Clutch Chess Day 3: So Takes The Lead
Wesley So takes the lead in the Clutch Chess Champions Showdown in the final match against Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Clutch Chess Day 3: So Takes The Lead

ColinStapczynski
ColinStapczynski
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14 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Wesley So took the lead against GM Fabiano Caruana on Thursday in the Clutch Chess Champions Showdown final. At the halfway point of the final, So leads the match with a score of 4.5-3.5. The second half of the match will be played on Friday.

The Showdown began on Tuesday with the top four American grandmasters participating in this knockout event that has a twist: the last two games of each day are worth more points. Each match consists of 12 games with six games played each day. The final two games of each day are "clutch" games that are worth double the points on day one and triple on day two as well as a $2,000 bonus per game on day one and $3,000 on day two.

How to watch?
The games of the Clutch Chess Champions Showdown can be found here, and the Saint Louis Chess Club live coverage can be found here. GM Robert Hess is providing daily commentary on his Twitch channel. The games start at 1 p.m. Pacific time/9 p.m. Central European time each day.

The finals began with So on the white side of a Ruy Lopez, where Caruana sacrificed a pawn early. So's position was pleasant, and he decided to give the pawn back on move 15 with a level position. So picked up another pawn on move 21, but the presence of opposite-colored bishops made it difficult to prove an advantage. After a couple of missteps by Caruana, So was clearly ahead after 33.h5 with two connected passed pawns on the queenside:

So's idea of 34.c5 and 35.Be4 seemed natural, but 34.Nc3 and 35.Nd5 may have been stronger. So kept up the pressure, was able to win another pawn and even got rid of the opposite-colored bishops on move 41. He was up three pawns, but his king was looking a bit naked. It seemed like a decisive result may have been in the air, but Caruana found a perpetual check.

Game two saw Caruana take the first victory of the final. He was on the white side of a Ruy Lopez Berlin, and So seemed to equalize early with his h-pawn pushes on moves 13 and 14. So next won a pawn on move 20, but his king was still stuck in the center. The position started to look promising for Caruana after 23.Rd7, and then So missed the final blow of the game 25.Rh1 with an inevitable Rh8 coming:

Fabiano Caruana
Caruana took the match lead by winning game two. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Game three saw Caruana employing a Modern Benoni and achieving a nice position. So erred with 19.Ra3 allowing the 19...Nxe4 shot, highlighting So's overloaded queen:  

Caruana won a safe pawn with the tactic. After some exchanges, 25...Nxd5 was next. The position looks fantastic for Black with their passed c-pawn and dominant pieces, but both players seemingly missed 26.f4 for White. After this, the queens were exchanged, and Caruana continued nursing his material advantage but could not convert in the endgame. The game was drawn, bringing the match score to 2-1.

The fourth game (the last one before the clutch games) saw So pushing with the black pieces in a Ruy Lopez. He equalized early and then sacrificed the exchange with 17...Rxf3:

For the exchange, So created doubled f-pawns for Caruana, weakened Caruana's kingside, and gained control of some dark squares. So began attacking the white king, and Caruana returned the exchange to relieve some pressure on move 24. After the queens and rooks were exchanged, an interesting knight and pawn endgame resulted where each side had a passed pawn. Caruana navigated correctly, and the game was drawn. 

Heading into the clutch games, Caruana was leading the match 2.5-1.5. The clutch games on Thursday were worth double points—two points for a win and one point for a draw.

The first clutch game saw So as White in a Queen's Gambit Declined. Caruana equalized comfortably and then created a passed c-pawn on move 24. By move 29, a queen and pawn endgame occurred where Caruana had a passed pawn but structural weaknesses, and So then conducted a perpetual check a few moves later. After this first clutch game, the score was 3.5-2.5 in Caruana's favor.

The second clutch game was spicier. The players repeated the first 13 moves of the Ruy Lopez in game four, and then Caruana tried 14.a4. So leveled the position, but after a pseudo-pawn sacrifice, Caruana eventually landed a rook on the e6-hole. After 22.Bxd4, he got his pawn back and had an aesthetically pleasing position with Black's two knights immobilized.

Caruana offered an exchange sacrifice with 24.Re5, which So wisely declined, which allowed his rook to swing to the kingside on the next move. The rook on h5 prompted 26...g6 from So, and then Caruana uncorked a knight sacrifice with 27. Nxg6?!

So defended perfectly after the sacrifice, and when the dust had settled, So was up a knight for two pawns. After a series of checks, he established his knight on the strong e4-square, and after 42...Kh8, Caruana was out of checks. So then used his extra material to bring home the full point.

This victory in the final clutch game earned two points for So, who now has taken the match lead by 4.5-3.5. Caruana will look to bounce back in the second half of the match, which starts on Friday.

Wesley So
So took the lead by winning the final clutch game of the day. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

All games of day 3

The Clutch Chess Champions Showdown is a four-player knockout event that runs on lichess from May 26-29 in association with the Saint Louis Chess Club. The prize fund is $100,000 with a first prize of $30,000. The time control is 10 minutes for all moves with a five-second increment after each move. The four competitors are the four highest-rated American players: GMs Caruana, So, Dominguez and Nakamura.


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