The world’s Top 3 - Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So - all won on Thursday in another dramatic day’s action in the Sinquefield Cup. Carlsen scored a trademark win against his World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin, So bounced back to beat the luckless Ian Nepomniachtchi, while Caruana needed 110 moves and 7 hours before he managed to punish a blunder by Levon Aronian. Svidler-Anand and Nakamura-MVL were drawn without too much incident.
We’re being spoiled for action in this year’s Sinquefield Cup - you can replay all the games with computer analysis by clicking on a result in the selector below:
The live commentary team in St. Louis stuck around to the bitter end, with Maurice Ashley even getting an interview with Caruana after his game finally ended:
It was a fine evening’s viewing!
Let’s take a look at the action.
Wesley So was well-beaten in Round 1 and faced Black in Round 2, but after a remarkably short game he was able to thank a higher power for the first time at this year’s Sinquefield Cup:
I’d like to thank the Lord for letting me win, because even though Ian didn’t play his best style bouncing back after a loss is great.
It was another tale of woe for Ian Nepomniachtchi, whose play has been erratic so far in his debut in St. Louis. He played 1.c4 and a rare system on move 5, but since Wesley described it afterwards as “very playable for White” he clearly knew what he was doing. Ian did too, of course, but after explaining his plan with the Maroczy bind structure (pawns on c4 and e4) to Maurice Ashley, he added:
It’s a good theory, but in practice I just managed to blunder in one with f4 and after that I believe it was basically over.
The fatal position came after Wesley had spent 20 minutes on 16…Qa5:
Nepo took under a minute to blunder with 17.f4? and after 17…Bxc3! it was close to game over, since White was soon left with pitifully weak pawns:
It was bread and butter for Wesley, who took his time as he methodically dismantled White’s position, while Nepomniachtchi just seemed to want to get things over with as quickly as possible. When he resigned on move 39 he still had an hour left on his clock. As he said himself, “it’s hard to make any commentary on this game”.
Wesley was back on track and commented, “I can just imagine that I drew yesterday and drew today, which would be a normal result with two Blacks”. Actually he went on to explain he liked it this way, since he gets criticised for making too many draws and himself prefers when games end decisively. He even said he’d prefer to score five wins and four losses rather than one win and eight draws. Will we see a new Wesley So in the coming rounds?
A round of all decisive games can be breathless, so we can perhaps be thankful that two of the games passed with little incident. Hikaru Nakamura described his game with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave as “pretty boring”.
Hikaru played 6.h3 against the Najdorf, but then sank into an 18-minute think on move 11 when Maxime chose not to play 11…Rb8 as Veselin Topalov had against him in the 2015 London Chess Classic, but 11…Qc7. Soon it was Black, if anyone, who was better, though it fizzled out to nothing. Maxime was somewhat critical of his approach, even if he didn’t feel he missed anything concrete:
Maybe I was a bit lazy at some points and was a little too happy about my position.
Nakamura described MVL’s policy of sticking to a very limited opening repertoire as “quite amazing”, though Maxime explained the virtue of almost exclusively playing the Najdorf:
I feel so confident in this kind of position. Of course there’s some risk of getting outprepared, and it happened a few times this year with these guys (for instance, against Nakamura in Norway Chess), but somehow I consolidated a bit and tried to be more focused and I’m confident that I can answer any question over the board. I have a great deal of experience and know where to look for the dynamics.
That draw meant MVL remained in the joint lead, while Nakamura has had a slow but steady start on 50%.
The start of the Svidler-Anand draw was memorably described by Peter Svidler:
Vishy generally plays other things against 1.c4, and in my preparation I spoke to my Skype people before the game and my Skype people told me that if 1.c4 c5 we’re kind of in trouble already, but you should play this 4.e3 line because nobody really expects you to do that, and somehow despite getting those exact orders – I listen to those people, those people know what they’re saying – I checked everything else. I checked all the things that I kind of hoped would happen, and this probably depressed me so much that I decided not to check it.
Not an auspicious start, but Svidler did manage to play what he described as a “fresh” idea, only for Anand to neutralise it with accurate play. We also got some memorable quotes from Vishy, who gave his stamp of approval to the suggestion that he prefers knights to bishops: “Quite a lot of people have said that and yes, I think it is true!” He also talked about the re-emergence of the Italian Opening (or Giuoco Piano) after centuries of decline, explaining that computers had revolutionised it: “Now we’re finding out you need to be almost as exact as in the Najdorf!”
With that interlude over, though, let’s get to the big games of the day!
Magnus Carlsen’s much chronicled problems in classical chess led to a great MVL moment during some pre-recorded video for the live show. The players were all being asked who they felt was the underdog in the tournament, and largely they stuck to the politically correct response that there’s not really an underdog in such a field. Maxime couldn’t resist a joke:
If Magnus is burdened by a failure to win a classical tournament in over a year he’s not showing it. Perhaps it helps to be grounded by having his family around, and he’s looked very relaxed so far at this year’s Sinquefield Cup.
On Thursday he was facing Sergey Karjakin, the man he struggled so much to beat in the classical part of their World Championship match. He’d won their recent encounter in Norway Chess, though, and yet again despite saying he wasn’t “overly optimistic” after the opening he adopted his trademark approach of waiting and ratcheting up the pressure before seizing his chance to pounce.
Magnus said he started “to gamble a bit” and 26.Rc6! was a provocative moment, exploiting control of the c-file to start targeting weaknesses in Black’s camp:
Karjakin seems to have rushed to put his knight on its dream square with 26…Nc3?!, since Magnus went on to win a pawn almost by force, taking full advantage of Sergey’s lack of time. For once it wasn’t enough to be, as Vishy called him, “the best defender in the world”.
Jan Gustafsson takes us through the game:
That brings us to the epic final game of the day:
While this game was still in progress Magnus commented on Aronian that, “he didn’t look himself the whole game - he looked a little off”, which might go some way to explaining the unfortunate 33.Ke2?
At a glance it looks risky, though the immediate 33…Re8 can simply be met by retreating the king to f1. Alas for Aronian, 33..Bb4! changed all that, and after 34.Rc1 Re8 White is losing a piece, though Levon did everything in his power to get his horse's weight in pawns.
The day could have been over fast for all concerned, but the critical decision fell on move 40:
40…g5! 41.Kxe3 Bc5+! would have led to a bishop and pawn ending that was at the very least much simpler than what occurred in the game after 40…Bd2 41.Rxg6, when the g-pawn was gone.
"I really don't like you", said Maurice Ashley, as Caruana tried to explain why he’d extended the commentary session by three hours:
I saw g5, but I was a bit worried that with the king against bishop with the b-pawn he might have some sort of draw. I was pretty much sure it was winning, but I thought that (what I did) would be a cleaner way.
Instead we entered some kind of twilight zone, where even Magnus commented, “I’m sure it’s winning, but I’m not sure how”.
The good news for Fabiano, and something he soon realised, was that despite the “wrong” bishop to force queening of the h-pawn, the ending would be won for Black if rooks were exchanged. Zugzwangs allow the black king to oust the white king from the potential queening squares, though who needs descriptions? This is the realm of our tablebase overlords:
The bad news was that Levon was perfectly aware that he
shouldn’t exchange rooks and was ready to fight for his life.
One top grandmaster had a plan…
…but Levon was dreaming of tricks…
…and the extent to which Fabiano was wandering off the path to a win was emphasised by Radjabov’s life choices:
Many Europeans and people further afield no doubt did the same, only to wake up to find that Fabiano had nevertheless won. The rook and bishop vs. rook ending is normally a theoretical draw, but Caruana managed to find a moment to go for it when it was a forced win. He explained:
I wasn’t 100% sure, but I didn’t see a move for White and I didn’t have enough time to doubt myself!
The final position, after 110 moves and almost 7 hours of play, was as follows:
Wherever the white king goes 111…Rc2 will threaten mate next move, so White would have to give up his rook for the bishop on e5. Even an exhausted Fabiano Caruana would be up to giving mate with an extra rook...
When asked about that exhaustion Fabi responded:
I would play 150 moves if it meant I win a game - I don’t really care about the length of the game. A win with Black is a phenomenal result. Beating Levon doesn’t happen that often, and especially with the black pieces.
That leaves Carlsen, Caruana and MVL leading the race in St. Louis, with Aronian now down below 2800 and Kramnik on the live rating list, while Carlsen’s lead is 14 points over 2nd placed Caruana. That game of musical chairs is sure to develop further as the tournament goes on. The standings for now are as follows:
In Friday’s Round 3 Caruana will be looking to inflict a 3rd loss in a row on Nepo, though he cautioned that in the same position last year the wounded animal that was Svidler almost bit him. Other big clashes include another World Championship rematch, Anand-Carlsen, the US battle So-Nakamura and two players in need of bouncing back, Karjakin-Aronian. Don't miss all the action here on chess24 from 20:00 CEST!
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