Levon Aronian had Ian Nepomniachtchi beat in barely a dozen moves as the 2017 Sinquefield Cup got off to an explosive start on Wednesday. Nepo played fast and went down in flames, starting to think only when in deep trouble. Wesley So and Peter Svidler perhaps thought too much as, by varying paths, their games against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Sergey Karjakin reached the same known middlegame position. They both lost it in different but equally convincing ways. Magnus Carlsen described his draw against Fabiano Caruana as “an interesting game and I had fun!” Only Anand-Nakamura disappointed.
Any fears that the all-elite field in the Sinquefield Cup would lead to quiet draws were soon quashed in Round 1, as we started with three decisive games. You can replay them all with computer analysis by clicking on a result in the selector below (where you can also browse the pairings for later rounds):
If you missed the show with Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and more you can rewatch it below:
If a prize was being awarded for the most memorable move of each round in the Sinquefield Cup Levon Aronian would have won it hands down with 10.Rh4!, an eccentric way of developing his rook that included a piece sacrifice for good measure:
Of course it can’t be taken, since 10...Qxa3 11.Ra4 Qb2 12.Rb1 would trap the queen. A certain Garry Kasparov looked on in admiration:
Levon Aronian dampened the hype, though, pointing out:
I thought it was an interesting idea, but such ideas should not be winning!
Indeed, it was only two computer first moves away from known theory and, perhaps unfortunately, Ian Nepomniachtchi wasn’t caught off-guard, noting that he’d prepared the same line for White. Alas, he misremembered his analysis, played fast and only after giving up a pawn with 10…Bd7 11.Qb3 0-0 12.hxg6 hxg6 13.Qxb7 did he realise his planned 13…Bxc3 wasn’t particularly good. That sent him into a 47-minute think.
Jan Gustafsson takes us through the game:
Afterwards Nepomniachtchi explained that he’d done something equally “moronic” against the same opponent before, in Wijk aan Zee. Back in 2011 it wasn’t letting Levon capture on b7 that was the problem but that he decided, at the board, to play a novelty, only realising to his horror a couple of moves later that it totally transformed the position:
Levon simply picked up the rook with 10.Qxa8!, since 10…Nbd7 no longer captures the queen due to 11.c5!, a move impossible before Nepo had improvised by including a capture on d4 a couple of moves earlier. You can read about that disaster in Sergey Shipov’s live commentary.
For Levon it was a great start to another supertournament in a year when he’s already won the GRENKE Chess Classic and Altibox Norway Chess, taking him back into the 2800 club and above Vladimir Kramnik into 4th place on the rankings. It hasn’t quite been a perfect year, though, since as Magnus Carlsen later pointed out, “To be honest, he played very poorly in the Grand Prix, so it’s not all hot!” When Maurice Ashley asked the Armenian how he’d started playing better he shot back, “I think I always play well, but I used to play well and spoil it and now I convert some of it!”
Only Aronian’s game started with a move other than 1.e4, and since even Lev had played 1.Nf3 rather than his favourite 1.d4 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave could quip, “Probably 1.d4 is just sort of refuted right now!” The day’s two draws saw the Ruy Lopez, and in the most anticipated clash between Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen we got an interesting strategic battle that was eventually all about tactics.
Caruana said that while thinking about 18.Nbd2 he saw Carlsen smile in a way that suggested the World Champion had found a trick, and he concluded it was the one in the position the occurred in the game after 23…Bxb6:
Caruana was tempted to play 24.Bxg7?, but it fails to 24…d3! 25. Qg4 (25.Qxd3 Bxf2+ is simply bad) 25…Bxf2 26.Kh1 and then the only move 26…Rf4!.
Caruana dodged that bullet with 24.axb6 and then later after 30.h3 Magnus played a little combination:
30…b3! 31.Qxb3 d3! 32.cxd3 Qxf2+ Initially he was planning simply to take a draw by perpetual check, before realising he could play on a little. That nearly backfired, since he surprised Caruana by missing a move (38.Rf8!) and confessed he was lucky he could still escape with a draw. It was a decent result for both players, with the World Champion revealing his approach to his struggles in classical chess was to “try and relax and have some fun”. So far he felt it was working.
Anand-Nakamura saw the fun cut short, as a tense strategic struggle ended in a repetition just when it seemed the position might be blown open:
The computer likes Black, but Nakamura didn’t fancy a messy kingside fight in the first game of the event and took the repetition.
The confession booth was only used by two players in Round 1, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Peter Svidler both visiting to comment on the curious fact that after varying move-orders and much thought MVL-So and Karjakin-Svidler were Giuoco Pianos heading for exactly the same known position. The MVL game was going faster, causing Peter to lament:
Not something you can expect to hear very often, but I'm not playing slowly enough today… I'll have to make my own decisions, which is always regrettable!
The games reached the same position on move 12 and diverged on move 13 after 13.Bc2:
The position had been reached before, including in last year’s Sinquefield Cup between Anand and Aronian and in the Tata Steel Challengers earlier this year between Nils Grandelius and Sinquefield Cup onsite commentator Eric Hansen. On Wednesday in St. Louis, though, both games saw a novelty.
Svidler spent 17 minutes on 13…b5 (So picked 13...Bd7), before Karjakin took 27 minutes to reply with 14.b4. The time spent reflected the fact that this Giuoco Piano was far from as quiet as it seemed, and after 14…Bb7 15.Bb2 Qd7 Karjakin was able to play the beautiful 16.c4!!
That was bad news for Svidler, who had been trying to keep that option at bay and commented, “I severely underestimated how unpleasant my position is after the immediate c4”. He added:
The position went from looking completely fine to completely lost in about five minutes, and I’ve only got myself to blame there.
Suddenly, as Karjakin noted, Svidler had to find a move, though immediately after the game neither player was sure if it was there. In fact computers recommend “16…Nh5! and chill”, with sacrifices coming on g2 and h3 in some lines, but that was far from obvious from a human perspective. Peter was understandably reluctant to try and grovel for a draw in a miserable position so instead sacrificed a pawn for an attack with 16…exd4?! 17.cxb5 d3 18.Bxd3 Nf4. He admitted afterwards, though:
What I played is a poor semi-bluff – the attack never really gets off the ground.
When Karjakin followed Aronian’s example in playing 22.Ra3! it was clear the game was up:
It wasn’t just that the rook defended f3 perfectly, but that it could also swing across to g3, when the question of who was attacking would have to be reassessed. The early time management meant the final stages were blitzed out by both players, but technical tasks have never been one of Karjakin’s weaknesses and he confidently pushed his queenside pawns to victory.
It was a good start for Sergey Karjakin in his inaugural Sinquefield Cup, while Peter Svidler will have bad memories of 2016, when he also lost the first game with Black. It probably won’t fill him with joy that his next opponent is Vishy Anand, a man he’s never beaten in classical chess in 33 attempts (Vishy has 8 wins).
The one comfort for Svidler is that even as famously unbeatable a player as Wesley So was unable to hold the seemingly innocuous middlegame position. He went for 13…Bd7 14.a5 c6, but while that last move had the virtue of getting Maxime out of his home preparation the reason was of course that it wasn’t particularly good (again, the computer wants 14…Nh5 or 14…Qc8, targeting the white kingside immediately). Maxime explained he had “a slight but pleasant advantage”, while he wasn’t sure if Black’s position could still be held after queens were exchanged on move 17.
Wesley also had his doubts, which caused him to lash out with 32…f5?!
Initially Maxime was looking at 33.f3 but then he saw that 33.f4! was even stronger, and after 33…exf4 he couldn’t believe the black position could hold. So it proved, with one misstep by the black king hastening the end that came with the quiet 43.Bh2!
The bishop pair is lethal, with no defence against the threats of Bxb7 or Bc7+. Wesley simply decided to concede defeat.
That result means Wesley can’t dream of the kind of smooth 2 wins, 7 draws tournament victory he enjoyed in 2016, but as he showed in Shamkir earlier this year, he’s also capable of bouncing back from such early setbacks. For Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, meanwhile, it may be early but he wasn’t afraid to dream, explaining to Maurice Ashley that he’d “never won an event of this calibre”, coming closest when he tied for first in the 2015 London Chess Classic before losing a 3-way playoff.
Garry Kasparov will play his first rated games since his retirement when he returns for the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, and we can’t end without gathering together some of the Sinquefield Cup players’ thoughts, all given in the post-game interviews with Maurice Ashley.
Hikaru Nakamura played down how special it would be to face Garry, since he’d already done so after last year’s US Championship. Back then Nakamura won the trophy but lost their mini-match, saying that he, Caruana and So had “showed him too much respect and didn’t take it 100% seriously”. He summed up that it would be, “interesting to see how Garry does, but I don’t think he’s going to win this event”.
When pressed Magnus Carlsen agreed, but he was much more positive:
If everything proceeds logically he probably won’t win, but you can’t rule it out, since he’ll be extremely motivated and probably better prepared than the others.
He called Garry’s return “awesome”, recalled how strong Kasparov was in their training games, and said, “if I’d known he would have been playing here I’d have given anything to play in the tournament”. Of course it’s not clear how keen Garry would have been to take on the current World Champion!
Caruana will play the legend, saying, “I was very pleasantly surprised, because it’s not every day you get a chance to play Garry”. He noted Kasparov had shown he’s still “a very strong player” last year and reflected that “for many years people have debated what would happen if Garry returned”. It definitely is a chess fans’ dream come true to find out.
Before that, though, we have the little matter of another eight rounds of the Sinquefield Cup. The field is already divided in three after Round 1:
The highlight of Round 2 is perhaps the Carlsen-Karjakin World Championship rematch, though Aronian-Caruana and Nakmura-MVL are a close second. Don't miss all the action here on chess24 from 20:00 CEST!
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