Birthday Bashed - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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The best-of-two-sets Skilling Open Final ran through a landmark birthday for Magnus Carlsen, as he reached the big 3-0 on Monday. Many thought this would make for good omens for the world champion, but he had his birthday celebrations bashed by a determined Wesley So, as the Filipino-born US champion won a dramatic blitz tiebreaker to take the $30,000 first prize and a maximum 50 tour points.

It was a remarkable final in many ways, with blows being traded with the first six of the regular eight games all ending decisively. Conversely, it was also a rollercoaster final full of patchy play with the pendulum swinging back and forth that only added to make it an even more thrilling contest, as no-one knew who would be the eventual winner or would happen next!

But in the end, there had to be a winner, and as the final two games of the second set ended in draws, it was going the distance of the all-deciding two-game blitz tiebreaker. Despite his obvious below-par play, you can never rule Carlsen out – but there was to be no last-gasp comeback victory this time, as So dominated both the blitz games to score a memorable victory.

Typical of So, his first reaction on winning when interviewed proved to be a magnanimous gesture to the man he’d just beaten: “First of all, I’d like to apologise to Magnus for semi-ruining his birthday.” And Carlsen also paid tribute to the man who had just bested him: “Huge congratulations to Wesley on a deserved win.”

And in victory, the past year has seen So once again rediscovering his mojo: he emphatically beat Carlsen last year in the Norwegian’s home-turf to sensationally capture the first FIDE-designated official Fisher Random World Championship crown, then he won the 2020 United States Chess Championship, and now beating Carlsen once again to take the first tour stop of the new Champions Chess Tour season.

It seems now that Carlsen has his hands full dealing with one American rival after another! First, it was Fabiano Caruana, the Norwegian’s last title challenger and current world #2, then it was the online rivalry memorably re-established through the pandemic lockdown with his old foe, Hikaru Nakamura.  Now added to the list is Wesley So, first denying Carlsen an unprecedented fourth world championship crown last year, and now taking the first tour stop of the new season.

The Skilling Open, is the first leg in a new rebranded $1.5m Champions Chess Tour (the successor to the successful Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour) from the Play Magnus Group: a series of 10 tournaments that will take place over the next 10 months; the next tour stop being the first of three ‘Majors’ (with double tour points) that gets underway on December 26, 2020, and running through January 3, 2021.

GM Wesley So – GM Magnus Carlsen
Skilling Open Final, (1.4)
Sicilian Sveshnikov
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 This über-aggressive line first started life as the Lasker/Pelikan variation, initially named after the former world champion Emanuel Lasker (who first brought it to prominence against Carl Schlechter in their 1910 title match), and then the Czech IM Jiri Pelikan. After a period of hiatus, it became popular again in the 1970s and 1980s, though this time eponymously named after the Russian GM Evgeny Sveshnikov’s pet-line – though sometimes its called the ‘Chelyabinsk variation’ after the group of Russian players who also played a big part in developing its theory alongside Sveshnikov. 7.Nd5 The big main-line is 7.Bg5 favoured by So against Jeffery Xiong in the crucial clash at the 2020 US Championship, a win from So that was instrumental in him winning the title just ahead of the Texan rising star. And with this switch of options, this was an indication that So was up to something. 7…Nxd5 8.exd5 Nb8 9.Qf3!? A somewhat strange move – almost universally played here is 9.a4 – that immediately put Carlsen immediately in the tank, a decision he was to later regret, as by around move 30, after just surviving through the opening, he was down to about a minute or so on his clock. 9…a6 10.Qa3 And now we see the point of So’s early queen sortie, as the Nb5 can stay in situ a little longer, and this clearly becomes an annoyance for Carlsen. 10…b6 11.Bg5! Be7 Black can’t capture as 11…Qxg5 12.Nc7+ Ke7 13.Nxa8 Nd7 14.Qb4 b5 15.a4! and not only is the Na8 coming back into the game, but the position is being ripped open in the process, with Black’s king wandering among the razor wire of no-man’s land in the middle of the board. 12.Bxe7 Kxe7 13.0-0-0N Previously 13.c4 Bb7 and 14.Nc3 has been seen here – but So’s novelty is a sensible one, as his aim is to quickly bust open the game with f4 and have his rooks ideally placed in the middle of the board. 13…Bb7 14.Nc3 Nd7 15.f4! Qc7 16.fxe5 Nxe5 17.Qb4 h5 18.Be2 Kf8 19.Rhf1 Re8 20.Rf5! h4 21.Rf4 Qd8 In such positions, the obvious try is just pushing the h-pawn with 21…h3 – but here, it just backfires to 22.Rh4! Rxh4 23.Qxh4 hxg2 24.Qh8+ Ke7 25.Qxg7 and Black’s in trouble. 22.Kb1 Rh6! Redemption of sorts, as Carlsen has all but salvaged his wretched opening position. 23.Rdd4 This is something of an unusual set-up in chess, a sort of sideways ‘Alekhine’s gun’ concept, but instead of this alignment of the ‘heavy furniture’ with the rooks doubled on a file and the queen at the rear, this one sees the rooks attacking across a rank with the queen supporting at the rear! 23…h3 As ever, the engine finds the ingenious solution for Black of 23…Bc8! the point being that 24.Rxh4? fails to 24…a5 25.Qa4 Bd7 26.Nb5 Ng6! 27.Rhe4 f5! 28.Rxe8+ Qxe8 29.Qc4 Qe3 and White’s in trouble, as 30.Qd3 Qg1+ 31.Qd1 Qxd1+ 32.Rxd1 Nf4 33.Nd4 Nxg2 and the endgame favours Black. 24.g3 Bc8 A move late, but still a good move – and with that, despite his troubled opening, Carlsen seems to be emerging with a very playable position. However, on the downside for the world champion, he’s eaten up a lot of time on the clock to survive the opening, and now the flag on his was metaphorically starting to hang. 25.a4 Kg8 It seems wise to remove the king from the pin, just in case.  And with it, Carlsen has managed to castle his king by hand – but this has taken a serious toll on his clock. 26.Rde4 Qc7 27.Rh4?! A better way to remain on top for So was to play aggressively with 27.g4! Rg6 28.Qd4 White has a small advantage, but Black’s cramped position makes life not-so-easy when you are constrained for time, as Carlsen was. 27…a5! 28.Qd4 Rxh4 29.Rxh4 Bf5? Too hasty. Black is fine after the simple solution of 29…Ng6! 30.Re4 Rxe4 31.Nxe4 Ne5 where the trade of rooks has eased Black’s position somewhat, and he has fully equalised – and indeed, here, if White is not careful, he could easily find himself in a losing position. 30.Rh5 Qc8 The alternatives now wasn’t all that better. After 30…Bd7 31.Nb5 Qb8 32.g4! White is on the attack and Black’s h-pawn has been successfully annexed from its long-range defenders. What Carlsen played was right, as sacrificing a pawn to activate his pieces is the only hope of survival. 31.Qxb6 Ng4? [see diagram] White’s h-pawn is a tempting and easy target with Black’s own h-pawn so far up the board and you are chronically short of time – but this just puts Carlsen back in big trouble. What he had to play for survival was the cunning retreat of the knight with 31…Nd7! where he does have genuine counter-play for his sacrificed pawns, as witness 32.Qf2 Bg6 33.Rxh3 Nf6 34.Rh4 Nxd5! The x-ray attack on c2 is a potential life-saver. 35.Rc4 Qf5! 36.Qxf5 Bxf5 37.Nxd5 Rxe2 it looks as though Black is over the worst of it, but…. 38.b4! axb4 39.Nxb4 and suddenly Whte’s running a-pawn becomes a major headache for Black. But then again, I’ve seen Carlsen defend worse positions than this, and indeed this was a lot better for him than what now happens in the game! 32.Ba6! Re1+ You know you are in a bad way when the engine begins to tell you that the top line now is 32…Qb8 33.Qxb8 Bxc2+ 34.Kxc2 Rxb8 35.Rxh3 Ne3+ 36.Kd3 Nf5 37.Bb5 and Black hopelessly lost. 33.Ka2 Qe8 The bishop can’t be defended. If 33…Qd7 34.Rxf5! Qxf5 35.Qd8+ Kh7 36.Bd3 wins the queen. 34.Rxf5 Ne3 35.Bb5 Qe7 1-0 Carlsen resigned, not wishing to see on the board 36.Rh5 Qf8 37.Bd3 Ng4 38.Rxh3 Nf6 39.Nb5 and a hopelessly lost game with all of Black’s pawns falling off the board.

 

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