exclusively through the 1930s and 1940s. But it really came to the fore in the mid-1980s after it was popularised by the young English grandmaster Julian Hodgson who scored many wonderful swashbuckling wins with it, and it then took off at club and tournament level. 2...d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.dxc5 e6 5.e4 h6 6.Bh4 dxe4 7.Qe2 Qa5 8.0-0-0 Qxa2 9.Qb5+? Nepo is breaking just about all the rules for sound opening play we teach kids, and Wesley So probably just can't believe his luck here, as finds himself with a won game after just 9 moves! Nepo had to play 9.Bxf6 Qa1+ 10.Nb1 gxf6 11.Qxe4 when he slightly has the worst of it, though still very much in the game. I can only assume that the Russian had to have had a brain freeze of sorts to allow So all this deadly activity. 9...Nbd7 10.c6? And things now go from bad to worse for Nepo, as this further self-inflicted wound just activates all of So's pieces for a lethal mating attack that wins material. 10...bxc6 11.Qxc6 Bb7! 12.Qxb7 What else is there? If 12.Qb5 a6 13.Qb3 Qa1+ 14.Nb1 Bd5 and with ...Rb8 coming next, Black has a quick winning attack. 12...Qa1+ 13.Nb1 Rb8 14.Qxb8+ There's no hope. If 14.Qc6 Qxb2+ 15.Kd2 Bb4+ 16.Ke3 Bc5+ 17.Kd2 Qb4+ 18.c3 e3+! picks up the bishop on h4 and White's king is still left wandering dazed and confused in no man's land. 14...Nxb8 15.Bb5+ Nfd7 16.Ne2 Be7 17.Bxe7 Kxe7 18.Nd4 Nc5 19.h4 Rd8 20.Rh3 The only threat Nepo has had in the game, as Ra3 traps the queen. But just when you think you have a little activity and some hope, So hits back with the deadly strike. 20...Nd3+! Stopping the Rh3 cutting across the board, and at the same time, starting the process of exchanging off pieces for an easy win. 21.Bxd3 Rxd4 22.Be2 Rxd1+ Stronger may well have been 22...Rb4 , but So opts for the simpler solution. 23.Bxd1 Qa5 24.Nd2 f5 25.Rg3 Qe5 26.Ra3 Nc6 27.g3 Qd4 28.Re3 Nb4 0-1 Nepo spares himself any further agony by resigning early.