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Speed Chess Championship: So Edges Out Nihal, Enters Finals
GM Wesley So edged out GM Nihal Sarin to be the first to qualify for the finals.

Speed Chess Championship: So Edges Out Nihal, Enters Finals

VSaravanan
| 20 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Wesley So defeated GM Nihal Sarin by a slender 15-14 margin in the first semifinal match of the 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event. So thus becomes the first player to reach the finals of the event; the other semifinal match is scheduled to be held on Thursday, December 16 at 2:30 p.m. Pacific / 23:30 Central European Time between GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Ding Liren.

The highlight of the match was So's play in the 1+1 bullet segment, where he held off Nihal with a score of 4.5-4.5 with clever and competitive play toward the end, thus thrillingly prevailing in the final minutes of the match. Such a close-scoring encounter has been witnessed only once in the event this year, between GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, which ended in a 13.5-12.5 victory for the former.

How to watch?

The games of the 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event are played on the Chess.com live server. They are also available on our platform for watching live games at Chess.com/events and on our apps under "Watch." Expert commentary can be enjoyed at Chess.com/tv.
2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event

The live broadcast of the match.

Nihal played this match from the outskirts of Barcelona, Spain, after finishing his first-round game at the Sunway Sitges International Festival 2021. He looked mildly jaded, unable to produce his usual surge in the 1+1 bullet-chess segment, which has stood him in good stead in the SCC matches until this point.  On the other hand, So played steadily throughout, handling the clock and keeping his cool in the final minutes of the match, where he held on to his lead by prolonging the games in the 1+1 section, cleverly running Nihal out on the total time of the match.

The pre-match statistics came up with notable insights:

An amusing detail from these insights is Nihal's supposedly better success rate on Tuesdays; whereas it can be technically argued that he started the match on Monday, December 13 at Sitges at 22.00 CET, the match ended at the late 02:30 CET on Tuesday, December 14!

Blitz 5+1: So-Nihal 5-5:

This segment clearly showcased the opening choices of the contestants, indicating their styles and preferences of match tactics. Nihal consistently changed his openings, sometimes even employing unorthodox ones bordering on a dubious reputation, while So kept his trust in positionally sound systems. For example, Nihal's opening choices in this segment with the black pieces were the Alekhine Defense (two games), the French Winawer, the Katalymov Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 b6!?), and the Italian game.

The best examples of their conducting the play were games 8 & 9, where the relative difference in styles was clearly on display:

Though it was marred by mistakes toward the end, it looked like a typical game by So, sticking to playing logical chess and following positional principles. 

Nihal's play toward the end of the ninth game was praised by GM Daniel Naroditsky in the live commentary, who termed it as "accuracy to the end."

Though allowing So to take the lead with 5-3, Nihal came back strongly into the match at the end of the 5+3 section, winning the final two games and tying the score at 5-5.

Blitz 3+1: So-Nihal 5.5-4.5

Undoubtedly, this was the most dramatic segment of the match, with many twists and turns. Nihal took the lead by winning the first game, but then came So's breathtaking three wins in a row. Among them was this miniature positional gem, which was termed by the commentators as consisting of a "gorgeous 18 moves":

Wesley So—scoring a gorgeous 18 move win.

Thus, at this point, So had a combined lead of 8-6 in the match, when he blundered badly in game eight of the segment and more dramatic games in the last two encounters. Thus, at the end of the segment, the combined score stood at 10.5-9.5 in So's favor.

Naroditsy had earlier predicted: "If Nihal can keep So's lead under two points [at the end of the 3+1 segment], he has a chance in [the] Bullet [segment]." So, all was set for a thrilling bullet shootout.

Bullet 1+1: So-Nihal 4.5-4.5:

This was definitely the most thrilling section of the match, not only for the dramatic encounters but also an important part of match-strategy displayed by So.

Typical of bullet, there were many thrills that tested the agility and competitiveness of both So and Nihal. To start with, So won the first two games and Nihal won the next two. After a draw in game five, So again won the next two games, increasing his overall lead in the match to 15-12.

Nihal couldn't produce the same kind of form in bullet games, which was his main strength enabling him to reach up to this point in the tournament. This led commentator GM Aman Hambleton to observe: "Nihal seems to be lacking his usual energy to play the bullet segment." Not surprisingly, the match ended when it was 01:30 in the morning for Nihal at Sitges.

The most beautiful among So's victories was in game six, with a fine point:

At the end of game seven of the bullet section, So had taken a lead of three points, with a score of 15-12, and this was where he played cleverly, both on the board and in match-strategy. Even though he had a lost position by move 39 in game eight of the segment, he played for another 24 moves and used up all his time in the process, thus decreasing the number of games in the segment; the 1+1 bullet section is played for a total of 30 minutes, irrespective of the number of games played. 

Making use of this rule, So again played out the final game in the same way. He aimed at playing the position solidly and made a marathon 71-move game even though he lost. This enabled him to stretch the match beyond the allotted 30 minutes for the section and thus finish the match in his favor with a combined score of 15-14. 

Talking about the match afterward, So was modest about his success: "I never had any full control of the match. I knew Nihal was higher rated in bullet, and I didn't know what to expect. But it turn[ed] out that things were not so bad in the bullet," thus acknowledging the final segment to be his focus, too, from the beginning of the match. 

...I knew Nihal was higher rated in bullet, and I didn't know what to expect.
—Wesley So

Nihal acknowledged: "Wesley survived many shaky moments and somehow kept control. I think my best chance was in absolute time controls... I was hoping that I [would] be able to get better [in such] scrambles. But Wesley played very well."

All games

The 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event is a knockout tournament among 16 of the best grandmasters in the world who will play for a $100,000 prize fund. The tournament will run November 8-December 19, 2021 on Chess.com. Each individual match will feature 90 minutes of 5+1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3+1 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1+1 bullet chess.

Find all information about the Speed Chess Championship here.


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