With a nearly perfect score, the world’s No. 2-ranked player has powered his team into the final weekend of the worldwide league.

This weekend, the inaugural season of the PRO League competition comes to a close. This rapidplay event (15 minutes per player for the entire game, plus a two-second increment after every move) has featured teams from around the globe, and many of the world’s best have participated. This includes five of the world’s top six players: Magnus Carlsen of Norway (No. 1), Wesley So of the United States (No. 2), Fabiano Caruana of the United States (No. 3), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France (No. 5), and Hikaru Nakamura, also of the United States (No. 6).

The individual MVP of the league must be So, whose score in the event is an almost unbelievable 26-2. (By contrast, Carlsen’s score is “only” 20½-3½, while Nakamura went 3½-3½, losing twice.) Not every game has been against a fellow grandmaster, let alone a super-grandmaster, but many were. Against grandmasters his score thus far is 12 out of 14. He lost one game, to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, but has defeated Vachier-Lagrave, Etienne Bacrot, another strong French grandmaster, and Alexey Dreev of Russia (twice), to name just his best-known victims.

The following two victories by So were from the quarter-finals, which finished last week. His 4-0 score saved his team, the St. Louis Arch Bishops, against the Webster Windmills (the name comes Webster University in St. Louis, which has the top-ranked college team in the United States). The match finished in an 8-8 tie, resulting in St. Louis advancing to the semifinals because of its superior record during the regular season. So’s first win was against a much lower-rated opponent, but his next three games were all against grandmasters. Here’s his second game, a miniature won with Black against Vasif Durarbayli, an Azeri grandmaster.

Durarbayli, Vasif vs. So, Wesley
PRO League KO Stage 2017 | chess.com INT | Round 3 | 15 Mar 2017 | 0-1
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 While this, the Ponziani, isn't a dangerous opening for Black, to put it mildly, it's an interesting practical decision against a super-prepared opponent like Wesley So.
3... d5
3... Nf6 is a more solid, more drawish alternative. So chooses the most ambitious approach instead.  )
4. Qa4
4. Bb5 has scored terribly in recent years; Black has done brilliantly well after
4... dxe4 5. Nxe5 Qd5 6. Qa4 Ne7 7. f4 exf3 8. Nxf3 a6  )
4. d3 is an utterly unambitious choice aiming for a sort of reversed Philidor. (The player using it may be ambitious, but he or she is doing so only in order to avoid mainstream theory; the position is already slightly in Black's favor.)  )
4... f6 5. Bb5 Lately White has preferred
5. d3 , which, like 4.d3, aims to avoid theory and leave Black to his own resources.  )
5... Ne7 6. exd5 Qxd5 7. O-O
7. d4 is the other main line. Now Black has several good options to choose from, like
7... Bg4 ,
...   )
7... Bd7
7... e4 is also popular and has a better score in the database. White typically opts between 8.Ne1 and 8.c4. This is the move I would recommend - Black seems to have an edge here, albeit a very slight one.  )
8. d4 a6 A rare move. Home cooking, or was So out of book and on his own here? In five previous games in the database, White scored 4.5 points, though none of the games involve top players. (Two involved future GMs, but they were not at that level when their games were played.)
8... exd4 and to a lesser extent,  )
8... e4 are the established moves here.  )
9. c4 Qd6
9... Qf7 10. d5 Nb8 11. Bxd7+ Nxd7 12. Nc3 Nf5 13. b4 occurred in three of the aforementioned games, and White (who scored 2.5 points from here) does indeed enjoy a slight advantage.  )
10. dxe5 fxe5 11. Rd1
11. Nc3! promises White an advantage, provided he manages to find a series of subtle moves.
11... Rc8 12. Ne4 Qe6 13. Nc5! axb5 14. cxb5 Qg4 15. b4! Qxb4 16. bxc6 Nxc6 17. Qxb4 Nxb4 18. Nxd7 Kxd7 19. Nxe5+ White enjoys an advantage here thanks to Black's overexposed king. There won't be a mate or anything close to it, but Black must lose some time preserving the king's well-being.  )
11... Qe6 12. Nc3 Rc8 13. Ng5? White understandably wants to avoid
13. Bxc6 Bxc6 , but oddly enough White is okay after
14. Qb3 Bxf3 15. gxf3 Nc6 16. Be3 The more creative option  )
13. Re1!? puts more pressure on Black, who can maintain equality with
13... Qf5! 14. Bxc6 Bxc6 15. Qb3! Bxf3 16. gxf3 b6 17. Ne4 Ng6 The play is very sharp, even if the computer finds one line where White can bail out with a draw:
18. c5! bxc5 19. Qa4+ c6 20. Qc4 h6 21. Ng3 Qh3 22. Bf4! Nh4 23. Rxe5+ Be7 24. Rxe7+! Kxe7 25. Re1+ Kf6! 26. Qc3+ Kg6 27. Qd3+ Kf7 28. Qb3+ Kf6 29. Qc3+ Kf7  )
13... Qg4 Suddenly White is in serious trouble. The bishop is still hanging, and it can't exchange itself on c6 as 14...Bxc6 would threaten both the queen and 15...Qxg2#. The rook on d1 is a little loose and ditto the knight on g5, but the main problem is of course the bishop on b5.
14. h3? In an already bad position White commits another error.
14. Rxd7!? axb5 15. Rxe7+ Bxe7 16. cxb5 Qxa4 17. Nxa4 Nd4 /-+ White's prospects for survival are small indeed.  )
14. f4!? exf4! 15. Nf3 g5 16. Re1 The last couple of moves resemble a King's Gambit. Black's king is somewhat exposed, but there doesn't seem to be any clear way for White to make progress.
16... Qf5  )
14... axb5! 15. Qxb5 Qf5 16. Qxb7 Nd4 Although White has two pawns for the piece and Black's king is caught in the center, it is Black's pieces that are especially dangerous. In particular, the simple attacking thrusts ...h6 and ...Bc6 constitute a serious menace to White's well-being.
17. Nb5
17. Qe4 is "better", but with queens off the board White has no hope of saving the game.  )
17... Bc6 18. Qa6?
18. Nxd4 exd4 19. Qb3 was better, if still more or less hopeless after
19... h6 20. Nf3 Bxf3 21. gxf3 White will not even have swindling chances with queens off the board:
...  c5 and it's hard to see how White can even pretend to have compensation here. Black will continue with ...Nc6 and ...Kf7, with a completely winning position and a pending attack against White's king.  )
18... Nxb5 19. cxb5 Ra8 Painful. White can resign here, but kicks on for two more moves.
20. g4 Qc2 21. Rd2 Qg6

So followed up by beating Jayaram Ashwin, and Indian grandmaster, and then, in his last game, took on and defeated Aleksandr Shimanov, a Russian grandmaster who is well-known for his sharp play. Shimanov played the King’s Indian Defense, aiming for a complicated battle, but So kept full control throughout and won a positional masterpiece.

So, Wesley vs. Shimanov, Aleksandr
PRO League KO Stage 2017 | chess.com INT | Round 3 | 15 Mar 2017 | 1-0
1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. d4 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7. O-O Na6 One of the main options, though it lags in popularity behind the ultimate King's Indian main line move
7... Nc6 , when generations of players have tried to fathom the complications arising after
8. d5 Ne7 9. Ne1 Nd7 Here White plays 10.Be3, 10.Nd3, or 10.f3 followed by one of the two preceding moves, while Black plays ...f5 and starts throwing everything at White's king. Some of the most beautiful games in chess history have been in this variation, including So's spectacular loss to Hikaru Nakamura in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup:
10. f3 f5 11. Be3 f4 12. Bf2 g5 13. Nd3 Ng6 14. c5 Nf6 15. Rc1 Rf7 16. Kh1 h5 17. cxd6 cxd6 18. Nb5 a6 19. Na3 b5 20. Rc6 g4 21. Qc2 Qf8 22. Rc1 Bd7 23. Rc7 Bh6 24. Be1 h4 25. fxg4 f3 26. gxf3 Nxe4 27. Rd1 Rxf3 28. Rxd7 Rf1+ 29. Kg2 Be3 30. Bg3 hxg3 31. Rxf1 Nh4+ 32. Kh3 Qh6 33. g5 Nxg5+ 34. Kg4 Nhf3 35. Nf2 Qh4+ 36. Kf5 Rf8+ 37. Kg6 Rf6+ 38. Kxf6 Ne4+ 39. Kg6 Qg5# 0-1 (39) So,W (2779)-Nakamura,H (2814) Saint Louis 2015  )
8. Be3 c6
8... Ng4 9. Bg5 Qe8 is an even more well-traveled thoroughfare.  )
9. d5 Ng4 10. Bg5 f6 11. Bh4 c5 12. Ne1
12. a3 is an important alternative preferred by the engine. Kramnik won a short game with this back in 2010:
12... Bd7 13. Ne1 Nh6 14. f3 Nf7 15. Nd3 Qe7 16. b4 Rfc8 17. Qb3 b6 18. Bf2 f5 19. a4 cxb4 20. Nxb4 Nc5 21. Qb1 Nd8 22. a5 bxa5 23. Rxa5 Ndb7 24. Ra2 Qf8 25. Na6 Nxa6 26. Qxb7 Nc7 27. Bxa7 Bh6 28. Kh1 Qd8 29. c5 dxc5 30. d6 Be6 31. Bb6 1-0 (31) Kramnik,V (2790)-Radjabov,T (2740) Baku 2010 (rapid)  )
12... Nh6 The preliminary
12... h5 is another important move, used by Shimanov a couple of years ago as well as a young (but still 2800+) Magnus Carlsen.
13. h3 Nh6 14. Nd3 Bd7 15. a3 Nf7 16. b4 Bh6 17. Kh1 Kg7 18. bxc5 Nxc5 19. Nxc5 dxc5 20. Qd3 Qc8 21. Bg3 Bf4 22. h4 Qe8 23. Bh2 Bxh2 24. Kxh2 Nd6 25. Qg3 Rh8 26. a4 Qe7 27. Bd3 Rac8 28. Nb5 Bxb5 29. axb5 b6 30. Qe3 Rc7 31. g3 Re8 32. Rfe1 Qf7 33. Ra2 Rce7 34. f3 f5 35. Qg5 fxe4 36. fxe4 Qf6 37. Rea1 Qxg5 38. hxg5 Ra8 39. Ra6 Rb7 40. Kh3 Nf7 41. Kh4 Nd6 42. g4 hxg4 43. Kxg4 Nf7 44. R1a2 Nd6 45. Ra1 Nf7 46. R1a2 1/2-1/2 (46) Bukavshin,I (2647)-Shimanov,A (2606) Kaliningrad 2015  )
13. f3
13. Nd3  )
13... Nf7 14. Rb1 Rare.
14. Nd3 is usual.  )
14... h5 15. Nd3 Technically a novelty, but it transposes to some of the games where White had already played Nd3.
15... Bh6 16. Bf2 Bd7
16... Kg7 17. b4 b6 18. a4 Bd7 19. a5 Qe7 20. Qc2 Rfc8 21. bxc5 bxc5 22. Qa2 Qd8 1/2-1/2 (22) Rezan,S (2443)-Feller,S (2573) Sibenik 2016  )
17. b4 b6 18. bxc5 Nxc5
18... dxc5 19. a4 Nd6 20. Qb3 1/2-1/2 (20) Iskusnyh,S (2497) -Shomoev,A (2560) Ulan Ude 2010  )
18... bxc5 19. Qc2 f5 20. Kh1 Qe7 21. Qb2 Rab8 22. Qa3 Rxb1 23. Rxb1 Bc8 24. Rb5 Bd2 25. Nb1 Bh6 26. Nc3 Bd2 27. Nb1 Bh6 1/2-1/2 (27) Pogorelov,R (2430)-Maze,S (2559) Lille 2011  )
19. a4!? So's idea is to create some real damage to Black's queenside with a5, which only makes sense as long as there's a pawn on b6 to undermine.
19. Nxc5 bxc5 20. Rb7  )
19... a5?! Now White has pressure on the b-file, and even if he takes on c5 and Black recaptures with the b-pawn, White may yet have pressure against a5 and enjoy permanent possession of the b5 square.
19... Nb7 looks a little weird, but it's the best reaction to White's a4-a5 plan. In reply, White's best is to reinforce his control over the a5 square, e.g. with
20. Nc1 followed by Nb3, with a small plus.  )
20. Qc2 Ra6 21. Rfd1 Straightforward doubling starting with
21. Rb2 looks good.  )
21... Re8
21... f5  )
22. Nxc5
22. Rb2!  )
22... bxc5 23. Rb7 Ra8
23... Rb6 is worth considering, trying to reduce White's stock of rooks. Still, White's advantage remains substantial after either
24. Rb1 ,
...   )
24. Nb5
24. Rdb1  )
24... Qc8 25. Rc7 Qd8 26. Rb7 Qc8 27. Ra7 Rxa7 28. Nxa7 Qa6 29. Nb5 Black has achieved something positive by forcing a pair of rooks off the board. Nevertheless, White still dominates the proceedings. Black's kingside play won't go anywhere, and with weaknesses on a5 and d6 and no way into White's position Black is destined to suffer. White maneuvers around for a while, waiting for a clear opportunity to arise. (This is a reasonable strategy, given the time control and his likely fatigue, as this was his fourth game of the evening.)
29... Rc8 30. Qc3 Nd8 31. Rb1
31. Bh4!  )
31. f4!? Bxf4 32. Rf1 gives White strong play on the f-file. Black's position is creaky at best.  )
31... Nb7 32. Bd1 Qb6 33. Qd3 Qa6 34. Bc2 Kf7 35. Be1 Ke7 36. Qb3 Nd8 37. Qc3 Nb7 38. Na3 Ra8 39. Qb3 Nd8 40. Qb6 Qxb6 41. Rxb6 Black's king is safer with the queens off, but White too gets a freer hand to dedicate all his resources to Black's weakened queenside; he doesn't have to worry about his either.
41... Nf7 42. Nb5 Bf8 43. Rb7 Kd8 44. Ra7
44. Na7!  )
44... Rxa7 45. Nxa7 Winning a pawn, but not yet the game.
45... Kc7 46. Bxa5+ Kb7 47. Nb5 Be7 48. Kf2 f5?! This might end up helping White break through.
48... Ka6  )
49. exf5 gxf5 50. g3! Bg5 51. Ke2
51. h4!  )
51... f4?
51... h4 was the best Black could do, though there's not much ground for optimism on his behalf. Still, it's better than the text, which lets White's light-squared bishop wreak havoc on Black's half of the board.  )
52. Bg6 Too many Black units are hanging: the knight, the h-pawn, and once the knight moves, the d-pawn.
52... Bxb5 53. cxb5 Nh6 54. Be1! A nice move, clearing the way for the a-pawn while keeping a sharp lookout on the kingside.
54... Kb6 55. Be8
55. h4 Bd8 56. gxf4 exf4 57. Kd3 is even more convincing, when White can win in any sector of the board he sees fit.  )
55... fxg3 56. a5+ Kb7 57. hxg3 Nf5 58. Bc6+ Ka7 59. Kd3 Nd4 60. Ke4 Bc1 61. g4 hxg4 62. fxg4 c4 63. Bb4 Bb2 64. Bxd6 c3 65. b6+ Ka6 66. b7 Nxc6 67. dxc6 Excellent technique by So, and aside from the blunder on move 51, which came in a position that was already lost or very nearly so, Shimanov's mistakes were far from obvious. So is playing great chess these days, and seems to be getting stronger in every single event he plays in.


Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.