Wesley So takes a 3-point lead over Magnus Carlsen into Day 2 of their Fischer Random World Championship final after brilliantly winning the second 45-minute game. “I can only play it once in a lifetime against Magnus,” said Wesley So of the move that ushered in huge complications, and though Magnus survived the initial assault he blundered a piece in the endgame. All four games were tactical melees on Day 1 with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana trading wins on what Nepo called the “board of shame” – i.e. the match for third place!
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Magnus may, therefore, have breathed a sigh of relief when he defeated Fabiano Caruana in Høvikodden in the semi-finals, since Wesley So has the reputation of being a much calmer, more technical player – and if there’s one area Magnus has no rivals it’s precisely in technical positions. If we were expecting a quiet match with plenty of draws, however, we got something completely different on the first day.
In Game 1 Magnus used his central pawns to seize space and 18…Bxd5?!, eliminating the last of those pawns, may have been an act of desperation on So's part (18…Ng6 runs into 19.Nh6+! and the best Black can hope for is that White is feeling merciful and forces a draw):
At this stage Magnus could have played what became the day’s thematic sacrifice 19.Nxg7!, although it’s a sacrifice you can’t accept without allowing mate-in-4 (19…Kxg7 20.Bh6+ and then Qxf6). You need to calculate the counter-attacking 19…Bxg2, but it turns out White is simply winning after 20.Qg3!
Instead in the game Magnus went for 19.Bxd5!?, when after 19…Rxd5 20.Rxd5 Nxd5 21.Nxg7 Black was able to capture with 21…Kxg7, though 22.c4! posed immediate problems:
From this point onwards, however, Wesley again demonstrated the resourcefulness that tormented Nepo in the semi-finals. 22…Ne7!? was playable (but only as Black later sacs the knight to stop mate), but instead Wesley went for 22…Re6!, calmly giving back the piece to consolidate. His play that followed wasn’t quite perfect, but it wasn’t far off, and he safely went on to draw a pawn down against the master torturer himself. It ended in stalemate on move 96.
Magnus wasn’t taking media questions after that marathon, but if he managed to rest between games it couldn’t stop the next game getting even more out of hand. This time it was Magnus who was calmly taking material with Black and provoking White to try and prove he had a winning attack... and with 24.Bh6! Wesley accepted the challenge.
He wasn’t sure it would work, but later commented:
I can only play it once in a lifetime against Magnus!
Magnus entered the tank for 6 minutes until finally opting for 24…Ne8 25.Bxg7! (again that sacrifice!) 25...Nd2! Wesley noted, “I’m either dead lost or I’m alive – there’s no going back!” and thought that Magnus felt he was winning at this stage, but instead 26.Rxf7! Nxf1 27.Rf8+ Kh7 28.Be5! left the ball firmly in the World Champion’s court:
“There’s no mating net, just a checking net!” Wesley So clarified about this move, but it left a huge range of options where one false step would mean sudden death. Magnus isn’t World Champion for nothing, and after 11 minutes in the tank he plotted a way out with 28…Rc1! 29.Rh8+ Kg6 30.Ne7+ Kf7 31.Rh7+ Ke6 (risky, as we would see) 32.Nxc8 Rxa1 33.Bxa1 Ng3 34.Rxa7 Nf5 35.Bh8 and, just when it seemed the game would nevertheless fizzle out into an endgame draw, 35…Re2?
The mental fatigue of calculating all the crazy lines had led to a blunder, and after 36.g4! hxg4 37.hxg4 Ne3 Wesley was simply winning the e8-knight with 38.Re7+!
As we mentioned at the beginning, Wesley is a wonderful technical player, and here he got to demonstrate his prowess against the very best. Wesley traded down into a position where if he lost his extra pawn it would be an instant draw, but he wasn’t going to do that. By the end Magnus was reduced to making some wry chess jokes!
62.Rxc6?? is of course stalemate, but 62.Rc4 preserved White’s advantage until Magnus resigned 10 moves later.
A famous win for Wesley, which gave him a 3-point lead, but there are still 18 points up for grabs on the remaining two days.
The other match featured more crazy positions and more decisive games, but it couldn’t help but be totally overshadowed by the action elsewhere. While a $50,000 difference in prizes ($125,000 for 1st, $75,000 for 2nd) and the World Championship title is at stake in Carlsen-So, the remaining match is about “just” $10,000 ($50,000 or $40,000) and the dubious honour of finishing 3rd. As Ian Nepomniachtchi put it:
It’s easier to motivate yourself if you’re playing in the final and not on the board of shame!
In the first game Nepo’s frustration at having missed a multitude of chances in the semi-final seemed to carry on into the game, when he went for a speculative piece sacrifice:
18...Bg4?! invited 19.e5, and while Nepo may have been right that his centrally-placed rooks gave him chances the way he went about it soon left him doomed to defeat.
It was credit to the Russian, however, that he hit back in the second game, where the players took turns sacrificing on g7 and g2:
It turned out to be White who was on top after 33.Qb2!, targetting h8, and, after many adventures, Ian finally took home the full point with a typical endgame tactic:
67.Rxe5+! Nxe5 68.Nf3+! and Black resigned, since if he takes the knight the h-pawn queens.
We still have two more 45-minute games on Friday with 3 points for a win, while on Saturday the matches will end in up to four 15+2 games (2 points for a win) and then four 3+2 blitz games (1 point for a win). Don’t miss all the action live here on chess24 from 17:30 CET!
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