Wesley So's so-so Sinquefield

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/21/2017 – Defending champion Wesley So went through a rough patch at the Sinquefield Cup 2017, scoring just 3.0 / 9 and tying for dead last (with Nepomniachtchi). There is no doubt about his potential and he's shown his tremendous playing strength in the past. We take a deep dive into his tournament to try to understand what went wrong | Photos: Lennart Ootes

Chess News

So suffers in STL

One of the most compelling side stories of the 2017 Sinquefield Cup was the lackluster performance of defending champ Wesley So. What happened, and what can we expect from him in the upcoming World Cup?

First, let's take a step back. The following game from the Shamkir Chess / Vugar Gashimov Memorial tournament was very impressive for the maturity of the ‘squeeze’ on display, and it sets the stage for the theme I wish to discuss:


From an equal position, So kept up the pressure, and even an excellent defender like Karjakin ultimately cracked: 27...Rc7 28. Rxc7 Bxc7 29. Nc5 Bc8 30. Ba2 Nd5 31. f4 Bd6 32. Bd4 Kf7 33. Kd3 Ne7 34. Ne4 Bc7 35. f5! And So went on to win an impressive game.

Chess for ZebrasThis is also a perfect example of a theory of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ on the board — a way of conducting the whole game — as advocated by Jonathan Rowson in his brilliant book Chess for Zebras (Gambit, 2003). The stronger the player, the finer his (or her) feel for conducting a game, and especially for sensing mistakes in his own moves, while at the same time being alert for even the tiniest mistakes from one's opponents, all the while gently helping them go astray by complicating the position.

For example, in the above position, it is easy to criticise Karjakin for going down rapidly from a position in which he could have made a more tenacious defence. But consider the decisions he had to make:

  • Was it fine to exchange the rooks with 27...Rc7 and simplify the position further?
  • Should he have continued the defence keeping the rooks?
  • 33...Ne7 seemed to be a crucial mistake which allowed the immediate 34.Ne4 followed by f4-f5, ending in material loss. But in that position, for an alternative like 33...Nc7, White still maintains the pressure with f4-f5 & e3-e4.
  • How does Black untangle himself?

To answer these questions, it is very very important that you set aside your chess engines and think for yourselves, to understand the weight of defence and criticality of the decisions we make over the chess board!

This may not sound like a universal analogy which applies to all games and varieties of positions a player may reach. For example, ‘being’ may hardly seem like a principle to follow when there is a sacrificial attack in a sharp Sicilian which will ultimately end in a checkmate! And in some sense you need to be ‘doing’ all the time over the board — calculating, attacking, sacrificing — taking action. It's true, chess is too complex to be stereotyped as being centred on a single dominant principle.

Wesley So

Karjakin - So, position after 11...fxe6 (reflected) | Photo: Lennart Ootes

But even in games full of ‘doing’, there will always be positions which a player calculates and then leaves aside, forming a technical assessment in which there will be work needed, more in terms of ‘being’ than ‘doing’. Rather, only the degree of action varies.

From the above principles, it is interesting to look at So’s games from the Sinquefield Cup 2017. His losses had a similar thread running through them:


The last couple of moves were repetitions — the black king being checked by the rook at e1 and f1. Unexpectedly, instead of continuing to repeat, So went into ‘active’ mode here, and played 40...Kd8? The presence of his opponent's bishops should have been a red flag.

The motif is obvious to see: black's knights are eyeing b3 and b6 and So was lured into capturing one of them by force. But what he overlooked was the power of the bishop as a long range piece. More important psychologically, he missed White’s potential counter-threat — aided by the bishop pair — in lieu of defending his pawns: 41.Be4! (Ignoring Black’s threat and creating play of his own.)

Now the crucial variations are clear: Black may threaten to win a pawn but White gains much more than that: So played 41...Nxb3 (41...Nxb6 runs into the simple 42.Bxd4 cxd4 43.Bxb7 and the a6-pawn falls too) 42.Kc3 Nd4 43.Bh2! and Black resigned, as 43...Nxb6 is met by 44.Bxb7 winning the exchange.


The first of many winning handshakes for Vachier-Lagrave and resignations for So | Photo: Lennart Ootes

More than materialism, there was a further aspect to Black’s play here; recall 'doing' instead of 'being' as the basic concept. In the above diagrammed position, if So had stuck to repeating the moves, and let his opponent play on, he would have continued defending a slightly worse endgame. But the impetus to 'do' intervened, luring him to choose 40...Ke8.

This first round game launched the two players on very different tournament trajectories as Vachier-Lagrave jumped out to a lead he never relinquished. Let us move on to the fifth round:


So's 5th roundSo goes into an active mode again here, and plays energetically to seize the initiative: 17.g4! Bg6 18.e5!

Taking advantage of the light squared bishop's pin on the knight on d7, So starts to exploit Black’s potential pawn weaknesses in the centre. An active operation is justified by the position; ‘doing’ is perfectly fine here.


Black’s attack on b2-pawn is nothing more than a momentary distraction, and So would have regained a fair good advantage here with the simple 19.b3, but he was in a complete ‘doing’ mode and went ahead with 19.Bf4? and after 19...Rxb2 20.exd6 Bxd6 21.Rxe8 Qxe8 22.Bxd6 cxd6 23.Qxd6 Qe2, it was White who faced a tough defence ahead and lost the game just five moves later.

Once again, a classic case of ‘doing’ getting preference over ‘being’, but it gets complicated here. So was already in the middle of active play in the previous two moves, which made him stop to play the quiet 19.b3! and once again pursue his threats. And another minor point is, allowing 19...Rxb2 at the cost of your own activity is obviously associated with an error in calculation and judgement of the end of the variations.


Photo: Lennart Ootes


A small aside

So’s failure to put up a defence in a slightly worse position in the remaining part of the game above was probably nothing to do with the position itself. It was a combination of an inability of the psyche to adjust itself to the role of a defender from being an aggressor moments earlier. When dogged defence is called for, the disenchantment which comes from blowing away a better position, can be your worst enemy. Now, once again look at the above diagrammed position, you will realise how dogged was Magnus Carlsen in his defense, and you will understand one of his biggest strengths - creating possibilities from even slightly inferior positions when it will look almost none exist but passive defence!

Now, in the context of these two games, if you look at So’s loss to Aronian in the 6th round, it all makes sense:


Two aspects of the position stand out: White’s potential to grab the centre, and Black’s knight on a5 — rim, grim, dim and all that. A cautious approach to the position could have enabled Black to play 17...Qh4 18.f3 (18.f4 doesn’t make it any difference for Black here) 18...Nc6 (Watch that knight!) followed by 18...Ne7 will simply improve Black’s position while sticking to the basics. But what happened in the game was surprising:

18...Qf5 (Not bad in itself, but not strictly conforming to the basics.) 19.Bd3 Bc6 20.f3 and now came the surprise.

19...Bxe4? Shocking, almost. This extreme example of 'doing' at the cost of ‘being’ sees Black's position going rapidly down the hill. Instead of 21...Nb7 was called for — another move which encourages ‘being’, trying to re-route the knight to a better square and letting the opponent play, after checking first if he faces any tactical threats here.

20.fxe4 Qg5 21.Rf3 and without doing much, White gained an advantage. Now the kingside is getting opened up for invasion, enough for Aronian to pursue this pleasant turn of events further.


Sometimes you can't stop the slide | Photo: Lennart Ootes

These three losses probably took a toll on Wesley So’s confidence, and he seemingly went to the other end of the spectrum in the last two games: positions where he should have taken the initiative and gone for the kill (as he did against Carlsen and Vachier-Lagrave — even when it was not justified). Instead he held back, preferring to manoeuvre, and paid the price.



So misses 22...Nf4 which tactically exploits White's weaknesses on the kingside 23.axb5 (23.gxf4 Qg6+ 24.Kh2 exf4 Watch that Rook on e3! Or, alternatively 23.Nxf4 exf4 24.Ree1 [24.gxf4 Qg6+ 25.Kh1 Rxf4] 24...bxa4 25.Qxa4 fxg3 26.fxg3 Qxc3) 23...axb5 24. Nxf4 exf4 25. Ree1 Ne5 with initiative for Black.

23.Nh2 d5 and it's a level position again but Karjakin managed to win in a long manoeuvring struggle.

So shades

The last round too had the same pattern repeating:


White’s advantage is obvious. He has just two pawn islands compared to Black’s four, and eyes the weak pawn on c4 and the fractured kingside. A careful consideration of these two factors would have enabled him to find the strongest move here:

So autograph

21.Qe1! The idea behind the move would be, to attack the c4-pawn in future with a further Qe1-f1 when necessary, as well as to play Nf3-d4 followed by f2-f4, creating a path for the white queen to be shifted to the kingside to probe Black’s weaknesses. 21...Rc5 (21... Ba6 22.Qf1 keeps an eye on c4) 22.Nd4 Ba6 23.f4! and suddenly the white queen can switch over to the kingside.

Not being suitably spirited to play for an advantage due to having had an uneven tournament, So preferred 21.Qc3 aiming for just the centralisation of the queen on the next move.

21...Kg7 22.Qd4 (It was still possible to play 22. Qe1) Whiling away his advantage, the game ultimately ending in a draw in 33 moves.

Anand himself could understand Wesley So’s play in this game:

“I have been (in his situation) — You have had a really bad event, you want to really play solid (in the last game), cut your losses and get out”.

We contacted So for an interview to gain his insights on these events. He declined, but did send the following response via his adoptive mother, Lotis Key:

“Thank you for your analysis, Wesley looked it over and while it makes some sense he does not think is the essence of his problem here. When the brain refuses to cooperate it is not because it doesn't understand the fundamentals of what it is supposed to do (however true).

The brain simply does not do what it does not want to do. We were told that people in many walks of life, have had this happen to them... their minds simply stop cooperating for no apparent reason. Wesley is in good health and feeling physically well. His brain though is tired. He is tired of chess all the time day in and day out. He needs a break from the pressure of trying to be ‘amazing’.

Remember he is just a kid. I am taking him off of chess for as long as realistic so he can bike and swim, watch movies and go to the State Fair.

I am sorry we cannot meet but this day is full of duties he must fulfill and we leave tomorrow for MN. We have two weeks before World Cup and he needs to de-stress."

The World Cup awaits

So's next challenge at the board should be rather easier. He's paired with Joshua Daniel Ruiz Castillo, a 2377-rated IM from Columbia in the first round of the FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi, starting Sunday, September 3rd.


Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.
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Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 8/21/2017 04:46
American players need to quit it with the sunglasses. Nakamura did it one year (I believe it was also Sinquefield cup) and didn't get good results in the tournament with it. Now Wesley tried it and also ended up in near rock bottom results. LOL when will they learn.
Rational Rational 8/21/2017 06:38
Trill it was Benko who wore the sunglasses to try to combat Tal, and they did not work. There are pictures on the internet of Benko wearing shades opposite Tal.
truthadjustr truthadjustr 8/21/2017 06:39
this is where Carlsen's strong points... It is called Nerves of Steel
TMMM TMMM 8/21/2017 08:38
I'm surprised the author picks up MVL-So at move 40, when the major blunder has already appeared. He should have never even considered opening up the position when his opponent had two bishops against his two knights. That he played imprecisely after move 40 is much less relevant. (And surprisingly, Nepomniachtchi made the exact same mistake in the very next round against So, opening up the position for So's bishops allowing So to bounce back. So's results could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for that gift by Ian.)
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 8/21/2017 09:08
Another hypothesis: the explanation given by Ms. Key. Fatigue. Pressure. Too much chess. Need a break.
flipone.dev@gmail.com flipone.dev@gmail.com 8/21/2017 10:15
Noteworthy strategy/tactics analysis, Venkatachalam. The "Aside" notes are also worth reading. I do have some observations on Wesley So's play at the Sinquefield Cup 2017, and they have to do with how uncharacteristically "imprecise" he played there. Wesley's games actually are the only chess games I watch live, in real time, online, and I usually keep track of how close his moves are to the chess engine's recommendations... Wesley has a really good habit of playing precise chess. :) But that habit was, well, gone at Sinquefield. Software developers like myself call what most likely happened to Wesley simply as "burnout", when we actually lose interest in what we're doing and can't properly focus on the job at hand. We also feel "lazy", not for want of trying, but for the almost-irresistible force not to want to do the work. Experience tells us that the best way to "solve" this problem is to stay away from it for a reasonable period of time and to do something else that you really enjoy doing. Now, Wesley can't afford a sabbatical, but he certainly can indulge in things he really enjoys doing while recharging his batteries for the World Cup... Another observation about Wesley's aspirations versus Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championships. You can't respect Magnus too much, and he will not be a loyal friend. Consider him as an adversary, noting that Magnus behaves like so and insults other chess players when he feels threatened. Wesley, you can be the Alekhine to Magnus. (NOTE: Alexander Alekhine, having not won a single game against Jose Raul Capablanca before their 1927 match, defeated Capablanca in their marathon 34-game match in 1927. Alekhine actually won the very first game of the match).
RossA RossA 8/22/2017 01:13
Is it too mich to ask ChessBase to proof-read these articles?

The first diagram, according to the text, and consistent with the diagram, gives Black to Move after 40.Re1+ and criticizes So 's response of 40... Ke8... as well they might...this is an ILLEGAL move.

How much time should I waste on the rest of the article? Perhaps infortunately, zero.
benedictralph benedictralph 8/22/2017 05:57
How many precious Elo points did this screw up cost him?
jo-henry jo-henry 8/22/2017 01:56
@RossA Thanks for pointing out the error in the move given after 40.Re1+ in MVL-So. It was an unfortunate typo. Black, of course, did not play 40...Ke8 but 40...Kd8. Apologies for the oversight.
retspan retspan 8/23/2017 04:57
At best So will be his generation's Ivanchuk. Brilliant, but does not have the mental toughness to get to the very top.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 8/24/2017 10:46
@ retspan : When a player is World n° 2 with 2810 points, he IS at the very top... what else would be the "very top", for you ??
retspan retspan 8/25/2017 05:40
I meant being world champion, of course. Ivanchuk was world no. 2 several times in his career, too.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 8/25/2017 09:10
@ retspan : For me, the "very top" corresponds to the 2800+ GMs...

Following your idea, I think that So could, in the right circumstances, be World n° 1 (it could happen in the following months, if So quickly regains his form, and if Carlsen continues to go down in terms of rating), but I rather doubt also that he could become World Champion. But, IF he becomes at one point the World n° 1, even if he never becomes World Champion, it is still an excellent achievement. I hope for him this will be the case...
flipone.dev@gmail.com flipone.dev@gmail.com 8/28/2017 09:46
@Petrarlsen @retspan - GM Wesley So will be World Chess Champion in 4-6 years, or before he's 30. Note that he turned full-time chess professional relatively late --- about 3 years ago --- compared to the other top players in his generation (from Giri to Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura). He has the "universal" playing style great world champions have - his play reminds me of the great Jose Raul Capablanca for its machine-like precision. A study done a year or two ago found that Wesley So plays the most engine-like among the world's top GMs, more precise than even Magnus Carlsen. I also believe that in 2 to 4 years, he'll be even with Carlsen in both chess-playing and mental strength, and that if they play a match twice, Wesley will beat Magnus Carlsen in one of the two matches.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 8/28/2017 11:33
@ flipone.dev@gmail.com :

All this is quite true... but doesn't take into account the mental aspects of the question !... So your arguments are entirely besides the point : So's talent is undiscuted ; the problem is to know if So has or not a mental profile compatible with the World Championship quest... Personally, I rather think not, but time will tell...
flipone.dev@gmail.com flipone.dev@gmail.com 8/29/2017 01:46
@Petrarlsen - You probably haven't read that Wesley So was left behind in the Philippines by his parents in his early teens, and was basically on his own and left to fend for himself while attending school and playing competitive chess. I think he has the "mental toughness" foundation, the "grit", the motivation to be the First Asian- and Philippine-born chess player to get to the World Championships and win it.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 8/29/2017 02:00
@ flipone.dev@gmail.com :

Yes, I know all this... But to have had a difficult life and to have had to get over many obstacles isn't quite the same thing, in my opinion, than to compete against the very top chess players, some being particularly tough (Kasparov was one of them ; Topalov, nowadays is another, in my opinion, but these are only examples). (I don't mean that it is more difficult, just that it is very different.) And the World Championship cycle represents much more pressure that what a player encounters in a "normal" tournament. For example, Aronian never fare well in the Candidates tournaments ; one example is the 2014 Candidates Tournament : Aronian was World n° 2, with 2830 points and a 43 points advantage over the World n° 3, Kramnik, but he only finished the tournament 6th out of 8 players. I rather fear that it could be the same for So : I don't really see him succeeding in giving his absolute best in the World Championship cycle. But, one more time, time will tell...