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Reports Jun 16, 2018 | 8:50 PMby Colin McGourty

Leuven GCT, Day 5: Wesley wins final day thriller

Wesley So has won the 2018 Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour after an extraordinary final round in which he was “about to cry” after losing to Hikaru Nakamura only to realise that both his rivals Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin had lost as well. That meant that after finishing second to Magnus Carlsen in 2016 and 2017 he’d won the first event in the 2018 Grand Chess Tour, taking $37,500 and 13 points for sole first place. Karjakin and MVL still shared second place despite their disappointment.

The moment Wesley realised he really had won the tournament | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all 135 games from Leuven using the selector below – click on a result to open a game with computer analysis:

And here’s the live commentary from an unforgettable final day:

Often final days of a tournament are relatively uneventful and it’s better to avoid a chronological account of what happened, but this one is was so packed full of twists and turns that no other approach makes sense!

1. Karjakin strikes

The worst possible start for Wesley | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

After losing the last two games on the first day of blitz – Wesley’s first losses in Leuven this year – his lead was cut to 1.5 points going into the final day’s play. That might not sound like much, but if Wesley could score 50% Sergey Karjakin and Levon Aronian would have to post a +3 performance over the remaining 9 rounds – something usually sufficient to win a super-tournament. First, though, Wesley had to get through a tricky start to the day… Black against Karjakin! The Russian had won his last three games the day before, and Wesley later admitted he was worried:

I mean at some point after the games yesterday I thought there’s a very small chance for me to win it, because Sergey Karjakin is maybe the second blitz player in the world, and he keeps winning games, and at some point today I was worried I wouldn’t even finish in the Top 3.

The fears looked justified when Sergey acquired the bishop pair in their game and went on to grind out a typical win and narrow the gap to half a point. There was also the question of momentum, with Sergey having won 4 games in a row while Wesley had lost 3 in a row. To compound his problems Nakamura also picked up a 4th win in a row, Aronian drew and MVL beat Grischuk, so that all Wesley’s rivals had closed the gap.

2. Karjakin catches So

The next two rounds were relatively quiet, though Karjakin missed a chance to catch the leader immediately when he played Nakamura…

…while So steadied the ship with draws. That only delayed the inevitable, though, and it was in the fourth round of the day that for the first time in 21 rounds Wesley was no longer the sole leader. He failed to convert an advantage against Grischuk while Karjakin beat Anand in another impressive display of technique. It got worse for So as another contender for the world’s strongest blitz player, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, beat Caruana for a 3.5/4 start to the day that left him only half a point behind the leaders.

3. A dream round for Wesley

Just when hope seemed to be fading – Wesley had only won one game in 15 – everything suddenly went his way:

That one win in blitz had been against Anish Giri, and it was Anish who once again gave Wesley just what he needed, though it would be fairer to say that Wesley showed brilliant tenacity and technique to magic a win out of the slightest of advantages.

Nigel Short adopted an old school approach to commentating on the round | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

As you can see, the other players also did their part, with the stars of the day suffering against the outsiders. Sergey was already in trouble before he played 20…Qb6? against Grischuk:

21.Nc4! meant it was all over bar the shouting. MVL was outplayed by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Nakamura’s chances suffered a big blow against Caruana. He failed to eliminate the black knight before it reached e4:

It looks as though White might still be able to consolidate, but after 45.Rf1 there was 45…Bg3! and heavy material loss is inevitable.

It was a bad event for Caruana, but he remains a dangerous player | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Suddenly Wesley had a one-point lead again with four rounds to go!

4. A huge win

In the next round Karjakin beat Giri to narrow the gap to half a point again, but then a round later Wesley took a huge step towards overall victory when two incredibly nervy games ended in his favour. Four moves before the end Karjakin had a great chance to beat MVL if he’d played 48…Ke7!, but instead 50…c3? was the losing move:

After Maxime’s 51.d7! it was time to resign, since 51…Ke7 runs into 52.f6+! and Black can no longer stop passed pawns on both the d and f-files.

Sometimes chess is really tough | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

At the same time Wesley had let a huge advantage slip against Fabiano Caruana, but saw his persistence pay off in a rooks vs. queen ending:

If Fabi had put the queen on f7, a8, b8, c8 or b4 i.e. anywhere from which it’s threatening to give perpetual check, the position would still have been a draw, but he played 71.Qb6? and after 71…Rxg3! he had to resign, since mate was inevitable.

With only two rounds remaining Wesley had a 1.5-point advantage, meaning he needed only a draw in his last two games to ensure at least a tiebreak for first place – and a win or two draws would guarantee him sole first place.

5. A nightmare round for Wesley

The only problem here was that on the first day Wesley had lost both of his final games, to Mamedyarov and Nakamura. It didn’t look as though lightning would strike twice the way the game against Shak began...

The way to glory was 28.Nd5!, when capturing the knight is impossible due to 28…exd5 29.Bxd5+ and if Black doesn’t want to give up his queen then 29…Kf8 30.Qh8# ends the game. If this occurred to Wesley at all he might have been worried about how to save his queen after e.g. 28…Qf8 29.Qf6+ Kf8 30.Qxe6+ Kg7, but there are brilliant ways to do it (e.g. 31.Nf4!! Bf7 32.Bd5!, using the fork on e6). Most likely he was just trying to play solidly, and in the game after 28.Nxe8 it looked as though material would be exchanged and an inevitable draw would follow. Instead Shak gained a slight edge and managed to massage it into a full point.

Other results also went against Wesley:

Suddenly he was facing a final round with Black against Nakamura, while Karjakin and MVL were ready to pounce, just half a point behind. Had Garry Kasparov tempted fate?

6. All’s well that ends well

This was one of the craziest rounds of chess since the 2013 Candidates Tournament, when Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik both lost, to Peter Svidler and Vassily Ivanchuk, and Magnus was too shaken to celebrate the fulfilment of a lifetime dream. The stakes weren’t quite as high in Leuven, but this time more players were involved.

Here we go again... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The Nakamura-So game got off to the worst possible start for Wesley, and an amazing one for Hikaru. Nowadays you hardly ever get more than one chance to play an opening trick, but Hikaru managed to play the same one in a b3 system three times on the same day! First Anish Giri went for 5…c5?! 6.dxc5 Qa5+ 7.c3:

He saw the problem and defended the e-pawn with 7…Re8?, but after 8.b4 he was in deep trouble and went on to lose. It was probably better to fall into the trap with 7…Qxc5 8.Ba3! Qb6 9.Bxe7, as Mamedyarov did a few rounds later – but he also lost. In Leuven there wasn’t much chance to check other games, and the players may also have been preoccupied…

Priorities! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

…but in any case, in the most crucial game of the whole tournament Wesley also fell into exactly the same trap!

Wesley was clearly shaken, but put his queen on c7 and fought on. Hikaru looked on course to win for most of the game, but Wesley had his chances, first to equalise, and then - after a bizarre stoppage of play because the arbiters felt the players were hitting the clock too hard - there was even a chance for a mating attack:

After 48…Qg1+ 49.Kf3 Qe3+ 50.Kg4 h5+ 51.Kh4 Kg7 Black has an unstoppable threat of bringing his king to h6 and playing g5 to give mate. Instead Wesley played 48…h5? immediately to threaten a faster mate, but after 49.h4! he was losing again, and Hikaru went on to take the game.

There was desolation for Wesley… but only for a moment!

When I lost my game to Hikaru I was about to cry because I thought, oh, I don’t even get to play tiebreaks. Tiebreaks was the best I was hoping for, and then I saw Sergey’s face and he looked very upset too, and I thought, “what’s happening?” So I checked the monitor – everyone lost! I had to check the internet to be 100% sure.

This was no pre-arranged draw... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Karjakin and Mamedyarov are good friends and were accused of arranging draws recently, but Mamedyarov won a big game against Sergey in the Candidates, and now again he crushed the Russian's  hopes. 36…Qxg4! was just about holding, but 36…hxg4 was game over:

37.h5! opened the h-file and meant there was simply too much firepower directed at the black king down the f and h-files and the c1-h6 diagonal.

"My man Vishy" denied MVL a big win | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

MVL-Anand was even more dramatic, with Maxime missing numerous chances to wrap up tournament victory. For instance:

24.Bxb7! would have been a fine conclusion, with 24…Nxb7 25.Rc6! attacking both the bishop and the e6-square. Maxime spent 57 seconds here, an eternity for blitz, but chose 24.Qe5 instead, perhaps missing that after 24…0-0 25.Bb4 he wasn’t winning an exchange due to 25…Qf6! and the white queen is en prise. More adventures followed, but eventually Vishy took over and claimed a win that earned him congratulations from the winner!

I’d like to thank my man Vishy for winning with Black, and also Shak for making up for beating me in the penultimate round!

Wesley had scored half a point less than in 2016, but this time there was no Magnus to steal his title:

The way the final game had gone, you could even understand Wesley putting it down to some kind of divine intervention!

I’d like to dedicate this tournament to the Lord, because it’s a miracle, really.

2018 Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour winner Wesley So | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

That’s all for Leuven, but as Wesley pointed out, “90% of the players are going to Paris”, where the next stage of the Grand Chess Tour starts on Wednesday. The standings before it begins are as follows: 

The only player not making the trip to Paris is wild card Anish Giri, who didn’t win any of his last 14 games as he ended in a distant last place on 11/36. Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik will be hoping to improve on that showing as the wild card in Paris, and of course you’ll be able to follow all the games live here on chess24!

See also:

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