Wesley So and Praggnanandhaa contested an epic match in the first semifinal of the 2018 Leon Masters on Friday. It will be remembered as the first time the 12-year-old Indian talent had one of the world’s elite grandmasters on the ropes. Wesley called his opponent “a genius”, but eventually managed to emerge victorious from what was an uphill battle after he blundered badly in the first game.
The Northern Spanish city of León has played host to some of the world’s best players for the last 31 years, with the likes of Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, Magnus Carlsen, Wei Yi and 8-time champion Vishy Anand among the winners. This year the 4-player knockout offered an elite debut for another tiger from Madras/Chennai!
The fine work of the Leon Masters organisers, headed by Marcelino Sión, had borne fruit once again in providing us with a magnificent semifinal between the rapid world no. 2 and defending champion Wesley So, and the new superstar from India, Praggnanandhaa, who recently became a grandmaster elect at the age of 12 years and 10 months, a feat surpassed only by Sergey Karjakin.
Here’s a quick glimpse of the tension in the match:
You can replay all the games using the selector below (note that really is Praggnanandhaa’s official rapid rating, for now, and the GM title still needs to be formally confirmed by FIDE):
The start couldn’t have been more tense. After some inaccuracies by the talented Indian, Wesley So launched an attack and in a few moves had already achieved a highly advantageous position. Praggnanandhaa tried to stem the tide by sacrificing an exchange:
Wesley barely stopped to think, however, before playing the powerful 19.g5!, which was almost the end of the road for Black. After 19…Bxg5 So could simply have continued 20.dxe5 and the black position would have collapsed a few moves later. Unexpectedly, though, he committed the serious mistake 20.Qh5? missing, as he acknowledged with a smile in the post-game press conference, that his opponent had the simple 20…e4, forcing White to sacrifice in order to retain attacking options.
An unbalanced ending was soon reached in which So had a rook against Praggnanandhaa’s two minor pieces. Just when it seemed as though the game was heading for a draw, Wesley played more ambitiously than the position merited (“It’s really stupid for me to try and play,” he said later) and Praggnanandhaa’s h-pawn began to pose problems. In time trouble the young Indian squandered a couple of opportunities to cut off the white rook’s control of the pawn using precise manoeuvres. Unexpectedly, however, with the finish line in sight the US player committed a final blunder:
After 62.Rxg2! the game would have ended in a draw a few moves later, but So missed Black’s threat and played 62.Kc6??, to which Praggnanandhaa replied 62…Bg3! and there’s no longer any way to stop the g-pawn! A real blow, and one that recalled the 2017 Leon Masters, when So lost the first game after giving away his queen in just 17 moves.
Wesley had lost with White and felt obliged to play the Sicilian in order to complicate matters from the start, though afterwards, when shown what he’d done in the opening, he commented, “I should never play the Najdorf!” A huge blunder gave the 12-year-old the chance to pile misery on his illustrious opponent:
Black’s imprecise move order could have been exploited by Praggnananhdaa with the typical combination 8.Bxf7! Kxf7 9.Ng5+, when Black’s best option is 9…Kg8 10.Ne6 Qe8 11.Nc7. White will be a pawn and an exchange up and it’s very likely the Indian would have taken a 2-0 lead, needing only a draw in one of the last two games to reach the final. He missed the chance, though, and instead went for 8.d3, when the game returned to normal. So regrouped, switching his knight with Nb8-c6 to put pressure on the a5-pawn, and the complications once again led to time trouble. Praggnanandhaa manoeuvred creatively with his rook along the third and fourth ranks and began to pose serious threats to Black’s kingside, but in the end things swung in Black’s favour.
So demonstrated the idea behind b5, that he’d played a couple of moves earlier, with 33…Rb6!, bringing the rook into the defence along the 6th rank. The move also contained a hidden threat that Praggnanandhaa missed when he played 34.Rg3?. The response 34…Rd8! won the game on the spot, since the white queen can’t continue to defend the bishop.
Wesley So decided to repeat lines in the third game, but on this occasion Praggnanandhaa found a way to gain a good initiative and stunned everyone with his capacity for calculation and imagination.
Although Black has better piece coordination he needs to find a way to exploit that rapidly, since White is only two moves away from castling, when his strong centre may give him an advantage. Pragg continued with the logical 17…b4, trying to open up the position, but after 18.Bxf5 bxc3 18.Qc2 it seemed as though Black had run out of options and was “forced” to take on f5. However, as he later told us in the press conference, he’d already foreseen the fabulous zwischenzug 18…Rb8!, with the idea of crushing White’s position with Rb2.
Wesley was in serious difficulty and later described that move as “incredible”. The game quickly reached an ending that where Praggnanandhaa had two extra pawns, but Wesley used all his experience to continue posing problems for his young rival. He managed to escape, meaning that the players went into the fourth 20-minute, 10-second increment game tied on 1.5:1.5. If they had drawn that game the match would have gone to two 5+3 games and, if necessary, Armageddon.
The fourth game was the only calm one in the whole match, and the only one in which Wesley So could demonstrate his superiority in technique over his young rival. A game of manoeuvring and positional understanding reached a balanced ending, but one in which So found better squares for his knights and applied pressure until his opponent finally cracked.
It was a magnificent encounter, and afterwards Wesley was full of praise for his opponent:
I was thinking that I should eat what this kid eats because
he played really amazing today, and I think today at such an age, 12 years old,
it’s incredible. I think my opponent’s a genius!
You can watch that press conference below:
On Saturday it’s the turn of Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo and local hero Jaime Santos, who will play for the right to face Wesley So in Sunday’s final. Their match starts at 16:30 CEST, and you can watch it live here on chess24.