- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Make room, Byron Nelson. Coming through, UCLA. Scoot over, Joltin’ Joe.

The list of great sports streaks may have a new entry if rising American superstar GM Wesley So can keep it up.

The Philippine-born So pushed his unbeaten string to 56 games with an impressive win over an elite field at the Tata Steel Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, with his final 9-4 score (5-0-8) a full point ahead of world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway in the tournament’s premier section. Since a loss to Carlsen at Bilbao last summer, So has not dropped a game against world-class competition in six months, while helping the U.S. to its first Olympiad gold in four decades in Baku and taking first in the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, the London Chess Classic and now Tata.

The 23-year-old So, now ranked second in the world behind only Carlsen, appears to have leapfrogged his two American rivals, GMs Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, to emerge as a prime candidate to challenge the Norwegian for the world crown in the upcoming title cycle.

Interestingly, the first and second-longest unbeaten streaks in the history of top-flight chess both belong to the same unlikely candidate, Latvian-born former world champ Mikhail Tal. Tal was one of the all-time greats, but also played a sharp, risk-taking style that didn’t exactly lend itself to lengthy unbeaten runs. Still, Tal went 95 games between October 1973 and October 1974 without a loss, beating his own prior mark of 84 games without a loss in 1972-73. Not every game was against an elite player, as is the case with So, but Tal’s run is still an impressive mark.

The 56th game of So’s streak was one of his more impressive, a last-round demolition of talented Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi at Tata in just 28 moves. It came as the American GM was trying to protect a half-point lead over a trio of pursuers including Carlsen, GM Levon Aronian of Armenia and rising 17-year-old Chinese superstar GM Wei Yi.

If So was feeling the pressure, it hardly showed as he achieved a won position with Black virtually right out of the opening against Neppomniachtchi’s Trompowsky Opening. With little to lose in the standings, White opts for some sharp early play, but his opponent is ready: 7. Qe2 Qa5 8. 0-0-0?! (perfectly playable was 8. Bxf6 gxf6 9. Qb5+ Qxb5 10. Bxb5+ Bd7 11. Bxd7+ Nxd7 12. Nxe4, but White’s in a provocative mood) Qxa2 9. Qb5+? (clearly missing something; a better form of crazy would be 9. Nxe4!?! Qa1+ 10. Kd2 Nxe4+ 11. Ke3 Bxc5+ [Qa4?? 12. Rd8 mate] 12. Kf3, looking at lines like 12…Ng5+ 13. Bxg5 Nc6 14. Rxa1 Nd4+ 15. Ke4 f5+ 16. Kd3 Nxe2 17. Be3 Bxe3 18. Kxe3 Nxg1 19. Rxg1, with a slight edge for Black) Nbd7 10. c6? (Bxf6 a6! 11. Qb4 Qa1+ 12. Nb1 Nxf6 leaves Black a pawn up) bxc6 11. Qxc6 (see diagram) — both sides look vulnerable, but Black’s next move clarifies the situation.

The contest is essentially over after 11…Bb7! 12. Qxb7 Qa1+ 13. Nb1 Rb8, when trying to save the queen with 14. Qa6 opens the floodgates to 14…Qxb2+ 15. Kd2 Bb4+ 16. Ke3 Qxc2 17. Bxf6 Bc5+ 18. Kf4 Qxf2+ 19. Nf3 g5+ 20. Kg4 [Kxe4 Qe3 mate] Nxf6+ 21. Kh3 g4 mate. After the game’s 14. Qxb8+ Nxb8 15. Bb5+ Nfd7 16. Ne2 Be7 17. Bxe7 Kxe7, White has only a rook and bishop for queen and pawn, and his pieces remain awkwardly placed.

In the final position after 28. Re3 Nb4!, the threat is 29Na2+ 30. Kb1 Qxd2 31. Kxa2 Qxd1 and both 29. Re2 Qd8 30. h5 a5 31. c3 Nd3+ 32. Kb1 Qb6 33. Nc4 Qb5 34. Na3 Nxf2, and 29. c3 Nd3+ 30. Kb1 Qb6 31. b3 Nxf2 are hopeless for White; Nepomniachtchi resigned.

Nepomniachtchi-So, Tata Steel Group A, January 2017

1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5 d5 3. Nd2 c5 4. dxc5 e6 5. e4 h6 6. Bh4 dxe4 7. Qe2 Qa5 8. O-O-O Qxa2 9. Qb5+ Nbd7 10. c6 bxc6 11. Qxc6 Bb7 12. Qxb7 Qa1+ 13. Nb1 Rb8 14. Qxb8+ Nxb8 15. Bb5+ Nfd7 16. Ne2 Be7 17. Bxe7 Kxe7 18. Nd4 Nc5 19. h4 Rd8 20. Rh3 Nd3+ 21. Bxd3 Rxd4 22. Be2 Rxd1+ 23. Bxd1 Qa5 24. Nd2 f5 25. Rg3 Qe5 26. Ra3 Nc6 27. g3 Qd4 28. Re3 Nb4 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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