Reports Aug 25, 2015 | 2:47 PMby Colin McGourty

Sinquefield Cup, 2: Time mayhem, Topalov top

Veselin Topalov scored a brilliant win over Hikaru Nakamura to take the lead in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup, but the highlight of Round 2 was an insane time scramble in which Fabiano Caruana blundered on move 40 when both he and Magnus Carlsen were down to under five seconds. It was also a red-letter day for Alexander Grischuk, who won his first ever classical game against Vishy Anand to condemn the former World Champion to 0/2.

Sinquefield Cup thriller: Caruana's reflexes betray him as he blunders with three seconds left on his clock to Carlsen's four

The calm before the storm: MVL-Aronian and Giri-So

Round 2 in St. Louis was a very slow burner. Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave drew an instantly forgettable game in 32 moves, after Aronian played an improvement over move 15 in the game he lost to Topalov in Norway Chess. Maxime was forced to eat his words from the day before about “stupid draws”:

Wesley So said he was "horribly punished" for his over optimistic play the day before against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Wesley So was feeling chastened after his loss in Round 1, saying his mother had described him as playing “like a 5-year-old”. In Round 2 he did something typical of modern chess – blitzed out an opening that theory considered to be better for his opponent, but which wasn’t so easy to break down. Ben Finegold described the approach on the live show as:

I’m here. What are you going to do to me?

For a brief moment after 21…b5 it seemed as though that question might have an answer:

22.Bxf5! A neat trick, but it turned out to lead only to a drawn opposite-coloured bishop ending. As Giri summed up:

At some point I found a cheap trick, but he gladly fell for it and it ended in a draw.

But that, to everyone’s surprise, was the day’s last draw.

The “Correct” Bishop’s Opening: Grischuk 1-0 Anand

Vishy Anand went through both Shamkir Chess and Norway Chess unbeaten this year, but has now lost his first two games in the Sinquefield Cup. He pointed out afterwards that things had gone wrong early on against Grischuk:

In their game in the first round of the Norway Chess blitz tournament Grischuk played 8.Qd4 here and rapidly got overrun by Vishy Anand. On Monday he surprised Vishy by repeating the opening – one he normally uses only in rapid and blitz – and varied with 8.Nf3. Vishy was unprepared to enter the critical lines after 8...Ne4 and after 8..e6!? was immediately on the defensive.

Vishy commented:

I should not have repeated our blitz game from Norway. That’s basically what we were playing. That wasn’t very bright.

Vishy failed to put up much resistance in the long agony that followed.

This time Vishy's resignation couldn't be described as premature

Grischuk has long been one of the greatest admirers of the former World Champion, though, and for him it was a momentous day:

It’s a very important victory for me because, first of all, it’s my first victory in classical chess against Vishy – and we played for the first time about 15 years ago! Second, it’s my first victory this year against a really top player (ok, I had one victory against Karjakin as well, so it’s my second victory). And third, I won with my beloved opening. You know, 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 is called the Bishop’s Opening, but I think it should be called the Wrong Bishop’s Opening, and 1.d4 2. Bf4 is the Correct Bishop’s Opening! I played it already about 30 times in blitz and rapid games, but I think it’s my first time I played it in a classical game. In Norway I lost without a fight. Now I prepared and it seems he didn’t check this line any further.

The glimmer of hope for Anand was, inevitably, Grischuk’s clock handling. After both Vishy’s 9…Bd7 (a bad move) and 17…Bd7 (a good one), for instance, the Russian spent exactly 19 minutes and 45 seconds, which meant that even when Vishy gave up a pawn without a fight the outcome remained in doubt. The post-game interview with Maurice Ashley turned to the clock:   

Grischuk: Then I was a bit lucky because he just started to play completely for my zeitnot (time trouble).

Ashley: Do players do that to you often when you get into time pressure?

Grischuk: Yes and no, but the problem is that this year, for example in Norway, I won one game but in all eight other games I never had even the slightest of advantages. People usually don’t play on time when they’re much better. They usually start to play on time when they’re in trouble, but the problem was that no-one was in trouble against me, so they didn’t need to. But of course when you’re in trouble and your opponent’s in zeitnot, everyone plays for time.

When Ashley asked how a world class player like Vishy could have started so badly, Grischuk was, as usual, the voice of reason:

First of all, he’s also playing sort of world class players here, so it’s not like he lost to amateurs. And second, he had two Blacks in those two games, so that also was something. And also it happens when there’s not such a big difference in class or level. Sometimes you lose several games in a row. Sometimes you win several games in a row. It can happen.

Little did we know that the real time trouble drama of the round was only just about to unfold:

Reflex action: Caruana 0-1 Carlsen

Up to a point, this was a normal game of chess. Carlsen avoided the Berlin that had led to his downfall in Norway Chess and instead we got a complex manoeuvring struggle in a classical Ruy Lopez. The first hint of the drama ahead was the remarkable 29 minutes and 44 seconds Fabiano spent on the innocuous 13.Ba2. Nevertheless, when he posted his knight on f5 and Magnus in turn entered the think tank nothing seemed to be amiss.  

Magnus Carlsen starts the clock... the third player in the game | photo: Lennart Ootes

The clock kept ticking, though, and with 14 moves to go Caruana, not renowned as the world’s best blitz player, was down to under five minutes, with no 30-second increment to ease his pain. Carlsen explained what happened next:

It got a bit out of control. I think my 25…Kf8 was stupid. At that moment I was trying to play a bit provocatively to get winning chances, but then this 27…b4 stuff… (laughs) That was just a bit too much. After 28.a5 I realised that I might be in trouble… Then I realised there was no emergency exit and I thought I should probably start playing for tricks (laughs), from a practical point of view.

Maurice Ashley was on fire on the live broadcast: "the engines are saying the b-pawn is dead... it’s now officially in a tombstone, we can write its epitaph!”

At this stage, though, it was almost all about time, and the crucial move in that regard came after 32…fxg6:

Fabiano spent an agonising 41 seconds playing the only move that kept his advantage – and arguably the only move that didn’t lose on the spot – 33.Qb3!

Magnus explained there was a trick involved:

I think he’d missed this little trick when he went for the b4-pawn – 33.Rb6? Qxf5! – and I guess he was sort of lucky to have 33.Qb3.

Fabiano himself highlighted the same move:

It’s not a good situation to be in when you’re so low on time, but sometimes it happens. I was just trying to anticipate his moves so I could save a bit of time. For some reason this 33.Qb3 took me a lot of time. I wasted maybe 20 seconds or so, which I could have used later on. 

As we mentioned, it was twice as much time, and left Fabiano almost unable physically to make his remaining moves. He managed to make the next six in only 11 seconds – it’s almost completely irrelevant that he may have missed a win in that time – but when he made his final move with three seconds remaining it was a disaster:

With under five seconds remaining himself Magnus has managed to set a perfect trap for this situation. The queen simply needs to move, to b1, b3 or a4, but after 40.Rxd2?? Rxd2 the threat of the queen capturing on f2 and mate next move meant Fabiano had to extend his hand in resignation.

Caruana explained what happened at the end:

I didn’t even think about my move. I had I think maybe two or three seconds, but even that should be enough to play any other move besides 40.Rd2…The problem at the end was I had stopped keeping score and I didn’t know which move we were at. If I knew it was move 39 and I only have one more move to make I would have taken more than half a second.

Carlsen saw it the same way:

The move he made, 40.Rd2, is just a reflex and it can happen. Of course if he’d just played 40.Qb3 or maybe even 40.Qa4 then I would be in for a long night, probably.

Some reaction from chess players:

The live commentary team struggled to grasp what had happened even after the game was over. You can relive the incredible drama of the time struggle – and watch all the player interviews - below. Things are getting very exciting from about 3 hours 59 minutes onwards:

chess24 was also providing Spanish commentary, and you can enjoy the final stages with GM Pepe Cuenca and IM David Martinez even if you don’t know a word of Spanish!

Where did that leave the players? Well, Magnus had dodged the bullet of starting a second tournament in a row with consecutive losses. He complained about playing impractically in the first two games, but was hugely relieved: 

In my situation, with my recent form, I’ll take any win I can get.

Caruana, meanwhile, was facing a new experience, and one not quite as welcome as his 7-game winning start in the same event last year:

I don’t think I’ve started a tournament with 0-2 before. I think today was mainly an accident. He was also down to a couple of seconds. He also could have blundered something, but these things do happen.

If you do make move 40, though, the time control in the Grand Chess Tour suddenly rewards you with untold riches - not only an extra hour, but a 30-second increment per move. That meant time failed to get in Veselin Topalov’s way:

A “decent” game: Topalov 1-0 Nakamura

A very relaxed Topalov talks to Maurice Ashley | photo: Lennart Ootes

Topalov himself has no explanation for why he’s playing so well in St. Louis on the back of his brilliant display in Norway Chess, commenting:

The impression people have looking at my games is that I’m working a lot, but the last training session was the beginning of 2014. I have some old ideas…

He also explained that, “the point is not to always try and make the best move”, though from the outside it looks as though he’s coming close. Hikaru Nakamura did very little wrong in Round 2, except for by his own admission getting a little too optimistic on move 15:

15…f5!? was met by 16.e5 Nxd5 17.exd6 Bxd6 18.Nxd6 Qxd6 19.b3!

Nakamura described where it all went wrong:

Actually, when I played 15.f5 I thought I was just better. And when Veselin played 19.b3 it was just, whoops! I’m not better, it’s maybe equal but I’m definitely worse, the wrong side of equal.

Suddenly the white bishops are ready to rake down on the black king, and when Nakamura was ultimately forced to give back a pawn he couldn’t contain the power of the bishops against his knights. A miscalculation on move 47 meant the game lasted a couple of hours longer than it might have done (according to Nakamura), but at least we got the chance to witness a beautifully played rook ending.

Nakamura summed up:

He hasn’t had any luck, he’s just played very well. He’s obviously playing the best chess, so he’s in the lead.

The table looks as follows:

There’s no escape in a tournament like this. Anand will have to try and get off the bottom against Topalov, while Caruana has Black against Nakamura in Round 3. You can replay all the games and see all the pairing for the upcoming rounds below:

Needless to say, don’t miss Round 2, when GMs Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade will again be hosting the live Sinquefield Cup show.

Also don't miss Jan Gustafsson and Tex de Wit, who will be hosting their second live review of the Sinquefield Cup one hour before the games start.

You can also watch all the games in our mobile apps:


See also:

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