Wesley So in 2018

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Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

The World Chess Federation has published its January 2019 rating list. The top 15 players are:

Magnus Carlsen NOR 2835

Fabiano Caruana USA 2828

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov AZE 2817

Ding Liren CHN 2813

Anish Giri NED 2783

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave FRA 2780

Vladimir Kramnik RUS 2777

Viswanathan Anand IND 2773

Alexander Grischuk RUS 2771

Levon Aronian ARM 2767

Wesley So USA 2765

Yu Yangyi CHN 2764

Ian Nepomniachtchi RUS 2763

Teimour Radjabov AZE 2767

Sergey Karjakin RUS 2753

The rating list is produced monthly. In the December 2018 edition GMs Levon Aronian and Wesley So were tied for 10th place at 2765. Wesley was inactive in December while Aronian played four rated games in the London Chess Classic — two vs. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and another two against Fabiano Caruana. He drew all four games and gained an additional 2.2 ELO rating points. This was enough for the “David Beckham of Chess” to out-distance Wesley for the 10th spot.

It has not been a banner year for GM (Grandmaster) Wesley. After several superhuman performances in 2016 and 2017 his FIDE rating ballooned to 2822, no. 2 in the world just 16 points below no. 1 player Magnus Carlsen (2838). Many of us hoped that Wesley could just jack up his chess mojo just a little bit more for an attempt at the world title.

There were some indications though that Wesley is not yet ripe for a championship run — he still lacked the “killer instinct,” the desire to really trample on his opponents. Top grandmasters like Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Levon Aronian and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov have at various times opined that he has to sharpen his style and not over-rely on his technique, excellent though it might be.

And some other people have pointed out that GM Wesley has yet to prove that he can compete on even terms with Magnus Carlsen. They have met more than twelve times and Wesley has never beaten the Norwegian GM. Well, he took care of that last May 2018 in the Altibox Norway Chess tournament.

So, Wesley (2778) — Carlsen, Magnus (2843) [D13]
6th Altibox Norway Chess
Stavanger (6.1), 03.06.2018

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Nf3 a6 7.Rc1 Bf5 8.e3 Rc8 9.Be2 e6 10.0–0 Nd7!?

Back in June I commented on this game and pointed out that the usual line here is: 10…Bd6 11.Bxd6 Qxd6 12.Na4 0–0 13.Nc5 Rc7 14.Qb3 Qe7 15.Rc3 Bg4 16.Rfc1 e5 with a balanced struggle ahead. Khenkin, I (2609)-Karjakin, S (2732) Dagomys 2008 1/2 22.

11.Na4 Be7 12.h3!

According to Wesley this move is important. If he plays 12.a3 immediately then Black quickly develops a kingside pawn storm with 12…g5! 13.Bg3 h5 Black quickly gains an initiative on the dark-squared bishop and launches a pretty intense pawn storm.

12…0–0 13.a3 Na5 14.Nc5 Nc4 <D>



Only a temporary sacrifice of the a3–pawn. Wesley will get it back soon with a dominant position.

15…Nxc5 16.dxc5 Nxa3 17.Nd4 Be4 18.f3 Bg6 19.Qb3 Nc4 20.Bxc4 dxc4 21.Qxc4 Qe8 22.Bg3 e5 23.Nb3 Bd8?

The alternative 23…e4 is not so appetizing either, but this move appears to be based on a miscalculation, as Wesley pointed out after the game.


Simply winning a pawn, either on e5 or b7.

24…Qb5 25.Bxe5 Be7

The miscalculation Wesley was talking about is that now 25…Qxb4 is refuted by 26.Bd6 Re8 27.c6 discovering an attack on the black queen.

26.Qd2 Rfd8 27.Bd6 Bf6 28.e4 h6 29.Nd4 Bxd4+ 30.Qxd4 Re8 31.Rfe1 Kh7 32.g4 f6 33.f4 Qc6 34.f5 Bf7 35.h4 Ra8 36.Rc2 a5 37.g5 Bh5 38.g6+ Kh8 39.b5 Qxb5 40.Rb2 Qc6 41.Rb6 Qc8 42.Qd5 a4

Wesley had to calculate to ensure that 42…Bxg6 does not lead to perpetual check: 43.fxg6 Qg4+ 44.Kf2 Qxh4+ 45.Bg3 the checks end.

43.Rxb7 Rg8 44.c6 1–0

And with c6–c7 followed by Rb3 staring him in the face Magnus Carlsen resigns. This is easily Wesley’s biggest win for the year.

GM Wesley So did not win a single tournament with a classical (i.e., not a quickplay event) time control in 2018.

Tata Steel “A” Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, January 2018, tied for 5th-6th places with four wins eight draws and one loss, 8.0/13

Berlin Candidates’ Tournament, March 2018, 7th (out of 8) place with one win 10 draws and three losses, 6.0/14.

USA Championship in St. Louis, USA, April 2018, 3rd place with two wins and nine draws, 6.5/11.

Altibox Norway Chess, Stavanger, Norway, May 2018, one win, six draws, one loss, 4.0/8. Tied for 5th-6th places.

Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, USA, August 2018, 8th place out of 10, eight draws one loss (4.0/9).

Batumi Olympiad, Georgia, September 2018. USA won the silver medal, GM Wesley So played 2nd board for the USA team and had five wins, five draws and one loss.

Isle of Man Open, October 2018, 24th place with two wins seven draws for 5.5/9.

I think his best event was at the Olympiad.

So, Wesley (2776) — L’Ami, Erwin (2639) [C60]
Olympiad-Batumi (3.3), 26.09.2018

Black is one of the leading Dutch players and also the long-time second of GM Anish Giri. He is always well-prepared theoretically.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 d6

Almost everybody plays 4…Bc5 here. This is the first sign that L’Ami has something prepared for his opponent.

5.0–0 g6 6.d4! Bd7

Taking the pawn is wrong: 6…exd4 7.e5 dxe5 8.Nxe5 Black is in a dangerous position. 8…Qd5 (8…Bd7 9.Bxc6 Bxc6 10.Re1 Be7 11.Bh6 Not a good position to be in for Black) 9.Re1! Qxb5 (9…Be7? 10.Bc4) 10.Nc3! Qa6 (10…dxc3 11.Ng4+ wins) 11.Nxc6+ Be6 12.Qxd4 it is obvious who is better.

7.d5 Ne7 8.Bxd7+ Nxd7 9.c4 Bg7 10.Be3 h6 11.Nfd2 f5 12.f3

We have a King’s Indian-type position but Black’s light-squared bishop is gone from the board — it is an essential part of any kingside attack by Black so our assessment is that White is much better.

12…f4 13.Bf2 g5 14.Nc3 Ng6 15.c5! Nxc5 16.Bxc5 dxc5 17.Qb3 b6 18.d6!

Giving up a second pawn. White doesn’t want his opponent to castle.

18…Qxd6 19.Nc4 Qc6 20.Rfd1 Nf8

With the idea of bringing this knight to d4. It turns out that Black does not have time for this.

21.Rd5 Ne6 22.Nxe5 Bxe5 23.Rxe5 c4 24.Qa3 Kf7 25.Rf5+ Kg6 26.Nd5

Threatening Ne7+

26…Qc5+ 27.Qxc5 Nxc5 28.Rf6+ Kg7 29.Rc6 Rhe8

[29…Rac8 30.Rc1 both c-pawns will fall]

30.Rxc7+ Kg6 31.h4 Rad8 32.h5+ Kxh5 33.Nf6+ Kh4 34.Nxe8

He should have played 34.Kh2! immediately with the idea of following up with Rh1 and possibly mating Black. Here is what might happen: 34…Re6 35.Rh1 Rd1 36.Rxd1 Nd3 (36…Rxf6? 37.Rh1 g4 38.Rg7! with forced mate) 37.Rxc4 (37.Rh1 Nf2 is an unwanted complication) 37…Rxf6 38.Rxd3 White is a rook up.

The funny thing here is that Wesley saw all of this but then decided to play it safe and win the exchange first. The end result is that the win takes 10 move more.

34…Rxe8 35.Kh2 g4 36.Rh1 g3+ 37.Kg1+ Kg5

Now there is no mate but anyway White still wins.

38.Kf1 Rd8 39.Ke2 Ne6 40.Rxc4 Nd4+ 41.Ke1 h5 42.Rc7

With the idea of Rh7.

42…Kg6 43.Rc3

It is not too late to spoil the win. 43.Rxa7? throws it away because 43…Nc2+ 44.Ke2 Nd4+ forces a draw. White cannot play 45.Kf1? Rc8! tables are turned and it is Black who is winning.

43…Kg5 44.Rd3 h4 45.Kd1 a5 46.a4 Rd6 47.e5 Rd8 48.Rd2 Kh5 49.Re1 h3 50.gxh3 Kh4 51.e6 Nxe6 52.Rxe6 1–0

Wesley may not have won any classical tournaments but he considerably improved his rapid play, winning the Leuven and Paris rapid chess tournaments, part of the Grand Chess Tour of 2018. Then, for the second successive year, he ruled the Leon Masters Tournament, a rapid event with a starting list of four players and then four-game matches until there is only one left standing.

What do we think will happen in 2019? My experience with Wesley is that he disappears off the grid for a few months and comes back even stronger. Let us therefore give him some leeway to recover his drive and come back strongly in the second half of the year.

Before the start of the Berlin Candidates tournament of 2018 Jan Timman wrote a long article for “New in Chess Magazine” where he assessed the chances of all eight candidates. He said that “So is first and foremost a solid player who relies on his strong technique. At this point, I don’t think that he has the punching power to secure a large plus score.”

Next time will be different.


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 for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.