There’s really not much space or even rest between major events these days, with the top tournaments coming thick and fast. Already this week, the elite stars are once again back in action, with the new season of the 2018 Grand Chess Tour (GCT) kicking off with the first leg of the tour being the Your Next Move Rapid and Blitz taking place in the old university town of Leuven, near Brussels in Belgium.
However, unlike previous seasons, this year the GCT has been structured slightly differently, that adds more of a competitive edge to the various legs. Once again there will be Rapid and Blitz tournaments in Leuven, Paris and St. Louis, followed by the Sinquefield Cup, also in St Louis. The major change is that only the top four scorers from the first four tournaments will qualify through to the year-ending London Chess Classic, where they will play a combination of Rapid, Blitz and Classical chess to determine the overall tour winner.
The nine contracted players who will contest the first four tour events are (in alphabetical order): Viswanathan Anand (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Wesley So (USA) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France).
Conspicuously missing due to his upcoming title match is World Champion & 2017 GCT winner Magnus Carlsen, who had to decline his full ‘tour card’ invitation this year, as did Ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik – but both are still available for wildcard picks. Each GCT leg has one wildcard, with Anish Giri (Netherlands) selected for Leuven, and Kramnik at Paris.
Right now, American chess is on a high what with US title-challenger Caruana’s dramatic last-gasp win last week at the 6th Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger, followed by Sam Shankland’s victory at the American Continental Championship in Montevideo, Uruguay – and now we could be on the cusp of a remarkable triple-crown of American major tournament victories in June, as Wesley So got off to a blistering start in Leuven.
The US #2 dominated the first two days in Leuven, and going into the third and final day of the Rapid tournament (in the rapid, a win is worth 2 points, a draw 1 point and a loss is 0 – the scoring system reverts to normal for blitz) on Thursday, So has the outright lead at the top, two points clear of nearest rival Aronian.
1. W. So (USA) 10/12; 2. L. Aronian (Armenia) 8; 3-5. S. Karjakin (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 7; 6. H. Nakamura (USA) 6; 7-9. A. Grischuk (Russia), V. Anand (India), A. Giri (Netherlands) 4; 10. F. Caruana (USA) 3.
Photo: Could Wesley So give the USA a third major victory in June? | © Lennart Ootes (Grand Chess Tour)
GM Wesley So – GM Anish Giri
Your Next Move Grand Chess Tour, (4)
English Opening, Bremen System
1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 e5 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 The Bremen System in the English is just a Reversed Sicilian Dragon – but the crucial difference is that, with the colours reversed, White has the extra move, so there’s no need to fear the sharpest lines in the Yugoslav Attack. 5…Nb6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.d3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Be3 The important square for White is the c5-square. If White can cement a piece here, often it will pose Black problems – and we’ll soon see this in the game! 9…Be6 10.Rc1 Nd5 11.Nxd5 Bxd5 12.Qc2 Re8 13.a3 a6 14.Rfd1 Bf6 15.Nd2! The knight is heading to c5 via Nd2-e4-c5 where, from its outpost, it causes Giri a major ‘headache’. There really is nothing in the position – but the Nc5 just irritates the Dutch GM so that he walks right into a big tactic. 15…Bxg2 16.Kxg2 Bg5 17.Bxg5 Qxg5 18.e3 Qe7 There was more merit in 18…Re6!? as it both defends the …Nc6 and sets-up threats of swinging across to attack the White king after 19.Ne4 Qh5 20.h4 Rg6 21.Rh1 Rf8 with ideas of …f5 and …f4 and a direct assault on the White king. 19.Ne4 Rac8 20.Nc5! Nd8 21.d4 The logical follow-up. Now, if 21…exd4 22.Rxd4, White’s pieces are better placed, and he threatens to create further pawn weaknesses with the rook swinging across the board with Rh4 and Rb4 etc. 21…e4 For the reasons given in the previous note, Giri opts to keep the game closed – but it looks as if he’s simply overlooked a clear winning tactic. 22.d5! f5?! Already Giri’s position is compromised, and even with 22…Rb8 23.Nb3! the position is looking very uncomfortable for Black. 23.Nxa6! [see diagram] The knight sacrifice undermines the fact that Black’s …Rc8 is unprotected, which allows the d-pawn to storm up the board with menace. 23…Nf7 Giri is in a bad way – but this is the only hope for a slim chance of hanging on, as after 23…bxa6 24.d6 Qd7 25.dxc7 Qe6 26.Rxd8 Rexd8 27.cxd8Q+ Rxd8 28.Qc6! the endgame is hopelessly lost for Black, as there’s an easy target in the weak a6-pawn. 24.d6! This liquidation also forces Giri into a bad endgame. 24…Nxd6 25.Nxc7 Red8 26.Qb3+ Qf7 27.Ne6 Stronger was 27.Qb6! – but So arguably didn’t like the fact that after 27…Nc4 28.Rxd8+ Rxd8 29.Qxb7 Ne5 Black may well have some ‘tricks’ with the knight coming into f3. Rather than that, So opts to centralize his knight on d4 with a view to trading queens, thus potentially avoiding a game-saving f3 ‘happening’. 27…Rxc1 28.Rxc1 Re8 29.Nd4 Qxb3 30.Nxb3 Kf7 31.Nd4 So has the stronger and better-placed centralised knight on d4 – the trick now is therefore to try and keep the knights on the board and avoid a straight rook and pawn ending as best as he can, as potentially that will offer Giri practical chances of saving the game. 31…g6 32.Rc3 Kf6 33.Rb3 Re7 34.a4 Ke5 35.a5 Giri is handicapped by his weak b-pawn. 35…Kd5 36.Rb6 Rf7 There’s no real alternative here for Giri. If 36…Kc5 he’ll have to contend with something like 37.h4 Rd7 (If 37…Nc4 38.Ne6+ Kd5 39.Nf4+ Ke5 40.Rb5+ Kd6 41.b4 White will have just made a lot of progress with his position.) 38.b3 Kd5 39.Nb5! as this rook and pawn ending is winning, after 39…Nxb5 40.Rxb5+ Kc6 41.Rb6+ Kd5 42.h5! gxh5 (No better is 42…g5 43.Rb5+ Ke6 44.g4!) 43.Kh3 Ke5 44.Kh4 Black’s pawns are shattered and easily picked-off, and if …Rd2, White will simply play Rxb7 and then push the a-pawn up the board. 37.b3 g5 38.a6 This simplifies down to a win, but more clinical was 38.g4! f4 39.Nb5 fxe3 40.fxe3 Nxb5 41.Rxb5+ Kc6 42.Rf5! Rg7 43.Re5 h6 44.b4! and there’s no way to stop 45.b5+ and 46.Rxe4 etc. 38…bxa6 39.Rxa6 Nb7 40.Rb6 Nd6 41.Ra6 Nb7 42.Rh6! So’s rampant rook and centralised knight will seal the deal, as now Black’s kingside pawns become vulnerable to being picked off. 42…Nd6 43.Rh5 Rg7 44.Rh6 Rf7 45.Rh5 Rg7 46.h4 gxh4 47.Rxh4 Giri has no hope here, and So’s winning plan now is to find a way of breaking the Black kingside pawns down with a timely g4. After that, the game is an easy win, as Black will have to deal with also falling into a knight fork. 47…Ke5 48.Rh6 Rf7 49.Rh5 Kf6 50.Rh6+ Ke5 51.Kh3 Rb7 52.Rh5 Kf6 53.Rh6+ Ke5 54.Kh4 Nb5 55.Ne2 Re7 56.g4 Nd6 57.Nd4! 1-0 Giri resigns, as avoiding the knight fork on c6 with 57…Rb7 sees 58.Rh5 wins the f-pawn.