‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same”
We don’t know whether Wesley So knows his Kipling, but he is handling adversity in a way the old bard would admire.
As recounted here last week, the Philippine-born grandmaster suffered the mortification of a forfeit in his U.S. Championship game against GM Varuzhan Akobian this month, after he was caught writing notes to himself during the game despite repeated, explicit warnings from the tournament director. So was one of the favorites going into the tournament, and the forfeit was his third loss in St. Louis, contributing to what he later called the “worst tournament of my life.”
Coupled with some real uncertainties in his private life, the forfeit loss might have been expected to send the 21-year-old GM into a downward spiral. Instead, showing some encouraging grit, So suddenly got hot at the board, winning his last two games in St. Louis over defending champion Gata Kamsky and rising junior star Kayden Troff, and then notching three wins and a draw against world-class competition to take the early lead at the third Vugar Gashimov Memorial Tournament now underway in Shamkir, Azerbaijan. Arriving straight from the tempestuous U.S. title tournament, So thoroughly outplayed GM Anish Giri in their first-round game, when the young Dutch superstar lost his way badly in an unusual opening.
Raised on giant computer databases, two young grandmasters these days rarely find themselves out of the opening book by Move 4. Giri acknowledged later that he was on his own after 4. dxe5 Nxe4 5. Bd3 Bb4+ 6. Kf1!, deviating (after a half-hour think) from a 1976 Korchnoi-Timman game. The loss of castling privileges doesn’t hurt White’s game, and even helps his development by clearing the central squares for his rook.
By 17. Rd1 a5 (see diagram) 18. h4! (Qh6?! Qf6 19. Nd5 Qg7 holds), White is clearly better. Trying to block So’s kingside expansion with 18…h5?! now allows 19. Qh6 Qf6 19. Nd5 Qg7 20. Ne7 mate. Black’s game is teetering after 18…axb4 19. axb4 Nd7 20. h5 Nf6 21. c5 (also strong was 21. Qc1!, setting up some nasty discovered attacks on the Black queen) b6 22. hxg6 fxg6 23. Qe3 Qe7 24. Bc4 bxc5 25. b5!, ignoring the pawn recapture to seal up the queenside and return the focus to the center and kingside.
Giri can’t break a brutal pin on his knight on e6, and his position quickly collapses after 27. Na4! Rd6 28. Nxc5 Ng4!? (desperation, as Black will lose decisive material on passive play) 29. Qe4 Nxf2 (Nf6 30. Qh4) 30. Kxf2 Rd2+ 31. Kg3! (Chessbase.com noted that 31. Kf1?? might have spoiled all of White’s previous play: 31…Qxc5 32. Bxe6+ Kh8 33. Qh4 h5!, with some drawing chances in a messy position; e.g. 34. Bxc8 Rxf3+! 35. gxf3 Qxb5+ 36. Kg1 Qb6+ 37. Kf1 Qb5+, with a perpetual check) Rxf3+ 32. gxf3, and Black resigned as the checks quickly run out after 32…Qg5+ 33. Qg4, and the poor knight on e6 is still pinned.
One tough loss can color an entire career. Austrian master Karl Schlechter never got another chance at the brass ring after losing the final game of his 1909 match with German world champion Emanuel Lasker, allowing Lasker to tie the match and retain his crown. In the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal, the great Soviet star David Bronstein saw his last best chance to qualify for the world title hunt ruined by a late-round loss to tournament tail-ender Rodolfo Cardoso.
So might have taken inspiration from one of the most famous bounceback wins of all time: Bobby Fischer’s Game 3 win over Boris Spassky in their 1972 title match. Fischer, who had never defeated Spassky in five games prior to the match, found himself in a 2-0 hole in Iceland after botching Game 1 and forfeiting the second game to protest playing conditions. Another bad result might have ended the match for the American challenger before it started.
Playing Black, Fischer scored a big psychological point by playing the Benoni Defense, a relatively rare opening for him, and surprising Spassky with the novelty 11. Qc2 Nh5! 12. Bxh5 gxh5 — White will never be able to exploit the ugly Black h-pawns, while White’s light squares on the kingside will prove permanently weak after Spassky’s strange 17. Bf4 Qf6 18. g3? (Bg3 h5 19. f3! was fine for White) Bd7, allowing Fischer to methodically target the weak, blocked pawn on e4.
Perhaps flummoxed by the bad opening, Spassky plays with none of his usual energy as the e-pawn falls, but still retains some drawing chances in the ending of queen and opposite-colored bishops. But the American’s champion’s legendary accuracy (Fischer was one of the greatest “closers” in the history of the game) finally forces White to crack.
Fischer secures his first-ever win over his great rival after 35. Bh6 (Bxd6? Qxd5 36. Qe5 Qd1+ 37. Kg2 Bc6+ and wins) Qg6 36. Bc1 Qb1 37. Kf1 (better was 37. Qe1, though White’s game is totally passive) Bf5 38. Ke2 Qe4+ 39. Qe3 Qc2+ (Qxd5? 40. Qg5+, with a perpetual, spoils everything) 40. Qd2 Qb3 41. Qd4? (the first move after time control; the only chance was 41. Ke1 [Bb2 Qf3+ 42. Ke1 Qh1+ 43. Ke2 Bd3+ 44. Ke3 Qe4 mate] Qf3 42. Qg5+ Bg6 43. Qe3 Qh1+ 44. Kd2 Qxd5+ 45. Kc3, with at least a faint hope of holding the ending) Bd3+!, the sealed move for Black.
White resigned without resuming play, as 42. Ke3 (Kd2 Qc2+ 43. Ke1 Qxc1 mate) Qd1! 43. Qb2 Qf3+ 44. Kd4 Qe4+ 45. Kc3 Qe1+, and Black’s next move is 46. Qe5 mate.
The psychological dam broken, Fischer would go on to score four wins and three draws in the next seven games to essentially decide the match, eventually claiming the world crown by a 12½-8½ score.
So-Giri, Gashimov Memorial, Shamkir, Azerbaijan, April 2015
1. c4 g6 2. e4 e5 3. d4 Nf6 4. dxe5 Nxe4 5. Bd3 Bb4+ 6. Kf1 Nc5 7. Nf3 Ne6 8. a3 Be7 9. Nc3 d6 10. exd6 Bxd6 11. b4 Bf8 12. Qe2 Bg7 13. Bg5 Bf6 14. Bxf6 Qxf6 15. Qd2 O-O 16. Re1 Qd8 17. Rd1 a5 18. h4 axb4 19. axb4 Nd7 20. h5 Nf6 21. c5 b6 22. hxg6 fxg6 23. Qe3 Qe7 24. Bc4 bxc5 25. b5 Rb8 26. Re1 Rb6 27. Na4 Rd6 28. Nxc5 Ng4 29. Qe4 Nxf2 30. Kxf2 Rd2+ 31. Kg3 Rxf3+ 32. gxf3 Black resigns.
Spassky-Fischer, World Championship Match, Game 3, Reykjavik, July 2015
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 c5 4. d5 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. Nc3 g6 7. Nd2 Nbd7 8. e4 Bg7 9. Be2 O-O 10. O-O Re8 11. Qc2 Nh5 12. Bxh5 gxh5 13. Nc4 Ne5 14. Ne3 Qh4 15. Bd2 Ng4 16. Nxg4 hxg4 17. Bf4 Qf6 18. g3 Bd7 19. a4 b6 20. Rfe1 a6 21. Re2 b5 22. Rae1 Qg6 23. b3 Re7 24. Qd3 Rb8 25. axb5 axb5 26. b4 c4 27. Qd2 Rbe8 28. Re3 h5 29. R3e2 Kh7 30. Re3 Kg8 31. R3e2 Bxc3 32. Qxc3 Rxe4 33. Rxe4 Rxe4 34. Rxe4 Qxe4 35. Bh6 Qg6 36. Bc1 Qb1 37. Kf1 Bf5 38. Ke2 Qe4+ 39. Qe3 Qc2+ 40. Qd2 Qb3 41. Qd4 Bd3+ White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David R. Sands can be reached at email@example.com.
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