The very last bullet game (Chess960!) had to bring the decision. Wesley So defeated Anish Giri 15.5-14.5 in yesterday's Speed Chess match, one of the most exciting battles ever seen on the Chess.com live server.
Emanuel Lasker beat Karl Schlechter to tie his match and keep the title, back in 1910. Garry Kasparov managed to do so two decades ago, in Seville, against Anatoly Karpov. Yesterday Wesley So also delivered.
The comparison is not perfect, but almost. The American grandmaster was one game down with one regular blitz game to go. He won to tie the match, when the final Chess960 game felt like a tiebreaker. Trapping his opponent's queen quickly, So emerged as the winner.
So has to wait a while to find out his next opponent. He will be playing the winner of the first round's last match on October 5, between Magnus Carlsen and Gadir Guseinov.
Yesterday's matchup was the third strongest so far, with the world number-nine against the world number-two in classical chess.
So was considered the favorite, based on their current classical ratings but also on their mutual score in over-the-board blitz games: two draws, and two wins for So.
But the match was a much closer affair than many expected. GM Simon Williams predicted things rather well:
It also wasn't the positional, maneuvering kind of battle that the first two draws portended. "Two very solid players; very tough nuts to crack," said commentator IM Danny Rensch at this point. So would later comment: "I thought this was going to be a solid match, but then things got out of control and very exciting."
Unlike in most of their classical games, Giri and So played super aggressive chess which led to a tactical slugfest of the highest level. Of the 30 games they played, only 13 ended in draws.
As early as game three we saw checkmate on the board. So grabbed the lead in a game where both kings were unsafe, and Giri failed to find the perpetual check. (Interestingly, So switched to 1.d4 after Giri's Najdorf was super solid in the very first game. So would never return to 1.e4 in the remainder of the match.)
So also won the next game to bring the score to 3-1. At that point nobody knew yet that this would be the biggest margin in the whole match. (So also led by two games after game 13.)
After a draw in game five, in fact it was Giri who took over the lead with three wins in a row! His zugzwang combination in game seven looked particularly impressive.
Two instructive rook endgames brought decisions after this. Giri scored his third straight win thanks to a critical check:
The very next game Giri was on the defending side of a rook ending, and was just about to force the draw when So decided to try a last trick. And it worked. (Note that this was a Chess960, which closed the 5+2 portion.)
Score: 5|2 Time Control
So started the very first 3+2 game with a win. Two weak moves in a row allowed a simple tactic that won Black a pawn, and after that the rest was, as they say, a matter of technique.
Two draws followed, and then So again took a two-point lead. Continuing the theme of rook endgames, here's arguably the most instructive example of them all. "Giri is doing the unhappy emoji face," commentator IM Aman Hambleton said.
Giri managed to limit the damage to just one point with a win in the Chess960 game, which was accidentally started earlier than scheduled. Black quickly got a devastating attack on the white king.
Perhaps So was showing his cards too early in this game, by castling kingside already on the second move! Yeah, that's the kind of thing you only see in Fischerrandom.
The last game in the 3+2 game was really interesting. In the following position So only spent a few seconds on liquidating here, but it was just not enough to win the game. A fascinating ending.
Score: 3|2 Time Control
Meanwhile strong GMs such as Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana had joined the Chess.com/TV chat, while Sergey Karjakin logged on to the Russian-language show hosted by GM Sergey Shipov. They saw a solid draw at the start of the bullet section, but then the players exchanged wins.
That was followed by another draw and then a win for Giri. The score was equal again! Losing the queen wasn't the problem for So in this game but at some moment he forgot about his king:
Giri had been played the King's Indian Attack in several white games in the bullet section. It's a popular opening in general for this time control, because as White you can make a lot of moves without thinking, but for Giri there was another reason.
He noted that it didn't make sense anymore to trade pieces and go for endgames. "Normally it's my strength, but he played it better. I realized I just have to mate Wesley," he said after the match.
The Dutchman's strategy was developed during the match, not before: "I noticed that he got nervous when there were threats to his king. Before the match my strategy was not to get crushed 20-0."
So later admitted that this kind of worked for his opponent. "Yeah, the Anish-style attacking was much more effective!" Giri: "This is the first time I hear this is Anish-style!"
With reversed colors there was another draw, but in another KID Attack So this time defended against the attack, and won after Giri first buried his bishop on g7 and then missed that his rook was taken with check:
However, Giri immediately levelled the score again, and then won a second game in a row. The rook-vs-bishop ending in game 28 was a theoretical draw (even when you remove Black's b- and g-pawns!) but So allowed the winning f6-f7. It seemed like a hammer blow as the time allowed only one more regular bullet game.
In a must-win situation, So went for a Torre Attack. However, the opening was a disaster and on move 23 Black was just winning.
Giri went "all in" with an attack on the king, still following his strategy that he "just had to mate" his opponent. He first sacrificed an exchange and then a piece, but it wasn't correct. "It worked out well many times, but not the last one unfortunately," Giri said.
And so, after 29 games played, the competitors were still even: 14.5-14.5. If the Chess960 would be draw, a playoff consisting of three games would have decided matters. But no, Giri got his queen trapped, and suddenly it was all over.
Score: 1|1 Time Control
After the match Giri revealed that he was so concentrated that he wasn't aware of the score with one game to go. An Chess.com admin updates the players with the score throughout the match, but Giri just wasn't paying attention to that.
"I felt that I couldn't be leading because I felt that most of the time I was trailing and coming back rather than really pulling ahead. But the thing is, I showed Wesley earlier that this queen on h1 is very bad. So now he head to show what he had learned!"
"I knew that the match would be extremely tough," said So. "As the games went we became more and more tired. That's why we started missing tactics."
The winner also noted the clock played an important role. "Time played an important factor. Anish played very well and very quick. He mostly had more time, and of course I had no idea what to play against his Grünfeld!"
So, who was playing while sitting in a rocking chair, seemed quite calm throughout. He managed to hide some anxiety: "During the match my hand got very sweaty with the mouse. I got very nervous."
Giri went into the bullet section a point behind, and eventually scored 6-6 in that last part. He doesn't play it regularly, but was constantly up on the clock. "I think I can be pretty fast with the mouse. It's a lot of fun, once I start I can spend a lot of time, but generally I don't think it's a very useful skill. I mean, Hikaru could write a book about it but that's all you can do with bullet!"
The final game was one of the most expensive Chess960 games ever played. So got $1516.67 for the match win (and is assured of more money in round two) whereas Giri received $483.33.
You can replay the full show here: