Wesley So Wins Blitz Event: Norway Chess 2022
Wesley So won the blitz event. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Norway Chess.

Wesley So Wins Blitz Event: Norway Chess 2022

| 22 | Chess Event Coverage

Rather than having a traditional drawing of start numbers, Norway Chess has made a tradition of starting out with a blitz tournament to decide the start numbers for each player in the main event.

American GM Wesley So took a decisive lead by beating GM Magnus Carlsen in their round-six encounter and then confidently strode to the finish line, finishing a full point ahead of the Norwegian World Champion.

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The concept of blitz tournaments in conjunction with a major tournament is not a new one, but it is becoming more common. Back in 1970, following the USSR vs. Rest of the World "Match of the Century," a blitz tournament with many of the participants was held in Herceg Novi, where GM Bobby Fischer surprised the Soviets and, for that matter, the rest of the world by not just winning, but crushing the competition, finishing the event with a 4.5 points margin ahead of GMs Mikhail TalViktor Korchnoi, and Tigran Petrosian. Another major blitz event was in 1987 in Brussels where the annual Swift grandmaster tournament was taking place. On that occasion, GM Garry Kasparov won 2 points ahead of GM Jan Timman, and then another 2.5 points back followed GMs Anatoly Karpov and Ljubomir Ljubojevic. Since then, some tournaments have made blitz part of the circus surrounding the event, such as the annual Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. 

In Norway Chess, however, the players battle for the starting number, which means that the players finishing from first to fifth will get five games with the white pieces, while the five lowest-ranked players will have to settle for four games with white. However, the players still have to draw starting numbers for the blitz event to determine who would have five games with white in that event. As far as we know, there are no plans for a double-round robin bullet tournament to decide that... The time control for the blitz event was 3 minutes for the game plus 2-second increments per move.

Wesley So wins the 2022 Norway Chess Blitz tournament
So won the blitz tournament, propelled by a victory against Carlsen.

Compared to the originally announced line-up, GM Richard Rapport withdrew just four days ago, getting replaced by Norwegian GM Aryan Tari who has participated in several of the previous editions of Norway Chess.

The field, which was announced on April 7, 2022, included a couple of other surprises in that the mostly inactive GMs Viswanathan Anand and Veselin Topalov along with the officially retired (after last year's Candidates tournament) GM Wang Hao all returned to play in this prestigious event. 
The favorites to win the blitz event was Carlsen, the reigning Blitz World Champion GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, with the trio of GMs Anish Giri, Anand, and So as potential serious contenders. 

Round 1

The unretired Wang Hao demonstrated that he is too strong to be ignored when he dispatched So in a convincing fashion.

The former World Champion in both the classical and blitz variety, Anand recently showed that he is definitely not to be discounted after a strong performance in Warsaw just last week. He had the pleasure of defeating Mr. Replacement, Aryan Tari. In a somewhat rare line of the English Opening, Anand gained an advantage which he gradually made bigger and converted flawlessly while never allowing Black the shadow of a chance.

GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Vachier-Lagrave both played in the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest where the 7.b3 variation of the Queen's Gambit Accepted was played repeatedly, and here the players decided to give the preparation a whirl. While White initially gained the initiative, Black obtained sufficient counterplay in the middlegame which was razor-sharp. However, blitz and razors are rarely a good combination, and here, after one miscalculation, Vachier-Lagrave badly wounded himself, allowing Mamedyarov to fire off a nasty knight fork with 28.Nc7, which instantly gave White a winning position. 

In the game between Giri-Topalov, White had either an advantage or the initiative most of the way, and a bad mistake by Topalov allowed Giri to finish off in a nice fashion.

In the last game to finish, GM Teimour Radjabov gained an advantage after a risky opening line by Carlsen. He maintained some measure of that edge until the players exchanged down to an endgame and although the play continued for a while, the game remained roughly equal.

Standings after round one: 1-4 Anand, Giri, Mamedyarov, & Wang Hao, all 1 point.

Round 2

The second round once again saw four winners, but none of them had won in round one!

Tari crushed Mamedyarov in only 26 moves when the latter played a dubious move in the early middlegame. 

Topalov won against Wang Hao but the latter was not without chances when the players took turns making mistakes in the middlegame.

Carlsen won his first game after Vachier-Lagrave missed his best chances right after the opening.

Radjabov won when Giri responded poorly to an interesting-looking exchange sacrifice.

In the remaining game, So-Anand ended in a draw after a positional battle in an Italian Game.

Standings after round two: 1-3 Anand, Carlsen, & Radjabov, all 1.5/2.

Round 3

In Giri-Carlsen, the World Champion missed several wins in a King's Indian Defense where White badly misplayed the transition into the middlegame and had to settle for a draw.

In a bad start, the Blitz World Champion Vachier-Lagrave lost his third game in a row to Tari. In a queenless middlegame, the Frenchman chose a dubious plan that weakened the g4-square after which the Norwegian played with frightening efficiency.

Wang Hao gave a demonstration of positional superiority against Radjabov who was stuck with a bad bishop vs. a strong knight. 

The other two games saw prolonged battles between Mamedyarov and So, which ended in a draw, and Anand-Topalov who once contended in a memorable World Championship match where Anand won in the end after a fascinating match, and the same narrative was repeated here.

Standings after round three: 1 Anand 2.5/3; 2-4 Carlsen, Tari, & Wang Hao 2/3.

Round 4

In the all-Norwegian match-up, Carlsen got a positional squeeze against Tari, who in an attempt to wriggle made things worse and ended up losing in a miniature.

Vachier-Lagrave lost his fourth game in a row when he ended up in the type of position you definitely do not want to play against So: a technical and slightly worse position without much counterplay. So did have a major slip-up where he let the Frenchman off the hook. But with nothing going right for Vachier-Lagrave, he got himself back on the hook and was subsequently gutted.

In Topalov-Mamedyarov, the Bulgarian went wrong in a complex middlegame and lost material. Radjabov-Anand was a mostly correct draw, while Giri-Wang Hao saw Giri win a drawn endgame.

Standings after round four: 1-2 Anand & Carlsen 3/4; 3-4 Giri & Mamedyarov 2.5/4

Round 5

Wang Hao-Carlsen looked like it was heading in the direction of a draw when the Chinese grandmaster made an innocent-looking move with the king and then suddenly Carlsen had what he needed to win the endgame.

Anand was winning against Giri, but a blunder ended the game.

In Radjabov-Mamedyarov, the two Azeris never looked intent on hurting each other and played a dreadfully boring draw.

By contrast, Vachier-Lagrave had a winning position but lost his fifth game in a row in spectacular fashion to Topalov.

Against So's solid Berlin Defense, Tari tried something sharp but got punished for his youthful optimism, slowly being strangulated by So who expertly converted his advantage to a full point.

Standings after round five: 1 Carlsen 4/5; 2 Giri 3.5/5; 3-5 Anand, Mamedyarov, & So 3/5.

Round 6

Carlsen, who had played mostly normal openings in the first five rounds of the event, opted for 1.a4 against So. So equalized smoothly and the chances were about even when Carlsen played an overly ambitious 22.Nd1??, allowing 22...Bb5! that won material. After that, the game was essentially over.

Topalov produced a nice positional game against Tari and slowly squeezed the life out of him. 

As Black in a Queen's Gambit Accepted (again with 7.b3), Vachier-Lagrave finally managed to break the spell he was suffering under and won a beautiful game against Radjabov.

The remaining two games, Wang Hao-Anand and Giri-Mamedyarov were the types of shadowboxing games that few spectators enjoy watching but can be incredible if you understand the nuances. Unfortunately, all four players seemed to get what was going on and draws were the results in both games.

Standings after round six: 1-3 Carlsen, Giri, & So 4/6; 4-5 Anand & Mamedyarov 3.5/5.

Round 7

In So-Topalov, Black equalized in a 3.Bb5 Sicilian but then made a mistake, and decided to follow it up with one of his trademark exchange sacrifices. When that did not work So won the game rather effortlessly.

In his younger days, Radjabov loved the French Defense and famously defeated the reigning World Champion Kasparov with it. With the event not going well, Radjabov resorted to the French against Tari. He was rewarded with a good position, won a pawn, and then systematically started outplaying himself, ultimately allowing Tari to crush him on the kingside. 

Vachier-Lagrave won his second game in a row by defeating Giri in a drawn rook endgame where the Dutch grandmaster, short on time, could not find the right set-up.

In Anand-Carlsen, Black played a Pirc and got a good position, trading two minor pieces for a rook and two pawns. In the middlegame, however, Carlsen lost his way while trying to avoid a repetition of moves, got low on time, and after mutual mistakes in the middlegame where Carlsen could have won, the advantage eventually tipped in the Indian veteran's favor. With a lost position on the board, Carlsen lost on time.

In the final game, Wang Hao-Mamedyarov demonstrated their mastery of wood chopping and eventually settled for a draw.

Standings after round seven: 1 So 5/7; 2 Anand 4.5/7; 3-5 Carlsen, Giri, & Mamedyarov 4/7.

Round 8

Radjabov's event went from bad to nightmare when he blundered a piece right out of the opening against So.

Topalov equalized as Black against Carlsen but then committed a positional cardinal sin and got ruthlessly murdered by Carlsen's invading forces.

When you talk about RiRi you usually refer to Rihanna, but in this event, we are talking about Giri vs Tari. The Norwegian had the advantage for most of the game but let it slip out of his hands and eventually had to see himself satisfied with a draw.

Vachier-Lagrave seemed to get a new lease on life and won his third straight game, this time against Wang Hao in his beloved Grunfeld Indian in a line that GM Yu Yangyi had also used against the Frenchman in their game in the FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin. The game was complex but also an illustration of momentum, Vachier-Lagrave had it, and Wang Hao had it at the beginning of the event but had lost it at this point.

In the final game, Anand-Mamedyarov, the chances looked pretty even, but Mamedyarov got the better of it in rook + bishop endgame but got it transitioned into a tricky rook ending where Anand promptly went wrong, ending up in a losing position. However, Mamedyarov let his advantage slip and a draw was the result.

Standings after round eight: 1 So 6/8; 2-3 Anand & Carlsen 5/8; 4-5 Giri & Mamedyarov 4.5/8.

Round 9

Unsurprisingly, the first game to finish was So-Giri, where a draw meant So would win the event whereas Giri would finish in the top five. The players played a Grunfeld and soon found a way to repeat moves.

Carlsen took some serious chances as Black against Mamedyarov, but with Mamedyarov focused on finishing the event rather than winning, he got out of trouble and eventually, a draw became the result.

Vachier-Lagrave played a fascinating line in the Italian Game against Anand, leaving his king in the center in return for some serious control of the e-file, a lead in development, and some play against Black's king. It did not look 100% okay according to our engine friends, but in a practical game, especially one conducted as a blitz game, it worked like a charm and despite some mistakes, the French grandmaster won his fourth game in a row.

Tari won a chaotic and rather random game against the luckless Wang Hao.

With that, we reached the following:

Norway Chess Blitz - Final Standings

Norway Chess Blitz - All Games


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