The Grand Chess Tour recently announced their list of eight wildcards for the upcoming rapid and blitz tour speed events in Paris and Leuven - and what a list it is! The wildcard list in itself would make for an impressive tournament, and it includes: Anish Giri (Netherlands), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Baadur Jobava (Georgia), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), and Etienne Bacrot (France).
They will be added to the list of the nine GCT regulars already known for the new season: Wesley So (USA), tour winner, 2016; Hikaru Nakamura (USA), 2016 runner-up; Fabiano Caruana (USA), 3rd-place 2016 tour; Magnus Carlsen (Norway), world champion and 1st slot 2016 Average Rating; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), 3rd slot, 2016 Average Rating; Levon Aronian (Armenia), 1st alternate (as Kramnik declined his spot); Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), wildcard; Sergey Karjakin (Russia), wildcard; and Viswanathan Anand (India), wildcard.
And several of the tour stars were in action last Wednesday in the new global online sensation of the Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League. And it wasn't so much wildcards but wild games that were the order of the day there, as the the top three players in the world rankings, Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So led their franchise teams to victory in the quarterfinal playoffs.
Despite losing his first game in the competition, Carlsen’s led the Norway Gnomes to a 9.5-6.5 victory over the Gorky Stormbringers to become the first team to go forward to Championship Weekend. Also through is Caruana’s Montreal ChessBrahs, who had a comfortable 10-6 win over the Buenos Aires Krakens, last week’s surprise winners.
And turning in a timely power-house performance of 4/4 was Wesley So for the St. Louis Archbishops, whose perfect score more than played its part in their 8-8 tie with the Webster Windmills, as the tiebreak scores came down in favor of the Archbishops. Not so lucky though was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the world No.5, whose Marseille Migraines lost out to the Swedish Snowballs.
The Championship Weekend takes place March 25th-26th with both semi-final matches (Stockholm Snowballs vs Norway Gnomes and Montreal ChessBrahs vs St. Louis Arch Bishops) on Saturday and the finals on Sunday. And the pundits now believe that So’s impressive score so far of 26/28 could well be the difference to give the Archbishops’ the edge over the other teams.
GM Vasif Durarbayli - GM Wesley So
PRO Chess League quarterfinals
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 The Ponziani is a rare bird, something of a relic from a bygone era, and named after Domenico Lorenzo Ponziani (1719-1796), a leading member of the Modena School of Masters. Scotland's FM Tim Upton was the only internationalist I knew who regularly played it, even once bamboozling a leading Cuban grandmaster, Amador Rodriguez, into resignation in just 14 moves at the Malta Olympiad in 1980! But Upton isn't exactly a household name, and it took Magnus Carlsen to give the Ponziani a very brief revival, after he sensationally used it to beat the Indian No.2, Pentala Harikrishna, at the 2013 Tata Steel Masters. 3...d5 4.Qa4 This is the whole rationale behind the Ponziani: the pin on the Nc6 aims at pressurizing e5 and allowing White to build a strong center to counter Black's center. 4...f6 So just want to hold his e5 strongpoint and continue his development. 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.0-0 Bd7 8.d4 a6 Slightly better was 8...exd4 9.Rd1 0-0-0 10.cxd4 Qh5 11.Nc3 Nd5! And Black has promising prospects with play against White's isolated d-pawn. 9.c4! White has to play energetically here, else So will have a total grip on the position after ...exd4 and play against the weak isolated d-pawn. 9...Qd6 10.dxe5 White also could have tried here 10.d5 Nd4! (Dodgy was 10...Nb8?! 11.Bxd7+ Nxd7 12.Nc3 and White's ready to start pushing forward his queenside pawns.) 11.Nxd4 exd4 12.Bxd7+ Qxd7 13.Qd1 Nf5 with chances for both sides. 10...fxe5 11.Rd1 Qe6 The point is that, sooner or later, White is going to have to do something about the Bb5 when the rook moves out of the pin - and when that happens, Black will have a very active bishop-pair and lots of opening lines for them. 12.Nc3 Rc8 13.Ng5? Either wildly optimistic or an outright blunder - probably the latter. The 'Silicon Gods' instead prefer the more sensible 13.Re1!? Qf5! (Still too risky is 13...axb5?! 14.cxb5 Nd8 15.Nxe5 Qf5 16.Nxd7 Qxd7 17.Bf4! and White is threatening Rad1 and Qc4 keeping Black's king stranded in the middle of the board against all this pressure.) 14.Bd2 Ng6 15.Bxc6 Bxc6 16.Nd4 Bxa4 17.Nxf5 Bd7 18.Ng3 Be6 19.b3 Ba3 and there's not much in the position: Black has the bishop-pair, but White has play against the isolated e-pawn. 13...Qg4! It's hard to imagine what was going through Durarbayli's mind here, as with this one move, So's just winning now. Such are the vagaries of chess! 14.h3 axb5 15.Qxb5 Qf5 16.Qxb7 Nd4 For one of the world's top players, the extra piece comes in more than useful! 17.Nb5 Bc6 18.Qa6 Unbelievably, if 18.Nxc7+ Kd7 just wins another piece. 18...Nxb5 19.cxb5 Ra8 20.g4 Qc2 21.Rd2 Qg6 0-1