Reports May 20, 2014 | 1:16 PMby GM Jan Gustafsson

Wesley So triumphs in Cuba

The Capablanca Memorial in the Cuban capital city of Havana is history, with 20-year-old Filipino Wesley So taking all the plaudits. Let's take a closer look at the young star’s tournament.

by Jan Gustafsson

Wesley So was in a class of his own in Cuba | photo:

In the Twittersphere the tournament wasn’t an object of universal affection, with complaints about the high number of (quick) draws. For me to complain about a lack of fight, however, would be about as credible as Hannibal Lecter complaining about a meat-heavy diet.

That not all the participants were in a belligerent mood strikes me, at least, as perfectly understandable given the backdrop and the fact that virtually no money was involved. The lack of enmity among the Cuban participants may also have other explanations, for all I know.

Wesley So enjoyed the event in any case, as the 13 Elo points he picked up moved him to within only 6 points of the 2750 target he set himself for the year…

In this report we’ll focus on the tournament winner and leave aside the question of whether he had support from the very top. 

Wesley scored three wins and seven draws to win the elite group by a full point:

1Wesley So2731PHI½½½1½½30.50
2Lazaro Bruzon2682CUB½½½½½½½1½½26.75
3Leinier Dominguez2768CUB½0½½½½½½524.00
4Zoltan Almasi2693HUN½½½½½022.00
5Francisco Vallejo2700ESP½0½121.25
6Vassily Ivanchuk2753UKR½½½½½½421.50

In the run-up to the tournament local hero Leinier Dominguez and six-time winner Vassily Ivanchuk were considered the top favourites, but little went according to plan for either of them.

Ivanchuk went for two unfortunate piece sacrifices early on and the resulting losses caused him to batten down the hatches and content himself with draws in the remaining rounds. He finished in a surprisingly winless last place.

Dominguez did, at least, pull off a victory – against Pacoman  – but otherwise things failed to go his way, despite home advantage. Or perhaps because of home advantage… it’s always seemed to me that playing at home is a disadvantage in chess. He lost eight Elo points and allowed Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to push him out of the Top 10.

So took advantage of the leisurely pace set by the tournament favourites to achieve perhaps his greatest tournament success to date. Let’s take a look at his tournament round by round.

Round 1

A hard-fought but rather uneventful draw with White against the future runner-up and other local hero Lazaro Bruzon. Bruzon would also remain undefeated and was the only other participant to achieve more than 50%, so it seems he doesn’t share my thesis about home advantage. Nevertheless, I still believe in it – just take a look at the recent World Championship matches…

Round 2

So had White again and scored his first win, disappointingly for us against chess24 representative Paco Vallejo. For a long time not much was going on, but So managed to undermine and eventually topple Vallejo’s Berlin Wall (see our report).

Round 3

A totally problem-free draw with Black against the top seed Dominguez. So showed himself to be better prepared in the opening and for the whole course of the game it was White who had to take care in order to draw. Here’s how Dominguez managed:

36. ♖ec3! Only so!

36. c7 ♖xg2+ 37. ♔h1 ♖h2+ 38. ♔g1 ♖ag2+ 39. ♔f1 ♖h1+ 40. ♔xg2 ♖xc1 And Black should win. After the text move, however, he's forced to give perpetual check.

36... ♖xg2+ 37. ♔h1 ♖h2+ 38. ♔g1 ♖ag2+ 39. ♔f1 ♖b2 40. ♔g1 ♖bg2+ 41. ♔f1 ♖d2


Round 4

Against Ivanchuk’s Paulsen So achieved a slightly better ending, but the Ukrainian held things together.

Round 5

Strike two! So once again proved himself to be bang up-to-date on theory. Against the similarly theoretically well-armed Almasi he demonstrated an important improvement in a very sharp line of the French:

15. 0-0 ♘f5 An important improvement. Black begins to unravel his knot of minor pieces immediately, planning Nce7 followed by Bc6.

15... ♕b6 16. ♘e4 ♘d5 17. ♘d6+ ♔b8 18. ♘xf7 ♖df8 19. ♘d6 ♘ce7 20. ♗f3 ♗c6 21. a4 ♘b4 22. a5 ♕c5 23. ♕h7 d3+ 24. ♔h1 d2 25. ♗xd2 cxd2 26. ♕xe7 ♖xf4 27. ♖ab1 ♖gf8 28. c4 a6 29. h3 ♔a8 30. ♕g7 ♕e3 31. ♔h2 d1Q 32. ♖bxd1 1-0 Karjakin - Kamsky, Nalchik 2009

16. ♘e4

16. ♘xf5 exf5 17. ♖b1 may be tested in future, as here as well Black's position strikes me as absolutely playable.

16... ♘ce7 17. ♘f6 ♖g6 18. ♘xd7 ♖xd7 19. ♗f3 ♘d5 and Black's pair of knights was at least the equal of White's bishops. In the play that followed So used the outpost on e3 to create a passed pawn and win.


Round 6

So wobbles! In the opening he mixed up his moves and ended up in an extremely critical situation. Bruzon let him escape, however, after the most worrying moment yet for the Filipino. Or did your author simply not understand what was going on while So had everything under control? Judge for yourself: 

1. c4 ♘f6 2. ♘f3 g6 3. ♘c3 d5 4. ♕a4+ ♗d7 5. ♕b3 dxc4 6. ♕xc4 This is a well-known Anti-Grünfeld variation where holding back on the move d2-d4 leaves White with some additional options.

6... ♗g7 This move is actually seen quite often, but in this position it's considered a mistake. I remember how happy I was as Leko's second when Kamsky played it. That a strong theoretician like So repeats the move makes me curious whether he has new information, or was he simply surprised?

6... a6 is considered "correct", 7. d4 (7. e4 b5 8. ♕e2 1-0 Svidler - Howell, Amsterdam 2010) 7... b5 8. ♕b3 c5 9. dxc5 ♗g7 This usually leads via a move transposition to one of the main variations of the Qb3 Grünfeld Indian e.g. 10. e4 0-0 11. ♗e2 ♗e6 12. ♕c2 ♘bd7 13. ♗e3 ♖c8 14. ♖d1 b4 15. ♘d5 ♗xd5 16. exd5 ♘xc5 17. 0-0 a5 18. h3 ♘ce4 19. ♕b3 ♕d6 20. ♗b5 ♘c5 21. ♕c4 ♘a4 22. ♕b3 ♘c5 1/2-1/2 Ivanchuk - Wang, Beijing 2012

7. e4 This makes all the difference. The idea of e5 is very annoying, and due to Black's "extra tempo" of Bd7 it can't be met by Nfd7.

7... a6 Rarely seen in this position. Is So still trying to transpose to the main variation?

7... 0-0 8. e5 ♘g4 (8... ♗e6 ; 8... ♘e8 9. d4+/= 0-1 Bruzon Batista - Rakhmanov, Guarenas 2012) 9. d4 ♘a6 10. h3 ♘h6 11. ♗e2+/= 1/2-1/2 Leko - Kamsky, Nalchik 2009

8. e5! Of course!

8. d4 b5 9. ♕b3 c5

8... ♗e6 9. exf6! A typical idea - White gives up his queen for three minor pieces. This strikes me as a particularly effective version.

9. ♕b4 is another extremely critical test of Black's play. I can see nothing better than 9... ♘c6 10. ♕xb7 ♘a5 11. ♕b4 c5

a) 12. ♕xc5 ♘d7 13. ♕d4 (13. ♕e3 ♘c6 14. d4 ♘b4 15. ♕d2 ♗f5 )

b) 12. ♕a4+ ♘d7 13. d4 with a white edge. This line is a further indication that So simply mixed up the moves.

9... ♗xc4 10. fxg7 ♖g8 11. ♗xc4 ♘c6 12. 0-0 Regardless of what the computer says I can't believe in Black's chances here. So is also perfectly aware of the danger, and with his next move he does his utmost to complicate the position:

12... g5! Planning to chase the white knight away from the beautiful f3-square before White can occupy the centre.

12... ♖xg7 13. ♖d1 , followed by d4, Bh6 and so on, should end badly.

13. ♗d5

13. ♖d1 g4 14. ♘g5 ♖xg7 15. d4 also deserved serious consideration.

13... g4 14. ♗xc6+ At the cost of the bishop Bruzon secures the e5-square for his knight. However, it's no longer easy - g5-g4 has paid off.

14... bxc6 15. ♘e5 ♖xg7 16. d4 Perhaps too direct.

16. ♖e1 f6 17. ♘xc6 ♕d7 18. ♘a5 and I still believe in White.

16... ♕xd4 17. ♖e1 ♕d6 18. ♗f4 This looks very dangerous, but So once more shows he's on top of matters:

18... f6 19. ♘e4 ♕d5 20. ♘c3 Bruzon accepts the repetition. An interesting final winning attempt was

20. ♖ad1 ♕b5 21. ♘xg4! f5 (21... ♖xg4 22. ♘xf6+ ) 22. ♘gf6+ ♔f7 23. ♘h5 fxe4 24. ♘xg7 ♔xg7 25. ♖xe4 ♔f7 26. b3

20... ♕d6 21. ♘e4 ♕d5 22. ♘c3 ♕d6


Round 7

So came under some light pressure with Black against Vallejo. However, the latter followed the old Russian wisdom of always following two wins with a draw, so the game ended with hands shaken on move 20.

Round 8

So was relieved to have White after three Blacks in a row and pulled off his masterstroke: defeating Dominguez on his own terrain in an extremely-complicated Najdorf. Incidentally, this was the only defeat for both Cubans in the whole event!

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. ♘xd4 ♘f6 5. ♘c3 a6 6. ♗e3 ♘g4 7. ♗c1 ♘f6 8. f3 e5 9. ♘b3 ♗e6 10. ♗e3 h5 11. ♘d5 ♗xd5 12. exd5 ♘bd7 13. ♕d2 g6 14. ♗e2 ♕c7 Leinier Dominguez is perhaps the greatest Najdorf expert of our time. From this position he managed, for instance, to pull off an impressive victory against Fabiano Caruana. So, however, shows that he's brilliantly prepared and subjects Black's idea to a real test.

14... ♗g7 15. 0-0 0-0 16. ♖ac1 b6 17. h3 ♖e8 18. g4 hxg4 19. hxg4 ♘h7 20. g5 f5 21. gxf6 ♗xf6 22. ♖f2 ♗g5 23. ♖g2 ♗xe3+ 24. ♕xe3 ♘df8 25. ♗d3 ♖a7 26. ♖f1 ♖f7 27. ♕h6 ♔h8 28. ♘d2 ♖f4 29. ♖g4 b5 30. ♘e4 ♘d7 31. ♖xg6 ♖g8 32. ♘g5 1-0 Caruana - Gelfand, Wijk aan Zee 2014

15. ♖c1 An interesting concept, no doubt inspired by the Caruana game above. The normal move in this position is 15. c4, which would, however, be met strongly by a5, in order to chase the knight from b3. White delays his advance, and now playing a5 before c4 is less alluring for Black as it would instead be met by a4 and Bb5. The natural developing move is Bg7, after which White will time c4 so he can meet Black's a5 with the c5-break, exploiting the fact that on g7 the bishop no longer controls the c5-square.

15. c4 a5 16. ♖d1 a4 17. ♘a1 ♕a5 18. ♕xa5 ♖xa5 19. ♘c2 ♗h6= 0-1 Caruana - Dominguez, Thessaloniki 2013

15... ♗g7

15... a5 16. a4

16. 0-0 0-0 17. c4 b6 A slight concession, but necessary in order to prevent c5.

17... a5 18. c5!

18. ♘a1 Planning b4, Nb3 and c5.

18... ♔h7

18... e4 looks critical, but would be well-parried by 19. f4! ♘g4 20. ♗xg4 hxg4 21. f5! and White is on top.

19. h3 Seizing control of the g4-square (e4 would now always be met by f4 as Ng4 is no longer possible). Black is left with the idea of Ng8 and Bh6.

19... ♘g8 20. g4! Surprising, but strong. So offers a pawn sacrifice rather than conceding the initiative on the kingside.

20... ♕d8

20... ♗h6 21. g5 ♗g7 22. b4 ♘e7 looks more solid.

21. gxh5 A little too greedy?

21. ♘c2 leaves all White's options open. I like his position.

21... ♕h4! 22. hxg6+ fxg6 23. ♗d3 ♗h6 24. ♖f2 ♗xe3 25. ♕xe3 ♘e7 In exchange for the pawn Dominguez has achieved the desired bishop swap and has beautiful squares and points of attack on h3 and f3. Because of gxh5?! we can no longer talk about the game as one convincing whole, but in the upcoming struggle the future tournament winner eventually gets the upper hand.

26. ♖g2 ♘f5 27. ♗xf5 ♖xf5

27... gxf5

28. ♘b3 ♔g7 29. ♘d2 ♕xh3

29... ♖h8!

30. ♔f2 Suddenly the black king and its remaining shield comes under fire.

30... ♖af8 31. ♖cg1 ♖8f6 32. ♔e2 e4 33. ♘xe4 ♖xf3 34. ♖xg6+ ♖xg6 35. ♖xg6+ ♔xg6 36. ♕xf3 ♕xf3+ 37. ♔xf3 ♘e5+ 38. ♔f4 The chaos is over and the resulting endgame is relatively easily won. The third one bites the dust!

38... ♘xc4 39. b3 ♘e5 40. ♘xd6 ♘d3+ 41. ♔e4 ♘c1 42. ♔e5 ♘d3+ 43. ♔d4 ♘c1 44. ♘c8 ♔f7 45. ♔e5 ♔e8 46. ♔e6 ♔d8 47. d6 ♘d3 48. ♘xb6 ♘f4+ 49. ♔f5 ♘e2 50. ♔e6 ♘f4+ 51. ♔f6 ♘e2 52. d7 ♘c3 53. ♔e6 ♘b5 54. ♘a4 ♘c7+ 55. ♔d6 ♘b5+ 56. ♔c6 ♘d4+ 57. ♔d5 ♘b5 58. ♘c5 ♔c7 59. ♔e6 ♘d4+ 60. ♔e7 ♘f5+ 61. ♔e6 ♘d4+ 62. ♔f7 ♘f5 63. ♔f6 ♘e3 64. ♔e6


Round 9

The air somehow seemed to come out of the whole tournament at this point, and in quite a pleasant position Ivanchuk contented himself with a repetition of moves, which Wesley So saw no reason to turn down.

Round 10

So’s full point lead meant he only needed a draw to finish in clear first, so he was also happy to sign a draw with Almasi after 12 moves.


Overall it was a supreme performance and a highly-deserved victory. The Filipino’s opening knowledge was particularly impressive, while he also took his chances efficiently and managed to avoid any serious mistakes. With the exception of the game with Black against Bruzon he barely got into any trouble.

Like Anand at the Candidates Tournament So was the only person who played a stable tournament and he profited from the fact that none of his opponents managed to pick up any momentum.

Unconfirmed rumours suggest So is considering the idea of giving up his current studies at Webster University in the U.S. to fully concentrate on chess.

In any case, it's so far so good, and a path to the absolute top lies ahead for the young star.

See also:

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