The over-the-board live action is back, and so too it appears is Wesley So, as the reigning US Champion once again hit a rich vein of form at the Paris Rapid & Blitz to not only take the title, but in doing so, he now also springs into the outright lead in the curtailed post-pandemic season of the Grand Chess Tour.
With a brace of scintillating performances, a near flawless So took first place in both the rapid and the blitz to capture first place outright in the combined standings, as he finished his successful campaign by an impressive 3-points ahead of Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia.
Going into next month’s Grand Chess Tour leg in Zagreb, Croatia, So tops the leaderboard with only one lost game (to Levon Aronian, and in a blitz game, at that!) through the opening 36 games so far this season, that includes 9 (classical) in the Superbet Chess Classic Romania in Bucharest and the 27 (rapid and blitz) in Paris.
Former world champion and tour brainchild Garry Kasparov was impressed by So’s performance in the French capital, even tweeting it was: “Perhaps the best result for an American in Paris since Gene Kelly romanced Leslie Caron!” A very fitting comment from film buff Kasparov, who would also be well aware of the timing of his remarks, as it comes in the 70th anniversary year of Vincente Minnelli’s hit 1951 musical.
The key to So’s margin of victory proved to be his brace of big wins against Alireza Firouzja in the blitz, especially as the exiled Iranian rising teenage star was also in sparkling form as he stormed back from his dismal performance in the rapid, going on to take second place behind the American winner in the blitz on 11/18.
Combined rapid & blitz final standings:
1. Wesley So (USA), 24.5/27; 2. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 21.5; 3-4. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alireza Firouzja (FIDE), 18; 5-6. Levon Aronian (Armenia), Richard Rapport (Hungary), 17.5; 7. Peter Svidler (Russia), 17; 8. Fabiano Caruana (USA), 16.5; 9. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia)/Etienne Bacrot (France), 15.5; 10. Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), 14.
Photo: A smiling Wesley So dances his way to a big victory in Paris | © Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Wesley So
GCT Paris Blitz, (7)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 Forty years ago, this early bishop sortie was nothing more than a sub-note in the opening books. It became eponymously ascribed to the one-time Brazilian champion, Octávio Figueira Trompowsky de Almeida, who played it almost exclusively through the 1930s and 1940s, but really only came to the fore in the mid-1980s after it was popularised by the young English Grandmaster Julian Hodgson, who scored many wonderful swashbuckling wins with it, and from where it took off both at club and tournament level. 2…d5 3.e3 c5 4.Bxf6 gxf6 5.dxc5 Nc6 6.Bb5 e6 7.c4 dxc4 8.Nd2 Bxc5 9.Ngf3 c3 The pawn will soon be recouped anyway, so ideally the best way to give it back is by leaving White with a pawn weakness. 10.bxc3 0-0 11.0-0 f5 12.Nd4 Bd7 13.Rb1 Rc8 14.Qh5 Qf6 Making room for a timely …Qg6, just in case of any White kingside storms. 15.Rfd1 Qg6 16.Qe2 Rfd8 17.N2f3 Perhaps now was the moment for the double capture on c6 with 17.Bxc6 Bxc6 18.Nxc6 as Black is forced to recapture with 18…bxc6 where after 19.Nf3 Rxd1+ 20.Rxd1 Qf6 21.Qc4 Rd8! 22.Rb1 Rd5 leaves both sides with symmetrically weak queenside pawns to have to deal with. But then again, Firouzja does like to fight. 17…Qf6 18.e4?! It’s around here that Firouzja loses the thread of the game, and So sweeps in to take what proves to be a lasting initiative. 18…Bb6 19.exf5 Nxd4 20.cxd4 Qxf5 21.Bd3 Qf6 22.Qe4 I’ve said many times that chess can often be deceptive, and a quick glance at the board you’d believe White has a dangerous attack – but there’s nothing there, and long-term Black has the upper-hand with the bishop-pair and targeting White’s isolated d-pawn. 22…h6 23.Qg4+ The b-pawn is well and truly poisoned – after 23.Qxb7?? Bc6 24.Qa6 Bxf3 25.gxf3 Qxf3 never mind White’s weak pawns, as it will be his king that is in grave danger. 23…Qg7 24.Qh4 The queen trade will only give Black a very promising endgame advantage. 24…Ba4 25.Re1 Bxd4 26.Re4?! It’s the Morecambe & Wise/André Previn Grieg’s Piano Concerto principle: Firouzja is playing all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order! For reasons that will soon become clear, Firouzja’s best hope of survival lay with the same sequence with the other rook, namely 26.Rb4! Bf6 27.Qh3 Rxd3 28.Rxa4 and although Black stands better, White is still in the game. The difference becomes critical, as we’ll now see. 26…Bf6 27.Qh3 Rxd3 28.Rg4?? A completely wasted move, as the teen still hasn’t spotted the dangers that lurks, as he unwittingly opens the door for a game-ending tactic. 28…Bg5 29.Rxa4 Qb2!! [see diagram] Oopsie! The back-rank threats can’t be stopped. 30.Rf1 Rc1 31.g4 White is doomed to lose to the same queen move regardless, as 31.Re4 Rxf1+ 32.Kxf1 Qb5 33.Kg1 Rd1+ 34.Re1 Qe2! wins. 31…Rxf1+ 32.Kxf1 Qb5 0-1 Firouzja resigns as he can’t defend both threats to his rook and the crushing discovered check.