Wesley So thanked the Lord and his seconds, in that order, after scoring his first classical victory over Hikaru Nakamura in the opening round of the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. He’s joined in the early lead by Veselin Topalov, whose pressure paid off against Peter Svidler when the Russian’s attempt to force a draw turned out to be losing a piece. Top seed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was nearly toppled by an inspired Anish Giri, but the Frenchman clawed out a draw with a saving tactic.
The first round of the 2016 Sinquefield Cup didn’t disappoint, with serious battles on all but one of the boards:
This was the exception – an uneventful game drawn by repetition on move 31. It was the Chinese player who did all the work, as he explained when he appeared for the post-game interview with Maurice Ashley. He brought a translator, then proceeded to answer without help and in more or less fluent English!
I feel very nervous during the game. My hand is very cold. I don’t know why, but I didn’t sleep well last night. Maybe I’m a little bit stressed out. Today in the game he prepared the opening very well.
Although Ding Liren has a 3.5:1.5 career score against Aronian, he’s facing the Sinquefield Cup with some trepidation after a tough period:
It will be a difficult test for me – especially I did not play well during the recent months. I dropped a lot of rating in China, so I really want to pick up my confidence here.
Levon Aronian, meanwhile, has never lacked in confidence, and had no problem with an easy draw with the black pieces against an opponent he’s struggled against in the past:
I generally like playing exciting games, but when the games are boring you’re praying for the game to end quickly. So it was a success.
He then came up with perhaps the quote of the day when Maurice asked if Levon would “pick on” the American players as he had in the 2015 event:
I don’t pick on anyone - I’m just as a doctor waiting for my patients!
You can replay the whole day’s action, including all the interviews, below:
Topalov adopted that role of doctor, even diagnosing Svidler’s problem as jetlag – that he was “still in Russia, or Switzerland!” (referring to Peter’s recent match with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Biel). Veselin went for the Anti-Marshall in the Ruy Lopez, and surprised his opponent by the rare choice of exchanging light-squared bishops on e6. Svidler spent an hour on his next few moves, and although he seemed to solve most of his problems his Bulgarian opponent retained a nagging edge.
The climax of the game was a
familiar story in such situations, with the urge to simplify leading Svidler astray:
Svidler: Sadly I thought 25…Rb4 just makes an immediate forced draw, but in fact it just loses by force. There’s a bit of a difference!
After 26.Qc3! the 7-time Russian Champion saw the error of his ways, but it was too late to turn back. He followed through with 26…Nxd4 27.Qxb4 Ne2+ 28.Kh1 and resigned, since his opponent hadn’t fallen for the last trap of 28.Kh2?, when Black can still draw:
What Peter admitted to missing in advance was 28…Nxc1 29.Qb8+!, or rather than after 29…Kh7 (29…Kf7 30.Qxc7+) White doesn’t take the c7-pawn but plays 30.Qb1+! and the knight is lost, since 30…Nd3 runs into 31.Ne1!
Peter could take the a5-pawn there and fight on with two disconnected pawns for a piece, but it wouldn’t have been a fair fight. Afterwards Topalov wasn’t getting carried away, pointing out that he’d won the first two games (one against Carlsen!) in 2015 before his tournament turned sour, while Svidler was wondering what he’d let himself in for:
In order to play myself in I gave myself two Blacks in the first two rounds, so I’m going to enjoy tonight and tomorrow!
The next two games we’re going to look at show that even when players reel off 20 moves of heavy theory it doesn’t mean we can just assume a peaceful outcome.
So-Nakamura reached this mind-boggling position after 17 moves in which only Nakamura had used (a little) over 30 seconds on a move:
In a game where the big question afterwards was just where Black went wrong, Hikaru pointed to this moment:
I just forgot to play my preparation. I forgot to play Nd5 on move 17. I just simply forgot because it’s a long deep line I hadn’t looked at in a while.
After 17…h6?! Wesley finally picked up the exchange with 18.Rxd7 Nxd7 19.Bxb6 and went on to win in the smooth, unassuming but merciless style he’s made his own. Nakamura lamented that he was making miscalculations on every move, but even with best play he was in deep trouble. The star move came on move 34:
White could quickly pick up a pawn with 34.axb5 axb5 35.Rc8, but after 35…d4! Black’s hopes of establishing a fortress are still alive. Instead 34.a5! left Black floundering for moves, and Nakamura resigned just four moves later.
The win reduced the gap between US teammates Nakamura and So from 20 points to under 10 in one fell swoop, and Wesley was in the mood to give thanks:
I’d like to thank the Lord and my seconds for helping me achieve this victory and also preparing this line.
That game looked like light theory compared to the Najdorf battle between the youngest player in the field and the current world no. 2. 23.Rg1 was the first move that forced MVL to think seriously, and the aggressive plan he came up with to meet it almost ended in disaster. After 23…Qh4 24.Be2 Nf4 25.Bd1 f5 26.exf5 Bxf5 it was time for Giri to uncork a great move:
27.Ka1!! This seemingly innocuous king step looks like nothing, but if White can simply play c3 next move and consolidate he has a huge structural advantage. What about the c2-pawn, though? Maxime explained:
I went for this plan because I obviously thought I could take this pawn on c2. After he played [27.Ka1], it was clear I couldn’t. I had to put myself back together and I think I found the best way, but he could definitely have put more pressure.
The point is that after exchanging everything on c2 White has the stunning 30.Qa4! and suddenly the rook is hit while mate is threatened on e8.
Even then you might think Black can solve that issue with 30…Rc8, but that runs into 31.Qd7!, and suddenly it’s the threat of mate on g7 that wins the rook on c8.
There’s a reason Maxime scores so well in the Najdorf,
though – he feels absolutely at home in complex, unbalanced positions, and more
often than not manages to save or win them even when they’re objectively
bad. While admitting, “it’s never pleasant to miss something so crucial during
a game”, he refocused, generated counterplay, and finally found a trick of his
own to force a draw just when it seemed Anish was on track to score a
long-awaited victory. Maxime explained how he’d reached world no. 2:
For the most part my opening preparation has been working much better, so I’ve been getting positions where I feel very much at ease compared to the positions I was getting one year before. It’s also very useful when confidence starts kicking in, and you start spending less time checking your calculations, for instance. You can check the positions more deeply and avoid time trouble.
The last game to finish was an intriguing battle. Ex-Anand second Rustam Kasimdzhanov now works with Fabiano, and no doubt had some say in the decision to surprise his old boss by playing the French Defence:
He obviously caught me off guard. I noticed that he played the French – he’d even played it against me – but it was quite some years back.
Caruana offered to enter into the razor-sharp Winawer Variation, but Vishy wasn’t keen on finding out what was in store for him there, noting that in such positions, “you either know your stuff or you don’t”. Instead he went for a quiet exchange variation, though he added that he’d actually looked at some games in that line a couple of days ago. Fabiano was aware of that possibility when he went to the confessional early in the game and said he wasn’t sure if his opponent was improvising.
In the play that followed both sides had their trumps, and outside forces added to the tension when water began to drop from an air conditioner onto the board. Fabiano got in to his regular time trouble, making any outcome possible, but ultimately he made it to the time control and was left with the decision of whether to force a draw immediately. Fabiano, or perhaps his manager, clearly thought the decision to take the draw was the correct one:
That meant that after the first round Topalov and So are early leaders, while we’ve already seen that the absence of Magnus Carlsen needn’t lead to any reduction in the excitement factor in St. Louis!
Both leaders have Black in Round 2, with Caruana-Topalov and Ding Liren-So, the latter a repeat of the 4-game match that Ding Liren won in China earlier this year. Needless to say the other three encounters are also ones you won’t want to miss – MVL-Anand, Nakamura-Giri and Aronian-Svidler.
Tune in to live coverage of Round 2 of the Sinquefield Cup with Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley from 8pm CEST on Saturday! You can also follow the games on our free mobile apps:
We respect your privacy and data protection guidelines. Some components of our site require cookies or local storage that handles personal information.