Wesley So has won the $100,000 1st prize for the 2016 Grand Chess Tour with a round to spare after he drew with Fabiano Caruana while Hikaru Nakamura was held by Levon Aronian. Wesley is also favourite to win $75,000 for 1st place in the London Chess Classic since he leads by half a point going into the final round, though four players can still catch him. One of those is Vishy Anand, who scored the day’s only win with a fine novelty and some help from a blunder by Veselin Topalov. The Bulgarian’s apocalyptic points haul is now 1/8.
No round of the 2016 London Chess Classic has ended in all draws, but five of them have now featured only a single win:
The greatest sporting significance, however, was in the draws.
Wesley So had done all the hard work in London with three rounds to go and knew that if he could coast home with draws he would win the Grand Chess Tour and likely the London Chess Classic as well. That’s perhaps why by far the most memorable move of his game against Fabiano Caruana was the first… though to be fair, it was a move that would be hard to beat.
The Super Rapidplay tournament this weekend is being held in memory of Michael Uriely, an English chess player who tragically died last year at the age of just 9 after an asthma attack. His younger sister Noga made the first move of the London Chess Classic on Saturday, and for a while struggled to even reach the board. Malcolm Pein suggested she could move any piece, but after Fabiano moved the board towards her she heroically managed to reach over to the queenside and make the move 1.d4.
Caruana decided to go with 1.e4 instead and, in a position
where a win would see him leapfrog Wesley into first place, he met his opponent’s
Berlin with 4.d3. So was surprised when Caruana allowed him to liquidate with
the pawn break 12…e4, while Fabiano commented:
I thought I had a very pleasant ending, but I completely underestimated 18...Rae8 – that seems to equalise on the spot.
It was an innocuous looking move, but presumably the US no. 1 had expected a rook to come to d8 instead:
The players engaged in deep thought in the moves that followed, but that couldn’t stop the game petering out into a draw.
Nakamura could still challenge So in the Grand Chess Tour standings, but he had to finish in sole first place in London. Only a win over Aronian would do in the penultimate round, but that game also ended in the quietest of 27-move draws – with both players professing surprise at their opponent not playing for more.
Wesley So was therefore confirmed as the overall winner, with his winner’s speech to Maurice Ashley a familiar one!
I’m very happy to win the Grand Chess Tour, this is a huge success for me. As usual I would like to thank the Lord for letting me win such a prestigious tour.
Maurice Ashley brought up words of praise from two former World Champions. Garry Kasparov had said that Wesley is now a real World Championship contender, while the day before Vladimir Kramnik had told Ashley that So was playing the best chess of anyone in 2016 – with that anyone including Magnus Carlsen. Wesley quipped, “hopefully he meant it!” and wasn’t ready to compare himself to Magnus just yet. He has time to get even better:
So’s fellow players were unwilling to talk up their rival’s chances. Caruana noted he’d been asked about Wesley multiple times in the last few days, while Levon and Hikaru went further:
Aronian: He’s playing very well. I don’t know about his playing the best chess – results-wise he is, but I like more aggressive players... I like more blood on the board.
Nakamura: He has been playing quite well, but it’s all relative… In terms of results he’s obviously playing the best, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s playing better than Magnus.
The other games were where the action was!
Veselin Topalov is in free fall, and his opponent’s know that if they can keep things complex on the chessboard there’s every chance he’ll crumble again. If you’re going to follow that approach there’s nothing better than a mind-blowing early novelty. 12…b5!!? fit the bill perfectly:
Vishy credited this wild blow to his second Grzegorz Gajewski and explained that there are 7 or 8 replies, all of them playable, and added, “I felt I should play it anyway, even though I didn’t have it all worked out”.
Veselin told Vishy afterwards that he was aware of the move, but that didn’t stop the game swinging in Black’s favour. Anand might have been able to finish the game earlier with the clever 21…Bg4!, hoping for 22.f3 Bf5!, gaining the e3-square for his queen, but simply maintaining the pressure worked like a charm. Topalov was already making life difficult for himself when he played 31.h4, and then 33.Qc3? (33.Qc4 was an only move) allowed 33…Qb5!
It’s game-over but, painfully, Topalov hadn’t realised it yet. The one possible viable defence to mate on a4, 34.Qc6, ran into the simple and brutal refutation 34…Rxf3+ – Vishy said it had taken him a while to spot that this move came with check and he could only assume Veselin had had the same issue. We got one of the most animated post-mortems we've seen in London:
Needless to say, it’s been a terrible end of the year for Topalov, just as it started in terrible fashion with the Moscow Candidates tournament:
He still has Black against a no doubt hungry Levon Aronian in the final round.
Mickey Adams started with two losses like Topalov, but since then he’s scored +1 and could have made it more. MVL has had an amazingly bad tournament in terms of openings – arguably losing every opening battle, including in the game he won – but has also managed to limit the damage. On Saturday his position was critical after 26…h5!
The a7-bishop is a monster and Mickey admitted, “I played ok for a while and I was getting ambitious”, but MVL was able to set up defences with 27.d4! and after 27…exd4 (27…g6 may pose more problems) 28.Nxd4 Bxd4 29.cxd4 Mickey went on to win the d4-pawn but only at the cost of entering a 4 vs. 3 pawns on one side of the board rook ending. He assessed that as possible to win, but not against Maxime! A draw followed on move 53.
And finally we come to Anish Giri, who you can’t fault for trying. He was facing Vladimir Kramnik, a player he has a 0:6 score against (excluding draws), and had the black pieces, so he could have been forgiven for playing strictly for a draw. Instead he played the Najdorf, went for an aggressive early novelty and then was willing to give up a piece for possible winning chances:
29…Nxe4 30.f3 Nxd2 31.fxg4 Nxc4 32.bxc4 Rxc4 In the end he had four pawns for Kramnik’s knight, but he couldn’t stand in the way of destiny:
The only false step, from a PR perspective, was to offer a draw in the final stages:
A draw nevertheless followed shortly afterwards. Kramnik himself has 7 draws in a row after his win against Topalov,
but no-one at this year’s event (Caruana and Adams both managed 9 draws last
year) can match Anish:
The standings before the final round are as follows:
As you can see, the London Chess Classic is still up for grabs. Wesley So is playing White against an out-of-sorts Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and knows a win would guarantee him the title, but their career score to date is 3:0 wins in MVL’s favour. A draw for So would mean only Caruana could catch him and force a rapid playoff (two rapid games, then potentially two blitz games and Armageddon), but doing that may be tough! Fabiano laughed when he told Maurice Ashley:
Playing Anish with Black in the last round – there probably aren’t too many chances to win!
If Wesley loses that throws a cat among the pigeons, since a draw will be enough for Caruana to make the playoff, while Nakamura, Anand and Kramnik could join the fun. Anand has White against Kramnik, while Nakamura has Black against Adams.
Tune in to Sunday's final round from 15:00 CET, while you can replay the Round 8 show, including all the player interviews, below:
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