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Reports Nov 7, 2022 | 11:12 AMby Colin McGourty

Global Championship 5: Wesley So on brink of victory

Wesley So took a 3:1 lead over Nihal Sarin on Day 1 of the Global Championship final, meaning he needs just 1.5 points to wrap up victory on Monday. The match hinged on Game 3, where Nihal had a great chance to level the scores but lost his way and stumbled into checkmate.

Checkmate ends the game

Wesley So is just short of the 4.5/8 score he needs to clinch victory in the Global Championship after a dream start to his final against Nihal Sarin.

Wesley commented on his recent improvement in form:

Obviously at some point you get tired of losing too many games and you want to do better. Hopefully that’s what’s happening to me right now.

The first game set the tone for the match, with Nihal Sarin’s attempt to play solidly with the Petroff Defence backfiring. When he spent almost half of his time on the weakening 15…f6!? it was clear he was uncomfortable.

Wesley withdrew his bishop to g3, where it would have a crucial role in what followed. 22.a4!? was a move that turned out to have a very concrete plan. Nihal could have stabilised with 22…Rd7!, but after 22…a6 he was hit by 23.Nh4!

The point is that 23…Qxh5? runs into 24.c5 and the knight on c7 falls. Without a4, Black could have taken on c4 and then after c5 would have the b5-square for his knight.

In the game after 23…dxc4!? 24.bxc4 Ne6 25.c5 Nc8? 26.Nef5! there was already no salvation and it soon became a massacre.

30.Ng6! was both beautiful and the best move in the position. After 30…hxg6 31.hxg6 mate is inevitable, with 31…Ne7 32.Rxe7! Qxe7 33.Nxe7+ Bxe7 34.Qe6+ following.

It’s mate-in-3 with 34…Kh8 35.Qh3+ Kg8 36.Qh7+ Kf8 37.Qh8#

Nihal Sarin had lost the first game with Black against Anish Giri on both days of his semi-final and then stormed back to win with White, but Wesley wasn’t in the mood to allow that to happen. In fact when Nihal went for a sharp tactical solution to his positional problems it only led him into trouble.

At the end Wesley decided to take a draw.

That was a questionable decision, since after a move like 23…Na3 he should have been able to play against Nihal’s isolated d5-pawn with very little risk. That no harm was done to his tournament chances rested on the dramatic 3rd game of the match.

After getting into trouble in Game 1 while playing a solid opening, Nihal returned to playing offbeat lines, meeting 1.e4 with 1…g6!? Wesley commented:

First of all, I didn’t expect him to play the Modern Defence, I thought he would repeat the Petroff, but he played a similar line against Anish and I guess he wanted to unbalance the game. When he played g6 I had a variety of lines to choose from, but they’re all very murky, so then I just decided to follow the line that I made for the Chessable course two years ago. This line is very complex, White castles long, and I played a lot of blitz games in this, but I haven’t reviewed it and we have to get an unclear position no matter what.

Fabiano Caruana was among the commentators shocked by taking such an approach against as dangerous a player as Wesley So.

Up to a point, however, it has to be said that it was a successful roll of the dice. On move 15, in a position where he was dominating after normal moves, Wesley went for 15.h5!?

After 15…Nxh5, calling his bluff, he felt he had to follow up with the exchange sacrifice 16.Rxh5!? Wesley said he later regretted his decision, but at the time he reasoned:

When he took on h5 I just realised I had to sac the exchange. I wasn’t sure what was exactly going on, but it looked fun.

Although the exchange sacrifice was by no means White’s best option, it was still playable, at least until Wesley went for 21.Bd4?

Nihal spent 3 minutes before correctly going for 21…e5! 22.Bf2 d5! 23.Bh4 Rd7!, with Wesley lamenting:

Nihal found all these accurate moves, e5, d5, Rd7, he found all the computer moves five moves in a row, and I was reeling at that point. I was also down on time, so that was really a critical moment of the match, because he was winning. It’s not an easy win, but he was definitely winning. If I made one more mistake the game would be over, so I was just trying to make use of all the chances that could arise, try to never give up.

The best example of just trying to keep the game alive was perhaps 28.Kc1, played after Wesley’s last long think of the game.

It turns out 28…e4! was still very good for Black, but White’s covering the d1-square and getting out of potential checks from d3 or e4 put the pressure on Nihal to find a good move in a very tricky position. Black can easily get checkmated. For instance, 28…Rg6?? loses instantly to 29.Qh8+ and checkmate next move, but 28…a5? also runs into 29.Bxb5! and the threat of mate on e7.

Qxe5+ had become a real threat, but Fabiano Caruana described the decision to defend that pawn with 28…Kc7?! as “lazy”, allowing Wesley to implement another idea, 29.a4!. After 29…Bc6 30.Bg3?! (30.axb5!) Nihal had a last chance to win with 30…Bd5! (31.axb5 Qe7!), while after 30…Rg6?! 31.Qh8+ the logical outcome of the game would have been a draw.

Low on time, however, logic goes out the window, and with one second on his clock Nihal made his first losing move of the game.

37…Qe7 would have offered Wesley the chance to repeat moves once more with 38.Qb8+ and take a draw, but it seems Nihal had failed to adapt to the new position on the board. He "played for a win" with 37…Re7?, when it turns out 38.b4!, threatening Bc5+, wins for White.

Wesley’s 38.Bf5?! kept Nihal alive, however, and after 38…bxa4 39.Qh6+ we got the last turning point of a wild game.

39…Re6! was essential, with Wesley describing the move as “probably still enough for a draw”. Instead Nihal’s 39…Kd5? allowed mate-in-4, and this time Wesley wasn’t going to miss. He took a 2-point lead with 40.Qd2+ Kc4 41.Qd3+ Kb3 42.c4+ Kb4 43.Qc3#

Nihal had the white pieces in the final game of the day, but it seems he had as little idea as most grandmasters of how to get an advantage against Wesley So. He played an early b3 and then made it a double fianchetto with 12.g3.

It didn’t look convincing, and indeed on move 22 the game was abruptly agreed drawn, leaving Wesley with a 3:1 lead after Day 1, just as he’d had in the quarterfinals against Dmitry Andreikin. Back then he needed just two games to wrap up match victory, but he’s got nothing against taking three games…

I have to score 1.5/4 — I’ll try to make many draws!

Nihal Sarin has a huge incentive to try and hit back, however, with the winner taking $200,000 while the loser gets $100,000.

The action once again kicks off at 18:00 CET.

Watch the Global Championship here on chess24.

See also:

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