"I have to apologize to Magnus for semi-ruining his birthday!" said Wesley So after winning a blitz playoff to clinch 1st place and the $30,000 top prize in the Skilling Open, the first event on the $1.5 million Champions Chess Tour. The World Champion's 30th birthday seemed to be going perfectly when he won the 1st game of the day with the black pieces, but Wesley hit back in Game 2 and survived a wild 3rd game. Magnus then repeated his World Championship match trick of taking a quick draw to reach a playoff, but for once he fell short.
You can replay all the games from the knockout stage of the Champions Chess Tour using the selector below.
And here's the final day's commentary from Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell, with cameo appearances by Anish Giri and Henrik Carlsen.
Tania Sachdev and Peter Leko were joined once again, from Game 3 onwards, by the 14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik.
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Carlsen and So again drew 2:2 after four rapid games, before what Peter Leko described as "nine days of insane chess" ended when Magnus Carlsen wasn't able to win the second blitz game of the playoff and force an Armageddon decider.
Magnus Carlsen has played some important chess on his birthday, most memorably in 2016, when he won a World Championship playoff against Sergey Karjakin in New York to retain his title at the age of 26. This year he celebrated his 30th birthday and an almost unbroken decade as world no. 1 (Vishy Anand was no. 1 on the November 2010 and March and May 2011 FIDE rating lists). He was also playing the final of the $100,000 Skilling Open, but online chess allows a little more flexibility with where you play from! Magnus tweeted his birthday breakfast.
The undisclosed tropical location meant Magnus had a similar late night playing schedule to his Indian colleague Vidit, but he wasn’t going to blame that for any lack of success, particularly as Wesley in the US was forced to play early in the morning – arguably more of a burden for most top level chess players!
I think it’s not ideal for either of us, so in that sense, no excuses. For me, it’s not like I have to play from this time zone, so it’s a conscious choice you make, and then you live and die with those choices. I think you have to make the best of it regardless. No excuses!
Magnus found time to share some cabalistic reflections on his age…
…and pick a fight with a YouTube celebrity…
…but mainly he just received congratulations, including from his colleagues!
Then it was time to get down to business.
Magnus began his 30s by springing a surprise and playing the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6), which Wesley said he felt compelled to respond to with 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nd2, since that’s the line he recommends in an upcoming Chessable course. That gave Magnus pause for thought, but he soon unleashed a surprise, bringing his bishop out to b4 with check, only to withdraw it all the way back to f8 after provoking c3.
It was a hard move to explain, though Vladimir Kramnik told Peter Leko later that you could just say “it’s the first line of the computer”, “because otherwise it’s impossible to play!”
Wesley said it “seems like a very bad move”, but it is in fact considered a viable option by the computer and had great shock value. Peter felt it was a decision that ultimately won the game.
The moment when things clearly went wrong for White, however, was when Wesley went for 16.c4?! dxc4 17.Qxc4. He admitted he was trying to equalise as he didn’t like his position, but he’d missed 17…Nxd4!
18.Nxd4 runs into 18…Nxe5! and Black wins, while after 18.Qxd4! Qxb3 19.Bxg6 fxg6 it was advantage Black. In the sequence that followed Wesley sacrificed a bishop and Magnus sacrificed an exchange, but the game went smoothly in Black’s favour until the World Champion had scored a fine victory in 47 moves.
The day before all four games had been won by White, so a win with Black seemed all the more precious, while Anish Giri felt the way Magnus had won made him an even bigger favourite.
Wesley had similar thoughts, later telling Peter and Tania:
I felt very lucky today. I felt when Magnus won the first game he was just on fire today, he’s just going to crush me, but then he somehow gave me the second game.
The second game began with the same quiet ending in which Magnus had won in the first game of the previous day, though it was the World Champion who varied first, on move 13. Wesley took his time but responded well, with 16…Kd8! a star move.
Magnus later explained his thought processes here:
I just made one very bad mistake, 17.Bd4?, and he replied by 17…Bd6! For some reason I had been thinking of going either Bg5 or Bd4. I’m not going to go into too much detail there, but basically I thought I had nothing so I would force a draw, and I thought these two moves were equivalent... and they weren’t at all. So that was a bit of a shame!
Wesley also called Bd4 “a big mistake” and added, “I don’t think he realised that his position could be that worse”. You could see Wesley visibly perk up when he got to play Bd6.
Wesley was soon simply a healthy pawn up and went on to demonstrate how two knights can dominate a usually all-conquering pair of bishops. We now knew that there was going to be no easy birthday triumph for the World Champion.
Another World Champion, Vladimir Kramnik, was less surprised to see Wesley doing well than that the current world no. 9 hasn’t achieved more in his career in classical chess.
He's one of the main underachievers in top chess nowadays! I believe he's extremely strong, he has an extremely high level of understanding and class and very good knowledge… so maybe somehow it's more psychological.
Vladimir still favoured Magnus to win the match, by a fine margin!
Tania: "Are you still sticking to your 55:45 to Magnus?"
Kramnik: "Yes! I would say it's 50:50, but just because of the name I give 55%!"
As he would later add, however:
It's not always the same, your name and your play. Quite a lot of people would expect Beth Harmon to be in the final!
Game 3 could have seen a knockout blow, for either side! Magnus repeated his Caro-Kann, but this time got into real trouble, with the chances of Wesley winning a second game in a row looking high. Carlsen allowed his opponent to capture a pawn on e6 in order to complicate the game and not go down without a fight, while 17…Nce7 had the virtue of forcing matters.
White does seem to be winning, but it’s anything but easy, and our commentators were unable to find a clear win. The correct path seems to be 18.Rae1! Bf7 and then 19.Rxf6!, but things get wild with 19…Qxh3 best met by 20.Rxg6!!. The immediate 18.Rxf6 is a safe and roughly equal path for White, but instead Wesley played the losing move 18.Bb5?
Giri’s point was the possible knight fork of queen and rook, 18…Nf4!, and after 19.Bxd7 Nxh3+ 20.gxh3 Bxd7 Black emerges with a completely won position. Tania had spotted that was the drawback in 18.Bb5, which she had also been tempted by.
Wesley admitted he’d simply overlooked it: “I’m just a normal chess player, so when you see a queen attacked you move the queen!” Magnus, meanwhile, was led astray by the fact, as Kramnik also pointed out, that moving the queen also looked very promising!
Obviously I had a huge chance in the third game as well, where I actually saw the winning move. I just decided that what I did was winning as well and, for whatever reason, I thought easier, which was just a total lapse, but overall it’s deserved that Wesley wins and I just have to be much, much better.
18…Qc8?! forced 19.Rxf6!, to avoid losing a piece on c3 or b2, and although Black still had chances our commentators felt that both players were probably happy just to steer the game to the first draw of the match.
"The confidence of both players must be pretty low by now", said Vladimir Kramnik, which might be one reason why the final rapid game ended in a lightning fast 23-move Berlin draw - the arbiters gave the players a warning for not playing on to move 40 as specified in the rules, but felt getting them to resume and find a draw by repetition wouldn’t have added anything to the match.
On the other hand, this was absolutely nothing new. Magnus in both his 2016 and 2018 World Championship matches had taken a quick draw with White in the final game, reasoning that his chances were better in a 4-game rapid playoff than taking any risks in the final classical game. The moment wasn’t lost on Sergey Karjakin.
Kramnik had criticised Carlsen’s decision in London in 2018 against Fabiano Caruana, and maintained that criticism about the decision in this online rapid match. His point wasn’t that it was wrong from a practical point of view, but that it’s something you simply shouldn’t do.
You could question it in terms of match strategy as well, however. In this case there weren’t four long rapid games, but just two blitz games to come, and Wesley had said before the match that he felt his chances would increase if he reached a blitz playoff.
In the first blitz game Magnus repeated his Caro-Kann only to once again land in deep trouble out of the opening. Rather than slowly lose a pawn he tried to force matters, but that only made matters worse, until it looked like a simple job for So to wrap up victory. “It seems Wesley has some issue with converting totally winning positions... it feels like he's afraid not to win,” commented Kramnik, however, and by move 31 Magnus was able to equalise almost completely.
31…Rxh2! 32.Kxh2 Nxf3+ 33.Rxf3+ Bxf3 34.c6!
This sting in the tail gives White hope with his queenside pawns, but after 34…bxc6! 35.Bxc6 Rh8+ there would at least still be a fight ahead. Instead Magnus went for the clever defence 34…d4?, but it turned out 35.Rf1! was a winning move. Vladimir Kramnik saw it all coming.
There was no way to stop a white pawn queening, and Magnus resigned on move 44.
It was now do or die for Magnus, so the fact he went for a queenless middlegame in the 2nd blitz game looked puzzling. The decision was vindicated, however, when 17…Bd6? allowed 18.Bxb5!
After 18…axb5 19.Nxb5 Rc6 20.Na7 Be5 Magnus had just the kind of advantage he needed to win the game and force an Armageddon decider.
He spent a minute here before going for 21.Nxc8+!?, to the surprise of both the commentators and Wesley, who later said, “I think it should be technically lost, but I can’t understand why Magnus played Nxc8 right away”. White could have taken a rook later, while defending the b-pawn first would have given much better chances of being able to push the queenside pawns to victory.
In the game after 21…Rxc8 22.Rab1 Ra8! 23.a3 Nd5 24.Rdc1 (24.e4! was the last chance for more) 24…f5! all White’s advantage had gone, and objectively it was Wesley who had winning chances in the remainder of the game until it ended in 46 moves, with bare kings on the board.
Wesley had achieved what no-one managed in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour and beaten Magnus in a final! He'd also reached the final the hard way, coming from behind against Teimour Radjabov in the quarterfinals before overcoming 2nd favourite Hikaru Nakamura in the semis.
In the aftermath of his victory Wesley was predictably apologetic and modest!
First of all I’d like to apologise to Magnus for semi-ruining his birthday, but I’ve got to try to win from time to time, because we don’t want him to win ten tournaments in a row!
I’m very shocked, of course, to beat Magnus. He’s the best player in the world, so coming into the match all I wanted to do was to put up a good fight and make the games interesting, but today has been my day. We were both making mistakes here and there and, as I said yesterday, I don’t think Magnus was in his best form right now, because he missed a lot of chances and he made a lot of mistakes here and there, which would have sealed the match.
Magnus offered “huge congratulations” on a “deserved win”, and explained that Wesley is arguably his biggest rival right now.
I’m definitely the best player here, but there are a lot of strong players and I think at the moment Wesley’s probably the best at this format, and frankly to lose to him is not a shame, it’s not a disaster. I just feel it’s a bit of a pity that I couldn’t show my very best here in this tournament. That’s all I’m unsatisfied with.
Magnus said of turning 30:
I did somewhat blunder like an old man today! But I had a nice day overall. Obviously this wasn’t ideal, but that’s the way it is. This time I wasn’t good enough.
That means that after the first event on the $1.5 million Champions Chess Tour, Wesley So now leads with 46 points (40 for winning the final and 6 for finishing 3rd in the preliminary stage). Magnus is in second place with 30 points (20 for finishing 2nd and 10 for winning the prelims). Here are the full standings.
The next event on the tour is the first Major, where everything is doubled - the prize fund is $200,000, with up to 100 points available to each player. That starts on December 26th, with So, Carlsen, Nakamura, Nepomniachtchi, Aronian, Radjabov, MVL and Giri already qualified for finishing in the Top 8 in the Skilling Open prelims. They'll be joined by David Anton, who was voted back in, and three more players, to be announced in the coming weeks.
It should just be clarified that Wesley isn't yet qualified for the final next September, as he said in the post-match interviews, since only winning one of the Major tournaments gives an automatic place in the final. Winning a Regular tournament earns a place in the next Major, though of course in this case Wesley has more than enough points already.
In any case, it adds some spice that Magnus will finally be playing catch-up!
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