Wesley So still leads the Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour going into the final day, but it could have been so much better. With two rounds to go he was back to the 3-point lead he started with, but then he blundered and lost to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov before going on to lose an error-strewn final game against Hikaru Nakamura when he blundered a rook in a drawn endgame. That cut his lead to 1.5 points ahead of former World Blitz Champions Levon Aronian and Sergey Karjakin, with Sergey the day’s top scorer on an unbeaten +4.
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For seven rounds on Friday things couldn’t have gone much better for Wesley So. It wasn’t that he was setting the world on fire in the blitz – he began with four draws before beating Anish Giri – but that none of his rivals was mounting a serious challenge. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave came closest with two wins, but then got soundly beaten by Sergey Karjakin in Round 7.
Hikaru Nakamura, who had talked the day before about how “several of us… are much better blitz players than Wesley”, started by losing to bottom-placed Anish Giri in the first round and then gave up a pawn for nothing on the way to losing to MVL in the third:
When Wesley won his game against Giri he also overtook Hikaru to become second only to Magnus Carlsen on the live blitz rating list. It was hard not to feel that Nakamura’s own words had come back to bite him:
The first signs things might not all go to plan came in Round 7, when Wesley found himself close to lost against Fabiano Caruana – but he fought on with great tenacity, and in fact may have had chances for more at the end!
Fabi had completely lost control and allowed the white pieces to invade, but here Wesley went for 46.Rc3, exchanging off Black’s passed pawn and forcing a draw. Instead 46.Rcc8! is more than just a threat of mate-in-1. For instance, 46…f5? 47.Rh8! is a clear win according to the computer, while after 46…f6 it’s White who’s pressing.
As mentioned in the introduction, though, that draw, in a round where 2nd-placed MVL lost, was enough for Wesley to restore his lead to the 3 points with which he started the day. Two solid games in the remaining rounds and he’d have been assured of a big advantage going into the final day.
This was where real blunders began to creep into his play, though. The position was tough against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, but 23…Nac5? was losing on the spot:
24.Nd6+! Kc7 25.Nxf7 was essentially game over, though Wesley battled on to move 49 before conceding his first defeat.
Then it was White against Nakamura in the final round, with Hikaru coming into the game on a run of two wins in a row. The first sign that something was wrong for Wesley came when he played 20.h3?
That was wrong on so many levels, since it’s likely that by simply playing 20.Bf3 the game would have ended in a draw by repetition, leaving So 2 points ahead of Aronian and Karjakin and 4 points ahead of Nakamura. He had White and may have felt obliged to play on against a key rival, but the move he made allowed 20…Bxh3!, simply winning a pawn, since 21.gxh3 Qh4! 22.Rf1 Qxh3, with the black rook ready to swing into action from e5 to g5, is undefendable for White.
That moment passed as Hikaru went for 20…c5, but soon Black was better anyway and it was somewhat fortuitous that Wesley managed to escape into a theoretically drawn endgame. All it took, however, was a momentary lapse of concentration to play 85.Kf2?? That avoided a check if Black captured the f5-pawn, but of course 85…Nd1+! was more of an issue:
To his credit, Wesley So gave an interview to Maurice Ashley afterwards, where he had a simple explanation: “In the last two games I think my energy just ran out”.
The standings look as follows before the final day:
We can’t comment on a day’s blitz action without highlighting some of the inevitable blunders. Sergey Karjakin would have a great day, but apart from his smooth demolition of MVL it was more about pouncing on errors by his opponents.
Vishy Anand made a particularly egregious one:
18.Nxe4?? Nxe4 19.Qc2 would be a pin winning back the knight, if not for the unfortunate fact that the queen on f5 is defended by the knight on e7, so Karjakin could simply retreat the knight with 19…Nf6, and he was a piece up.
“A senior moment”, said Yasser, but Hikaru Nakamura did almost exactly the same… against Vishy!
White may objectively be lost anyway, but after 27.cxd5? Anand could also simply pick up a piece with 27…Rxd4, since the queen is again defended by a knight and exchanging on c2 isn’t necessary.
There were all kinds of dramatic turnarounds. Perhaps Caruana-Mamedyarov wins the prize for the most violent swings in evaluation, while Maurice Ashley picked a difficult time to ask Alexander Grischuk how things were going:
I just lost a heart-breaking game, so not too good!
Grischuk had squandered a win and then managed to go on to lose against one of his fiercest rivals, Nakamura:
Despite the pain Grischuk was still able to provide a memorable quote:
His day was memorable all round, since in the previous game he’d let a winning advantage slip against Anand only to miss a 2nd chance at the very end - he just assumed his opponent had played the drawing move, when instead he could have given mate-in-1!
All three protagonists of the last examples - Nakamura, Grischuk and Anand – nevertheless scored +1 for the day, with only Aronian (+2) and Karjakin (+4) outperforming them.
The worst performer? None other than the World Championship Challenger Fabiano Caruana, who lost four games, drew five and won none, with a brutal 21-move loss to Aronian in the last round capping a terrible day. He’d probably rather be somewhere else… Talking of which, his World Championship opponent was spotted providing football commentary for Norwegian TV!
We heard earlier in the year that the Grand Chess Tour was trying to hold the Leuven and Paris events in May to avoid the clash with the football, but in the end it proved impossible.
Despite the difficult end to the day, Wesley So is still in a strong position – if he scores 50% that means that for instance Karjakin would need to score another impressive +4 to overtake him. However, a couple of losses at the start, and in Saturday’s first round we have Karjakin-So, and the lead can already have vanished. Be sure to tune in to all the action that starts two hours earlier at 12:00 CEST!
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