Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Ian Nepomniachtchi to score clear first in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup, claiming not only the biggest success of his career to date but moving up to world no. 2. World Champion Magnus Carlsen still hasn’t won a classical tournament in 13 months, but he defeated Levon Aronian to share second place with Vishy Anand and cement his lead both in the Grand Chess Tour and at the top of the rating list. We take a look at some of the winners and losers from this year’s Sinquefield Cup.
You can play through all the games from the Sinquefield Cup using the selector below. Click on a result to open the games with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all of his results:
Let’s get straight down to it:
Of course where else can we start but with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave? The French no. 1 got off to the best possible start when he beat Wesley So in Round 1, and from there on he hardly put a foot wrong:
He should have beaten Peter Svidler in Round 3, but he saved the best for the Round 4 clash with Magnus Carlsen. The World Champion would later comment:
Maxime played well – he was only in trouble in one game, and that was against me!
Magnus was winning in that game, but we shouldn’t forget how brilliantly Maxime converted when his opponent blundered, with the moment when he found the only winning move in that ending perhaps the most tense of the whole tournament:
63…c4! A far from obvious pawn sacrifice (the bishop will come to d5 next move) played with the intention of deflecting the white bishop just long enough for the black king to break through and support the f-pawn. Garry commented at the time:
It’s not quite true that Maxime wasn’t in any danger after that, but the way he counterattacked against Fabiano Caruana’s Najdorf novelty in their game was another feather in his cap.
He kept repeating that he’d need to win one more game to take the title. So it proved, and fittingly that game was a Najdorf. This time he had White and followed a blitz game Magnus Carlsen had won against Ian Nepomniachtchi in this year’s Leuven Blitz. It couldn’t have gone better, since his novelty – the computer’s first line 13.a5 – soon brought him a dream position with an unchallengeable knight on d5:
There was some concern for Maxime’s fans when it seemed he’d allowed Nepo more counterplay than he deserved, but the Frenchman’s tactical prowess soon came to the fore, with 44.Qc4! signalling that Black was in deep trouble:
There were tense moments given the proximity of the title for Maxime, but the big decisions in the play that followed were between moves that all won, sooner or later. The once monster knight on d5 became an even bigger monster on f5 and, in the final position, with no particular killer blow on the horizon, Nepomniachtchi was absolutely right to resign - the black position has fallen apart:
Cue an outpouring of congratulations for the new Sinquefield Cup Champion, though in his interview Maxime immediately said, “Let’s not jinx it!”, since a hugely unlikely win for Aronian would still have meant a playoff. You can watch that interview (and the full final day show) below:
No miracles occurred, and we had a fifth Champion for the fifth edition of the Sinquefield Cup:
It was also the fifth time that no tiebreaks had been required:
MVL won the World Junior Championship as well as Dortmund and is a 5-time Biel Champion, but this is the strongest event he’s won yet. It’s a nice bonus that it also took him to no. 2 in the world rankings and meant Magnus will still have to look over his shoulder when the Grand Chess Tour ends with the London Chess Classic:
MVL had earned all the plaudits and attention he received:
If not for the twist of fate in his game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, this might have been the perfect tournament for Magnus Carlsen, even by his standards: winning his first classical tournament in over a year, increasing his rating, seeing most of his rivals drop away and winning a third event in the 2017 Grand Chess Tour to mean it was all over bar the shouting.
He went into the final game against world no. 2 and co-leader at that point Levon Aronian, knowing that nothing but a win would give him chances of tournament victory. What he also knew, however, was that a win would give him excellent chances, since there was a very plausible scenario by which he would win outright without the need for a playoff.
In the end MVL put an end to that dream, but Magnus did everything you could ask of him in his game against Levon, gaining some revenge for losing their last three decisive classical encounters. Jan Gustafsson shows us how he went about it:
The world no. 1 also missed the kind of chances you can normally rely on him putting away against Hikaru Nakamura, but overall he was just glad to be back. When Maurice Ashley asked him if he was looking forward to the World Cup he commented:
Absolutely! I’m really tired now, but I’ve been playing so poorly lately that this is a huge encouragement, actually, what’s been going on here. It’s been far from perfect, but I feel like I’ve created chances in nearly every single game instead of just pushing wood as I have been recently, so I’m really looking forward to (the World Cup) after getting some rest.
In our tournament preview we quoted Anand telling an Indian journalist, “I wonder why everyone wants me to retire”. Once again, at the age of 47, he defied any critics by being the only player other than Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to finish the tournament unbeaten. Add in an easy win over Ian Nepomniachtchi and a glorious moment against Fabiano Caruana…
…and it was a great event for the Indian no. 1, who shared second place with Magnus. Vishy was unimpressed with the “most wins” tiebreak system that meant he might easily have lost out if he’d finished tied with someone who “lost more games than me”, but in the end Maxime made that irrelevant. In the final game Vishy had Black against Wesley So…
…and with Wesley in damage control mode the game ended in only a draw. Vishy said it was his best performance yet in St. Louis, which may bode well for what comes next: he has the luxury of not being the oldest player in the field for the upcoming St. Louis Rapid and Blitz!
Sometimes the best way to win is not to take part at all! Vladimir was invited to be a regular on the Grand Chess Tour but felt he couldn’t commit to all the events, so instead he was a wildcard in Leuven and sat out the Sinquefield Cup. He must have enjoyed watching as his rivals for two rating qualification spots in the 2018 Candidates Tournament, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, had a miserable time.
If you assume the players’ ratings will stay unchanged from now until December then he’s now above Wesley So and not so far from Caruana:
Of course the World Cup – a potential ratings liability for top
players who take draws for sporting considerations – and then the Isle of Man
International, in which all three play, will have a lot to say about that.
Wild card Peter Svidler ended the tournament as the only player on 50%, scoring a full point more than in 2016 and finishing ahead of the trio of US players and his countryman Ian Nepomniachtchi. He also ended in style. In the penultimate round he treated us to a great confessional appearance before almost getting to land a spectacular blow against Levon Aronian. Then in the final round the story repeated itself again. A tweet from during Game 9 of the first Anand-Carlsen match was memorably phrased:
The confessional in St. Louis enabled us to see those emotions from a player during the game itself, as Peter commented on not sacrificing a piece with 18.Nf4!!
The fact that I couldn’t make 17…Bb4 18.Nf4 Bxd2 19.Nxe6 work is absolutely soul-destroying, and that’s before the machine tells me how it was working after the game. I’m really, really looking forward to that bit. Life is hard.
He was of course right about the machine, but for once the story had a happy ending, as Fabiano lost the thread and was comprehensively outplayed – not something you get to write very often.
Peter had an explanation:
Still, the question of what Svidler had missed in the sacrificial line remained topical, and luckily he was able to give a full explanation when he appeared on the German live commentary with Jan Gustafsson. He also talked about the game with Aronian the day before, jetlag and his somewhat mysterious spare time activities in St. Louis – don’t worry, Peter, your secret is safe with us!
You can watch the interview below:
Here is perhaps as good a time as any to briefly mention Svidler’s Russian colleague Sergey Karjakin, who won two games and lost one, to Magnus Carlsen, to go into the final round with chances of tournament victory. That wasn’t to be, but if Sergey wasn’t exactly a winner he certainly wasn’t a loser in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup:
A before and after shot of the live rating list tells you all you need to know about how things went for Wesley So.
He started in 2nd place, only 12 points behind Magnus, but by the end of an event he entered as the defending champion he'd swapped places with MVL in 8th place.
After his string of successes – the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, the 2016 London Chess Classic, the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, the 2017 Tata Steel Masters, the 2017 US Championships and of course his 67-game unbeaten streak – it was a shuddering return to earth. He’d lost a couple of games in a year and suddenly lost four in one tournament.
As you could imagine, he felt dejected, talking about his loss to Karjakin:
After my game yesterday, when I missed several equalising attempts… I figured enough is enough of this tournament. I couldn’t play here anymore…
But after he ended his ordeal with a draw against Anand he tried to remain positive:
I’d still like to thank the Lord for all the experience he’s given me and for giving me a career… It’s not the end of a career just because of a bad start.
Wesley will be looking to bounce back in the World Cup in a few weeks’ time.
Wesley’s companion in misery was Ian Nepomniachtchi, whose calamitous Round 2 play gave Wesley his one win of the event. Although posting 3/9 was less of a shock for a player ranked 15th in the world, it was still a big chance missed for the Russian, who has failed to get the tournament invites his talent alone would seem to deserve. He commented:
Harsh as it is to say, that attitude may be part of the
problem. Accidents can happen to anyone, but the way Nepo handled his time in
his games at times seemed to verge on the criminal – blitzing out crucial decisions and
only stopping to think when it was too late to alter the outcome of the games.
Wesley So finished bottom, but a winless Hikaru Nakamura only scored half a point more on -2, while Fabiano Caruana was half a point higher again on -1. After Round 2, when Caruana beat Aronian and So beat Nepomniachtchi, the US stars didn’t win another game.
It wasn’t the perfect timing for the publication of an article entitled, American Chess is Great Again, that included:
Sinquefield predicts an American world champion by 2020. If an American looks poised to qualify, he insisted he’d do everything he could to negotiate with FIDE to bring the match to St. Louis. He even had a venue picked out.
On the other hand, it’s hard to read anything into the results in St. Louis, which look more like a freak occurrence than any type of pattern. Nakamura, for instance, felt he played fairly well apart from in the game against Nepomniachtchi, and said of the event:
In many ways it’s better to get it all out of your system… I haven’t played a bad tournament in a while.
Nakamura and Caruana can put the event behind them fast when they play in the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz that starts on Monday, with Hikaru joking:
I certainly hope to do better than I did in the classical – I expect to at least win one game!
Ok, in this case we could, and probably should, have put Levon among the winners, but it’s amazing how much a last-round result can affect the impression of a tournament. Up until the final game against Carlsen the Armenian no. 1 had been treating us to some wonderful chess. He uncorked a beautiful rook manoeuvre against Nepomniachtchi in Round 1 and beat So and Nakamura in fine style in consecutive rounds to return to the no. 2 spot on the live rating list. Even his loss to Caruana after a careless blunder featured a heroic 110-move fight that will live in the memory.
Going into the last round Levon was the one leader who knew that a draw might work in his favour if MVL and Anand failed to win, but instead he found himself drawn into an all-or-nothing assault on Magnus Carlsen’s king. Questions might again be asked about Aronian’s ability to handle high-pressure situations, though on the other hand – losing an interesting game to the World Champion is an occupational hazard!
The net result is that Aronian hasn’t officially returned to world no. 2 for the first time since September 2014 and an end to Carlsen’s reign as world no. 1 isn’t yet in sight!
Plenty has already been written about the bizarre tiebreaks for this year's Grand Chess Tour events, that meant that a tie for first among more than two players might, or might not, have ended in a playoff. Tournament Director Tony Rich heroically tried to justify the regulations as being down to time constraints at other events (there was a whole evening set aside for playoffs at the Sinquefield Cup), but a better solution must have been available. Proceeding to show a host of potential scenarios after that was almost a reductio ad absurdum – if you can’t explain the tiebreak system in a sentence or two you’re clearly doing something wrong.
Greg Shahade was as forthright as ever:
The most damning indictment, though, perhaps came from Wesley So, who was surprised to learn some of the details from Maurice Ashley. Like all of us, he still needed further clarification: “So what happens again if three players tie?”
Fortunately, of course, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave made that all irrelevant, and the party could begin:
The Sinquefield Cup isn’t quite over yet until the Closing Ceremony, which you can watch live here on chess24 from 01:30 CEST on Sunday morning.
Then, before the World Cup (“the circus moves to Tbilisi” - Svidler), we have the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. With the Beast from Baku back at the board you won’t want to miss a minute!