Reports Aug 15, 2016 | 10:41 PMby Colin McGourty

Sinquefield Cup 9: Wesley wins it all

Wesley So has won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, $75,000, 13 Grand Chess Tour points and made himself the hot favourite to pick up $100,000 in London at the the end of the year. That was a remarkable transformation for a player who finished last in 2015, and was achieved with a Berlin Ending draw against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. There was real tension at the death as Veselin Topalov reached a winning position that would have forced a playoff on Monday, but Levon Aronian used all his trickery to escape in a rook ending.

Wesley So pumps his fist in triumph after the biggest success of his career so far

Round 9 of the 2016 Sinquefield Cup started with the possibility of seven players tying for first place, but in the end a draw with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was enough for Wesley So to take the title with clear first place:

That didn’t mean the last round was lacking in excitement, though, with two brilliant decisive games, one tense battle and a final thriller:

Rather than summing up each game of the round, let’s instead revisit our preview of the tournament, when we asked seven questions. Now we know the answers (more or less!):

1. How will MVL handle his new status as favourite?

The answer, it turned out, was “shakily”! Maxime was in big trouble against Giri in game 1, blundered in a close to winning position against Anand in Game 2 and then failed to win in Game 3, despite being gifted a pawn by Veselin Topalov’s first original move of the game.

Maxime could have reached a playoff if he beat Wesley in the final round, but Kasparov was critical of the Frenchman's opening choice, even if MVL described it as "exciting by Berlin standards"! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

That start could perhaps be attributed to jetlag after the match in Biel finished late, but the nadir almost came in Round 5, when MVL gave up a pawn and opened up his king position against no lesser player than Fabiano Caruana. Had the US star gone on to win, he would have knocked Maxime down to fourth in the world rankings while leapfrogging up into second place himself. Caruana went astray in time trouble, though, and that proved a turning point for the French star. MVL defeated Aronian in a nice game in the next round and, although he didn’t win another game and finished tied for 6th place, he hung on to his world no. 2 spot.

Afterwards he was looking for lessons:

50% is my worst result in a while. It could be worse, but it still shows I need to work on some things and try to improve in the next events… Magnus has more lead on me than I have on the number 10, so the most important thing is to play well.

Maxime said he’s hoping for a shot at the World Championship title.

2. Will we see a repeat of 2014 or 2015?

The question was whether Fabiano Caruana (an unbeaten +7 in 2014) or Levon Aronian (an unbeaten +3 in 2015) could live up to their previous performances in St. Louis and take home the title:

Magnus Carlsen was the other player to have won the event, with +3 in 2013

Well, the quick answer is no, with Fabiano’s 8 draws in a row almost a parody of his previous 7-game winning streak. It was nowhere near as dull as that sounds, though, with Fabi completely busted against Topalov in Round 2, winning against MVL and very close to pulling off a victory in a marathon game against Ding Liren that impressed the watching Garry Kasparov. In the opening Caruana was willing to take risks, playing the Benoni against Aronian and Nakamura, while he saved his best for last:

Both players felt the same about this move. Fabi:

Most of my time I spent on 16.exf6 instead of 16.Rd1. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the position, but then I saw 16.Rd1. Although I didn’t think it could be anything, it seemed very unpleasant for Black.


Fabiano came up with a very interesting idea. In my understanding two rooks are worth slightly more than the queen… I realised that I have absolutely no play whatsoever.

Realising that after 16…Nxe5 17.Nxe5 fxe5 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.Rxd5 Qxd5 20.Rxd5 Rxd5 it was a very comfortable position for White to play was a true moment of class:

The ease with which Fabiano went on to win was remarkable, and the victory saw him end the tournament with a slight boost to his rating and climbing above the absentee Vladimir Kramnik into the no. 3 spot on the world ranking list.

Levon Aronian was looking somewhat wet and bedraggled as he wandered into the playing hall, but who else could pull off that trouser and shirt combo? | photo: Spectrum Studios, Grand Chess Tour

In a way Levon Aronian also saved the best for last, since another player in his position might simply have crumbled in the hopeless ending he achieved against former World Champion Veselin Topalov. Levon kept posing problems, though, and mixed things up sufficiently that Topalov only had one non-trivial win in this position:

For reasons too subtle to go into here, the king had to go to c3, not a3. Veselin picked the wrong path, passed up one second chance, and then could only draw, though Levon slightly spoiled the effect by admitting in the post-game press conference that he might have resigned in a drawn position if Topalov had tried 64.Kc5.

Nakamura checks out the key game of the day | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Before all that drama Levon had entered the final round knowing that a win over Topalov would most likely qualify him for a playoff, after a tournament that featured grinding out wins over Svidler and Nakamura and losing in calamitous fashion to Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Levon summed things up:

I was definitely not playing my best, far from it, and I got sick at one moment. The result is decent, but the play needs to be improved.  

3. Who’s the US no. 1?

Well, in a sense nothing has changed here – Caruana (comfortably) leads Nakamura, leads So, but if the tournament ended on a high for all the US players it was of course Wesley So who had the most to celebrate. He started with a bang, beating his US rival Nakamura in a game where all it took was a slight opening inaccuracy for Wesley to go on and make his victory look like a foregone conclusion.

Wesley sat with his eyes closes for a minute or two before the final game, and never lost his focus | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Wesley escaped a dangerous position in the next game against Ding Liren, drew another three games and then saw the turning point as his victory over Veselin Topalov, who committed a blunder that Garry Kasparov, at the time watching from Croatia, described as “unexplainable”. From that moment on Wesley merely needed to nurse his advantage, and was unafraid to admit that he played for a draw in the remaining games.

Although at times it seemed Wesley was getting a little bit bored with the proceedings! | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

After the final game had finished a fist-pumping Wesley So returned to the St. Louis Chess Centre sporting a huge smile. He described himself as “living the dream” after the biggest win of his career:

I’d like to thank the Lord for giving me this win, this incredible win. Last year I was in last place.

While Nakamura sported a cap and Caruana tried on a range of amusing items over the course of the tournament Wesley came to celebrate his victory with a cross proudly emblazoned on his chest

When it comes to the Grand Chess Tour, only Magnus has come close to matching Wesley so far, but unless the Norwegian springs a surprise and plays in London he's out of the running for first place. In fact, it seems only Nakamura can beat Wesley's current score, but only if he finishes in sole first place in London - 13+4.5+13 = 30.5. A player's best three results are counted - and Wesley could still improve his score:

PlayerParisLeuvenSt LouisLondonTotalPrize Money
 Wesley So7101330$120,000
 Magnus Carlsen101323$68,500
 Levon Aronian687.7521.75$66,250
 Hikaru Nakamura1344.521.5$62,750
 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave854.517.5$40,250
 Fabiano Caruana367.7516.75$58,750
 Viswanathan Anand77.7514.75$51,250
 Veselin Topalov 217.7510.75$51,250
 Anish Giri52.518.5$30,000
 Vladimir Kramnik42.56.5$15,000
 Ding Liren33$15,000
 Laurent Fressinet 11$7,500

Wesley was almost neck and neck with his rival and teammate Nakamura on the rating list, but Hikaru also ended the tournament in style. It was a curious fact that Nakamura suffered two painful one-sided defeats in St. Louis, but then bounced back the next day to win on both occasions. This time it was with a sparkling win over Ding Liren, that’s been analysed by Jan Gustafsson:

Nakamura wasn’t sure how to assess his tournament, noting that the kind of swings he’d suffered – with multiples wins and losses – are unusual at supertournaments nowadays, with Anand at the Moscow Candidates a rare exception to the rule.

4. Can Peter Svidler make an impact as a super-sub?

Maurice Ashley introduced Svidler as having 50% in the tournament, “if you discount the first two games”, to which Peter replied with the dead pan, “Sadly not how it works!” 

"Not my finest hour, obviously" was Peter's overall assessment of his event | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

Those opening losses with Black to Topalov and Aronian were a hard blow to recover from, though it’s tempting to list some of the excuses Svidler himself was unwilling to make. For instance, jetlag and general fatigue after travelling from Biel to St. Petersburg to St. Louis in a few days, and being unable to arrange for a second to travel with him at such late notice. The watching Garry Kasparov was inclined to put the poor start down to a lack of experience of playing the very best day in and day out, though you could perhaps cite the Candidates Tournament as a partial refutation of that hypothesis.

In any case, a third loss to Ding Liren in Round 6 threatened to sink the slowly steadying ship, but Peter finished on a high, scoring two solid draws and a convincing victory over Anish Giri. Our only real cause for regret? Svidler chose not to enter the confessional even once over the course of the event. Damn these super-grandmasters and their professionalism! 

5. Can the old guard of Anand and Topalov show their class?

The short answer was, of course, yes! Veselin Topalov, in particular, played some of the event’s most enterprising chess and was within a whisker of forcing a rapid playoff for first place. In a way he shouldn’t have needed that, since he was leading on +2 after five rounds and better with the black pieces against Wesley So in Round 6 before he made that “unexplainable” mistake mentioned above. 

Two more veterans, Garry Kasparov and Yasser Seirawan, were full of praise for Anand and Topalov | photo: Grand Chess Tour

He fully justified the first part of our comment:

Both are now players who could easily finish first or last in St. Louis.

What on the face of it stood out for Vishy, though, was stability, after the 5-time World Champion exploited Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s blunder in Round 2 and drew his remaining games. Vishy was happy with that after his last experience in St. Louis, though he wasn’t ready to call it a stable performance:

During last year I was dreaming of +1! I’d say my games are a lot messier than the score, but that’s part and parcel of the game nowadays.

The watching Kasparov was asked the perennial question of how Vishy had managed to keep going for so long. Garry pointed to huge experience and work across 25 years, but also to a matter of style:

He’s not necessarily looking for the best moves, but high quality moves, something like Vassily Smyslov: “I’m here to make 40 good moves and if you make 40 good moves as well it will be a draw”.

Watch the full segment with Garry Kasparov below (and keep watching or skip around for the full show!):

6. Can an underdog win?

Of our two underdogs Ding Liren had by far the better tournament. He missed some chances, lost a hard game to Topalov before the rest day and then won a nice game against Svidler the day after. He was beginning to look at home in this company until he was on the wrong end of that brutal victory for Nakamura you can watch above. 

"The Scream" brought to life with Ding Liren | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

That knocked the Chinese no. 1 down to -1, shaved off some rating points and left the tournament as a mild disappointment for the wild card – yes, he’d shown he belonged, but to ensure supertournament invitations he’s still at the stage where he may need to do something more spectacular. Wei Yi is threatening to take all the “Chinese” invitations to top events.

And then there was Anish Giri, a living embodiment of Murphy’s Law in St. Louis. For the second event in a row the Dutch star finished with no wins and three losses:

I played my worst two tournaments in recent years back to back.

As if it all wasn't bad enough, this is the T-Shirt Giri had to sit opposite for four hours | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

It’s been a remarkable collapse for a player who was unbeaten in the whole of last year’s Grand Chess Tour:

For results like mine you need not only to do everything badly but to have bad luck as well.

In a tournament where the majority of games were decided by fairly blatant blunders it’s perhaps worth noting that nothing so clear happened in any of the games Giri lost. His last-ditch attack against Nakamura was hugely entertaining and succeeded – if only Anish had realised it at the time – while he was outplayed by Svidler in a very complex pawn sacrifice line and fell to a brilliant concept by Caruana in the final game.

The worst thing, perhaps, is that after playing such chess – and you know something unusual is going on when Maurice Ashley says Anish “needs to solidify his game” – Giri still gets to hear jokes about his draws. And Wesley So commenting that anyone in the field could have won the Sinquefield Cup, “even Anish, on a great day”. And Fabiano, Giri’s great hope to take over from him as the chess world’s drawmeister, goes and breaks an 8-game drawing streak in St. Louis... by beating him. And he does it wearing that T-Shirt.

7. Where should I watch?

Admittedly this question was more relevant before the event (!), but remember that on Tuesday at the same time and place the players will be joined by Garry Kasparov for Ultimate Moves, with players taking turns to compete in an event where the emphasis is firmly on the fun and trash-talking.

Meanwhile, if you just want to rewatch two moments from the event we’d recommend Eric Hansen’s unforgettable interview with fellow Canadian Alexandra Botez:

And Giri doing the plank – how can any tournament in which this took place be entirely considered a failure? 

What were your most memorable moments from the 2016 Sinquefield Cup?

See also:

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