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Reports May 6, 2022 | 8:17 AMby Colin McGourty

Superbet Chess Classic 1: Wesley So strikes

Wesley So is the early leader of the Superbet Chess Classic after bamboozling Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at the end of a long game to grab the only win of Round 1. Elsewhere in Bucharest, Richard Rapport and Ian Nepomniachtchi were unable to build on what seemed promising positions, while Caruana-Firouzja was a tense battle between the world numbers 3 and 4 that ended in a draw by repetition when Fabiano had a pleasant position but little time on the clock.

Any last-minute tips from Garry Kasparov paid off for Wesley So | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

You can replay all the games from the Superbet Chess Classic, the first tournament on the 2022 Grand Chess Tour, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Svidler, Alejandro Ramirez, Cristian Chirila and Anastasia Karlovich.

Four draws as top stars return to chess

Ian Nepomniachtchi was playing classical chess for the first time since losing the World Championship match to Magnus Carlsen in Dubai | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

For some of the players in Bucharest this was their first over-the-board chess in a very long time, with World Champion Ian Nepomniachtchi playing his first classical game since losing the World Championship match in Dubai. He commented:

Now it takes a little bit longer to reach Europe from Russia, so it was quite a journey via Istanbul, and yesterday the opening ceremony was, as usual, undeservedly long! Of course, the simul was fun. I didn’t really have any time to have some rest, but on the other hand, I had like half a year rest after my last classical game, so that’s not a good excuse, at least!

On paper, world no. 6 Nepomniachtchi having White against local 2671-rated star Bogdan-Daniel Deac looked like the most likely decisive result of the day, but as Ian also noted:

I would say I think Bogdan has 2670 and he’s only 20 years old, so I’m pretty much sure we’ll soon see him crossing the 2700 mark, so I wouldn’t call him a big underdog here.

Deac played the Petroff, and managed to surprise his opponent with 11…Qe7!?

Nepo called that approach, instead of 11…Be7, “a little bit artificial”, though it posed him practical problems.

I wasn’t sure if I should find a few precise moves to get a big advantage, because Qe7 in my opinion is a little bit ugly, because basically it never protects you from f4-f5 and strategically the position is not so great, but somehow it probably gave me such a massive choice that I couldn’t handle it!

After 12.a4 Qc5 Nepo mentioned both 13.Qd4 or 13.0-0 as alternatives to his 13.Qd2!?, while he called 16.Qf4!? a “miscalculation”. He got more chances later on, however, and regretted his 23rd move.

Ian said that perhaps studying the opening from the black side had given him the “false impression” of how solid it is, while here he had ways to play on, with e.g. 23.Rf3! Kh8 24.e6! Bxe6 25.Bf4. 

Instead in the game he decided to take a draw with 23.Bxf5 and after 23…d3! 24.Bxc8 Rbxc8 25.Rf4 dxc2 26.Rg4+ there was a draw by repetition.  

Ian described his play as “mediocre” and summed up:

Today’s game is probably full of some oversights, so that’s some quite bad news for me. Hopefully during the next rounds I’ll get in touch with some reality and play better.

Alireza Firouzja said that Fabiano Caruana's first move came as the biggest surprise all game — and Fabi got some help with it | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The other player to have taken a very long break was 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja, who hadn’t played a classical game since crossing 2800 in November 2021. What had he been doing?

I just was living my life, trying to prepare a little for the Candidates.

He had the toughest possible start to the tournament, with Black against Fabiano Caruana, and 1.d4 was already a surprise.  

I think in general Fabiano played two times against me e4, so the 1st move was a little bit of a surprise, of course, because he’s a very good e4 player, but ok, I saw lately he was playing c4 or d4, so I was already ready for anything. The first move was the biggest surprise in this game!

The next biggest moment of note was a novelty in a top-level game, 11.a4.

Magnus Carlsen had played 11.f3 against Alireza in Norway Chess 2020, but 11.a4 didn’t catch Alireza by surprise since he pointed out it was the top engine move. What was a surprise was that in a game starting just one hour later in Malmo Jorden van Foreest also played 11.a4, against Michael Adams. Alireza commented:

This line normally they don’t play with Black, because ok, it’s a little bit worse for Black, and it’s not very popular, so to happen on the same day is amazing… In general, White has a great pawn structure and the pieces are out, but Black is very solid.

Both games continued 11…Nh5 12.Bxe7 Qxe7 13.a5 a6 (“Fabiano told me after the game a6 is not very precise, but I think in general in these positions the structure is the same everywhere, the move does not matter — you do not lose by force!”) 14.Ra3 Nf8 15.Na4 and it was only here that the games diverged, with Adams playing 15…Be6 and making a comfortable draw, while Alireza picked 15…Rb8.

It looked dangerous for Black, but Fabiano burned up time while trying to find a plan. Alireza showed the depth of his understanding, and his confidence, when he explained:

I think Fabiano was not very familiar with this structure. I think he doesn’t have so many games in the Carlsbad, so he was trying to figure out how to break through, but it’s very difficult here.

18-year-old Alireza Firouzja is the top seed in Bucharest | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

In the end time was a factor, since Fabiano still had any winning chances in the position where he decided, with four minutes on his clock, to take a draw by repetition. Alireza thought seriously about continuing, but correctly realised there was nothing he could do.

MVL-Dominguez was the quietest game of the round, though Leinier Dominguez used some sharp tactics to equalise with the Petroff. 14…Bd6! was a pawn sacrifice.

15.Nxd5 would be winning if not for 15…Nh4!, when Black has excellent compensation. Attempting to avoid doubled f-pawns with 16.Re3 runs into 16…Nxd5 17.Bxd5 Bxh2+! and Black captures the bishop on d5, with a roughly equal position. 

In the game Maxime went for 15.Ng3 and the game fizzled out into a draw.

Richard Rapport has no career as a politician, said Peter Svidler, after the Hungarian no. 1 held nothing back when he answered Cristian Chirila's questions | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Richard Rapport was the most entertaining post-game interviewee, and he summed up how the opening went against Levon Aronian:

I felt pretty confident about my position and my chances. I went for the Slav, which I haven’t played for a while, but Levon reacted as he does usually pretty quickly and confidently, but then, when you look at the position and not the opponent, sometimes you realise, ok, he might be confident, but there might be some holes… some bluffing going on!

The position Richard pointed to as where his advantage slipped away was after 19.Rc1.

Here he went for 19…Nd7!? and after 20.e5 moved the knight back with 20…Nb6. He said, “I should have been braver or something, and make another waiting move”, since if he could have left the knight on b6 he would have saved two tempi if Levon had gone for e5 in any case.

The game ended on move 39 after the players found a repetition that was motivated mainly by the fact that you’re not allowed to offer a draw in the tournament.

We're finally getting back to having an audience for chess events | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It’s remarkable that with the FIDE Candidates Tournament coming up so soon (Rapport has Black vs. Jan-Krzysztof Duda on June 17), Richard will follow the Superbet Chess Classic by playing the Superbet Rapid & Blitz in Warsaw (May 19-24) and then Norway Chess (May 30-June 10) in Stavanger. Is it all part of Richard’s strategy?

Whatever strategy I would have wished to make was kind of ruined, basically speaking, by my lack of confidence to qualify, because I figured I’m never going to qualify to the Candidates! I haven’t even tried since I think 2017. That was my last event in the circuit before this Grand Prix, and so I asked for the GP to have the possibility, because I played Wijk aan Zee and I had to play right after, to have the possibility to skip one of the first two GPs. It didn’t work out with FIDE, then I figured I have absolutely no chance to qualify because of the busy schedule and I figured, why not play events that I am invited to? And then I somehow ended up qualifying.

They forced me to play, and then I got stuck with these events, which I can’t really back out of. So at the end of the day, my preparation will be: play everything, play more chess than I have played in years in these two months, and then hope that at the moment I get to the Candidates I’m not a full-time zombie yet and I can still calculate two moves straight. It’s far from ideal, but it is what it is!

He added that he’d been unable to get any support from the Hungary Chess Federation to help him prepare.

I will just take the Candidates as one of the many tournaments, because what can you do? C’est la vie, such is life, so at the end of the day, if you are not having the right cards, then obviously you can’t hope for too much. I’ll just play, I will just play my preparation in all these events — spoiler alert, that’s what I am going to do!

Wesley So beats Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Wesley So got off to a perfect start in Bucharest | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

In 2021 all five games were drawn in Round 1 of the Superbet Chess Classic, including So-Mamedyarov, and ultimately Mamedyarov went on to win the event with an unbeaten +3 score. Colours were reversed in Round 1 in 2022, but up to a point it seemed as though history might repeat itself.

The opening battle was intriguing, since Wesley went for the same Nimzo-Indian line in which he’d lost to Sam Sevian in the American Cup, up to 8.Qc2.

Sam played 8…c6, with Wesley commenting, “the position just exploded, very complicated”. Wesley noted that he’d of course analysed that game, but his motivation for playing the line again was extraordinary — he assumed that as the game hadn’t yet entered some databases Shakhriyar wouldn’t have looked at it.

The idea that Shakh wouldn’t have played through the recent classical game his opponent lost seems outlandish, but in any case the Azerbaijan no. 1 was already taking some time on his moves and opted for the quieter 8…a6, while Wesley explained that his 12.Nf4 was still home preparation.

Wesley said he was “very surprised” by Mamedyarov’s 12…Bxf4!?, and White was soon on top, though there were a number of possible inaccuracies by both sides until the choice on move 24 looked critical.

Shakh went for 24…f6?!, with Wesley commenting:

Black has to play Qh4 to try and create counterplay… f6 is basically just playing for a draw.

So-Mamedyarov would be the longest game of the day | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Mamedyarov later regretted accepting doubled f-pawns, but Wesley admitted, “with opposite-coloured bishops you never know if you’re going to convert.” He found what later proved an important idea on move 42.

42.Kh2! was the start of a king march to h4, forcing Black to defend the h5-pawn, but still things only finally fell apart on move 49.

49…Bb5! appears to hold, but 49…Qc6?! already meant trouble. Wesley commented:

I think Shakh had lost optimism at this point in the game. He didn’t like his pawn structure, he didn’t like his position, his bishop is very passive, is dead for the whole game, so I think he lost some hope at this point.

After 50.Qa3 Qa4 51.Qe3 Qd7 52.b5! there was already nothing Black could do to stop the pawn advancing further. 52…Qxb5 definitely wasn’t the solution, with Shakh in fact resigning by stopping his clock shortly after he made the move — Wesley had to hastily return for a handshake!

The problem is 53.Qe6!, hitting f6, which forces the only move 53…Qc6, followed by 54.Qg8! Kh6 and then the clincher, that Wesley thought Shakh might have missed at first, 55.g4!

Seldom have so many checkmates with a pawn been threatened against a helpless king.

It was a welcome return to form for Wesley, who said of his losses in Saint Louis:

It seems like I couldn’t win a game, I felt like I’m one of the worst players in the world, so this definitely is a big start!

A knock-on effect of Mamedyarov's loss was that Hikaru Nakamura has now completed a return to the Top 10, at least on the live rating list, after dropping as low as 22nd in recent years. 

In Friday's Round 2 Wesley So will take on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave with the white pieces, while Firouzja-Nepomniachtchi will be the most highly anticipated clash.

Follow all the games live here on chess24 from 15:00 local time (08:00 ET, 14:00 CEST, 17:30 IST).

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