General Aug 2, 2017 | 11:09 AMby Colin McGourty

7 questions before the 2017 Sinquefield Cup

Magnus Carlsen will have the black pieces against Fabiano Caruana as the 2017 Sinquefield Cup starts in St. Louis today, with live commentary in English and Spanish available here on chess24. The big question is, can the World Champion win his first classical chess tournament in over a year? We ask that and more as we preview an event that sees ten of the world’s top players compete for $300,000 in the third stage of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour.

Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the autograph signing event on the eve of the 2017 Sinquefield Cup | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The Opening Ceremony and drawing of lots for the Sinquefield Cup took place on Tuesday evening in World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis, USA, with the event accompanied by a chess-themed fashion show with a prize of $10,000.

Rex Sinquefield is already giving out prizes! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

The real action, however, starts on Wednesday 2 August. Let’s start with a practical question:   

1. What do you need to know?

The Sinquefield Cup is a 10-player all-play-all tournament played at a classical time control: 100 minutes for 40 moves, then 60 minutes to the end of the game, with a 30-second delay (not increment) from move 1. It takes place from 2-11 August in the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, with games starting at 13:00 local time (14:00 New York, 19:00 London, 20:00 Paris, 21:00 Moscow, 01:00 Mumbai…). There’s going to be live commentary in English from an array of star names: Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Cristian Chirila, Maurice Ashley, Varuzhan Akobian and Eric Hansen. Ivette Garcia and Alejandro Ramirez will commentate in Spanish, with Jan Gustafsson adding commentary in German for the last two rounds.

Carlsen and his rivals at the drawing of lots | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

At stake is a $300,000 prize fund, with $75,000 for first place, while the nine tour regulars (Peter Svidler is the one wild card) can also win up to 13 Grand Chess Tour points. This is the third of five Grand Chess Tour events – the first two were the Paris and Leuven Rapid and Blitz, while the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz and the London Chess Classic follow. The winner of the series gets $100,000 and the runner-up $50,000.

The pairings are out and you can see them all below – hover over a player’s name to see all his games and click a result to go to the game with computer analysis and live commentary:

2. Can Magnus win his first classical tournament in over a year?

It’s hard to believe, but it’s now been over a year since Magnus Carlsen won his last classical chess tournament – the Bilbao Masters, that ended on July 23, 2016. Since then he’s retained his World Championship title and remained imperious at speed chess: tying for first in both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships, winning the Altibox Norway Chess blitz and dominating the Paris and Leuven Grand Chess Tour events. But in classical chess he’s failed to win the Tata Steel Masters, the GRENKE Chess Classic and Altibox Norway Chess. It’s not what we’re used to!

The glasses have gone nowhere | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

If he ever gets bored of chess this maniacal laugh may qualify him as a Bond villain! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

It would of course be tempting just to dismiss the poor results, by the World Champion’s standards, as a statistical blip, but as we saw at Norway Chess earlier in the year, it’s also something that’s been worrying Magnus, who went as far as to comment:

Basically I know that I can play, but I’m not so convinced about my ability to win games.

Chess legend Garry Kasparov also talked up the significance of the Sinquefield Cup when he was in St. Louis last week for the Match of the Millennials, calling it “a big test”:

Definitely his phenomenal performance in Paris and especially Leuven gave him the momentum, but let’s remember: rapid and blitz. We could see him dominating the field, the best players, especially in blitz, but now here he’ll have to prove that he can convert this domination into classical chess, and so far this year was not a good year for Magnus Carlsen in classical chess and I think St. Louis is a big test. It’s a big test for him to prove that he’s still the best classical player in the world.

How is it that he can dominate in rapid and blitz and yet in classical he can be in such a crisis?

His opponents, the other top players, they spend a lot of time working on chess, and in classical it’s quite difficult to get an advantage and to demonstrate the steady hand throughout the whole game, because other players, they know how to hold the positions. The less time on the clock, the bigger Magnus’s advantage, because if you reduce time on your clock naturally it affects the quality of the moves you make, and every player suffers from that, but Magnus least of all. The quality of the moves he makes in rapid and blitz is quite close to the quality of moves he makes in classical, which is amazing. So with little time on the clock other players make mistakes – I’m not talking about blunders, I’m talking about positional mistakes, inaccuracies – while the average quality of moves Magnus makes in blitz and rapid, especially in blitz, is phenomenally high.

21-year-old Russian Grandmaster Daniil Dubov went even further when he was interviewed by Dmitry Kryakvin after winning the Russian Higher League, a qualification event for the Russian Championship later this year:

I’ve got an interesting idea about Magnus. I’ve discussed it with a lot of people and not everyone agrees with me. So then, up to this point Carlsen was winning everything in a clean sweep, but now he’s played a few frankly unsuccessful tournaments and instead of every event he’s begun to win, let’s say, one in three. It seems to me that his relative slump is connected to the following problem. He somehow got used to playing with the older generation – Anand and Gelfand – everywhere Magnus has a big plus. Then he turned things round against Kramnik, and at some point the line-up of supertournaments was made up of people where every second player was unable to play Carlsen! Every second player had “minus 7” against him!

What’s changed now?

Now supertournaments have got younger. Against So, for instance, he only has plus one, against Giri – 50%. Magnus has a big plus against Nakamura, but Nakamura has stopped losing to him in recent games. The only clear “client” he has left is Vachier-Lagrave, who just can’t play against him. Aronian has turned the corner against him and won a few games. Carlsen is simply now playing less against people who find it mentally tough to play against him. It seems to me that if people don’t fear him then there’s nothing extraordinary. I played one game against him in rapid, one game in blitz. Let’s say there were games where I was less comfortable – the guy just plays and plays. There’s absolutely nothing extraordinary about him.

The one that got away for Dubov...

Brave words, but it would still require a brave man to make anyone other than Magnus the favourite to win a classical chess tournament. As you can see, though, for the first time in many years the world no. 1 really does have something to prove.

Magnus's parents and coach Peter Heine Nielsen are with him in St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

3. Can anyone overtake Carlsen?

There are two ways of looking at this question. The first, in terms of Grand Chess Tour standings, is perhaps the least interesting. 

Given how well Magnus did in Paris and Leuven only Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Wesley So can mathematically overtake him in the Grand Chess Tour standings after the Sinquefield Cup, and it won’t be easy. For instance, if Maxime took sole first place he’d still require Magnus to finish 6th or lower. It needs to be remembered, though, that players such as Hikaru Nakamura have so far played one less event.

The really interesting topic, though, is whether someone can overtake Magnus on the rating list for the first time in over six years:

The current rating for all the Sinquefield Cup players | source: 2700chess 

By someone we mean essentially Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana or Levon Aronian, who as well as being next on the rating list (only Vladimir Kramnik is missing) are also the players who can boast, as Carlsen can, to have won the Sinquefield Cup. It would only take a couple of rounds for the 12-point lead to disappear, while the pairings may also boost the chances of at least a temporary change at the top. Magnus has the disadvantage of playing only four games with White and five with Black, while Caruana and Aronian both have five games with White, including three of their first four. True, the nearest pursuer, defending champion Wesley So, is also burdened with five Blacks.

Wesley So followed winning in 2016 by also claiming the US Championship in St. Louis this year - can he be the first player to defend the Sinquefield Cup title? | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

If Magnus gets off to one of his usual slow starts – and Black vs. Caruana is a tough first round! – things could get very interesting fast.  

4. Will Candidates qualification be weighing on some players’ minds?

MVL is aiming to finish in the Top 2 in St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

As well as growing a beard, the French no. 1 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has been active on his website recently, providing some behind-the-scenes details on his events. For instance, on Dortmund:

Dortmund isn’t a particularly lively city for visitors, and the organisers had set aside 2 rest days in only 7 rounds. In contrast to other tournaments, in Dortmund rest means rest! No exhibitions, no tourist visits, no farm games, nothing… So then, binge watching in the hotel room: the 21 episodes of the series Designated Survivor, Season 1 i.e. 14 hours of viewing in 2 days!

At the start of his preview of the Sinquefield Cup he gives an indication of his priorities:

But the main thing for me is that I’m still in the race to qualify for the Candidates Tournament via the FIDE Grand Prix. Some of my colleagues, such as Aronian or Nakamura, no longer have that opportunity. I realise, however, that it’ll be necessary to play an excellent final tournament in Palma de Mallorca (November) to validate my ticket. My other sporting goals in the months to come are clearly the World Cup in Tbilisi (September) and also the Grand Chess Tour.

So and Caruana might adopt a safety-first attitude in the Sinquefield Cup, since their best chance of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament is by average rating, where they’re currently both ahead of Vladimir Kramnik in a fight for two places. For Aronian, Nakamura, Anand, Svidler and Nepomniachtchi the main hopes of getting to play a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen in 2018 lie in the 128-player Tbilisi World Cup, where the first round starts on 3 September. Every player in the Sinquefield Cup will be there, including Magnus, so might they to some extent consider the events in St. Louis a warm-up and preserve some opening preparation? We’ll see, but if we get back to Maxime it’s clear he’s not taking the event lightly.  

Hikaru Nakamura is one of those players who will be desperate to reach the final of the World Cup next month... but no doubt he wouldn't mind grabbing a first victory in the Sinquefield Cup first! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

He notes the August temperatures in St. Louis make it tough to venture outside, while he skipped playing the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz since he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending three weeks in the same place. He’s full of ambition, though, saying he needs to display more imagination than in recent events in order to pose more problems to his elite opponents:

Since I didn’t do badly in the rapid chess in Paris and Leuven my goal in St. Louis is high: one of the two top places would put me in a very good position in the 2017 Grand Chess Tour before the final tournament in London.

5. Is Anand Federer and Aronian a barbarian?   

Two of the older players in the event have given interviews you might have missed recently. Vishy Anand talked to Susan Ninan for ESPN and expressed his frustration at how expressing disappointment during a bad day in Leuven (he told Maurice Ashley, “There’s no point playing chess like this”) was blown out of all proportion:

I wonder why everyone wants me to retire.

Vishy Anand has inspired generations of players, but he's not planning on quitting anytime soon | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Vishy was drawing inspiration from Roger Federer’s success at Wimbledon:

You have these people you're worried about, your main rivals whom you think heavily of and then they suddenly drop out. Now that Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are gone it could either help him or he could relax. You can roughly compare a 35-year-old tennis player and a 47-year-old chess player. I try to learn from him. People like Federer tell you that you can still hang in there.

Vishy also chimed in on the Magnus Carlsen “slump” debate:

He's clearly affected in some way. It's very hard to maintain that kind of domination. It could have nothing to do with him, more to do with his rivals actually. That's how these rivalries work, one drives over another and everybody kind of reacts so over the next couple of tournaments we'll know for sure whether it's the others or just him.

Levon takes on his fiancee Arianne Caoili

Levon Aronian, meanwhile, was profiled in the New Yorker, in Sean Williams’ article: A chess master with an unpredictable style and the hopes of a nation. Although written for a general audience it has some good information and trademark Aronian quotes, for instance when he talks about himself as an almost literally hungry kid taking on rivals:

By the time he was thirteen, he was making enough to support his family. They needed the money, and Aronian turned that desperation into a strength, playing aggressively and unconventionally against his studious, better-dressed opponents. “I had to kick their ass,” Aronian told me. He added, “They look in your eyes and they understand that you are a barbarian, and the kids generally fear the ones who are savages.” He paused as we spoke to prevent a waitress from taking some half-finished plates. “There is still the barbarian in me—I won’t let my food be taken away.”

Will we get to see Aronian feast in St. Louis as he did in 2015, or on an even bigger stage? Self-confidence has never been a problem!

I know that I deserve, one day, to become world champion.

Levon was drawn to a photo featuring an Armenian World Champion | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

6. When were three Russians last the underdogs in a supertournament?

This is mainly a rhetorical question – though we’ll be grateful if anyone can give an actual answer in the comments! – but it’s curious to see Sergey Karjakin, Peter Svidler and Ian Nepomniachtchi together at the bottom of the table, while the US triumvirate of So, Caruana and Nakamura are in the top half. How the chess world has changed! (even if yes, it’s true that Vladimir Kramnik and Alexander Grischuk are currently in the Top 10 but absent in St. Louis)

Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi chilling in St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

How will they do? Well, Sergey Karjakin has the best pedigree for winning supertournaments, having won Norway Chess twice ahead of the world’s best players, but from the flurry of photo opportunities on his social media channels in the last few weeks it seems he didn’t take Kramnik’s advice to “take a time-out from any public activities, shut himself off, rest and do some good work” to heart. And then there was a happy force majeure event on the eve of the tournament!

It doesn’t seem like ideal preparation, but who knows, perhaps the birth of his second son will inspire Sergey!

chess24's man in St. Louis, Peter Svidler | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

For Peter Svidler it’s a chance to improve on last year’s second-last position in the Sinquefield Cup. As he recently noted during live commentary on Dortmund, “It was a very enjoyable tournament in every way except for how I played in it”.

Ian Nepomniachtchi, meanwhile, is unpredictable. His imaginative (read “risky”, if you prefer!) play for Russia in the World Team Championship was richly rewarded, though he failed to make any impact on the Leuven Grand Chess Tour event that followed immediately afterwards. He lost two blitz games to Magnus there, but he’s one of that generation of players who has little reason to fear the World Champion - his classical score is 3 wins, 0 losses and 3 draws, though two of those wins came in U12 and U14 events before Nepo also won in Tata Steel in 2011.    

7. Where’s Kasparov?

If this was Frequently Asked Questions this would be no. 1! The hugely anticipated return of Garry Kasparov to play rated games will take place this month in St. Louis, but we have to wait a little longer. The St. Louis Rapid and Blitz stage of the Grand Chess Tour will take place from 14-18 August, just 3 days after the Sinquefield Cup ends. You can check out the line-up and schedule here.

This was the closest we got to Garry at the start | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

All that’s left, then, is to remind you not to miss the live coverage starting each day at 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST) here on chess24

You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:


See also:

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