Wesley So is on course to play a 4-game rapid match against Vishy Anand on Sunday in the final of the 2017 León Masters, but it wasn’t easy! In the first game of his semi-final against Jan-Krzysztof Duda he inexplicably blundered his queen on move 17 and had no choice but to resign. He got nothing in the next game but then levelled the score in an endgame grind in Game 3. The final game was going the young Polish player’s way, but when his attack stalled Wesley took over and ensured no tiebreaks were required.
This is already the 30th edition of the León Masters (Magistral de Ajedrez Ciudad de León), a Spanish chess tournament that has showcased some of the world’s top chess talent:
This year there’s again a fascinating line-up. Vishy Anand has won the tournament 9 times, including last year, while Wesley So needs no introduction as the world no. 3. Jan-Krzysztof Duda, meanwhile, is a 19-year-old Polish player who has just broken into the 2700 club, with only Wei Yi, who won León in 2014 and 2015, both younger and higher rated. Duda also won the 2014 European Rapid Championship and finished runner-up in the Blitz Championship in the same year, so is no pushover at fast time controls. The final player is Jaime Santos, who as a 2542-rated International Master looks somewhat out of place until you realise the 21-year-old Spanish player is from León and is being given a chance to compete against the best.
The format is to hold one semifinal on Friday, the next on Saturday and then the final on Sunday, with each match consisting of four rapid games where each player has 20 minutes and a 10-second increment after each move. If those games result in a tie two 5+3 blitz games are played, then an Armageddon game where White has 6 minutes to Black’s 5, but a draw counts as a victory for Black.
Whatever else happens in the 2017 Leon Masters the tournament will be remembered for one of the most extraordinary blunders you’ll ever see from one of the world’s best players. Wesley So had already been somewhat caught off guard when Duda played a novelty on move 8, deviating from two of his previous games (though as the move was the computer’s first line it's questionable how much of a surprise it could have been). Things got very sharp until the following position was reached:
And here Wesley played 17.axb4?? which would have been fine against any move other than picking up a free queen with 17…Bxd1. Wesley had no choice but to resign in horror at what he’d just done.
Afterwards Wesley is said to have explained that he was expecting Duda to play his moves in a different order, though we hope he also gave the following explanation (it seems the video of the round can’t be replayed):
If Wesley was knocked off track by that game he didn’t show
it, since despite playing with the black pieces in Game 2 he soon had the upper
hand. He was unable to squeeze out a full point, though, and had to concede a
draw in 76 moves.
In Game 3 he did break through, though, with 36.f4! exposing the weakness of Black’s king position.
After 36…gxf4 37.Qg4+! White not only picks up the f4-pawn but the h4-pawn as well. Wesley was able to combine fine technique and mating threats to ease to victory in 73 moves.
As Duda had White in Game 4 the chances of tiebreaks looked strong, but it turned out both players were going all out to win on the spot. In a French with 2.d3 Wesley So again seemed to be getting the upper hand until he ignored the threat of Duda’s 21.Ng4 and played 21…c4?:
22.Nf6+! was a correct sacrifice, though after 22…Kh8 23.dxc4 dxc4 Duda missed the subtle point that he needed to exchange off the light-square bishops with 24.Bxb7!, when White has excellent winning chances. The problem in the game was that after 24.Rcd1 cxb3 25.cxb3 it was Black who exchanged the bishops with 25…Bxg2 26.Kxg2, bringing the white king to a square where it was subject to a check – so after 27.Be3 Black would be able to get out of the pin with a queen check rather than losing material. Duda instead tried 27.Re4, but the beginning of the end came after 27…Nf5:
It seems he should have pushed on with 28.g4! and the computer claims the position is equal, but after 28.Ng4? Qb7! the tables had turned – again that issue with the king on g2. Black’s pieces were able to invade the white position and there was no stopping the a-pawn. The final blow came after the desperate 38.Rb8:
If So wanted to end the day as he’d begun he could have played 38…Kg8?? 39.Rxf8+ Kxf8 40.Qd8#, but instead he played the crushing 38…Qf1+ and after 39.Kh4 Qh1+ 40.Kg4 h5+ Duda conceded the match. Playing such an event was a new experience for the Pole who confessed he’d found it difficult as he was used to looking around at other games while he plays, while on this occasion there was just his game! He’s a player we can expect to hear a lot more from in future.
For Wesley So, meanwhile, there’s a day to rest while Vishy Anand and Jaime Santos vie to meet him in Sunday’s final. That semi-final starts at 16:30 CEST on Saturday and of course you can watch it here on chess24. There’s Spanish commentary from GM Miguel Illescas and IM Olga Alexandrova, while we hear our very own GM Jan Gustafsson may step in to provide English commentary on Sunday’s final!
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