Monday, February 6

Chess: Wesley So wins in Berlin but regrets failure to qualify for Candidates | chess

Wesley So won the low-key final leg of the Fide Grand Prix in Berlin on Monday, but the US world No 7 missed out on what mattered to him most, qualification for June’s world title Candidates in Madrid.

So and Hikaru Nakamura, who was already sure of overall Grand Prix victory and a Candidates place, made little effort in their two classical games. The second ended after just a few minutes play with what has become the standard tacitly agreed fast drawing sequence for top grandmaster chess, a Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense leading to threefold repetition.

In the ensuing tiebreak rapid games, Nakamura blundered a piece and that was the end. The five-time US champion-turned-streamer with more than a million followers was probably more interested in the Arena Kings, Titled Tuesday and Rapid Chess Championship.

The Rapid, staged every weekend, has within a few weeks become one of the most significant online events, rivaling the Meltwater Champions Tour that features on the rival website It is open to the top 100 world grandmasters, plus juniors and wildcards, and is backed by Coinbase with a $625,000 (£478,000) prize fund. Its format is a Swiss on Saturday with a 10+0 time limit, then a knockout on Sunday.

After seven weeks play three of the four leaders are Americans – Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian and Nakamura – but six of the top nine are Russians, all playing without any flag.

After completing his Berlin victory, So admitted that he had not played well enough to qualify for Madrid, and added: “I am only 28, and hoping that in the next couple of years I will get a chance to play in the Candidates … If you qualify, you have to be ready to fight for first place.”

The moment that spoilt So’s chances came in speed tiebreaks in the first grand prix leg in Berlin, when So surprisingly lost to Leinier Dominguez, the world No 13. Had he won that mini-match, he would have at least tied with Hungary’s Richárd Rapport for a Candidate place.

International opens with large entries were popular before the pandemic, and are now reviving. The European championship at Terme Catez, Slovenia, finished on Wednesday, the same day the Reykjavik Open began in Iceland, half a century after the iconic Bobby Fischer v Boris Spassky match.

It was an occasion for a rare double success for English juniors. Shreyas Royal, 13, who missed an international master norm by only half a point in his previous tournament at Ilkley, Yorkshire, in February, maintained his high level by scoring 5.5/11 against opposition including four GMs and three IMs with a tournament performance of 2358, within 50 points of IM level.

In his entertaining first round game against Baadur Jobava, the No 1 for Georgia and a former world top 20 GM, Royal had a winning material advantage before it slipped into a draw.

In Wednesday’s opening round of Reykjavik, Sohum Lohia, 12, stood better against the Danish GM Mats Andersen when he accepted a draw offer at move 37. Lohia showed promise in opens in Spain before the pandemic, and has clearly matured further since.

England’s youngest chess hopes, Kushal Jakhria and Bodhana Sivanandan, whose achievements were discussed in this column last month, face their next test when they compete in the European schools under-seven championships starting 20 April and the world under-eight rapid and blitz that begin on 1 May. The title contests are staged on the island of Rhodes.

The English duo both had their seventh birthdays in March but still count as under-sevens for international competition. As the only Fide-rated players in the under-sevens bracket, they will be among the favourites, although there are entries from Azerbaijan which is traditionally strong in junior chess. The world under-eight rapid and blitz will be more competitive, and will include some Russian children, playing under a neutral Fide flag.

There is a wider significance for English chess in these promising results. For more than 20 years, since Gawain Jones and David Howell emerged in the late-1990s and later developed into elite level grandmasters rated 2650-plus, there has been a 2500 achievement ceiling which new talents have failed to break, partly because they become involved too late in major competitions.

The pattern has been for players to reach 2200 level, expert/master standard, in their early or middle teens, achieve international master norms (2400-2450) in their late teens, and only compete for grandmaster titles around 20, by which time university , career and family commitments take over.

Now, for the first time this century, there seems the possibility of at least four talents who may be able to break through the 2500 barrier. Far too soon for hurrahs yet, but enough for a watching brief.

3810 1…f2+! 2 Kf1 Ke1+! 3 Kxf2 Kf1+! 4 Kxf1, draw by stalemate. After 1…Kg2+? 2 Kf1! or 1…Ke1+? 2 Kf2 Ke2+ 3 Kf1! (3 Kxf3 Rf2+! draws) White will eventually capture the f pawn and win with queen v rook. The win can be laborious and take over 30 moves, but is confirmed by endgame tablebases.

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