Vallejo gets lucky break to reach the final in Leon

by Antonio Pereira
7/8/2018 – An incredible case of mutual blindness allowed Paco Vallejo to tie the match against Jaime Santos in the rapid section of Saturday's second semi-final in Leon. Paco then went on to defeat his young compatriot in the blitz tiebreaks to reach the final, where he will face Wesley So. Both Santos and Praggnanandhaa proved to be worthy opponents of their higher-rated colleagues. | Photo: Official website

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Mutual blindness

The two matches in Leon started with the lower-rated player surprising in the first rapid game. Jaime Santos played quickly and confidently — as he did throughout the match — to get a better endgame against Vallejo's Petroff. With the white pieces deep in Black's position, Vallejo finally allowed his opponent to win a pawn: 

 

Paco played 29...Nd7, allowing 30.Bxg7. Black's idea was to activate his knight and start advancing his queenside pawns. The plan could have worked in a classical game, as the computer shows some complicated drawing lines in the endgame. However, in a 20+10 game, it is harder to defend inferior positions. Santos finally took the first point after 54 moves.

In the second game, Vallejo achieved a better position out of the opening and tried to push, but could not find something concrete and the game ended in a draw on move 41. Unlike Pragg the day before, Santos had survived right after surprising his opponent with an early win.

 

A very exciting match is about to begin | Photo: Official website

Game 3 lasted only one more move than the second one, and also finished in a draw. Santos was using one of his main weapons effectively: to make quick positionally sound moves to get the upper hand on the clock — he only thought for over a minute four times in this game, while Paco took “longer thinks” eleven times.

 

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Vallejo needed a win and switched to 1.d4 in order to avoid a French or a Petroff, as he mentioned in the press conference. The strategy worked out well, as he got a position full of life out of the opening. A slight surprise for those following the games came later in the middlegame: in a superior position, Paco chose to go into a drawish endgame with four pawns against three in the same flank. In the post-match interview, he mentioned that he remembered having a similar position in a Grand Prix event, where his rival finally defended successfully, but also suffered immensely.

And Paco was right again. After pushing his small edge, he reached a completely winning position on move 67. That is when things got weird, though:

 

White can easily win with 68.Ke6. Black would be forced to move the bishop in order to avoid mate on h8 (the other option is to give up the exchange, which of course loses), with 68...Bh5 for example, and after 69.Rh8+ Kg6 White can promote and win. 

Vallejo instead chose the "more direct" 68.Rh8+? and Santos resigned. Both players missed that 68...Kxh8 is an easy win for Black. When they asked them about it, the two Spaniards said that they had been constantly calculating this line in previous moves, so when Santos saw it on the board he assumed that this time it worked. The young local talent also mentioned that he found out about his mistake before the blitz games, which of course did not give him a pleasant feeling — sometimes it is better not to know.

The 5+3 games started and, once again, Santos showed his speed. Vallejo, with Black, had a small positional advantage but at some point was almost two minutes down on the clock. That is probably the reason why he did not find a nice tactical shot in what seems to be an almost completely stuck position:

 

Black could have forked the white rooks with 27...Nf3. After 28.Qxf3, Black has 28...Re5 and he gets either the queen or an exchange. Instead, the players kept manoeuvring until eventually agreeing to a draw.

In the second tiebreak game, the compatriots repeated the line they had played in their final rapid encounter. The evaluation swung in White's favour on move 30:

 

Black played 30...c4 and got an inferior position, as White can start applying pressure without taking many risks. Santos confessed afterwards that he realized this was a bad move, but that he was forced to make it as he had instinctively touched the c-pawn right after Vallejo's move.

Paco showed the weight of experience while converting a winning but difficult rook endgame. 

It was a very exciting match that eventually went the favourite's way. Just like yesterday, however, the younger player could have easily won the match, which proves the organizers made the right decision when they chose the line-up for this year's event.

Wesley So and Paco Vallejo will play the final match with the same format on Sunday. After what we saw in the semi-finals, we know that anything can happen in Leon.

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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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