Birthday surprise

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

The Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour is back. This time, the series of online events is rebranded as the Champions Chess Tour with a total $1.5 million prize fund. It marks an ambitious step forward for the Play Magnus group, which floated on the Oslo Stock Exchange in October and is currently valued in the ballpark of $100 million. Norwegian companies NRK and TV2 have purchased domestic broadcasting rights for the tour, while a separate deal with Eurosport looks set to attract a fresh audience. Games will be played on the chess24 platform, and the tenth and final event in the series will finish on Sunday 3 October, 2021.

It’s a mundane observation that chess tournaments usually end on a Sunday. Usually, participants and organisers have jobs to return to on Monday. Classical over-the-board events often see nine games in nine days, which for keen amateur players can slot neatly between two weekends which sandwich a week off work. And for high-profile events, it’s easy to attract spectators to a climax which falls on a Sunday afternoon. All the events in the Champions Chess Tour are scheduled to follow this familiar nine-day pattern. All that is except the first one, the Skilling Open, which took place last month, and ended on Monday 30 November — the same day as Magnus Carlsen’s 30th birthday. It’s hard to imagine this was an accident.

Despite not showing his best form in earlier rounds, fate duly delivered Carlsen into the final, where he faced the American Wesley So. Carlsen played from an exotic location, and Instagrammed himself in a pool with a birthday breakfast fit for Henry VIII.

The gods, it seems, took exception to this swagger. Carlsen’s applecart was upended when Wesley So tied the match and made off with victory in the blitz playoff. Modestly, So stressed that Carlsen was still the better player and apologised for ‘semi-ruining his birthday’! But it was certainly no accident, as he also beat the Norwegian in the 2019 Fischer-Random World Championship. As a guest commentator, Vladimir Kramnik praised Wesley So’s understanding of the game, and suggested that despite his status as a stable top-ten player, he has yet to realise his potential. Kramnik speculated that the obstacles to his further success might be psychological in nature.

So has a reputation for consistent, technical chess, but in this game from the semi-final, he shows considerable flair in the attack.

Wesley So–Hikaru Nakamura
Skilling Open semi-final, November 2020

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 c3 Nf6 5 d3 d6 6 O-O h6 7 Re1 O-O 8 Nbd2 a5 9 Nf1 Be6 10 Bb5 Bb6 11 Ng3 Nh7 12 h3 Ng5 13 Nxg5 hxg5 14 d4 exd4 15 Bxc6 bxc6 16 cxd4 c5 17 d5 Bd7 18 a4 Re8 19 Bd2 c4 20 Qf3 Rb8 21 Bc3 Bc5 22 Re2 f6 23 Nf5 Bb4 24 Bd4 Bc5 25 Bc3 Bb4 26 Ne3 Bc8 27 Bd4 Ba6 28 Nf5 Bc8 29 Ne3 Ba6 30 Nf5 Bc8 31 Rc1 Qd7 32 Rec2 Ba6 33 h4! gxh4 34 Qg4 Kf8 35 Bxf6! 35 Qxh4 Qf7 allows Black to defend stubbornly. 35…gxf6 36 Qxh4 Threatening 37 Qh8+ Kf7 38 Qg7 mate. 36…Kg8 37 Re2! Preparing to lift a rook to the third rank. Not 37 Rc3? Bxc3 38 Rxc3 Rb3! which unexpectedly saves the day. 37…Re5 38 Re3 Rxf5 39 Rh3 Rg5 37…Qg7 prolongs the game, but 38 exf5 Bd2 39 Rg3 Bg5 40 Qe4 and f2-f4 wins. 40 Qh8+ Kf7 41 Rh7+ Mate follows after 41…Kg6 42 Rh6+ Kf7 43 Qxf6+ Ke8 44 Rh8+ so Black resigns

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