Wesley So prevails in Leon

by Antonio Pereira
7/9/2018 – In a very tense match, Wesley So defeated Paco Vallejo in the blitz tiebreak rounds despite the fact that the Spaniard obtained better positions in most of the games. So played offbeat openings that did not quite work out in his favour, but showed great tenacity in the ensuing positions. This was Wesley's second consecutive tournament victory in Leon. | Photo: Official website

Opening package: 1.b3 and Black Secrets in the Modern Italian Opening package: 1.b3 and Black Secrets in the Modern Italian

Wesley So published two new opening DVDs: 1.b3, the so called Nimzo-Larsen-Attack, for White and his black secrets in the modern Italian. Get them in a package and save money!


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By only looking at the results of the mini-matches in Leon, one might think that it was a very predictable tournament, where all the rating favourites defeated their weaker opponents. A closer look, however, shows that it would not have been uncalled-for to see Praggnanandhaa and Santos playing the final, or to see Vallejo taking first place over So. As Wesley himself commented during the press conference, Leon gives out a relaxing vibe, which invited the players to show some less rigid chess.

As it became customary in Leon, the first game in the final was won by the underdog. Paco Vallejo, playing White, showed some great preparation in a sharp line to win a piece right out of the opening. It looked like So knew the variation — which actually was not bad for Black — until he played an inaccuracy in a very sharp situation:


Here Black should play 17...e5, giving up a pawn to open lines against the undefended white king — continuations with Bxg4, Re8 and Qb6 leave White with a difficult defensive task ahead. Wesley, however, played 17...Qf6, and after 18.Ne2 e5 19.Bg5 White emerged a piece up and went on to convert it into a win in 36 moves.

Paco opened all his games in the final with 1.d4 | Photo: Official website

Just like in the semi-final against Pragg, So restored equality immediately after his loss. He opened with 1.Nf3 and 2.b3 — as he did in all his white games on Sunday — and gave up a pawn on the fourteenth move. The compensation was clear, however, as his pieces were certainly more active. Wesley handled the initiative like a true elite player and did not take too long to overcome his opponent:


My Secret Weapon: 1.b3

Meanwhile, 1.b3 has also found its way into the practice of today's world elite, and now finally a modern top ten player has taken on the subject for ChessBase: none other than Grandmaster Wesley So!

In the third game, White gained a small edge after going for a minority attack on the queenside. When the smoke cleared and the queens were exchanged, Vallejo was a pawn up in a rook endgame. Afterwards, he called his 37.g4 "stupid", as it quickly led to a clearly drawn position, but both players agreed that it was probably objectively drawn anyway. 


The fourth rapid game probably decided the match, at least in terms of the psychological effect it had on the players. Vallejo had gotten a lucky break the day before against Santos in the last 20+10 game, after not being able to convert a winning advantage. On Sunday, he also got the upper hand but could not finish off his opponent — although it was not as clear as in the semi-final. He was a pawn up, but it was not easy to break through:


Black could have improved his chances with a well-timed pawn break on the queenside, although both players agreed that it was not easy to carry out. Vallejo also pointed out that it was hard to move his pieces freely given the fact that his king was not well protected. Another key factor had nothing to do with the position: Paco confessed that he was in a hurry to finish the game as he had drank too much water and needed to go to toilet.

Wesley is having a good couple of months | Photo: Official website

Vallejo was White in the first tiebreak game. He seemed to have an edge, but Wesley's great defensive technique did not allow him to convert it into something tangible — actually, that was the theme of the match. Paco felt he started losing the thread when he took his knight on a pointless "excursion":


White played 28.Nc5, removing the knight from the excellent e4-square. The computer thinks there is nothing wrong with this move, but in a blitz game sometimes it is better to keep it simple and maintain the pieces in good squares. When the evaluation swung in Black's favour, So played confidently and converted his advantage effectively.

The Spaniard needed a win to keep the match going, and he showed that he was willing to do whatever was needed to look for chances. He offered a knight sacrifice on move 28:


Paco played 28...Nh3+ and So took 15 seconds to answer with the correct 29.Kh1. After 29.gxh3, White would have gotten a strong attack with both bishops aimed against Black's king. Immediately afterwards, however, Vallejo blundered with 29...Qh4:


Wesley played 30.f4, which he confessed he had not seen in advance, and trapped the knight. Paco went for some desperado attempts, but it was not hard for So to consolidate and secure first place in the tournament. The players agreed to a draw on move 39.

During the press conference, Wesley said he was very tired after playing four tournaments in a row, but also added that the Leon Masters is one of the few events he actually looks forward to, as the elite round robins demand too much work. Luckily for him, he will have four weeks of rest before going to St. Louis for both the rapid and blitz event and the Sinquefield Cup.


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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