Wijk aan Zee 2017 – So He Wins

And So he won. A full point ahead of Carlsen, a fact that speaks volumes of the remarkable achievement he managed to accomplish. To win a tournament where Carlsen is playing is a monumental feat; to do it a full point ahead of him, well, I can only think of Caruana doing it at his legendary 7/7 Sinquefield Cup from 2014 (he was 3 points ahead of Carlsen then).

Everything seemed to go So’s way. In the last round, when he was half a point ahead of Carlsen, Aronian and Wei Yi, the probability of at least one of them winning was pretty high, while So was playing black against Nepomniachtchi. And what happened? Nepo could resign on move 9 (!!!) and So won the tournament outright. In the meantime none of the chasers won – both Aronian and Wei Yi lost, while Carlsen squandered a wonderful position and drew against Karjakin. Having played an infinite number of last-round games, I can assure you that there is nothing sweeter thing than a quick last-round win:

It’s curious that this was a 4th time that Nepo and So met. The result after today’s game? 4-0 in So’s favour. With this win So didn’t have to wait for the other games to finish – he won the tournament and could celebrate after only a couple of hours of play. Yes, that’s how things go when everything falls into place!

Carlsen paid the price for failure to beat the “outsiders” – he even lost to Rapport. In Round 11, playing white, he was lucky not to lose against Adhiban while in Round 12 he beat Eljanov with black from a dubious position that arose from the Stonewall Dutch. The last round game against Karjakin was the cherry on the proverbial cake, only that the cake was rather bitter and definitely not sweet.

A strange game by Carlsen. The lack of clarity between moves 12 and 17 is not something we’re used to. Add to this the blunder on move 40 and you get a picture similar to the one in New York – sluggish play and lack of precision. His tournament was derailed by the missed win against Giri in Round 7 followed by his loss to Rapport in Round 8. This points to the same weakness he showed in New York – when people resist ad infinitum he loses his usual patience, makes mistakes and fails to win. This is surprising as he has made his reputation exactly by doing the opposite – never relinquishing the grip and being precise until the end, when it was his opponents that started to err because it was him who pressed ad infinitum. His class still remains above everybody else’s, who else would have finished 2nd with so many missed chances? Yet, this is something to work on and I am curious to see if he manages to overcome it.

Wei Yi spoilt his tournament in the last round, when he avoided a repetition and lost to Wojtaszek. A draw would have given him a shared second with Carlsen and would have definitely made for more headlines and invitations. Though I suspect the latter he will get anyway.

The revelation of the tournament was Adhiban, just because nobody expected him. Even though Wei Yi is considered more talented and promising, the Indian was swashbuckling and fearless and was awarded for it. He took excellent advantage of the newcomer’s mystery – nobody knew what to expect of him, so he could plan his surprises. He got into the tournament with a fine win against Karjakin with black (after Karjakin overpressed and won – a typical mistake when playing against an inspired newcomer) and won 4 games in total, 3 of them with black! He showed an admirable theoretical preparation and played both regular and not-so-regular openings (catching Nepo in the Najdorf is no easy feat; playing the French for the first time in his life against Karjakin and winning, the Vienna against Andreikin and the Scandinavian against Carlsen, not to mention the King’s Gambit against So). He finished on shared 3rd with Wei Yi and Aronian although I am not sure this will guarantee him further invitations to elite events – he lacks the charm of some of the other media darlings.

The other did more or less as expected. Perhaps the most consistent in this were the local players – Giri finished on 50% and van Wely was dead last with 3.5/13, losing 20 points. Nepo probably expected more of himself, but he was in bad form and the only player not to win a game.

So’s victories and Carlsen’s problems make the top a bit tighter place. While I still believe that Carlsen in top form is almost unbeatable, that state is difficult to obtain and even more problematic to sustain. Kasparov also used to have difficult periods, but he always managed to come back stronger. He was also Carlsen’s coach. Did he also teach him how to come back after periods of disappointment? We will find out soon.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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