Between the reign of World Champions Anatoly Karpov (born 1951) and Garry Kasparov (born 1963) there was no one in the generation of Karpov who was strong enough to challenge for the world title. Players like Vladimir Tukmakov, Alexander Beliavsky, Rafael Vaganian, Oleg Romanishin, Vitaly Tseshkovsky, Gennady Kuzmin, Yury Balashov and Boris Gulko all had their days in the sun but their star never shone bright enough for them to be considered potential world champions. Strangely enough during this period the Soviets who actually did contend for the title were from the previous generation, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Lev Polugaevsky, Efim Geller and even Vassily Smyslov, who was the world champion from 1957 to 1958 but still was strong enough to participate in the Candidates’ matches in 1983 and 1985, at 62 and 64 years of age!
Vladimir Tukmakov went into coaching and got quite a reputation, working with Mark Dvoretsky in his school of chess, seconding chess giants like Efim Geller, Vitaly Tsheshkovsky, Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov. Recently he was credited with nurturing the talent of Anish Giri. And, for a short time he coached Wesley So, and this was during most successful years of his chess career.
He recently wrote a book about Coaching the Chess Stars and this is what he had to say about Wesley So.
“It was not accidental that Wesley’s play was cautious and pragmatic. These traits were the product of his development as a player. The young Filipino didn’t have a lot of chances to face elite players, so he was way too reverent and timid. An articulated respect for one’s elders is also a function of an Oriental upbringing. Needless to say, such an attitude did not permit him to be too aggressive at the board. I found that Wesley felt quite comfortable both in dynamic positions and in those that required a lot of specific calculation, thus, for the most part, his problems were of a psychological nature.
“I got the impression that Wesley’s play was too simple. His natural positional sense usually saved him from serious errors, while his natural skill in playing simple positions allowed him to amass points at will. Alas, all of this worked only against players who were markedly inferior to him. At the top level, such an approach to the game produced mindless maneuvering and conflict-free draws. For the sake of safety, Wesley sacrificed his indisputable ability to find tactical moves and calculate lines deeply and cleanly. It is impossible to achieve big success without risk, at least risk of a limited and well-calculated nature.
“By the nature of his talent and his approach to chess, Wesley reminded me of Tigran Petrosian. Like the former World Champion, a heightened sense of danger and a great ability to calculate tactics made Wesley seek ways to curtail a fight rather than to escalate it, thus his huge natural potential remained untapped.
“His successful play with Black in Baku was not accidental. Wesley seemed to feel more confident when he played second fiddle. He had a good sense of dynamics, he noticed critical moments in the game and he often caught out opponents who lost their sense of danger. Such a successful game with Black was laudable. The problem was that So often played in a similar manner with White and waited for his opponent to initiate action. As a result, many of his games with White featured no fight at all.”
Oriental upbringing? Timidity? With due respect to GM (Grandmaster) Tukmakov, I do not agree. Having seen Wesley So grow up here in the Philippines and studied most of his games, my conclusion is that he is someone who is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He prepares a certain opening and uses it against a targeted group. If his opponent gives him a chance to win then he will take it, but his opponent plays solidly then he has no qualms about agreeing to a draw.
This is similar to Wassily Smyslov’s “I will play 40 good moves. If my opponent responds with 40 good moves then we draw. If not, then I win.” I do not think timidity has anything to do with that. Perhaps to get more wins (and losses!) he could tweak his opening preparation but at the highest, elite, level this might backfire.
Take a look at the following game. Poland’s new star GM Jan Krzysztof Duda sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind.
So, Wesley (2754) — Duda, Jan Krzysztof (2728) [B78]
Moscow FIDE Grand Prix Moscow RUS (1.2), 18.05.2019
GM Gawain Jones wrote an impressive 2–volume tome on the Sicilian Dragon, published by Quality Chess. A lot of garbage has been written about the Dragon, but this one I heartily recommend. Many players, including Bobby Fischer, have claimed to have refuted the variation, but as you can see it is still alive and kicking!
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0–0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0–0–0 Ne5
Black is going for a risky line, perhaps hoping that Wesley, who has hardly ever faced the Dragon, would not be familiar with it. GM Gawain suggests that if Black does not want to gamble too much then he should go for the Topalov Variation with 10…Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5 GM Jones: “Black has exchanged a pair of knights in order to gain time to advance his queenside pawns. Black’s plan is straightforward: he will push his a-pawn next and either trap the b3–bishop or open lines against White’s king.”
11.Bb3 Rc8 12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5
GM Victor Mikhalevsky, a well-known theorist, also dabbled in it for a while with the comment “Very dubious provocation.The statistics of this move in 1999 is just disastrous for Black:0–11. The reason is very simple. Playing 15.b3! white wins a pawn and black has no sufficient compensation.”
Wesley knows the theory! GM Jones: Black’s problem is that the natural 15…Rc5 allows 16.Ne6! The alternative 15…Rc8 has been tested extensively but after 16.Ndxb5 Black does not have sufficient play for the pawn.
This is the “Burnett Variation” named after the Scottish FM who first used it in 2003. He played a game which revitalized the whole line.
In the line’s first outing White chickened out with 16.Nce2 Rc8 17.Qxb4 Qc7 18.g5 Nh5 19.c4 a5 20.Qe1 a4 Black has a good game despite his pawn minus. Fraser, S.-Burnett, A. (2145) Glenrothes 2003 0–1 24.
16…bxc3 17.Qxc3 Qc7
GM Jones: So where exactly does Black’s compensation arise? First of all White’s king is now rather vulnerable; Black can attack down both the open b-file and the long diagonal. The queen on c3 defends the c4–pawn but feels rather loose, while the c4–pawn is likely to drop off whenever Black wishes.
It is not yet clear what is best. There is 18.Bc1, 18.Kc1, 18.Ka1, 18.g5 and 18.h4. Wesley has a very fine positional feel — I will go with his choice!
The king obviously has to move away for the open b-file, but placing it on a1 in the line of fire of Black’s fianchettoed bishop on g7 looks very dangerous. However, there was this game where White played the king to c1 and the results were unsatisfactory: 19.Kc1!? Rc8 20.Qd3 Be5 21.h4 Nf4 22.Bxf4 Bxf4+ 23.Kb2 Forced to return to the open b-file. This is clearly not satisfactory. Black can now go 23…Rc8–b8+–b4 with a very strong position. Socko, B. (2630) — Stocek, J. (2572) Germany 2006 1–0 51.
19…Rc8 20.Rb1 Be6 21.Rb2 Bxc4 22.Rhb1 d5 23.exd5 Nf4 24.Rb7 Qe5 <D>
POSITION AFTER 24…QE5
White’s position looks very dangerous with …Nxd5 coming up, but Wesley has a counter planned.
25.R1b4! Nxd5 26.Rxc4!
Wow! The point.
[26…Nxc3? 27.Rxc8+ Bf8 28.Rbb8 Qxe3 29.Rxf8+ Kg7 30.Rg8#]
27.Rc5! Nxc3 28.Rxe5 Bxe5
Material is now equal but of course Wesley has seen much farther than that.
[29…Nd1+ 30.Nxe5 Nxe3 31.Rxe7 Nxc2+ 32.Kb2 Nd4 33.Rxa7 White is simply up a distant passed pawn]
Black doesn’t have any useful discovered check.
30…e5 31.Kb2 e4 32.fxe4 Nxe4+ 33.Kb3
White is ready to push his passed pawns on the queenside. Black’s position is desperate.
The straight 33…Nxg5 34.a4! f5 35.a5 f4 36.a6 f3 37.Bc5 f2 38.Bxf2 Rxf2 39.a7 shows how fast White’s pawns can travel.
34.a4! Re6 35.Nd4 Ra6 36.Rb8+ Bf8 37.Bb6 Kg7 38.a5 Bd6 39.Re8 f5 40.gxf6+ Nxf6 41.Rd8 Bxh2 42.Ne6+ Kf7 43.Nc5 Rxb6+ 44.axb6 h5 45.b7 h4 46.Rd2 Bc7 47.Ne4
[If 47…Nxe4 then 48.Rd7+ wins the bishop and queens his pawn.]
The point being 47…Nxe4 48.Rd7+
48.Nxf6 Kxf6 49.Rd7 Bg3 50.Rh7 g5 51.Kc4 Kf5 52.Kd3 Kg4 53.Ke2 Kh3 54.c4 Kg2 55.Rh5 1–0
After studying the possible continuations Duda resigns.
If he plays 55…h3 then 56.Rxg5 h2 57.b8Q followed by taking on g3. If on the other hand Duda plays 55…g4 then simply 56.Rxh4! Bxh4 57.b8Q
GM Chris Ward, the dragon expert in the “Chess Publishing” Website, makes a telling comment here that “This has been an awesome demonstration by White. It seems to me that whilst the ‘Burnett’ will offer reasonable play against most opponents, it might be wise not to deploy it against the 2750s of this World! Absolutely ruthless!”
Amen I say to that!
Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.