Wesley So wins the Grand Chess Tour 2016; other highlights and action from round 8
Round 8 of the London Chess Classic ended yesterday giving us a clear winner of 2016’s Grand Chess Tour with one round left in hand. Wesley So’s meteoric rise continued this year as he held Fabiano Caruana to a draw to secure his spot as the winner of the Grand Chess Tour, with Nakamura and Aronian too far away to overtake him. His spot as the winner of the London Chess Classic – for a further $65,000 on top of his $100,000 winnings – will be contested today.
Otherwise, round 8 was by and large quite uneventful with four draws and one decisive result, between Veselin Topalov and Viswanathan Anand. Anand, playing an early novelty, continued Topalov’s awful tournament as he gave the Bulgarian his 6th loss of the tournament.
Anand transposed into the Queen’s Gambit Accepted in the historic line 6…c5. Topalov castled queenside, never one to go down quietly, but after 12. Nd5 (putting significant pressure on black’s knight on f6, pinned to the queen), was surprised by the novelty 12…b5! with the aim of undermining white’s knight on d5. After an exchange of material, white accepted the sacrificial pawn, allowing black to post his knight on a5, adding pressure to white’s castled king (ie, by carrying on by coordinating his pieces to Be6, Rc8 as soon as possible, and if white takes the en prise bishop, it can be met with a queen-king fork, Nb3+).
It was clear that white was in trouble, with a heavily exposed king (at one point having tripled pawns), and an undeveloped light squared bishop, preventing his back rank from connecting. After 21. Qa4, Anand perhaps oversaw the winning move 21…Bg4 (with the intention of: 22. Rd2 Re1+ 23. Kc2 Rxc6+ going into a winning line, or if 22. f3 Bf5 23. Bd3 Qe3+). Topalov was able to defend exceptionally well for the next six moves, with engines evaluating the position as roughly equal (around -0.6), although to a human player the position looks to still be winning for black.
Topalov then made a series of mistakes, in the vein of those which have plagued him this tournament. 31. h4? was the first, allowing black to get a pseudo-fork (as white can escape it) with the bishop on c2. In doing so, white apparently missed the move 33…Qb5 threatening mate by Qa4 or Qa6. As the bishop could not cover both of those squares, white played 34. Qc6, which after 34…Rxf3+ allows either the checkmate by Qa4 if white’s queen recaptures, or drops white’s queen if white protects from the checkmate. Either way, it was utterly over, and as soon as Rxf3+ was played, Topalov instantly resigned. Topalov did not wait for his trainer before instantly leaving the auditorium and building.
In the interview, Anand credited his second, the Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski with the 12…b5 novelty, with whom Anand had analysed several other responses by white and found them “all playable”. This was an excellent result for Anand, elevating him into joint third.
Caruana opted for a Berlin defence (with 4. d3), which So neutralised rapidly, effectively gaining decent equality by around move 10, and ensuring that major material was traded off, giving a balanced rook and bishop endgame with equal numbers of pawns. Caruana thought he had decent chances, but underestimated 18…Rae8 which “equalised on the spot.” Once the rooks were traded off, the opposite bishop endgame led to both players opting to draw before move 40.
Both players would have ideally loved to win this game: Nakamura, to allow him to catch up with the tournament leader and allow him to possibly have a chance of winning the Grand Chess Tour; and Aronian to place at least in the top 3 finishers to qualify for the 2017 Grand Chess Tour. Ironically, both played solidly expecting the other to take more risks, and pieces were swiftly traded off before threefold repetition occurred on move 27, ending both of their chances, after just over an hour of play.
Going into this bout, it was looking promising for Kramnik who has a +6 record against Giri, with no losses. Giri dug deep and played ambitiously, at one point trading a piece for three (and even four at one point) pawns. All credit to Giri, he continued with playing the Sicilian and keeping things sharp, rather than settling for a draw, but as the game rolled on Kramnik was unstoppable in holding his position. Both players agreed to a draw on move 46, the last game of the day to finish, but this was a good result for Giri who is yet to win a game against Kramnik.
MVL has struggled to find his form this tournament, and that continued against a ferocious Michael Adams who played some excellent chess against MVL. Another Berlin Defence was played, but Adams kept up a lot of pressure and it felt like he maintained the initiative throughout. Whilst a draw was eventually agreed to (due to the threat of threefold), Adams was in a theoretically winning endgame with a pawn’s advantage, but practically it was too difficult to convert.
After round 8, Wesley So is on 5.5/8 enough to secure the win in the Grand Chess Tour. However, if he stumbles against MVL in round 9 (as he has done historically), it could allow Caruana on 5/8 to catch up. If So really struggles, it could even allow Kramnik, Anand and Nakamura all on 4.5/8, to catch up. Realistically, with So´s recent, we can expect him to hold it to a draw (especially with the white pieces), and put him out of reach of the players in 3rd. Otherwise, we could be facing some very exciting play-offs! Aronian and Giri are on 50% with 4/8, MVL and Adams are on 3.5/8, and let’s just not talk about Topalov anymore. He’s having a rotten tournament, and a rotten year, on a miserable 1/8, but it’s still too early to write him off completely.
Theo Wait (Cynosure) is attending the London Chess Classic on behalf of lichess.org. He would like to thank Malcolm Pein, for arranging a press pass for lichess.org, and for organising such a brilliant competition. He would also like to thank his fellow staff members lukhas, FM lovlas, nojoke, bosspotato for proof reading, editing, and checking all aspects of this article. All photos by the talented Lennart Ootes.