Reports Aug 23, 2018 | 12:26 PMby Colin McGourty

Sinquefield Cup 5: Draws and drama

All five games were drawn in Round 5 of the Sinquefield Cup, but not without moments of high drama and fun. Magnus Carlsen looked on the verge of beating Wesley So when he got a passed pawn to c6, but Wesley didn’t crack and finally the World Champion concluded, “I think today is just one of those days where you have to say, well done, good defence!” There was no mutual praise when Nakamura-Mamedyarov ended in a draw, with the players competing to show the most frustration at the end of a sharp encounter.

Nakamura and Mamedyarov were not happy! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

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No-one said drawing was going to be easy

In last year’s Sinquefield Cup there was a mild form of Sofia Rules, with the players allowed to offer and agree draws only after Black’s 30th move. This year, however, it’s all change, as draw offers are completely outlawed:


That means the go-to way to end a game peacefully is to repeat the position three times, though even then you need the arbiter’s confirmation. When Wesley So stretched out his hand to make the final move in Carlsen-So (or was it to shake hands, and should he have made the move or simply written it down and asked the arbiter over?) it was taken for a draw offer, and hilarity ensued:

A scene to rival the famous “chess players play football” from Wijk aan Zee!

It's all about coordination | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

That wasn’t the only awkward handshake on Wednesday. Levon Aronian and Vishy Anand also weren’t sure how to end their game, since the draw could be claimed on the “completely drawn position” rule (as confirmed by Chief Arbiter Chris Bird) or by a repetition:

The reason for the players’ persistence was perhaps to avoid the controversy of Round 1, when some of the other players complained about the 29-move draw in Nakamura-Anand, despite it being hard to argue the final position wasn’t a dead draw.

The other games also ended in repetitions, with Alexander Grischuk’s post-game interview with Maurice Ashley, after the joy of defending the Berlin Endgame against Sergey Karjakin, beginning:

What were you trying to accomplish in this game?

I was trying to finish it!

He elaborated:

This is a bit of the problem with this rule, that no-one wants to win but you have to keep playing, and I almost got into trouble… There are a lot of good things with this rule, but there is also this that I don’t like. It’s one thing when Magnus plays it and he really wants to win, but when the guy doesn’t want to win, and you don’t want to win, it’s stupid.

In one of the chess year's most bizarre moments Grischuk was forced to write to New in Chess to explain that the bottle he'd held up during a Berlin Candidates press conference didn't contain his own urine... | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

It’s an old criticism, with the late Vugar Gashimov once having explained:

It seems to me that when there’s a ban on draws it puts pressure on you, and you start to play more limited chess. More solidly, perhaps… And grandmasters who find a three-fold repetition usually make it immediately at the first opportunity – as there’s a risk that you might have to play some stupid position for seven hours, and in any case the game will end in a draw.

Statistically you might say there’s some back-up for that, since in 2017 60% (15 out of 25) of the games in the first five rounds were drawn, while in 2018 it’s now 80% (20 out of 25). On the other hand, a lot of the draws have been very hard-fought, and you can judge nothing from such a small sample size. There’s also the factor that since no-one has won more than a single game there’s no need for players to go all-out for a win to keep pace.

But let’s get back to the action on the chessboard:

Crucial moments

Magnus, with his father Henrik and second Peter Heine Nielsen, looked in good spirits before the start of play | photo: Spectrum Studios, Grand Chess Tour  

Carlsen-So was trundling along quietly, until Wesley So’s 15…Qe7!? saw Magnus Carlsen’s eyes (and the computer’s diodes) light up. A forced sequence led to 20.Qd7, which Magnus said, “looked so promising from afar”:


This was a difficult moment for Wesley So’s fans, since he now sank into a 10-minute think, despite the fact that there was only one move that gave him chances of saving the game. 20…Rc2, threatening mate-in-1, can be refuted by 21.f4, among other moves (and if 21…Na5 then 22.Rac1! is crushing). Magnus wryly noted that 20...Nd8 21.Qe8# is mate-in-1. Finding an only move is the kind of thing supergrandmasters of Wesley So’s level can be relied upon to do almost without fail, however, and he did indeed come up with 20…Nc5! Magnus said, it “looks completely unappetizing for him, but somehow it’s just holding!”

It still looked awful for Black after 21.dxc5 Qxe5 22.c6 (Caruana: “I would be terrified!”), but Magnus’s excitement had already dissipated: “At that point I’d kind of cooled down a bit already”. After 22…h5 23.Rd6 Qxb2 24.Rad1 Qc2 25.h4 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was among those who felt it was just a matter of time before Black collapsed, whatever the computer evaluation:

Here Wesley showed he had no intention of getting gradually ground down, though, and played the forcing 25…Rd8! 26.Qxd8+ Rxd8 27.Rxd8+:

It turned out there was no way for White to promote the c-pawn, with Magnus commenting of the draw that he’d foreseen, “When I realised that, I couldn’t turn back. After that it was just frustration!” 

Arbiter Chris Bird would need to keep a close eye on Carlsen-So | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

He played on in the faint hope of a blunder, but although he kept varying his approach to avoid a quick 3-fold repetition – testing the arbiter’s observational skills – there was nothing that could be done. In fact the main tension at the end, before the famous handshake, may have been a suicide watch for a pawn…

The other game of day that really got the pulses racing was Nakamura-Mamedyarov, where Hikaru Nakamura, on the back of two losses in a row, was surprised by his opponent playing the main line Tarrasch Defence for the first time in 15 years. The game witnessed the kind of murky complications that both players are comfortable in, and on move 34 Hikaru declined a three-fold repetition and went for the jugular in his opponent’s time trouble. Shak admitted to not being used to time trouble and playing badly, but the inaccurate 39.Qe4 allowed 39…g6!


Hikaru was looking understandably unhappy at this point, but Shak looked desolate when 40.Nxd4 appeared on the board. He outdid his opponent’s body language (“If he’s not happy why am I happy!?” he later said), and his fans must have feared the worst, since it looked to everyone as though he thought he was lost and might resign at any moment.

It was strange, then, that with the same frustration he played the drawing combination 40…Qxd4! 41.Qxd4+ Nxd4 42.Rxc7 Nf3+! and the rest was simple.

Shak explained later that he’d been looking forward to the exciting position after 40.Nxh6, when you might, for instance, get 40…Re7 41.Qh1! Rh7!? 42.Rxc6 Qxf4. One phrase Shak used after the game perhaps applies here: “Maybe it’s not a very good position, but I like my position!”

Mamedyarov, here with his second Rauf Mamedov, is planning to play dominoes on the rest day, and revealed he's even played the game in the Azerbaijan Championship! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

The other games were less memorable, with Karjakin-Grischuk, as we already noted, an instantly forgettable Berlin Defence. What was memorable was Alexander Grischuk taking exception to an interview from the day before when Sergey had talked about it being difficult to play against his friends, while Grischuk had no problem:

It did seem just a linguistic misunderstanding, although later Sergey said he felt Grischuk was more of a friend (in the Russian sense) than a “comrade”/acquaintance.

Levon put a disappointing opening down to having to play a game as early as 1pm - the life of a chess player is never easy! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour 

The quickest game of the day was Aronian-Anand, which, if we believe the players (and why wouldn’t we!) was an important theoretical encounter. Levon tried the same line against the Queen’s Gambit Declined that Nakamura had used against Anand in Round 1, noting that repeating a position where your opponent drew easily can be a good tactic if they have a false sense of security. Vishy’s sense of security seemed justified, though, as he again got in the d4-break and then played the novelty 16…Qf6 instead of the previous 16…Qd5:


The queen is destined to take on f3 in the near future in any case, but by attacking the f4 bishop it limits White’s options. Vishy told an amusing story:

It’s funny, because periodically my seconds would jog my memory and I would always two or three times I think play Qd5, thinking that that was our improvement over Qf6, and then they would look at me and tell me, “no, you mixed it up again! Qf6 is your improvement over Qd5.” So I had this nice note in block capitals saying “NOT QD5!”

Levon put the blame on his only having time for superficial analysis since in St. Louis the players have to start at 13:00 (giving European viewers a fighting chance of staying up to the end!), instead of the more usual 15:00. The rest of the game involved some nuances, but nothing that overly taxed the players.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Fabiano Caruana have almost single-handedly revived the Petroff Defence... someday we may forgive them :) | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour  

The remaining game is MVL-Caruana. Fabiano played the Petroff Defence that had served him so well at the Candidates, and although White got nothing major (“I think if you manage to refute the Petroff you deserve more than a win!” - MVL) Maxime appeared in the confessional to talk about his opening advantage and how he couldn’t, yet, see Caruana’s counterplay. Fabiano agreed that he was in some trouble, but held things together and had spotted something Maxime missed in advance:


Maxime’s intended 28.Rxf7?! here would win a pawn after 28…Rxf3 29.Rf8+ Be8 30.Rxe8+ Kd7 31.Rg8, but Fabi had spotted 28…c6!, giving the king some luft, and while not winning the bishop, as Caruana initially said, it would at least have made it look foolish. The game ended in a repetition on move 40.

That means we still have five leaders as the players enjoy their only rest day:

When battle recommences on Friday the only clash of the leaders is Grischuk-Carlsen. Will it be as dramatic as their 2015 Sinquefield Cup game, when Magnus was left shattered after a 6.5 hour loss with the white pieces?

You can't win 'em all... | photo: Nacho Soto

Find out by tuning into the action live here on chess24 from 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST) on Friday!

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