Once again the favorites advanced to the last stages of the knockout competition to determine the event's quarter-finalists, with the top four seeds contesting a very even and tense bracket semifinal. Whether it was the make up of the field, or the starting positions that came out of the 'hat', the last of the qualifiers seemed to unfold at a different pace from earlier editions, with a much higher percentage of patient, nervy maneuvering and technical grinds.
With the later stages of the Fischer Random World Chess Championship to be staged in Norway, there had to be some added interest in two of the underdog qualifiers to the bracket, IMs Atle Grønn and Geir Sune Tallaksen Østmoe, who faced stern challenges in fourth-seeded GM Daniel Fridman and sixth seed GM Alexander Donchenko respectively. Grønn, a well-known TV personality due to popular Magnus Carlsen broadcast coverage in Norway, was methodically dismantled by Fridman, but Østmoe, who is a highly accomplished chess study composer, produced the result of the round with an impressively controlled elimination of his dangerous opponent.
A nice positional win with Black in game one, with one mutual tactical blip, gave Østmoe the lead, and he composed a stalemate to ensure advancement instead of playing for a shut-out in the return game.
The other first round matches went according to script, though the violent first game of the event to finish was a bit of a crowd-pleaser. Belarus GM Sergei Azarov laid down an early marker by savaging Azerbaijani colleague Vuqar Rasulov in a match that proved not be as close as it looked on paper.
While there were some heroics in the second round, the favorites weathered all storms. Third seed but second rated super-GM Evgeny Tomashevsky continued a very methodical march towards the final by putting down the underdog. Østmoe blundered a mate in a position that went horrible quickly, and Tomashevsky sliced his way to a 2-0 victory when playing black.
Second seeded invitee GM Parham Maghsoodloo continued his rampage to the semis with a potent mix of trouble-making and most of all, speed. His clash with Azarov looked to be a meeting of danger men, but the Iranian youngster proved to be the real assassin.
The left bracket produced the drama of the round, with both So and Fridman being taken to tiebreaks, though in quite different ways. Fridman's match versus GM Igor Lysyj was quite an unusual duel for this discipline, with the players apparently content to settle for repetitions and move on to quicker time controls. Lysyj might rue his pacifistic decision as white in game two, as it was one of the sharpest and most promising of the match. Fridman decided the contest when he decided to vary from another repetition, as black in game four, and crashed through rather suddenly to win.
Peruvian GM Jose Eduardo Martinez Alacantara gave viewers a new underdog to root for with his excellent tussle with the top seed. Both players created lasting pressure when playing white in the first pair of games, and Martinez won a sparkling game on demand to send the match into overtime.
So produced another fine example of sustained and increasing positional pressure in game three, and won the match when Martinez mishandled what probably should have been a winning sacrificial attack in game four. Nervous moments for Wesley, and the exit of the last upstart of the event.
While all this was going on, speedy winners Tomashevsky and Maghsoodloo started their semi-final early. The contours of this particular duel became clear very quickly - the Russian's slower paced technical expertise against the Iranian's speedy resourcefulness. The contrast felt a bit generational, with the classical approach of producing more best moves and risking time trouble accidents, pitted against youthful pragmatism and the ability to keep conjuring up obstacles quickly. Game one illustrated this dramatically, with Parham winning a lost queen ending thanks to sustained trickery.
Forced to win on demand, Tomashevsky shelved his frustration and produced an even better performance, this time keeping enough time on the clock to finish the job.
In the 10-minute pairs, Tomashevsky continued to show his class. Drawing solidly with black in game three, Evgeny produced another elegant squeeze in the fourth and final game. Spectator smarterchess summed it up perfectly: "You know you're in trouble when your opponent has a chess looking position and yours still looks random."
The other semi also went into overtime, with immovable object Fridman notching up two solid draws in the 15-minute games. Game three very, very nearly went the same way, but So managed to generate some perilous complications in a rook ending as time ran out, and won with admirable precision after finally producing an error from Fridman.
Fridman pressed for revenge in a dour and dogged 4th game, but not much of an impression was made on So, though the position was thoroughly played and fought out. This meant that the final would be contested between the two highest rated 'regular' chess players.
The final followed what seemed to be the theme of the day where So and Tomashevsky were involved - mounting varying degrees of unpleasant pressure when playing white. Unfortunately for Evgeny, the amount of pressure involved in game one quickly became painful, and once again viewers were treated to the sight of classy, 'chessy' Fischer Random play from Wesley, who methodically increased positional advantages, this time trading them in for a direct attack.
The return game echoed the course of So's semifinal, with a determined opponent struggling desperately to create any chances at all, but with no reward for efforts. So ended the last flicker of hope by weaving a net around Tomashevsky's king and forcing perpetual check. The favorite had done it again - yet more evidence that while the random factor may vary a bit, this variant is very definitely still chess.
"In general I got really good positions with white and really bad positions with black," was So's verdict on his event, and he was especially relieved to have escaped a second black loss against Martinez. Tomashevsky was a bit disappointed with his white starting position in the final game, but gracious in defeat, summing up: "In the final he just outplayed me."
So and qualifiers Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja, Peter Svidler, Vidit Gujrathi and Vladimir Fedoseev will now be joined by seeds Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura in the quarterfinals of the World Fischer Random Chess Championship. World Champion Magnus Carlsen is seeded into the semifinals of the event.
Sunday's broadcast with commentary from GM Aman Hambleton:
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