Wesley So cruised to an incredible 13.5:2.5 victory over Magnus Carlsen to win $125,000 and the 1st official FIDE Fischer Random World Championship title. He could have finished off his opponent in the first rapid game but took a draw in a winning position before scoring an effortless win in the next. Ian Nepomniachtchi shrugged off his semi-final woes to beat Fabiano Caruana and take 3rd place as the event in the Henie Onstad Art Center near Oslo came to an end.
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Wesley So commented after claiming the Fischer Random World Championship title:
It’s great, an amazing feeling. I actually couldn’t sleep last night because I was very nervous and excited at the same time. I knew a 9-point lead is close to impossible to come back [from], but I wasn’t totally sure until I got the title.
His 10.5:1.5 lead meant that a sword of Damocles was hanging over Magnus Carlsen’s head – Wesley needed just one win in rapid chess to clinch the title, while for Magnus every game was effectively a must-win situation. Nothing about what had gone before in the match suggested that the current World Champion had any hopes, though a packed local crowd in the Henie Onstad Art Center is used to expecting miracles from their hero.
Once again, however, Magnus was reduced to looking ordinary. He had the white pieces, but it was soon Wesley So who had seized the one open file and reached a strategically dominant position. Wesley criticised Carlsen’s passive 20.Bb1, but things were already looking bleak before that. Magnus decided he had to do something after 22…b6:
The computer claims White’s best option is 23.c5!?, but as Wesley pointed out afterwards that just leads to lots of exchanges and a solid advantage for Black. Magnus instead played 23.Na5!? Nc5! 24.Nc6+ Kb7 25.Na5+ Ka8 26.Nc6 and was ready to take a draw by repetition. Here the sometimes infuriating (for his opponents as much as his fans!) pragmatism of Wesley So took over, and he decided to accept, later saying, “I have Black and in Fischer Random a draw with Black is almost always a good result”.
He was a bit shocked when he got back to his room to find that computers had given him a -3 advantage after e.g. 26…Bd7! and simply capturing on c6 and later winning that pawn. Wesley thought the evaluation was too high for a position where material was still equal, but when White’s “attack” was neutralised all of Black’s strategic advantages would remain. The chance to win four games in a row against Magnus is unlikely to come again soon!
In any case, the draw meant that now it really was a must-win situation for Magnus, but once again he got less than nothing out of the opening, with 7.Nf5! seeming to catch him off-guard:
It’s one of the curiosities of Fischer Random that the unfamiliar starting positions can lead even a World Champion to overlook a double-attack – here on the e7 and g7-pawns – on move 7. It perhaps worked out as being not the worst “pawn sacrifice” in the world, but Wesley was impressive as he happily gave back the pawn for fast development:
15.0-0! (with the king going to g1 and the h1-rook to f1) was one of those long short castles that are fun to play in Fischer Random Chess. It also left White with a very healthy advantage, which provoked Magnus into 15…g5 16.Ne2 e5?! 17.g3 0-0-0, which was almost the definition of a desperate sacrifice. Wesley So gratefully took the material and went on to win with brutal precision. After 29.Rxf4! Magnus had seen enough, and congratulated his opponent as he offered his hand in resignation:
The only defence to a quick mate is 29…b5, but then 30.Ra4+! bxa4 31.Qa5+ is crushing.
Wesley So had won 4 games and drawn 2 to dominate Magnus in a match in a way we’ve never seen before. He was also unbeaten in the event after scoring 3 wins and 4 draws against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the semi-finals. His thoughts were already turning to defending the title:
It’s the first official one, so I’m glad to win it. The second one’s going to be much more difficult, much more complex, I’m sure, because I usually win the first tournament but then I don’t win after that. At least I got the first one!
From Magnus Carlsen’s point of view it’s unlikely to have increased his desire to play a classical World Championship match at home in Norway at some point, but it’s also unlikely he’ll ever play a match quite so badly again!
Wesley So destroying Magnus in the final perhaps made Ian Nepomniachtchi feel better about his own suffering against Wesley in the semi-final, and he also convincingly won his match on the final day. He began with “only” a 3-point lead, but made that 6 points in an exciting first game that nevertheless may have been most noteworthy for an amazing case of mutual chess blindness. After 30.Rd7! Fabiano got his knight out of the way and attacked the white e6-pawn with 30…Rh6??!, though it was a move with a slight flaw:
Yes, 31.Qxh6 would have ended the game on the spot. No great harm was done with 31.e7 however, and after 31…Rf6 32.Rxh5 Qe8 33.Rc7 e3 Nepo got to demonstrate he can do tactics after all:
34.Rxc8+! Qxc8 35.Qxc4! and Fabiano resigned, since he can’t capture on c4 without allowing the e-pawn to queen.
The match was prolonged in the next game when a spectacular sacrificial attack by Nepo with the black pieces was enough for perpetual check, but no more. Despite a new starting position for Game 3, Nepo again had the black pieces and launched an almost identical attack. This time there was no perpetual and Nepo finished off the match with five games to spare:
None of the semi-final or final matches had required blitz games.
For Ian Nepomniachtchi that was just a warm-up for the real business of trying to qualify for the 2020 Candidates Tournament through the Grand Prix series. He won the first event in Moscow and is currently in 3rd place despite still having two tournaments to play – on Tuesday he starts the Hamburg FIDE Grand Prix, while in December he’ll play in Jerusalem.
Wesley So is out of contention for the Candidates and will therefore have no chance of qualifying for a classical World Championship match against Magnus next year, but he will also be back in action soon. Together with Fabiano Caruana he heads for the Romanian capital of Bucharest for the latest Grand Chess Tour event, the Superbet Rapid & Blitz that starts on Wednesday.
Magnus Carlsen is the one player who it seems could take a break before the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid and Blitz in Kolkata in around three weeks, but instead he was back in action before any of them!
For more details of upcoming events check out our 2019 Chess Calendar.
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