Wesley So ruined World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen’s birthday by winning a nerve-wracking Skilling Open final worth $30,000.
The American began the day neck-and-neck with the now 30-year-old Carlsen after a drawn first match in the grand final of the first Champions Chess Tour online event.
A series of blistering games on the second day saw the pendulum swing back and forth just like it did yesterday with neither Carlsen nor So keeping their lead.
Then in the blitz chess tiebreaks – the chess equivalent of penalty shootouts – Carlsen cracked under pressure as So secured the title.
Interviewed after, So said: “First of all, I’d like to apologise to Magnus for ruining his birthday.”
He added that after nine days of hard online chess, he will finally be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.
Carlsen paid tribute to his opponent: “Huge congratulations to Wesley on a deserved win.”
He then added: “I did somewhat blunder like an old man today, but I had a nice day overall. This wasn’t ideal, but… that’s the way it is.”
While Carlsen is the world classical, rapid and blitz chess champion, So holds the only other version of the world title – the Fischer Random crown.
The first game of the day did not go to plan for So as Carlsen showed off his legendary universal-style with a stunning win.
The Norwegian played an opening he is not known for playing – the Caro-Kann which was mentioned in The Queen’s Gambit Netflix series.
Not only that, he deliberately wasted two moves early on – breaking principles of normal play. But the deep plan worked and Carlsen went on to overpower So in style.
Game 2 was a different story however as, just like he did yesterday, So really turned it on to fight back immediately. So heaped pressure on Carlsen and left the champion looking for a lucky escape. It didn’t happen.
Carlsen’s father Henrik was interviewed at the mid-way point and was asked how his son would be feeling.
He said: “If you want to be the top player you have to hate losing so he’s probably upset but he’s got 15 minutes to recover and then he should be ok and ready for the next game.”
And so it proved in game 2 as one big mistake cost So. The American seemed in control after Carlsen repeated his surprise Caro-Kann opening, but let it slip.
Momentum swung to Carlsen, but the champion could not capitalise and after six decisive games in a row, the Skilling Open saw its first draw.
With the scores equal at 1.5 points each, the final appeared to be going down the last game of the match.
But with the stakes so high, neither Carlsen nor So were willing to take a risk and the game ended in a quick draw to send the tournament down to a tiebreak situation.
In two-game blitz tiebreaks, Carlsen is never the underdog. But in the first encounter, he capitulated as So took a 1-0 lead leaving Carlsen in a must-win situation.
So had been handling the pressure with aplomb. But in the second blitz tiebreak, he blundered badly.
It looked like Carlsen had clawed his way back into it but a magnificent defensive effort from So steered the game to a draw and won him the title.
Carlsen said he had been playing below-par, but there was no doubt So was a worthy winner.
The next event of the Champions Chess Tour season will be the first “Major” with a $200,000 prize pot. It begins on December 26.