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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The expression “on tilt” is a term usually associated with poker – though it originated from playing pinball – to describe a negative emotional state that clouds a person’s judgement and leads them to continue to make mistakes, often growing in magnitude as the player’s frustration mounts. And this perfectly describes Magnus Carlsen’s mood right now, as he’s been totally outplayed by Wesley So in the first official World Fischer Random Championship final in Oslo, Norway.

With a win in the first four longer time-controlled session scoring a premium 3-points, Carlsen has gone from the titled to the tilted arena, as the Norwegian, under the media glaze on his home turf, has sensationally crashed to a trifecta of back-to-back loses. He now trails So by a big margin of 10½-1½, with the US #3 now tantalisingly needing just two more points (either a win or two draws) going into the rapid and blitz to clinch the inaugural global title and first prize of $125,000 – and the signs are that it could all be over with a day and half to spare!

Carlsen losing three games in-a-row can and does happen in rapid and blitz – but in a matchplay scenario, with a slower time control, and to the same player, is something that comes around about as often as Halley’s comet! But Wesley So has become that very rare occurrence, especially with a very focused and confident performance that harked back to his golden period from mid 2016 to mid 2017, when the Filipino-American won the Sinquefield Cup, London Chess Classic, Tata Steel Masters and the US championship title to reach #2 in the world and seen as a threat to Carlsen.

Now he’s on the brink of doing something that Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura couldn’t do, and that’s beat Carlsen in a title match. But with Carlsen’s notoriety for staging epic comebacks, So is taking nothing for granted, and he diplomatically refused to write off his opponent’s chances when interviewed by Norwegian state broadcaster. “I expect him to come bouncing back like a lion,” he told NRK. “I do OK against Magnus in rapid but horrendous in blitz. He usually crushes me in blitz, easily; so I am not confident in blitz.”

World Fischer Random Final:
Carlsen 1½-10½ So

Third-Place Playoff:
Caruana 4½-7½ Nepomniachtchi

Photo: Wesley So is on the brink of becoming the first official World Fischer Random champion | © Lennart Ootes / FR Chess

GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Wesley So
World Fischer Random Ch. Final, (4)
(See diagram for start position)
1. a4 e5 2. a5 d5 3. a6 This is only possible in Fischer Random – but it is also a sign that Carlsen is clear frustrated and playing on tilt, as he goes for the AlphaZero wing pawn attack. It soon backfires, but can you really blame Carlsen for trying to “make something” happen with a speculative, all-out attack to try and win his way back into the match? 3…b6 The perfect antidote. But here’s the thing with Fischer Random: If things do become dangerous for So, then he can always clear his pieces along the back-rank to take his king to safety with the long “short” castling! 4. d3 Nd6 So keeps his cool and consolidates by continuing to build in the centre – and it forces Carlsen to try to mix thing up again by offering a temporary pawn sacrifice. 5. e4 dxe4 6. dxe4 Nxe4 7. Qe2 f5 8. f3 Nd6 9. Qxe5 Bf6 Carlsen is strategically lost already, as So’s pieces rapidly develop with tempo and menace. 10. Qf4 O-O-O 11. Nge2 g5! 12. Qe3 Carlsen is in dire straits already, and now walks into a clever tactic from So – but no better was 12. Qb4 which gets hit by 12…c5 13. Qb3 Bf7 14. Qa4 Bxb2! 15. Kxb2 b5! and the White queen is lost. 12…Bxb2! 13. Bc3 Bxc3 14. Nxc3 Qf6 15. h4 Nc4 So ruthlessly finds a way to snuff out any possible complications from Carlsen by forcing a trade of queen, leaving the Norwegian no other option now other than to head into a lost ending. 16. hxg5 Nxe3 17. gxf6 Nxf6 18. Nd3 Rg8 19. Be2 Rxg2 20. Nf4 Rg8 21. Bd3 Rd4 22. Nce2 Rd6 23. Kb2 c5 24. Rae1 c4 25. Nc3 cxd3 26. Rxe3 dxc2 27. Rc1 Kb8 28. Rxc2 Bd7 29. Re7 b5! Now the sudden rush of blood of throwing the a-pawn up the board in the opening comes back to haunt Carlsen, as he now can’t defend the a6-pawn. 30. Rf7 Rxa6 31. Ncd5 Nxd5 32. Nxd5 Rd6 33. Ne7 Rh8 34. Rc5 a6 35. Nxf5 Bxf5 36. Rcxf5 h5! If Carlsen does nothing, then So will simple push the h-pawn up the board. 37. Re5 h4 38. Ree7 Rb6 39. Kc3 h3! The doubled rooks on the seventh is Carlsen only slim hope to save the game – but now he’s forced into trading a set of rooks to stop the troublesome h-pawn, leaving him defending a hopelessly-lost R+P ending. 40. Rh7 Rxh7 41. Rxh7 Rf6 42. Rxh3 Kb7 43. Kd4 Kb6 44. Ke5 Rf8 The game is basically over – the worst-case scenario facing So is that he will sacrifice his rook for the advancing f-pawn, but by then his king and outside passed pawns will be too far up the board to stop them from queening. 45. f4 b4 46. f5 a5 47. Rf3 a4 48. Kd4 Kb5 49. Kd3 Rc8 50. f6 b3 0-1 Carlsen resigns, as 51. f7 will be met by 51…b2! 52. f8Q b1Q+ followed by capturing the White queen.

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