So Undefeated in Saint Louis, Heads for Blitz

After three days of play, American GM Wesley So has leapfrogged World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen and now sits alone atop the diamond-studded field of the 2020 Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz.  

On Thursday afternoon, So added victories over both Armenian GM Levon Aronian and Indian GM Pentala Harikrishna, rendering him the sole undefeated player through the Rapid portion of the online event -- an important round-robin format where each game counted double in the overall standings. The tournament now shifts to its Blitz portion (G/5+3), featuring 18 games for each super-GM in a double-round robin format, where each game will count for the traditional one point for each victory and half-point per draw. Nine games are set to be played each Friday and Saturday beginning at 1:00 p.m. Central. 

While So’s solid play and dazzling endgame technique weren’t surprising to most, the sudden stumble of Carlsen late on Thursday afternoon drew more than a few eyeballs. After suffering an unfortunate loss-by-disconnect in the second round on Tuesday, Carlsen had been on an absolute tear, winning all three of his games on Wednesday and adding a fourth consecutive victory over GM Alireza Firouzja in Thursday’s opening round. The streak had brought Carlsen to a full game lead over So and the rest of the field entering the eighth round. 

But it was So’s fellow statesman GM Jeffrey Xiong who knocked the Norway champion from his swagger. In that eighth round, Xiong came hard with a Winawer in the French Defense and was even winning in a fast-flying endgame before allowing Carlsen a swindling escape for the draw. The World Champion would go on to lose his ninth-round match against Russian GM Alexander Grischuk, allowing So to pass Carlsen in the standings. 

Saint Louis Chess Club Rapid and Blitz Standings R3
Image Caption
courtesy SLCC / Spectrum Studios

In the Winawer, Xiong went right to work on Carlsen’s queenside, first snatching up the a-pawn with 10. … Bxa4 and then grabbing the doubled c-pawn with a cute 13. … Bxc2! for an early advantage. The early pawn grabs provided Xiong with a monster-looking passed a-pawn, which ironically did not move until the 45th move of the game. 

First, several other passed pawns would highlight the game. Xiong’s c-pawn sprinted to 24. … c2 before Carlsen was able to adequately corral it, though the effort ultimately led to queens trading off the board and equalization heading toward endgame. The exchange created Xiong another passer, though 33. … e3 is as far as it would go before stalling, as the American’s attention was forced to Carlsen’s downhill running d-pawn. 

When Xiong’s a-pawn finally began its march, he had just 17 seconds left on his clock -- and Carlsen himself played 46. Ne5 with just one second remaining -- bringing an endgame in true bullet style. The World Champ entered with the advantage, though missed a game-clinching 48. Re8 to instead force an exchange of the knights.  

For a moment, the pendulum swung toward black as Xiong’s a-pawn looked like it would do the deciding -- though it was just a moment. A misstep by his rook left Xiong shaking his head, intending to cut off the white king but instead missing a pawn grab that would have provided a decisive escape square for his own monarch. Instead, Xiong was forced into perpetual check and Carlsen escaped with a draw. 

[pgn][Event "Saint Louis Rapid 2020"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2020.09.17"] [Round "8.1"] [White "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Black "Xiong, Jeffery"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C19"] [WhiteElo "2863"] [BlackElo "2709"] [PlyCount "124"] [EventDate "2020.09.15"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 Ne7 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 c5 7. Nf3 Bd7 8. a4 Qa5 9. Bd2 c4 10. h4 Bxa4 11. h5 h6 12. g3 Nbc6 13. Bh3 Bxc2 14. Qc1 Ba4 15. O-O b5 16. Nh4 Qb6 17. Be3 Bb3 18. f4 b4 19. f5 exf5 20. Bxf5 bxc3 21. Qxc3 O-O 22. Qd2 Qb4 23. Qf2 c3 24. Qf4 c2 25. Rac1 Qc3 26. Rf2 Rab8 27. Kh2 Ba4 28. Bxc2 Bxc2 29. Rcxc2 Qd3 30. Rfd2 Qe4 31. Qxe4 dxe4 32. d5 Nxe5 33. Bf4 e3 34. Re2 f6 35. d6 Nd5 36. Rc5 Nxf4 37. gxf4 Nd3 38. Rc4 Rb2 39. Rxb2 Nxb2 40. Re4 f5 41. Re7 Nc4 42. d7 Nb6 43. Kg2 Kh7 44. Ng6 Rb8 45. Kf3 a5 46. Ne5 Rd8 47. Ke2 a4 48. Re6 Nxd7 49. Rd6 a3 50. Nxd7 a2 51. Nf6+ gxf6 52. Ra6 Rd2+ 53. Kxe3 Rh2 54. Ra7+ Kg8 55. Kd4 Re2 56. Kd5 Kf8 57. Kd6 Kg8 58. Ra8+ Kf7 59. Ra7+ Kf8 60. Ra8+ Kf7 61. Ra7+ Kf8 62. Ra8+ Kf7 1/2-1/2 [/pgn]

For his part in Saint Louis, So has delivered solid play highlighted by endgame conversion, but perhaps none so more than a gorgeous display of technique in his ninth-round game against Harikrishna. With the black pieces, So had already achieved equalization against the Ruy Lopez and then took the advantage after Harikrishna’s weakening 23. F4. That pawn soon fell and ultimately forced a queen trade for white to relieve pressure, ushering a knight-and-pawn endgame that So played with near-perfection. The American GM masterfully handled two white passers with his king and knight, calmly displaying calculation that would have impressed in classical time controls, let alone rapid. 

After dismantling both of white’s queening threats, So dangled an outside passer as a mere distraction, several times laying trap squares that would have decisively traded the knights. While Harikrishna did not take any of the bait, So’s pressure was insurmountable, and the show-off knight sac at 66. … Nxf3 put an exclamation point on the win. 

[pgn][Event "Saint Louis Rapid 2020"] [Site " INT"] [Date "2020.09.17"] [Round "9.4"] [White "Harikrishna, Pentala"] [Black "So, Wesley"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C67"] [WhiteElo "2732"] [BlackElo "2770"] [PlyCount "138"] [EventDate "2020.09.15"] [EventType "rapid"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. Re1 Nd6 6. Nxe5 Be7 7. Bf1 Nxe5 8. Rxe5 O-O 9. d4 Bf6 10. Re1 Re8 11. c3 Rxe1 12. Qxe1 Ne8 13. a4 a5 14. d5 d6 15. Bd3 Bd7 16. Na3 Bg5 17. Qe4 g6 18. Bb5 Bxc1 19. Rxc1 Qg5 20. Re1 Nf6 21. Qd4 Re8 22. Rxe8+ Nxe8 23. f4 Qe7 24. h3 Bxb5 25. Nxb5 Qe1+ 26. Kh2 Ng7 27. Qg1 Qd2 28. Qd4 Qe1 29. Qg1 Qe2 30. Qa7 Nh5 31. Qd4 Qe1 32. Nxc7 Qg3+ 33. Kh1 Nxf4 34. Qe4 Qf2 35. Qf3 Qxf3 36. gxf3 Kf8 37. b4 axb4 38. cxb4 Ke7 39. b5 b6 40. a5 bxa5 41. b6 Kd7 42. Nb5 Kc8 43. Nxd6+ Kb8 44. Nc4 a4 45. d6 Kb7 46. d7 Ne6 47. Kg1 Kc6 48. Kf2 Kxd7 49. Ke3 Kc6 50. Kd2 f6 51. Kc3 Nc5 52. Kb4 Nd7 53. Nd2 Nxb6 54. Ne4 h6 55. h4 f5 56. Ng3 h5 57. Ne2 Kd6 58. Ka3 Ke5 59. Kb4 Kd6 60. Ka3 Ke5 61. Kb4 Nd5+ 62. Kxa4 Nf4 63. Nc3 Ng2 64. Ne2 f4 65. Kb4 Nxh4 66. Ng1 Nxf3 67. Nxf3+ Ke4 68. Nd2+ Ke3 69. Nc4+ Ke2 0-1 [/pgn]

“I’m starting to play some quality chess so far, obviously the rapid portion means a lot more because it counts as two,” So said to commentator GM Maurice Ashley after Thursday’s games. “It’s always hard to win tournaments when Magnus is around. There are still a lot more games – 18 games – and anything can happen in blitz. As many players have pointed out, I’m not by any means the best blitz player.” 

So is currently the world’s No. 4 blitz player. 

The speedy portion of the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz begins both Friday and Saturday at 1:00 p.m. Viewers can watch the games along with expert commentary by Ashley, along with GM Yasser Seirawan and WGM Jennifer Shahade on or on the Saint Louis Chess Club’s YouTube and TwitchTV channels. 

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