Wesley So is on the verge of the Fischer Random World Championship final after winning both 45-minute games against Ian Nepomniachtchi on Day 2 to take an almost insurmountable 6-point lead. Magnus Carlsen had chances to gain the same advantage against Fabiano Caruana but was ultimately held to a draw in the fourth game and takes a 3-point lead into Tuesday’s 8 rapid and blitz games, when 12 points are still up for grabs.
You can replay all the games from the FIDE World Fischer Random Championship using the selector below:
One of the 960 Chess960 positions is the standard chess starting position, while others are very similar to normal chess, but there was nothing normal about the position drawn for Day 2 in Høvikodden:
Both knights started on the rim, the bishops were on c1 and d1, the queen on b1 and at lower depths computers were giving around a 0.60 advantage for White after 1.f4. That move immediately attacked the a7-pawn, and one of the first computer suggestions – one Wesley mentioned in an interview - was a line where the players both grabbed the a-pawn and then the rook on the b-file!
Fabiano Caruana later commented that, “the starting position is very, very dangerous for Black, probably objectively bad”. That made it all the stranger, therefore, that Black was seriously better by move 6 in three of the day’s four games, and went on to win two of them!
1.f4 b6 occurred in three of the four games (So also tried responding to 1.f4 with 1…f5), and the first Caruana-Carlsen game continued with the quintessentially Fischer Random opening 2.f5 f6. White was seizing space as soon as possible, but a critical moment arose very early on when Magnus seized space of his own with 5…e5!?
After thinking for a minute and a half Fabiano captured en passant with 6.fxe6?! and was clearly worse after 6…Qxe6! 7.Qf2 0-0!. He explained later:
The first game was not a good game. I mean it was a good game on his part, he played well, but fxe6 was a move that really filled me with regrets. It was a very stupid mistake – I just forgot that he can short castle and I realised that he takes with the queen and castles short and after that my position was just worse.
If castling hadn’t been an option White might have gained a good position after a move such as 7.Nf5, but in the game Black was instantly comfortable, with the advantage close to decisive after 18.Re4!?, one of a number of mistakes Fabiano would be forced to admit by reversing the move:
Magnus went for 18…f5! and after 19.Ree1 he should probably have followed up instantly with f4 and f3. 19…Rbe8 spoilt nothing, though, and a little later the f-pawn did perform a victory march:
24…f4! 25.Nf1!? (25.Ne4! f3 26.Ng5! may have been the best chance) 25…f3! 26.gxf3 Nf5! and the knights took over on the weak squares around the white king.
White’s house of cards soon collapsed, with the position after 32…Ng5!, exploiting the pins of the f4-pawn and the e4-rook, perhaps summing up the game:
The players know the starting position only 15 minutes before the first game, but they can have up to an hour before the second game starts, as well as the experience of playing the position. Fabiano was concerned, and ultimately very glad to have escaped the second game with a draw:
I was really upset because I realised that the starting position is very, very dangerous for Black, probably objectively bad, and so to spoil the white pieces, not only to not put pressure on him but to actually lose… Then I was in a very dangerous situation where he had a lot of time to prepare with White and obviously if I lost both games today it would be a nearly hopeless match situation, so I guess a draw is at least one small good thing to take out of today.
In actual fact, though, the opening followed the same scenario as the first game. By the time Fabiano played 5…0-0-0 he may already have been better, but he went on to play passively and with two pawn sacrifices the World Champion gained a dangerous advantage. This was the position after the second:
21.Bg4 was a very natural move, but after 21…Bc6! Black was ready to meet 22.f6+ with 22…Bd7. It turns out that a stronger plan was to play 21.Bh5! Rf8 22.Rg1! and delay regaining material while keeping the maximum pressure on the black position.
Instead Magnus won back the two pawns at the cost of most of his advantage, and soon it was Black who nominally took over. There were some nice moments:
36…Re4! was a simple back-rank trick that ensured Black complete equality, and after 37.Rh1 Rfe5 38.b4 he even got a 3 vs. 2 pawn ending, but it was never going to be enough against Magnus. The game ended with bare kings on move 70:
That leaves Fabiano three points behind, but there are still four rapid games and four blitz games to go on Tuesday. He commented:
Of course I have to make a comeback, which is difficult, but the rapid counts for 2 points, so it doesn’t really feel like a 3-point deficit.
The other match, however, does look almost over:
In an interview with Tarjei Svensen after the first game Wesley So made a number of statements that were at least questionable. He described Nepomniachtchi as, “a player who is stronger than me and… better than me probably in 960”, and lamented the fact that he’d been worse in the opening in all three games up to that point. He later revised that opinion, as it turned out computers always preferred White in the first game until Wesley felt desperate times called for desperate measures and played 16.Nh5!? So commented:
He had a space advantage and ok, he had some badly placed pieces, Na8, Qg8, but I think I’d take the space advantage over that any day. I got a bit worried about my king, so I decided to sacrifice a pawn, which might be a good practical try.
Nepomniachtchi took the bait with 16…Bxh2!?
After 17.Qxh2 Rxe3 18.Nf4 Black had given up his good bishop and had to keep a close eye on the knight potentially coming to e6. 18…Nc7 stopped that for the moment, but the later 24…Bc6? turned out to be a game-losing mistake:
After 25.Ne6! Nxe6 26.Rxe6! Nepomniachtchi was already in deep trouble, since the best option 26…Bd7 runs into 27.Ra6! Kb7 and White has 28.Qd6 or the even more forcing 28.Rxa7+! That was presumably why Ian played 26…gxf5, a move Wesley said he didn’t understand, but here again 27.Qd6! was crushing:
27…Qf7 runs into 28.Rxe7 Rxe7 29.Qxc6+, so not for the first time in the match Nepo simply gave up a piece with 27…Bd7. This time there was to be no miracle escape.
The fourth game started perfectly for Wesley when he met 5.Bb2 with 5…g5!
White’s best option seems to have been to take on g5, but after 6.Ng3?! gxf4 7.Nh5 Qxg2 8.0-0-0!? (a decision that took 11 minutes) Nepomniachtchi had sacrificed two pawns in the opening but for almost none of the compensation Magnus had found against Fabiano. One of the pawns could be won back, but with 8…Qxg1 9.Rxg1 Ng6 10.Rdf1 f3! Wesley ensured that came at a high price:
Since Black hadn’t weakened his structure with e5 there was nothing to be gained with 11.Ng7+, and 11.exf3 left White a pawn down with an inferior structure and no clear attacking chances. The remainder of the game gave the impression of Nepo being on tilt as he again sacrificed a pawn with 13.d4?! and then threw in an exchange with 16.Nf6?!. Wesley calmly accepted the gifts and was utterly ruthless as he went on to win the game.
Since a win in the 45-minute games was worth 3 points Nepomniachtchi now has a 6-point mountain to climb, with 2 points for a win in the four rapid games and then just 1 point for a win in the four blitz games. A couple of rapid wins, or four draws, would seal the match for Wesley, but Nepo is of course an extremely dangerous opponent, and the US star remained cautious. His plan?
Try to play even better, try not to get too relaxed and too confident. I’ll be happy once the match is more secure.
The action on the last day of the semi-finals begins at 17:30 CET and you can follow it all live here on chess24!
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