Features Aug 21, 2015 | 7:52 PMby Colin McGourty

Sinquefield Cup 2015 preview

The Sinquefield Cup starts this Sunday, with the whole focus of the chess world switching to St. Louis. World Champion Magnus Carlsen will be looking for a return to form after his shock 7th place in the first stage of the Grand Chess Tour in Norway Chess, but it’s not going to be easy. The tournament gathers together eight of the world’s current Top 10, with Fabiano Caruana returning to the scene of his greatest triumph. We take a look at what the players have been up to this summer.

In the 2013 Sinquefield Cup Hikaru Nakamura tried the famous sunglasses gambit against Magnus Carlsen. In an interview with CNN he described it as, "a way to rattle my opponent. It was a psychological ploy. It seemed to work out pretty well" | photo: Grand Chess Tour website

The players and the format of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup need almost no introduction. The 9-round tournament features the nine Grand Chess Tour regulars who played in Norway Chess two months ago, with Sinquefield nominee Wesley So replacing Jon Ludvig Hammer as the 10th player. The rise in rating of Carlsen’s challengers means we now have five players rated above 2800, while the transfer of Fabiano Caruana to the US means the showpiece US supertournament features three US players:  

  1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway): rated 2853, world no. 1
  2. Viswanathan Anand (India): 2816, 2
  3. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria): 2816, 3
  4. Hikaru Nakamura (USA): 2814, 4
  5. Fabiano Caruana (USA): 2808, 5
  6. Anish Giri (Netherlands): 2793, 6
  7. Wesley So (USA): 2779, 7
  8. Alexander Grischuk (Russia): 2771, 9
  9. Levon Aronian (Armenia): 2765, 11
  10. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France): 2731, 24

The action starts at 13:00 St. Louis time on Sunday (19:00 London, 20:00 Paris), and once again we’ll have the brilliant commentary team of GMs Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade beaming coverage live from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. You can watch the Sinquefield Cup show here on chess24 as well as on the Grand Chess Tour website.

The "confession box" used in Norway Chess also looks set to return, and this time we won't need to rely on any translations from Norwegian.

So what can we expect and what have the players been up to recently:

1. Magnus Carlsen

The World Champion suffered four losses during his worst tournament in living memory (or so it seems) in Stavanger in June. One theory holds that the best way to recover after a bad event is to get back on the horse again as soon as possible. Well, Magnus hasn’t tried that, playing no public games in the last two months, but he did get back on the whale (dolphin?) in a training session in the New York area recently:

In training. #Southampton #SinquefieldCup

Posted by Magnus Carlsen on Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Magnus’ other headline claiming act was to return to his own proposal that the World Champion gives up his privileges and the World Championship title is fought out in a yearly knockout tournament. It’s perhaps only a small exaggeration to say that the only other person in world chess that system really appeals to is the current FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who wrote on his website:

I would like to thank Magnus and pay tribute to his courage: he was the first of the champions to offer to limit his privileges. 

I first proposed the World Championship knockout system 20 years ago to the FIDE Presidential Board in Singapore. We wanted to make chess more democratic, a sport for the masses, where every athlete would have a good chance of becoming the World Champion. The first tournament under this system, with a prize fund of $5 million, took place in Groningen, December 1997, and the finals at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, January 1998.

This system has proved to be dynamic and appealing to both the organizers and sponsors. But as you know, the chess world is very conservative. Many did not accept the change, considering that it was largely fortuitous. As it stands the present World Champion and the Winner of the Candidates tournament will play for the title of World Champion. 

I would like to remind you that according to his status, Magnus is a member of the Presidential Council and the Executive Committee of FIDE. He can send his proposal for the worldwide return of the knockout system to his colleagues and it will become part of FIDE’s official agenda at the Congress in Abu Dhabi in September this year. 

In any case, World Championship ennui and poor Norway Chess result aside, Magnus still remains the automatic favourite to win a second Sinquefield Cup.

2. Viswanathan Anand

Vishy Anand has been enjoying an Indian summer to his career, with his World Championship form having returned ever since he lost the first match to Magnus Carlsen. In an interview earlier this year (which you can watch and read here) Vishy described the turnaround:

I have the feeling right now that things are looking up. I’m playing good tournaments, winning them, and these things kind of add up. You win a tournament, you go to the airport in a good mood, you sleep in a good mood – life feels good. If you keep on having bad results it can weigh you down.

He finished in second place on an unbeaten +3 at Norway Chess, including a fine attacking win against Magnus Carlsen. Since then he seems to have been almost constantly in the media in India, promoting different projects and sponsors, but he was one of the first to turn up in St. Louis before the chess business starts this Sunday:

You can see above that his Polish second Grzegorz Gajewski is also there with him, which bodes well for the Indian’s prospects based on a recent record of providing plenty of high quality novelties.

3. Veselin Topalov

Veselin has also stayed away from the chessboard since Norway Chess, but that’s no surprise given his extremely light schedule in recent years. The former World Champion claimed the secret to his winning Norway Chess was not caring overly much about his result, but will he manage to maintain that attitude after his great start to the Grand Chess Tour has made him a strong contender for the overall prize? So far, at least, he seems to be keeping cool with his manager Silvio Danailov 

4. Hikaru Nakamura

Nakamura is another player who could afford to take a break after a fantastic 2015 so far (is that Vesuvius in the background?):

After a difficult last couple of years everything seems to be going Hikaru’s way. He’s qualified for the 2016 Candidates Tournament, has been winning tournaments for fun and finished in 3rd place on an unbeaten +3 in the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour. No-one would dare dismiss him as a realistic World Championship contender, although of course his terrible record against Magnus Carlsen remains the one monkey on his back.

A new experience in St. Louis for Nakamura will be to come up against not one but two American “newcomers”, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana. Nakamura is certainly the most American of the trio. He recently tweeted:

And tonight he’s giving a simul in Detroit. But he's confident enough in his identity not to be afraid to address his Japanese roots as well:

In an interesting CNN 40 questions interview Nakamura comments:

I don't feel that I am representing Japan, but I do feel that my makeup is very much Japanese, in that the way that I approach chess, the motivation and the drive very much comes from the Japanese side.

Historically Nakamura has finished 2nd (2013) and last (2014) in the Sinquefield Cup, but there’s no doubt he’d love to win his home tournament!

5. Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano is of course most famous for his seven-game winning streak in last year’s Sinquefield Cup, but this year he has a head start! While many of his rivals were enjoying the sun he competed in Dortmund, and after a slow start he ended with a four-game winning streak to claim the title.

That was also a winning start for Lawrence Trent in his role as Fabiano’s manager, and if there’s one thing you can say about Lawrence it’s that he knows how to remove all the pressure from his player!

Fabiano will be looking to restore his position as Magnus Carlsen’s greatest rival, since suddenly he finds himself “only” at world no. 5.

6. Anish Giri

Anish Giri, making all the right moves away from the chessboard - can he do the same on the board in St. Louis? | photo: David Martinez

Anish ended in a creditable 4th place in Norway Chess (a whole 1.5 points ahead of Caruana in 5th) and went on to win another Dutch Championship, but his summer was dominated (we hope) by getting married to Sopiko Guramishvili (see our exclusive photo report). We could chart his return to chess on Twitter:

Anish is one player in the event whose thoughts will perhaps be half-turned to the World Cup that follows, since that represents a real chance to qualify for the 2016 Candidates Tournament – although his other chance, qualifying by rating, would of course be greatly helped by a good performance in one of the strongest tournaments ever held.

First, though, he actually needs to make it to St. Louis!

7. Wesley So

Wesley will have mixed feelings about his return to St. Louis after the family and other issues that overshadowed his appearance at the US Chess Championships in the same city earlier this year. If he can focus on his chess, though, this is another great opportunity to take on the world’s best players. Since So is a wild card and will only play this event he can give his all with no need to worry about Grand Chess Tour prizes at the end of the year.

Wesley So's Turkish adventures included a lot of draws and a loss to Ivan Cheparinov, but he balanced that out with some nice wins - check out his games with computer analysis here on chess24

His recent form is hard to gauge, but after finishing second in Dortmund and then playing a whole ten games for his team in the Turkish League he shouldn’t suffer from any of the rustiness you might expect from his fellow participants. He also has the added experience of taking on the world’s very best in Shamkir Chess, so he knows what to expect.

8. Alexander Grischuk

No-one, meanwhile, can have much idea what to expect of Alexander Grischuk. The only Russian in the event (and in fact the first Russian to play in the Sinquefield Cup) can be guaranteed only to provide some great dead pan quotes in the press conferences and to test out the smoking facilities for players. Grischuk has had a poor year, finished an uninspired eighth (tied with a certain Magnus Carlsen!) in Norway Chess and hasn’t been spotted since - though he remains, of course, a great talent.

9. Levon Aronian

We’ve frankly grown a bit tired of asking what’s up with Levon Aronian – his Norway Chess performance of second last on -3 was just the latest in a series of disappointments. The Armenian no. 1 probably feels the same, and might consider almost any idea to shake up his usual routine. That’s at least one explanation for the amazing fact that in the water race we included above the man struggling to propel a turtle faster than Carlsen and Peter Heine-Nielsen is none other than Aronian, for a long time considered Magnus’ greatest World Championship rival. The obvious question is whether the two are now working together.

What we can say, though, is that their tastes in music probably differ: 

10. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime came late to the Grand Chess Tour series and seems to be repeating that plan for the Sinquefield Cup:

It worked in Norway, where he started by winning the blitz tournament and his Round 1 game. Even if the rest of the tournament was less than stellar his terrible form from earlier in the year – including four losses in a row in Shamkir – seems to be a thing of the past. He emphasised that by going on to win his fourth Biel title, including a streak of three wins in the final three rounds. The French no. 1, like Caruana, can hope to build on that sequence in St. Louis.

Not sure what to do until the action starts on Sunday? Check out a retrospective of last year's event!

So all that remains is to put the rest of our lives on hold from this Sunday evening on as we sit back and enjoy the greatest chess show on earth! It’s going to be unmissable.

See also:

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