Wesley So beat Alireza Firouzja in the longest Speed Chess Championship match so far this year—32 games and over four hours—to become the first player to reach the Semifinals. So dominated the first segment and gained a 5-point lead, but Firouzja bounced back to level the scores in the 3+1 portion. They tied the bullet, then the 4-game overtime, and were ultimately separated by only the second Armageddon in SCC history, as Wesley clinched a 16.5-15.5 win.
Grandmasters Daniel Naroditsky and Robert Hess commentated on the match.
Both players reached this stage by winning a match last week. Wesley So won a convincing and one-sided match against Levon Aronian, and Alireza Firouzja defeated Dmitry Andreikin by just one point. For Firouzja, this was already the furthest he'd ever gotten in the SCC, while So had been the runner-up of the final three times and will be looking to reach the final once again and win his maiden title in this tournament.
The U.S. grandmaster led their head-to-head on Chess.com by four points and it was the first time these two gladiators met in the SCC.
SmarterChess predicted a Firouzja match victory by a small margin, with the greatest difference being in bullet ability. While So later admitted that he considered Firouzja a favorite in the bullet segment, he disproved even his own assumption in this match.
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't," wrote Mark Twain, and an author could not have imagined the explosive collision of willpower that Wednesday's match presented. Both players wanted so deeply to win that time and again, after being knocked off balance, they stood once more on two feet.
Like a magnet that is pulled in two directions with equal force, the match would not lend itself to one player or another until the final tiebreak of all tiebreaks, the armageddon game.
The first segment was all So. Although he dropped one loss due to a blunder (he was better in that game too), he shot out to virtually the best start anybody could ask for against a former world number-two and potentially the most talented child prodigy ever.
The inaugural global chess champion won nearly every game before the first break. He scored four wins and one draw; three of those wins came consecutively.
Game 4 saw the players dive deep into King's Indian Defense theory. By move 16, they were still following a game played in 1997 between Boris Gelfand and Veselin Topalov. In that game, Black won, and Firouzja, after playing a sound novelty, had a winning position.
In her recent video series, one of the greatest attackers in history, Judit Polgar, said: "Don't chicken out in the meantime at some point. Because many times there's a point where there's no way back, only forward."
When the only path was forward, Firouzja retreated with 18...Bg7?, lost the advantage, and So took over the initiative to win the game.
"It's hard to believe that the person virtually sitting across from Wesley is Alireza Firouzja, who's used to doing this to other people!" said Naroditsky at the end of So's three-game winning streak.
So had another huge advantage in the first game back from the break too, but then he unnecessarily sacrificed the exchange and lost his first game in a matter of seconds.
After a draw, So was able to "correct" the score in the final game of the segment with a black win. Firouzja found a novelty as early as move 9 in the well-trodden Russian System of the Grunfeld Defense, but So's feathers were unruffled. After equalizing with natural play, he won a miniature with Black.
It looked like it was going to be a repeat of So's match against Aronian, where So started with a seven-point margin...
"Wesley was the man of the first 90 minutes, Firouzja was the man of the hour," said Naroditsky after the hour-long 3+1 segment concluded. The 3+1 segment was a mirror image of the first—Firouzja won it with a five-point margin to tie the match.
Firouzja didn't lose a single game in these 60 minutes. He started with a three-game winning streak before allowing the first draw. The first game of that streak featured a nice attack when it looked like either king was ready to meet its maker.
Although the French no. 1 made the technically incorrect king move with 38...Kh8? (38...Kf7 was the only win!), he got another chance just one move later. With the sly 39...Qh7! he displayed full-board awareness, sliding his queen to the right side of the board to enter into the left side.
After the match, So shared that allowing such a rambunctious comeback was "embarrassing." Even though he got winning positions, he was unable to put a single one of them away.
In the last game before the break, So spoiled a winning advantage and allowed a draw in the rook endgame. What followed in the next game was worse. Up a piece, he hung a forced checkmate in two moves.
Of the last three games from there, Firouzja won one more and the other two ended in draws. Hess pointed out that in the final position of the game Firouzja won, the material was still equal, and yet So was totally justified in resigning.
White just played 31.Nb6, the last move of the game. If you think about it, there's just no good defense to the upcoming move Nc5, which would fork the queen and bishop. For example, 31...Nxb6 32.axb6 Bb7 (all moves lose anyway) 33.Nc5, Rd7 is coming next and the bishop is lost.
"I thought that the match would be smooth sailing after the 5+1 portion!" said So after the match. He added: "I thought Alireza was the favorite for sure in the bullet." According to SmarterChess, Firouzja was, but on Wednesday the 23rd of September, 2023, they were equals in the bullet segment.
Just three of the nine bullet games were drawn. Firouzja continued to take advantage of his momentum in the beginning, but So managed to swing right back before things got out of hand.
In the first three games, Firouzja won two. The first one nicely displayed the fighting spirit of both players. Despite having just a rook against a queen, So continued to find trick after trick—often even setting up back-rank traps that could win the game.
In fact, So's resilience came to fruition after 64.Qf2??, where he finally could have drawn with the only move 64...Kc3!. Up a queen, have you ever worked this hard to win a game?
It was code red for So. He hadn't won a single game since the five-minute portion, and that was well over an hour ago by this point.
Of the next four games, he won three. The first of those featured exquisite technique to convert an endgame up an exchange but with many tricks from Firouzja. We focus on the victory after that, where So declined a draw after 59.b6 with the "let's-play-more" 59...c6!.
Hess had correctly pointed out many moves ago that the defense was extremely difficult, even if the objective evaluation was equal. And so Firouzja immediately erred with a natural check, after which So played the only move 60...Kc8!, a backward retreat, the final touch to another outstanding endgame.
Firouzja came clutch when he needed to and evened the score once more with a fantastic rook trap. And, with a draw in the final game, they (and also we!) went into the first overtime games of 2023.
Four games of bullet chess (1+1) would be played with colors alternating each game. If the score was equal once again, we would have armageddon—and that's exactly what happened.
So, with the white pieces, won the very first game. It was a straightforward affair: he won a pawn in the middlegame and converted it into a full point.
Then Firouzja won the next game with an attack, a turbulent game with opposite-side castling in the Italian Opening.
Two more draws finished off the four-game mini-match. And so we still had an even score after 13 bullet games in total!
The players took a break and then returned for bidding armageddon. Of course, the armageddon game is our Game of the Day, and it could hardly have ended more dramatically.
Firouzja had three minutes and 39 seconds against So's five minutes, but he would win if the game ended in a draw.
The first turning point came at 20.Qd2, when Wesley admitted he simply blundered the a4-pawn. Firouzja grabbed it with both hands and here was his chance to put the game away. Fortunately for So, his position still had plenty of life and he was able to keep fighting.
The crowning moment was when So, with little time and unimaginable pressure on his shoulders, found the crushing 30.Nxg7! followed by 31.b4!.
The game didn't last much longer from there, and he finished the game with an extra rook. You can read the detailed analysis by GM Rafael Leitao below.
How did So plan to celebrate this victory, at dinnertime in Berlin, Germany? Chinese food with Sam Shankland!
So earns $4,546.88 while Firouzja leaves the tournament with $1,453.12 by win percentage.
On Thursday, September 14, there are two matches. First, Ian Nepomniachtchi vs. Arjun Erigaisi at 8am ET/14:00 CEST/5:30pm IST, then Hikaru Nakamura vs. Fabiano Caruana at 12:30pm ET/18:30 CEST/10pm IST.