Wesley So wins third leg of FIDE Grand Prix 2022 over Nakamura

Still, even this victory wasn't enough to qualify for the Candidates Tournament.

Image via Pexels

With little left on the line this afternoon, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura quickly steered the FIDE Grand Prix 2022 Leg 3 finals to the rapid playoffs portion, where So scored a victory that will only provide little solace in light of (most likely) missing out on the Candidates Tournament.

The main prize on the line in the FIDE Grand Prix wasn’t actually the ultimate victory, especially not in its third leg. Instead, it was clinching one of the two top spots in the three-legged mini-tour to earn an invitation to the Candidates Tournament in Madrid, an eight-player round-robin affair that determines the next challenger of chess world champion Magnus Carlsen.

The way the results shook out, this massive chunk of intrigue was already resolved by the end of the group stage. Nakamura and Richárd Rapport punched their tickets to the Candidates Tournament based on these results, rendering the playoffs stage somewhat of a procession. Though So still had a fracture of an outside chance to fight for thanks to the opportunity provided by Karjakin’s ban for a high-rated player to take his place, he is not likely to leapfrog Chinese GM Ding Liren.

After making it out of the groups, Nakamura beat Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and So dispatched Amin Tabatabaei to make it to the tail end of the tournament bracket. Ultimately, the storylines above (and the fairly low prizes of 18,000 euros and 24,000 euros on the line) made the final a bit of a procession, which showed in the games played.

Slow affairs

The first classical game featured a fairly mainline Nimzo-Indian Defense, with the players following one of So’s October 2021 games until move 20. Here, Nakamura opted for a slight improvement that occurred in two other matches, and though So had one shot to create a tangible advantage in the endgame, he missed his opportunity and the players agreed to a draw soon thereafter. Neither of them felt like playing chess on the following day when they opted for the famous line in the Berlin Defense that leads to a draw by repetition in just 14 moves.

The well-known, boring final position of game two. | Image via lichess.org

When the players were quizzed about the lack of spectacle at the press conference, Hikaru had an easy answer: the organizers should come up with a better format. Wesley was entirely in agreement.

This meant that the final would be settled in the tiebreaks and faster time controls, where Nakamura (who recently took over Carlsen as No. 1 in the rapid world rankings) was seen as the slight favorite. But it was So who had great winning chances with the White pieces in the first game before getting entangled in fiendish complications that almost saw him lose entirely. In the end, it was yet another draw, giving Nakamura the best chance yet to score a win.

Instead, his choice of a drawish gambit line in the Ruy Lopez backfired. So managed to push his opponent into a slightly uncomfortable position. On move 32, Nakamura made an inexplicable blunder after just a few seconds of thinking with over seven minutes left on the clock.

Position after 32. – c6? | Image via lichess.org

Pushing the pawn to c6 loses material by force after 33. Bxe5 and 34. d6 force the Black rook to vacate the defenses of d7, allowing White to fork the king on f8 and the bishop on b6. There were none of Nakamura’s trademark swindling opportunities left in the straightforward position that emerged and So secured a win soon thereafter.

With these results, So is on 2,773 rating points on the live list, a far cry from Ding Liren’s 2,810. As things stand, we won’t see the current world No. 7 at the Candidates Tournament.