Wesley So is on the brink of winning the World Fischer Random Championship after blanking Magnus Carlsen on the second day of slow rapid games.
So needs only two points to become the first official world champion in the discipline, which he can earn with a single win, or two draws, in the fast rapid section.
In the bronze medal match, Ian Nepomniachtchi continued his revival with second consecutive win with the white pieces against Fabiano Caruana, and has a three-point lead after their second game was drawn.
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The outspoken Nepomniachtchi pronounced immediate judgment on the start position at the ritual reaction sequence for NRK TV, calling the setup 'disgusting'. This was cheerfully delivered, and the Russian seems now to have finally shaken off his lingering irritation with his match vs. So.
At the board he was again focused, and was soon building up his version of lasting positional pressure, after an odd opening that was a kind of FR Alekhine's. Caruana went down to what looked like a fairly inevitable second successive defeat after shedding pawns without generating real compensation.
The scenario on the title board was surprisingly similar. Carlsen opted for what certainly looked like a dubious 'normal' opening, wasting time with his queen before settling down to defend an ugly FR 'French'. So produced a fine positional performance to contrast with his display of pyrotechnics from yesterday, and again Carlsen was not up to the defensive chore.
NRK did an interesting little interview with Carlsen manager Espen Agdestein in the early stage of the game. Agdestein explained that So's performance from the day before had shown Carlsen that he would need to be at his best to win the title - but that he felt his best would be good enough. A logical and confident bit of reasoning, but so far the one producing the best chess is So.
Carlsen was visibly furious as he left the playing area. The defeat yesterday surely stung, but two consecutive losses is not the diet of champions.
Carlsen is renowned for his ability to bounce back from a defeat, but this is now very serious trouble. Not just because of the scoring system, which means he is now six points behind, but because this might just be So's turf. So's professed and obvious enthusiasm for this variant might be an abstract but very real advantage.
The second round of the day again featured a monopoly of attention on the top board, though for all the wrong reasons. Again the games echoed each other a bit.
Caruana played the opening in a puzzling manner, oddly neglecting to carry out his general and natural central occupation, and then suddenly throwing in a stab forward with his a-pawn - more on that in a second.
The bronze game therefore proceeded at a relatively sedate pace, and chances were more or less balanced. Once again Caruana and Nepomniachtchi were the first to finish, the point being split after perpetual check. This means the resurgent Russian takes a three-point lead into the day of speedier time controls.
And so, back to a-pawns. The Carlsen-So game again commanded total attention, but unlike yesterday, when it was because of an awe-inspiring sight of two gladiators trading epic blows, today it was more the mesmeric horror of watching an inevitable train wreck. Carlsen started by running his a-pawn straight up the board, in a kind of demented AlphaZero impression. Wesley So just took the center.
The word most used to discuss Carlsen's play thus far in the game was 'tilt', but when he followed this up with a temporary pawn sacrifice that led to a massive time-wasting sequence with a lone queen, it was clear that tilt was an understatement. He seemed to be animated by blind rage and his chess sense had gone.
So was completely winning out of the opening, and cashed in the point with maximum torment. Steadily choosing the safest and slowest path, forgoing anything resembling complications, and letting his advantage dwindle down to minimum yet still lethal levels, he both gave Carlsen a glimmer of hope, and no hope whatsoever.
Unsurprisingly, Carlsen stormed out without a word to the hopeful camera crews. NRK did get an astonishing anecdote from commentator Atle Gronn, who said he had been chatting with the champion's close friends and that they were adamant that now was the time to put money on the champ at long odds.
While faith in Carlsen's grim fighting spirit, and ability to come through in the end is understandable, the size of this challenge seems squarely in the impossible spectrum of improbable results. So needs only two points - a single win or two draws in the fast rapid - to become the first official Fischer Random World Champion.
Wesley So has charmed the media and the spectators with his affection for Fischer Random - and Norway. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Always polite, So refused to write off Carlsen's chances when interviewed by NRK. "I expect him to come bouncing back like a lion. I do OK against Magnus in rapid but horrendous in blitz - he usually crushes me in blitz, easily - so I am not confident in blitz."
My thinking went in a different direction, heretical as it may be to the local crowd and to the classical hierarchy. When the semifinal pairings were drawn, there was an assumption that the Carlsen-Caruana clash was a premature final. Now one has to wonder if that description should really have gone to the So-Nepomniachtchi bout...
In conclusion, this is the size of the challenge facing Carlsen tomorrow - he needs to win the fast rapid and the blitz 3.5-0.5 - to force Armageddon.
Fabiano Caruana gives his take on the day's action.
Replay day five here.