Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is up to world no. 2 after smoothly outplaying Wesley So on the first day of the 2018 Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. Levon Aronian achieved the lesser goal of re-entering the Top 10, admitting his poor year so far was behind a decision to “try something new” and open 1.e4! It worked to perfection, as he slowly toppled Sergey Karjakin’s Berlin Wall. We nearly had a third winner, but in over six hours of play Fabiano Caruana couldn’t quite break down Alexander Grischuk’s defences. The remaining games were drawn.
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Before play began the main focus was on MVL-Carlsen, a game with some added spice since it was Maxime’s dramatic victory over Magnus Carlsen in last year’s Sinquefield Cup that had propelled him to tournament victory.
It looked like a game to watch this year as well when Magnus played the 2…Nc6 Sicilian and then followed up with 4…g6!?, a risky move Peruvian maverick Julio Granda seems to be the highest-rated player ever to have tried. Maxime was immediately on his own, but didn’t pause too long before playing 5.h4:
Once again this was evidence of the inexhaustibility of chess – two of the world’s very best players had reached an almost unique position on move 5. It looked like we were in for a thrilling fight, but looks were somewhat deceptive. Maxime commented of his move, “I could play more slowly, but as it turns out the play was still pretty slow…”. Magnus agreed:
No, I think 5.h4 was a very positional move. He’s going to close the position after h6… To me h4 was not an aggressive move at all.
It soon looked promising for White, even to a former Carlsen second…
…but surprisingly it wasn’t long until Black was on top. Both players identified the critical moment as coming after 16…axb5:
They were looking at 17.Ra6!? and lines such as 17…bxc4 18.Rxc6 Bxd5 19.exd5 cxd3 20.Nf5! c4!. It doesn’t seem as though there’s any clear advantage there, but what was certain was that after the “concession” (MVL) of 17.Bb3!? in the game only Black could be better. Magnus:
After what he played he’s always going to be a bit worse and it’s really, really sad for him, but it’s probably quite drawish and I don’t see how I can actually make progress.
Visually the game reached a nice climax:
30…Rxf3 31.Qxf3 Rxf3 32.Kxf3, but this was one fortress even Magnus believed in, and shortly afterwards they repeated for a draw. Both players agreed that even Black winning a rook for a knight wouldn't change anything.
Maurice Ashley later pointed out the curiosity that the winner of all five previous Sinquefield Cups had won in the first round, but Magnus wasn’t unduly concerned:
Absolutely no problems with Black - it’s an encouraging sign. I’m happy and I’m ready to break the curse, if there is such.
The other quick draw of the round was Nakamura-Anand, where Hikaru Nakamura played a novelty on move 14 of a Queen’s Gambit Declined. It didn’t seem to hold much venom and was deftly handled by Vishy Anand, who knew he had things under control when he managed to trade off his Isolated Queen’s Pawn with 21…d4. The game was in fact only remarkable for Vishy Anand entering the confessional for the first time!
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has been in overdrive for more than a year now, and shows no signs of slowing down. He entered the Sinquefield Cup after winning Biel ahead of Magnus and coming within a couple of moves against Hikaru Nakamura of taking the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz as well. In Round 1 he was facing 2016 winner Wesley So, but made it look easy:
This would turn out to be a critical moment. Mamedyarov has damaged Black’s structure with the h4-h5 pawn thrust (a theme of the day!), but nothing terrible has happened. Here (or on the previous move) Wesley could capture the pawn on c5 with his queen, but instead he decided to give up his dark-squared bishop in order to force an exchange of queens: 14…Bxc3?! 15.Qxc3 Qxc3 16.Rxc3 Nxc5. That might have been an idea against the old all-out attacking Shak, but this new version is an absolute master in queenless positions as well, and after 17.Ne5!, Black was in trouble. Wesley lamented:
I just totally underestimated the plan of putting the knight on e5 and playing f4.
More than once in the interview with Maurice he complained about how “unpleasant” the endgame turned out to be. Wesley’s attempts to confuse matters only enabled Shak to gain tempi before he pushed his f-pawn:
Mamedyarov went for a forced line that liquidated into a superior rook ending, and it was a decision it would be hard to criticise him for. The World Champion, at a glance, thought it was winning:
In this exact position, though, it seems that 36…Kh6! instead of 36…a5? would have held:
In the game Mamedyarov confidently went on to convert his advantage, even if 44.Rd7! instead of 44.Rh8+ might have saved him half an hour.
That win took Shak to a new career high live rating of 2821.7, making him the 7th highest live rated player ever. It also took him back to world no. 2, just above Fabiano Caruana, but as you can see, that’s liable to change every round:
For Wesley it was another hard blow after a tough week. He tried to put a brave face on it:
We wondered after the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz whether Levon Aronian’s switch to 1.e4 was just for speed chess and he’d switch back to his favoured 1.d4 or 1.c4 for classical chess. No, seems to be the answer, and it’s good news for chess fans!
He did face an excitement test on Saturday, though, as Sergey Karjakin played the Berlin Endgame against him, the very opening that had caused an exodus of top players from Bobby’s Fischer’s “Best by Test” move. When MVL beat the Berlin in the rapid and blitz last week he was questioned about it afterwards by Peter Svidler, who wondered how much pleasure you can get trying to refute the opening. The French no. 1’s reply:
I don’t get that much pleasure, but I know from experience that my opponents get even less pleasure!
Levon explained that he’d played the opening a lot with Black and it would help him if he could also get experience with White. It’s a work in progress:
I still haven’t been managing to understand the position for White. Today, I think, there are some glimpses of hope!
That long preamble is by way of avoiding the usual Berlin puzzle of where, exactly, Black went wrong. The position seemed defendable out of the opening and neither player (Karjakin appeared on the Russian show) could highlight a convincing turning point, with Sergey admitting to underestimating the danger. What is clear, though, is that by the time control Black was in deep trouble:
41.f4! Rh8 42.Nf3 gxf4 43.Rxf4 Nf8 44.Rxh4 Rxh4 45.Nxh4 left Black tied up and facing a 3 vs. 1 pawn majority on the kingside. It looked as though White was going to win easily until the “Minister of Defence” came up with 52…g5!
Levon was kicking himself:
I think I thought the position is just extremely easily won, any move will win, and then after g5 I thought, my gosh, what have I done!? So I kept on thinking about myself, a patzer like me belongs... has to be protected. There are not many people who can misplay this game!
He here went into the tank for 40 minutes (the 60 minutes added on move 40 proved useful) and, unfortunately for Sergey, found what seems to have been a clear win, beginning 53.Bxc5 Ke6 54.Bd4 Bg2 55.h4! Aronian tied Black up on the kingside, created a passed a-pawn and then took home the full point by transferring his king to support the pawn. It was a fine win, and one that boosted Levon’s spirits:
Aronian: After playing a really terrible tournament [the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz] I think it’s important to get some confidence back.
Ashley: You got it back?
Aronian: Yes, I’m ready.
His only problem is that if he doesn’t want to spoil this beautiful statistic he should probably finish 6th this year!
The final game to finish lasted over six hours and was, if anything, even more complicated and difficult to fathom. Those complications started early in an Italian Game, when Alexander Grischuk puzzled Fabiano Caruana with 11…Nf6. The move the challenger must have been tempted by is 12.Ng5, which also caught the eye of the Russian commentators:
Strong grandmasters Sergei Movsesian and Konstantin Landa have indeed played that way and won, with the games continuing 12…Nxd5 13.Nxh7! and 13…Nb6? (Max Illingworth) and 13…Nf4? (Vadim Milov). There’s a much better option, though, with David Howell demonstrating the brilliant solution 13…Rf4!! back in 2009 (the resource of bringing the rook to h4 saves Black):
Whether Levon knew of that game or just spotted it himself – as a connoisseur of tricks – he came to the confession booth to share the move:
I just thought Yasser would be very excited to sac with White here, but just for him, this doesn’t really work!
Our Spanish commentator David Martinez also explained on his live show that he uses the position after 12.Ng5 when training his students, who include Spanish no. 2 David Anton.
Fabi dodged that bullet with 12.a5, though, and later regretted not playing the strong 16.b3!, 17.c4, 18.b4. Instead Grischuk took over, but in time trouble he took a decision which, while outwardly logical, would go on to backfire badly:
30…Bxb6?! 31.axb6 seems to ruin White’s structure, and even Caruana commented, “It’s hard to imagine that White is better”. It turned out, though, that the b6-pawn wasn’t a weakness, especially when a white rook found its way to c7. Black soon had a truly miserable position:
It wasn’t easy for White either, however, and this is the moment Fabi felt he let all his winning chances slip. He commented, “something subtle should be winning here”, and suggested 45.Bd4, while in the game after 45.f4?! gxf4 46.Bxf4 Ke8 47.Bxh6 Bg4 the kingside pawns were eliminated and Black’s task became much easier. In fact by the end of the game it was Grischuk, if anyone, who was pushing for more than a draw.
That means that after the first round Mamedyarov and Aronian lead the Sinquefield Cup, with So and Karjakin in joint last. In Round 2 it doesn’t get any easier for Karjakin, who has Black against Carlsen, while you won't want to miss the other games either:
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