Any thoughts that Magnus Carlsen winning the Paris leg of Grand Chess Tour would only prove to inspire the world champion to be unstoppable in the Your Next Move GCT leg in Leuven, just outside of Brussels, proved to be wide of the mark, as yet another bout of indifferent form opened the way for one of his main rating and title rivals, US champion Wesley So to take all the plaudits with a truly inspired performance to win the rapid leg.
So won the rapid tournament with an unbeaten score of 14/18 (+5 =4), as he turned in a rating performance of 2993, just a few points shy of Carlsen’s rapid performance of 2997 last week in Paris. And in the process, So’s wins were against Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand, respectively the reigning world champion and his two predecessors(!); not to mention Levon Aronian and the hapless Baadur Jobava.
An obviously delighted So couldn’t contain his joy at winning, especially after his bad performance last week in Paris. But winning the overall title is a big ask for the American world No.4, as by his own admission he’s not noted as being a good blitz player. “I’m very excited for tomorrow because I’ve never really won a blitz tournament in my life, really!” said an elated So. “My results in blitz are below average.”
And with speed mavens Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Grischuk missing from Leuven, and So only holding a 2-point lead over Maxime Vachier-Lagrave - and 3-points over Carlsen - it’s quite conceivable that the coming 18 rounds of blitz (that starts Saturday) could end up being yet another epic battle between Carlsen and MVL to decide the overall title.
But for now, Wesley So’s Leuven it!
Rapid final standings
1. Wesley So (USA) 14/18; 2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 12; 3. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 11; 4. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 10; 5-7. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 9; 8. Viswanathan Anand (India) 8; 9. Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine) 7; 10. Baadur Jobava (Georgia) 1.
(Note: In the rapid, it's two points for a win, one point for a draw)
GM Wesley So - GM Vladimir Kramnik
Your Next Move GCT, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 The notoriously tough Berlin Defence that Kramnik dramatically rehabilitated to good effect to bamboozle Garry Kasparov, as he went on to sensationally win the title in London in 2000. 4.d3 So - like many others now - avoids the tabiya of 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 and the so-called 'Berlin Wall' endgame. 4...Bc5 5.c3 d5 6.Nbd2 dxe4 7.dxe4 0-0 8.0-0 a5 9.Bxc6 bxc6 10.Nxe5 Re8 11.Nxc6 Qd7 12.Nd4 Bxd4 13.cxd4 Qxd4 14.Nb3 Qxd1 15.Rxd1 Nxe4 16.f3 As Peter Svidler, the 7-time Russian champion recently said commentating on a similar sort of endgame, "The old Soviet school of count the number of pawn islands still holds true after all these years." Here, So has two pawns islands to Kramnik's three pawn islands, and he expertly shows how to exploit his little advantage he has here against the Russian ex-world champion. 16...a4 17.Nd4 Nc5 18.Nb5 Ne6 19.Nc3 Bb7 20.Kf2 A good tip here is that strong players win endgames by envisioning the board with all the pieces removed, reducing it down to just a king and pawn ending - and what So would like to do is see a mass exchange of pieces here, as his king would swiftly move over to the queenside to target the weak pawns on a4 and c7. 20...c5 If Kramnik doesn't play this, then So will easily get in Be3 and Rac1 and will target both the c7 and a4 pawns. 21.Be3 f5 22.f4 Stopping Black playing 22...f4 kicking the bishop back, as after supporting f4 with ...g5, Black will then have a good knight outpost on d4 as compensation for his weak queenside pawns. 22...Bc6 23.Rd6 Rac8 24.Rc1 All the playing engines here will tell you that it's '0.0' - but in practical terms, the reality is that this is tough for Kramnik to defend, as he has ready pawn targets on a4, c5 and f5 and So has the better pieces. 24...Kf7 25.Ne2 Bb5 26.Nc3 Bc6 27.Ne2 Bb5 28.Ng1! So was never interested in a draw by repeating moves, he was just gaining a little extra time on his clock. His plan is to play Ng1-f3-e5 and his knight commanding a dominating outpost. 28...g5?! Kramnik cracks - he should have just played 28...Bc6, allowing 29.Nf3 and take the game from here one step at a time, as converting So's little advantage will not be an easy task. However, Kramnik opts for drastic actions with a bit of 'chaos theory' by unstabilizing the pawn structures, hoping that a little bit of piece activity will see him secure a draw. 29.fxg5 a3 30.bxa3 Ra8 31.Rc3 Ra4 32.Rb6 Even stronger was 32.Nf3! f4 33.Bxc5 Re4 34.Rd2! and White is a clear two pawns up here and is defending his seventh rank. But I guess what So likes with his move is that he gets to exchange off some pieces now - and the more the merrier, as he'll win the endgame. 32...f4 33.Rxb5 Nxg5 34.Rb7+ More clinical was 34.Rcxc5! Ne4+ 35.Kf1 fxe3 36.Rc7+ Kg8 (It's dangerous to bring the king up the board with 36...Ke6 as after 37.Rxh7 Rxa3 38.Rb6+ Kd5 39.Rd7+ Kc5 40.Rb2 Nd2+ 41.Ke2 Rg8 42.Rc2+ Kb6 43.g3 White easily has the e-pawn covered and has marooned the Black king on the queenside.) 37.Rbb7 Nd6 38.Ra7 where White will successfully exchange off a set of rooks and has the dangerous passed e-pawn completely covered. 34...Kg8 35.Rxc5 fxe3+? Ultimately the losing move. Kramnik had to be a bit more nuanced here, and he should have played 35...Ne4+!? a wonderful saving resource quickly spotted by the all-seeing engines', that forces the awkward 36.Kf1 (Really bad would have been 36.Ke1? Nxc5 as the Be3 is pinned!) 36...fxe3 37.Rcc7 Nd6! 38.Ra7 Rd4! and Black still has a lot of play left in this position. In fact, I'd go as far as saying White might have to bail out here with a draw, as it's not easy to stop Black playing ...Rd2, as witness 39.Nf3 Rd2!? 40.Rg7+ Kf8 41.Ke1 Rxa2 42.Rxh7 Kg8 43.Rag7+ Kf8 44.Ra7 Kg8 45.Rag7+ Kf8 46.Ra7 etc. 36.Ke1 Now So has his king ideally placed on e1 to blockade the e-pawn, his rooks very active, and Kramnik's knight a little off kilter on g5. 36...Rg4 37.g3 Ne4 38.Rc4 Doubling rooks on the seventh with 38.Rcc7 was also good and strong - the rule of thumb is that there's never a bad time in chess to double your rooks on the seventh! 38...Rg6 39.Rbb4 Rather than doubling rooks on the seventh, So's plan is simply to find a way to exchange off a set of rooks to make his task of winning the endgame easier. 39...Nd6 A little better was 39...Nd2 but then again, after 40.Rg4 White easily swaps off a set of rooks. 40.Rc6 Nf5 41.Rc5 Honestly, it was far easier with 41.Rxg6+ hxg6 42.Nf3 Rc8 43.Kd1! - but perhaps in the mutual time scramble, So didn't see that 43.Kd1 stopped the Black rook getting to c2 was decisive? 41...Nd6 42.Nf3 Ne4 43.Re5 Nf6 44.Rxe8+ Nxe8 45.Re4 Nc7 46.Rxe3 The e-pawn corralled and picked off, the game is effectively over here. The rest needs no further explanation, as the players frantically bash out a few more moves in the mutual time scramble. 46...Ra6 47.Nd4 Nd5 48.Rf3 Nf6 49.Kd2 Kf7 50.Nb5 Kg6 51.Rf4 h5 52.a4 Ng4 53.h3 Ne5 54.Kc3 Rc6+ 55.Kd4 Nf7 56.Kd5 Rc2 57.a3 Rd2+ 58.Rd4 Rb2 59.Rb4 Rd2+ 60.Nd4 Ng5 61.a5 Nf3 62.a6 1-0