Over the last three decades, the Torneo Magistral de Ajedrez Ciudad de León (to give it its proper Spanish moniker) has to rate as one of the most inventive and original events on the chess circuit. It has been brave enough to experiment with many novel ways to promote chess to the public, none more so than in the late 1990s, when Garry Kasparov got to “dabble” with his then brainchild of “Advanced Chess”, allowing players to consult chess engines during play, in an effort to promote perfect play at the board.
The format has switched several times during the lifespan of the Leon Masters. And this year, for the 31st edition, it was an intriguing three-day rapid knockout of the generations, with defending champion Wesley So – fresh from winning both rapid sections of the first two Grand Chess Tour events in Leuven and Paris – and the Spanish No.1, Paco Vallejo, facing off against two young rising stars: the latest Indian wunderkind R. Praggnanandhaa, 12, who only recently became the second youngest GM in the world; and local hope Jaime Santos, 22, hailed by Vallejo himself to be “the most talented young player in Spain.”
Not unsurprisingly, hot-favourite Wesley So retained his title to once again be crowned the ‘King of Leon’, as the American easily beat Vallejo 2-0 in the blitz tie-break decider after Sunday’s final ended in a 2-2 tie – but not before the big surprise of both final favourites’ having narrow escapes against their young wannabe opponents in the semi-final match-ups.
Unquestionably the highlight of the semis was the big opening day attraction of So vs Pragg, and it certainly didn’t disappoint, as everyone was amazed by just how resilient and inventive the young Indian pre-teen really was, especially as he won the opening game and then had his illustrious opponent on the ropes in the second game. But So rallied to eventually win the four-game match 2.5-1.5, and magnanimously described his young opponent to be a “genius” after the match.
However, this is a portent of things to come, as Pragg will only rapidly improve with experience and maturity. And arguably So is the first elite player to testify to his potential, as he soon had to be regretting let slip his big opening advantage in game one, as he first stumbled into a very complicated ending where he was always chasing the draw, and then at the final hurdle, making one misstep too many.
Photo: Despite the early scare, Wesley So is once again King of León | © Official site
GM Wesley So – IM R Praggnanandhaa
31st Leon Masters, (1)
Barry Attack/Slav Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Bf4 As we noted in the previous column, the Barry Attack, as pioneered by the now veteran English GM, Mark Hebden, was designed to avoid the King’s Indian Defence. But here, this is another intriguing sideline to the “Barry”, with an intended Nb5 aimed at forcing the displacement of Black’s pieces by forcing …Na6. 3…Bf5 4.Nb5 Na6 5.e3 e6 Also possible – and arguably slightly better – is 5…c6 6.Nc3 Nb4 7.Bd3!? Nxd3+ 8.cxd3 and an intriguing tussle ahead, where Black has the bishop-pair but White has compensation by claiming the centre with a later e4 etc. Either way, I think this is the best way for Black to go rather than 5…e6. 6.c4 Be7 Again, if 6…c6 7.Nc3 we end up with a sort of Slav Defence set-up, though Black has the little handicap of the knight being on a6 rather than the normal Slav-like …Nbd7 – there’s nothing much here, but this difference could prove crucial for an experienced elite player, such as So, facing a relatively inexperienced young wannabe. 7.a3 0-0 8.c5 Ne8 A tough call, but he has to stop Nd6 after …c6 kicking the knight. 9.b4 So has clearly bamboozled his inexperienced opponent with his opening choices, and Pragg suddenly realises now that his …Na6 is definitely misplaced on a6 – but the young Indian is being, well, “pragg-matic” about this situation he now faces, readily admitting the problem with his position by now regrouping with …Na6-b8-d7 to steer the game back into a more conventional set-up. 9…c6 10.Nc3 Nb8 11.g4 Bg6 12.Nf3 Nf6 Not bad per say, but when faced with a pawn chain in the opening quickly storming up the board, the best solution is just to break it down immediately with 12…a5! 13.Ne5 Nfd7 14.Nxg6 fxg6 In the Slav set-up, this is one of those typical recaptures that goes against the accepted practice in chess – but the idea is to make use of the open f-file for counter-play. 15.Bg3 g5?! It may stop ideas of f4 and h4 gaining more real estate, but it comes at the cost of exposing the b1-h7 diagonal for White’s bishop. Again, better was 15…a5 undermine the pawn-chain. 16.Bd3 Bf6 Black threatens to play …e5 – but is …e5 really a threat here? 17.h4!? This was the most obvious looking aggressive plan, looking to rip open lines towards Black’s king. However, there was the safer option of 17.0-0!? as it is not so clear Black can continue with his intended plan of 17…e5, as already White has the tactical blow of 18.Nxd5!? cxd5 19.Qb3! and the d5-pawn falls leaving White in a very strong position with the bishop-pair, huge space advantage, and threatening to push his pawns further up the board. 17…gxh4 18.Bd6 e5 Pragg has gone ‘all-in’ on …e5 looking to complicate matters by crashing the position open – but he has misjudged the position. 19.g5! A very strong move that reinforces White’s big advantage. 19…Bxg5 20.Qh5? Oops! Now it is So who is the one who gets carried away with a speculative attack. The obvious 20.dxe5! with Qh5 to follow is simply good and very strong. 20…e4! 21.Nxe4? White’s position is now bust, and So had to accept that he’d badly miscalculated with 20.Qh5? and play 21.Bxf8 Nxf8 22.Bc2 where Black has an obvious positional advantage. 21…dxe4 22.Bc4+ Kh8 23.Bxf8 g6 Nice and solid was the prefered option of 23…Nxf8 24.Rg1 Bf6 where Black’s Nf8 and Bf6 snuff out any speculative White attack – and keep the e4-pawn! 24.Qg4 Nxf8 25.Qxe4 The e4-pawn gives So hopes of saving the game, as it is not so easy for Black to break down White’s pawn chain that stretches right across the board from f2-a3. 25…Qe7 26.Qxe7 Bxe7 27.Ke2 g5 28.Rab1 a6 Stopping White from playing b5. The crux of the position is this: If White can quickly open the game up a little, then he has good chances of saving the game as Black’s pieces are all a little awkward. But if Black can consolidate and regroup, then, long-term, he has good practical chances in the endgame with his passed h-pawn. 29.d5 So tries to move quickly – but he also had the alternative plan 29.Rbg1?! and follow-up ideas of f4 or perhaps even Rh3-f3. 29…cxd5 30.Bxd5 Nc6 This was the problem of playing d5 – Black’s knight quickly takes up a good post on c6 that helps the unravelling process. 31.Rhd1 Rb8 A little too cautious, perhaps, with the pre-teen sensation showing a tad more respect for the elite player than he really should have here. More accurate was 31…Rc8 32.f3 Kg7 with the idea of …Rc7 and …h5. 32.Be4 Kg7 33.b5! This should lead to a draw, as So’s pieces are getting more active. However, with Black’s h-pawn so far up the board, it is always going to be a problem for So to deal with – and this complication makes for a scrappy, topsy-turvy ensuing ending. 33…axb5 34.Rxb5 Na7 35.Rxb7?! Better might have been 35.Ra5!? looking to repeat the position after 35…Nc6 36.Rb5 Na7 37.Ra5 Nc6 38.Rb5 etc, as after 38…Rc8 it all gets a bit ‘dangerous’ after 39.Rxb7 Kf7 as White has 40.Bf5! Ne6 41.Rd6! Ncd8 42.Rxe6 Nxe6 43.Rb6 Rxc5 44.Bxe6+ Kg7 45.f4! and the bishops of opposite colours should be good for a draw. 35…Rxb7 36.Bxb7 Bxc5 It should really be a draw – but the key for Pragg that makes it all awkward for So, is that Black’s bishop and knight can safely blockade the path of White’s a-pawn. 37.a4 Kf6 38.Be4? The game should really have flipped again on this one incorrect move. White had to play 38.f4! h6 (Black can’t play 38…g4? as now 39.Rd5! Bb4 40.Rg5 g3 41.Rh5 and White is suddenly winning the endgame as the advanced h-pawn falls.) 39.Rd5! Bb4 40.Rd4 Be7 41.Rd5 Bb4 42.Rd4 and the position will repeat, as Black can’t allow White’s rook to get to a5 as it will win the stranded Na7. 38…h6 39.Rd5 Not so effective now, as Black has an added resource. 39…Ne6! 40.Rf5+ Ke7 41.Bd5 Bd6 Black has successfully unravelled his pieces, and now the h-pawn becomes a major headache – but White is not without saving chances just yet. 42.a5 h3 43.Kf3 Another small misstep from So that’s perhaps not so easy to comprehend, but from f3, the White king now gets cut-off from tracking back to stop Black’s h-pawn. Therefore better and more accurate was 43.Kf1! Bc7 44.a6 Bb8 45.Kg1! and now the king stops the path of the h-pawn and the game should be a draw now. 43…h5?! Both players are now getting a bit nervous and also short of time in this tense, difficult ending. The best way ahead was with 43…Bb8! 44.a6 Bd6 45.Kg4 h2! 46.f4 Nb5 47.Bh1 Bc5 48.Kh3 Nbc7 forcing the drawing line 49.Rxc5! Nxc5 50.a7 and equality. 44.Bxe6 g4+ 45.Ke4 Kxe6 46.Rxh5 h2 47.Rh6+ And with that, this should really just be a draw as White just keeps his tabs on the h-pawn with his rook tied to the h-file – but So walks right into another error. 47…Ke7 48.Kd5 Bc7 49.a6 Kf7 50.e4? The mistake is perhaps not so obvious, but by playing e4, White’s king still can’t track back to the Black pawns, while Black now also has the nice trick of Bf4-h6! cutting off the rook from the h-pawn – but Pragg fails to spot this winning technique, and instead goes for targeting White’s f-pawn, which is perhaps what So intended with his move. 50…Kg7 51.Rh5 Kg6 52.Rh8 Kf6? This was the big winning moment. After 52…Bf4! 53.Rh4 Forced, otherwise …Bh6 cuts off the rook from the h-pawn. 53…Kg5 54.Rh8 g3! 55.fxg3 Bxg3 and now there’s no way to effectively stop …Bh4 again cutting the rook off from the h-pawn. 53.Kc5 Kg5 54.Kd4 Bb6+? As in the above note, again, the winning technique was 54…g3! 55.fxg3 Bxg3 that will likely force the game now into the hopeless ending of B+N vs the a- and e-pawns, but crucially, the Black king will cut-off the e-pawn and then pick off both pawns leaving the possible scenario of forcing Black to demonstrate a B+N v K mate! 55.Kd5 Bxf2 56.Rxh2 g3 57.Rh8 Nb5 58.Rg8+ Kf4 59.Rf8+ Ke3 60.e5 g2 61.Rg8 Kf3 [see diagram] 62.Kc6?? There’s a finite number of missteps you can make in such endgames – and here, So finally reaches his limit! Easily drawing was 62.Rf8+ Kg4 63.Rg8+ Kf3 64.Rf8+ Ke2 65.Rg8 g1Q 66.Rxg1 Bxg1 67.Kc6 as the big difference now is that the White king and pawns are too far up the board, and Black will have to sacrifice one of his pieces for one of the passed pawns and a draw. 62…Bg3 63.e6 g1Q 64.e7 Nc7 0-1