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Reports Sep 20, 2020 | 12:08 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen & So share 1st in St. Louis Rapid & Blitz

Wesley So labelled it “a very shocking day” as he won the final three games to catch Magnus Carlsen and share 1st place despite offering a draw in a winning position in the 1st of those games. Magnus had arrived late and shirtless to the opening game, which he went on to lose to Hikaru Nakamura, but despite saying he was “just not in good shape at all” he was in the driving seat for most of the day. Hikaru was the day’s top scorer with 6.5/9 and finished 3rd, even getting to win with the Bongcloud 1.e4 e5 2.Ke2!? after Jeffery Xiong blew a winning position.

Magnus Carlsen buttons up his hastily thrown-on shirt, while Hikaru Nakamura waits...

You can replay all the games from the 2020 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz using the selector below – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis.

You can also watch the final day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley, including final interviews with Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen.

Magnus gets off to a rocky start

Magnus Carlsen went into the final day with a half-point lead over Wesley So, but had a bad feeling about the day ahead.

Yesterday I thought I didn’t play very well, but I scored quite a lot of points, and today I was frankly just not in good shape at all. I was extremely tired and I didn’t sleep well, so I didn’t expect to play even remotely well today. With that in mind, I’m actually pretty happy with the result that I managed to put up.

It didn’t help that he arrived for the first game late and shirtless, with his opponent Hikaru Nakamura not looking amused.

Magnus wasn’t offering much of an explanation afterwards, when he commented simply, “I had too little time before the round”. He also said that 4 minutes “is plenty enough to play a good game”, though with the way clocks work in online chess he wasn’t penalised at the start and had 5 minutes after his 1st move. It took time to button his shirt, however, and he was almost a minute and a half behind when he missed a big chance to punish 12.f4!?

12…Bxe3+! 13.Qxe3 Ng4! and then Qb6+ and Ne3+ is winning an exchange for Black, while in the game after 12…e5?! 13.Bxa7 Rxa7 14.f5 Magnus needed to defend accurately to survive. For once he didn’t manage, and Hikaru crashed through to win in 23 moves!

Wesley So’s draw with Jeffery Xiong was enough for him to become co-leader again, and things almost went from bad to worse for Magnus, as in the next game Ian Nepomniachtchi sacrificed an exchange to get to push some powerful passed pawns. The game turned around, however, and in the end it was exactly the kind of game Magnus had won a day earlier.

54.Rd1! and Magnus could later take on g6 and win, but instead 54.Kxg6? immediately threw away the advantage. After 54…Ke4! 55.Rd1 Kxf4 the knight would always be able to stop the remaining pawn. Meanwhile co-leader Wesley So took a 14-move draw against Hikaru Nakamura, keeping a 3-point lead over the world blitz no. 1.

Magnus strikes, but Wesley keeps up the pressure

That set up the showdown between the leaders. Wesley So was able to exchange off queens on move 10 and would no doubt have been delighted with a draw, but Magnus managed to keep the game alive until 28.g6! suddenly posed real problems for Wesley.

28…h5!? was the fruit of over a minute’s thought, with Wesley’s advantage on the clock slipping away. 29.Nd7+ Ke7 30.Nxb6+ (30.gxh5! may have been best) 30...Kf6 31.Rxa7 left Magnus with two connected passed pawns on the queenside. Wesley chose to give up a piece to eliminate them, but that proved too much, as Magnus eventually wove a mating net to finish off the game.

Suddenly Wesley, who had been cruising with 7 draws in a row, was a point behind, but that seemed to jolt him into action as he went on to beat Leinier Dominguez convincingly in the following game, cutting the lead to half a point.

The next big twist came in Round 15, when Magnus happily accepted a piece sacrifice from Harikrishna and went on to win in style, while Wesley drew against Alexander Grischuk in just 22 moves. That gave Magnus a 1-point lead, but in fact it could have been 1.5 points!

19…Rc4! would have overpowered White, with too many threats against the queen on a4, the bishop on e4 and the white king. Instead, with over two minutes on his clock, Alexander quickly played 19…Bd6 and after 20.Rac1 the danger had passed.

Wesley So is forced to win

Once again Magnus had a 1-point lead, and now there were just three rounds to go. He’d mentioned on an earlier day that being a frontrunner in chess is incredibly difficult, but here he did his job. He drew against Alireza Firouzja and Alexander Grischuk and won a fine game against Jeffery Xiong’s 1.b3.

27…d4! 28.exd4 Nd5! was fine execution, in all senses of the word, with the knight then not even taking on c3 but heading to f4. The World Champion had scored 2/3, and could justifiably comment afterwards, “I didn’t even choke!”    

That wasn’t enough for sole first place, however, since Wesley So scored a perfect 3/3, almost despite himself. The key game was in Round 16 of the blitz, when he faced Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Russian no. 1 had had a tough day, losing heavily to Grischuk, getting discouraged from playing 1.b3 by a loss to Aronian and committing chess suicide against Jeffery Xiong… again!

He could have improved his score by picking up a free point against Harikrishna, but he chose the noble path!

Then in the game against Wesley So the crucial moment came after his opponent’s 19…a3!

The computer evaluates this position as better than -2 for Wesley, but, in an act that summed up his approach to the event, he accompanied the move with a draw offer! He began his post-game interview:

A very shocking day! First I’d like to thank Ian because he played very aggressively in our game and I offered a draw at some point, because it was very complex, but he declined… I wasn’t really expecting anything. I was just trying to secure second place after losing to Magnus in that crucial game, but suddenly things went out of hand.

Wesley commented that Nepo could sacrifice a pawn and “the position remains very complex because he’s got attacking chances also along the g-file”, but after 20.b3 Bxg4! 21.fxg4 Nexg4 22.Qd4 c5! Wesley went on to play perfect chess to pick up the full point. Ian got disconnected and lost on time at the end, but it’s unlikely the outcome would have changed if he’d been able to play.

Wesley never looked back, next smoothly outplaying Levon Aronian after the Armenian no. 1’s attack on the white king backfired, and then barely giving Harikrishna a chance, despite playing with the black pieces in the final round.

It was an immensely impressive run of play and just makes you wonder what kind of a player Wesley could be if he could stop himself making so many draws! Why does he do that?

I’ve had a lot of experience in these events from the Grand Chess Tour portion and I tend to lose one game after another if I lose one game, then it kind of snowballs to a 2nd or 3rd loss. So I was trying to avoid that at all costs, and also at the very least I was trying to secure second place if possible, because it’s hard to compete against Magnus for 1st place.

I don’t know if it’s the best strategy, but generally I’m comfortable to agree to a draw with the black pieces, and sometimes when I get over ambitious with White I then get punished. So it’s definitely not the best option for everyone, but sometimes it works for me - let’s say if I won one or two games, or three games at the beginning of the tournament, then drawing the rest could secure a very good result. At the same time, it doesn’t work if I don’t win any games at the beginning. It’s hard to say, but generally in these blitz games a lot of things can happen very quickly.

It doesn’t seem like the mindset of a champion, but Wesley has shown on many occasions just how effective his approach can be in tournaments – plus in the past it’s taken him to world no. 2 and a peak live rating of 2824.5. In the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz it brought him joint 1st place on 24/36 and a $45,000 prize.

There was again no tiebreak or playoff, and while Magnus pointed out that without the earlier disconnect against Nepo he would have taken clear first, he was full of praise for his opponent.

Not to be too salty, but if I hadn’t lost a game by disconnect at some point there wouldn’t even have been an issue at the end, so that’s something, right? But overall I think Wesley played a fantastic tournament. He made +4 in both formats, lost very, very few games and won three games in a row when he needed to, so that’s an amazing performance and you can only tip your hat to that and overall I’m pretty ok with the final result.

Most other players in the tournament had less to be thrilled about. Alexander Grischuk had talked earlier about his ambition to finish in 9th place, since no-one wants to be last – but in this case Alireza Firouzja and Leinier Dominguez were both 9th and last, after the 17-year-old won their individual encounter but fell to defeat in the final round.

Hikaru Nakamura never challenged for the lead but also ended up in such a comfortable 3rd place that he could afford to play the notorious 1.e4 e5 2.Ke2!? in the final round:

On the one hand, it was unfair trolling of his 19-year-old opponent, but on the other hand it was a great chance for Jeffery Xiong to earn $1,000 more than he ultimately did ($15,000 for sole 7th place instead of $14,000 for shared 7th). Magnus commented:

I thought what he did was not a proper Bongcloud Opening (Magnus feels that’s 1.f3 2.Kf2), but the fact that he played it and won with it is still pretty cool! I think in the last round it would be fun regardless, but obviously when he wins it looks a lot better, right? For Jeffery obviously that’s an embarrassment, but it’s just one game, and it’s not like you don’t have to play well to win after Ke2. You still have to play a good game and I guess Hikaru eventually tricked him.

Jeffery was giving the opening the treatment it deserved until disaster struck on move 25:

Material is level – Black has 3 pawns for a piece – but it’s clear to the naked eye that Black has a huge advantage with the white king naked and defenceless in the middle of the board. Jeffery could simply retreat the attacked bishop with 25…Bg7 (the e5-knight is of course pinned, so not attacking the queen), or 25…Qb5!, attacking the b2-bishop, would accomplish everything Jeffery wanted while maintaining the material balance. Instead, significantly behind on the clock, he played 25…Qf5? and after 26.Qxh6 Rxe5+ 27.Bxe5 Qxe5+ Black is not giving mate due to 28.Qe3 and suddenly White has an extra rook.

It was still close to equality, but to defend after what had happened would be a superhuman task, with Hikaru going on to win with ease. The last turn of the knife was that his final move was again to put his king on e2 with 52.Kxe2.

Chess players often ask “what would Magnus do?”, and in this case he would have taken a different approach!

I probably would have gone 2…Ke7, to be fair, and then he goes 3.Ke1, I go 3…Ke8 and we basically play No Castling chess.

On that note, it's time to bid farewell to the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz!

The Chess Bundesliga is also coming to end this Sunday, but there’s no break in the chess action. At 17:00 CEST Peter Svidler is playing Maxime Lagarde in the final qualifying match for the chess24 Banter Series. Then on Monday 21st September the winner will join the 16-player finals, with the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri all battling it out in 8-game matches where both players must commentate on their moves.

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