The last ten games of the 2016 Sinquefield Cup have now ended in draws, with Anish Giri jokingly summing up: “two beautiful days!” He couldn’t really be held personally responsible, having played the longest game of Round 4 against Wesley So, while MVL-Svidler and especially Nakamura-Topalov had great potential. Only Aronian-Caruana was a non-event, with Levon suffering from a bout of food poisoning and getting the rapid draw he wanted from the game.
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On paper, the highlight of Round 4 of the Sinquefield Cup was the clash between the 2014 Champion Fabiano Caruana and the 2015 Champ Levon Aronian.
Fabiano kept to the script by playing the razor-sharp Benoni, but then Levon ensured we got perhaps the dullest Benoni ever witnessed on a chessboard. By move 15 the players had chosen to end things and began a wood-chopping spree that saw them play out the next 15 moves with barely a pause for thought. Afterwards Levon explained the mystery:
I wasn’t feeling well today at all and I wasn’t sure whether to play. I thought that even though I’m ashamed I need to make a draw.
Aronian said he was on the mend but, “it was a tough night, I have to say!” Caruana, meanwhile, couldn’t really complain about an easy draw with Black against a key rival. He talked about his choice of the Benoni, which he’d been hankering to play for half a year, but he perhaps didn’t do the best possible job of selling it:
It’s the worst opening. To all viewers, don’t play it, it’s a bad opening! …I’m getting bad positions in the Queen’s Gambit Declined, so how much worse can the Benoni be?
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None of the other games were anything but hard fights, though Ding Liren – Anand was an Isolated Queen’s Pawn position (for Black) which never caught fire. Vishy was alert enough to find the perfect moment to convert his piece activity into a draw.
If there was a game of the day it was Nakamura-Topalov, where Veselin sprung a surprise on move 9 by not capturing with the pawn but playing 9…Nxd5!?
That saw Nakamura sink into a 37-minute think, and he was still reliving that dilemma after the game:
Veselin played 9…Nxd5, which is considered dubious and no-one’s ever played it before. It’s very tricky when you play against someone like Veselin… Sometimes you’re not sure if you’re playing chess or something like poker. Is he prepared? In the end I ended up playing 10.e4. I really didn’t want to do it, but you kind of have to play principled chess. There’s a reason people haven’t played it, so you have to try and punish it.
In this case, though, Topalov made it clear that his willingness to give up his queen was no bluff:
What Hikaru did, to me, was really dubious in this game. First, it was obvious that Black has very good compensation. Even if White develops Black still has good compensation – I don’t think it’s a good idea.
That seemed to be the case, and the black pieces could really have enjoyed themselves if Topalov had gone on to punish 16.Nd6?! (16.g3 was his recommendation):
Veselin took the pawn on c5 and admitted to being surprised when Nakamura retreated the knight to c4 next move, but instead 16…Bd4!, overlooked by both players, was much stronger. In the game Topalov later found himself in difficulties after going for an unnecessary piece exchange, but the reserves of solidity in his position were great. Moves were repeated in a fortress position on move 42.
Nakamura gave his overall verdict on the last couple of days:
Chess, at the end of the day, is going to be a draw if players don’t make a mistake.
Peter Svidler’s take on the topic of the day was more personal. Why were there so many draws? “I stopped losing games!” In Round 4 he had his third game in St. Louis with the black pieces, and finally got off the mark. In fact, he dictated the course of the encounter and gave thanks afterwards, not to a divine being, but Alexey Kuzmin, whose opening recommendations he’d followed to around move 23.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was on his own, and was disappointed he’d rejected an interesting pawn sacrifice - he appeared to have calculated it to perfection:
Here he showed the line 19.Bxf6 Nxf6 20.Ng4! Nxe4 21.Nfe3! with the point that the tempting 21…Nxc3...
...gets hit by 22.Qg3! and Black has nothing better than 22…Ne4, when after 23.Nh6+ Kh8 14.Nxf7+ White ultimately emerges up an exchange for a pawn. Peter may have known about those tricks, of course, but instead Maxime persuaded himself not to go for the line and played 19.Ng3, expecting that Black’s plan was to play …d5 at some point. Instead Svidler immediately followed up with 19…a4! 20.Bc2 b4! and Black was on top, though the draw that followed was the logical outcome.
Maxime talked about how his level of play has declined recently:
A month ago I would have gone for this without doubt, because I would have noticed a4 followed by b4… I’m not playing so badly and I could have done a lot worse, but I’m playing much worse than a month ago. But then I was playing very well a month ago! That standard you probably cannot keep up for long.
The remaining game saw Anish Giri surprise Wesley So with the novelty 12…f5, though he was critical of his opponent's response:
I think he panicked somewhat in the opening! 12…f5 is not the end of the world yet, just the Stonewall structure.
Wesley set about exchanging pieces, but it failed to alleviate the pressure, and after 19.Qb2 Giri had a chance to really turn the screw:
19…a4! was the move Giri said he spotted one move too late. He called it “anti-positional”, but pointed out that there are very few squares remaining for the white queen if the pawn advances to a3. After 19…Rfc8, however, the immediate danger had passed, and the eventual inferior knight ending that Wesley reached is just the kind of position you never expect him to lose. A peaceful outcome ensued – making it ten in two rounds. A certain Magnus was drawn instead to watching the World Junior Championship (here on chess24), and particularly to one player with two great namesakes:
That meant the relative standings were again unchanged - Aronian,
So, Anand and Topalov still share the lead, now on 2.5/4.
What will Round 5 bring - players going all-out to win, or happy to start their rest day as soon as possible? The action includes the all-2800 clash between Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, so make sure to tune in to the live coverage with Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley from 8pm CEST!
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