Wesley So will take a one-point lead over Magnus Carlsen into the 18 rounds of blitz after grinding out Berlin endgame wins against Levon Aronian and Harikrishna on the final day of rapid chess. Magnus had started with a win over Alireza Firouzja but then flirted with disaster against Jeffery Xiong before biting off more than he could chew in Round 9 against Alexander Grischuk. “Coming to the tournament I had only one ambition – 9th place!” said the Russian, who now shares 3rd place with Ian Nepomniachtchi.
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And here’s the day’s live commentary from Maurice Ashley, Jennifer Shahade and Yasser Seirawan.
Magnus Carlsen went into the final day of rapid chess as the sole leader, and he extended that lead to two points by beating Alireza Firouzja while second place Ian Nepomniachtchi and Wesley So drew in 25 moves. It was a commanding display by Magnus, who met 17-year-old Alireza’s aggressive 4.f3 Nimzo with a rare 6th move and went on to seize complete control with the black pieces. Magnus had a pawn and the compensation and could choose how to finish things off.
23…Nf4! 24.Kg3 Nd3 just increased the domination, with Alireza resigning two moves later. The youngster ended the rapid section with 4 losses and no wins, but will be hoping he can show more in blitz.
Up next for Magnus after that 4th win in a row was 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong, who had also struggled apart from beating Ian Nepomniachtchi in 21 moves. Jeffery went for the famously sharp Winawer Variation of the French Defence, and Magnus poured more fuel on the fire by sacrificing first his a4-pawn and then another - unless 13.Bh3!? was just an oversight!
13…Bxc2! was a free pawn, since 14.Qxc2 of course loses the rook to 14…Qxa1+. After 14.Qc1 Ba4 15.0-0 Magnus had at least some compensation in the form of a potential attack on the black king, and a fierce battle commenced.
Exchanging queens did nothing to stem the flames, and the game reached peak intensity when Magnus played 46.Ne5! with just 1 second remaining on his clock. After 46…Rd8 he had a potential win, which was still on offer after 47.Ke2 a4:
It seems 48.Re8! just wins on the spot (after 48…Rxd7 White doesn’t capture, with a draw, but plays 49.Ng6! and there’s no stopping checkmate on h8), while after 48.Re6 Nxd7 49.Rd6 a3! it was Black who had any winning chances, though the suspicion is the rook ending two pawns up that Jeffery could have played was only a draw. All in all, it had been a fantastic fight!
That tweet said something about Carlsen’s mood, with
Alexander Grischuk commenting after their game:
I thought that he will play something adventurous, because when he’s doing good he plays like he cannot lose.
Magnus played a “Dragondorf” combination of the Sicilian Najdorf and Dragon variations, and Alexander got a real chance early on.
13.Nf5! looks very good for White, with the main justification 13…gxf5 14.Bxc5 dxc5 15.Qg5!, hitting the queen on d8 and the bishop on g7. There are plenty of options for Black, however, and after 7 minutes of thought Alexander went for 13.a3 instead. He soon regretted it:
I didn’t know how to proceed. I was just happy that we have an interesting position, but then I feel like I misplayed it. I didn’t like it when he castled.
The later 17…e5!? by Magnus may have been too drastic, however, and that was only the start.
The exchange sacrifice 19…Rxc3!? soon followed, but after 20.bxc3 Qe6 21.Kb2 Rc8 (21…d5) the star move was 22.Ba5!
He sacrificed an exchange, which is very tempting and actually I thought that he will, but I guess he missed 22.Ba5, so maybe he should have played 19…d5 instead of 19…Rxc3, because after Ba5 I think he’s in trouble, because the queen penetrates and it’s not even a problem that Black loses the a6-pawn, but the problem is that then the white knights start to harass his pieces and I make a lot of exchanges and get an endgame with my extra exchange. Then of course it was not easy with very little time, but I managed to win.
After 22…d5 23.Qa7! Ba8 24.Nxa6 Black was indeed busted, and the brief fist pump Alexander gave when his opponent resigned showed just how much it meant to him!
Grischuk is up to joint 3rd place before the blitz, but commented:
Coming to the tournament I had only one ambition – 9th place, because taking last place is never nice, but I was extremely tired, ill and so on. You can see the first day I was playing like a beginner, losing two terrible games, against Aronian and Harikrishna, but then somehow I started to play more or less reasonably… Still my ambition does not change – it’s still 9th place!
“I’ve been trying to play some solid chess so far”, said Wesley, and as we’d noted on previous days, his strategy has been to pick up individual wins “on class” and then happily take quick draws. We saw that again in Thursday’s first round, when Wesley repeated moves for a 25-move draw against Ian Nepomniachtchi, despite having an advantage in the final position against the player with whom he shared second place.
It was hard to criticise that strategy, since Wesley won the next two games and is undefeated while everyone else has lost at least two games. Up first for Wesley was Levon Aronian, who was coming off a spectacular game against Hikaru Nakamura. Levon first sacrificed a bishop on h6 and then sacrificed the other bishop with 19.d5!
After 19…fxe4 20.Qg5+ Kh7 21.Nxe4 exd5 22.Nxd6 Levon had won back one piece and was at some point better in what followed, but in the end Hikaru blockaded Levon’s kingside passed pawns and went on to clinch victory.
Given that drama, Levon was probably happy to get a quiet Berlin Endgame against Wesley in Round 8, and it looked certain to be a draw:
The white bishop can’t touch the black pawns on the light squares and it seems the white king has no way into the position. Here 42…Ng7!?, giving up the h4-pawn, objectively changed nothing, but it looks like an unnecessary concession. 10 moves later and Black was in zugzwang after 53.g3!
There’s no way to stop the white king entering the position, as it did after 53…Nf6 54.Ke5. Later Levon sacrificed the h-pawn to try and relieve the pressure, but Wesley went on to convert with perfect technique.
In the last round of the day Wesley came up against a Harikrishna who was in good form, having beaten Jeffery Xiong in style and then had Hikaru Nakamura on the ropes in his previous game. Hari had the white pieces, but Wesley repeated exactly the same Berlin line as he’d faced in the previous game against Levon, before varying with 13…a5.
It worked to perfection, as Wesley was soon better before he felt Harikrishna's 23.f4? was a “big mistake, because it weakens the position too much”:
After 23…Qe7 24.h3 Bxb5 25.Nxb5 Qe1+ 26.Kh2 Wesley offered up the c7-pawn with 26…Ng7!, rerouting the knight towards the gaping holes around the white king. In the play that followed Wesley resisted any temptation to take a draw by repetition and went on to show more brilliant technique to win a knight ending.
That means Wesley So goes into the two days of blitz with a 1-point lead over Magnus, but he wasn’t exactly exuding self-confidence and ambition in the post-game interview. Was he expecting to find himself in the lead?
No, not really, no. I mean he’s the best player by far and he won all three games yesterday, so I had absolutely no hope to be in the lead… It’s always hard to win tournaments with Magnus around, unless he’s in really bad shape.
Blitz specialists Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexander Grischuk are another two points behind Magnus, with Nepo having another day when he’d like to have partial amnesia. He played the Caro-Kann and raced through the opening against second bottom Leinier Dominguez, barely hesitating after 14.h4!
Black can’t castle as h5 will win the knight, and so is already in trouble. 14…h5 might be the best try, but after 14…Bxh4? 15.Nxh4 it was only now that Nepo stopped to think seriously, in what’s already a lost position. The same thing had happened in the second game a day earlier, against Jeffery Xiong, and once again Ian resigned on move 21, this time after his 20…Bd5? was hit by the crunching 21.Qxd5! Nepo hadn't seen it coming...
The full standings look as follows going into the 18 rounds of blitz to be played Friday-Saturday!
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