Fabiano Caruana swept aside Sergey Karjakin in St. Louis on Friday to not only take the sole lead in the Sinquefield Cup but move within striking distance of Magnus Carlsen’s world no. 1 spot before their clash on Saturday. It could have been much worse for the World Champion, who miscalculated and was close to lost against Alexander Grischuk before the Russian also went astray. None of the games were quiet draws, with Nakamura-Aronian in particular a wild encounter that either player could have won.
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Sergey Karjakin is having a miserable time in St. Louis and lost his third game in four tries with the black pieces in Round 6. It didn’t help that he came up against a fit and motivated Fabiano Caruana, who while no doubt hiding his World Championship match strategy hasn’t been afraid to spring some opening surprises on his opponents.
He’d spotted 8.Qa4 as a Nimzo-Indian sideline that Wesley So had played against Vishy Anand in the blitz nine days earlier, and improved on Wesley’s play with 9.Bg5 instead of 9.Qc2. The move in the game had been tried by some top players (Lenderman, Roiz and Matlakov), but since Karjakin had burnt up 40 minutes by the time he played the dubious 9…a5?! he was clearly caught off-guard.
White’s positional pressure grew and grew, with Caruana criticising 22…Nb8!?
He suggested 22…Na5, saying of the a4-pawn, “he should be happy to get rid of this, just to get some kind of blockade with Nc5”. Instead Fabi got to play the “very strong move” 23.c5!, blowing open the position before Sergey could consolidate. Play continued 23…Ra5 24.Qb2 Qxd5 25.cxb6 cxb6 26.Nc4 Rc5 27.Qxb6! f6??
Black’s last move was fatal. Fabiano mentioned the alternative 27…Rcc8, but felt that 28.Nd6! was “dominating everything” and “slowly should be killing”. The computer suggests 27…Rf8, not fearing a capture on b8, but in the game it was simply over, with Fabi correctly assuming, “there must be more than one refutation” (28.e4! also works), but concluding one win was enough. He quickly went for 28.Rd1!, and after 28…Qxd1+ 29.Rxd1 Rxd1+ 30.Kg2 Karjakin resigned, since he only has a choice of how to die. 30…Rxc4 31.Qe6+ perhaps most clearly illustrates what was so wrong with 27…f6.
Despite its sporting significance, that game was almost completely overshadowed by the drama in a game involving two of the other leaders before the day began:
Few who witnessed it will forget Alexander Grischuk’s victory over Magnus Carlsen in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup:
Their 2018 game almost matched it. Fresh from the rest day – and some rested more than others…
…the players engaged in a game of cat and mouse in the opening, until Magnus found himself playing the Benko Gambit.
His 9…Bf5!?, a move Garry Kasparov, Veselin Topalov and Vishy Anand all curiously used to beat Predrag Nikolic in the 1990s, sent Grischuk into a 23-minute think, so that it seemed things were going Magnus’s way. That was all to change dramatically after 12…Nc2!? (12…Bc2 was, in hindsight, the move to go for):
Grischuk didn’t waste much time in playing 13.g4! Nxg4 14.e4 Nxa1 (14…Bxe4 was the move Grischuk expected, but Magnus had another idea in mind and played almost instantly) 15.exf5 Bxc3!? 16.bxc3 Nf6 17.Qe2!
Yasser called this “a boss move”, protecting a2 and preparing to win the a1-knight after Bh6 or Bg5. This seems to have been when it dawned on Carlsen that he’d gone wrong, since in his planned line 17…Ra4 18.Bh6 Nc2 19.Bxf8 Kxf8 he’d missed the crucial detail 20.Nb2!, hitting the rook and knight and winning a piece:
After 13 minutes Magnus played 17…Re8 instead, with Grischuk later commenting, “I’m winning, of course, but Re8 somehow shocked me, because I thought he would go for this line anyway”. His 18.Bg5 Qd7 19.fxg6 hxg6 was strong, though he might have tried 20.Nb6!, where he would have won a piece for a pawn but was worried about the black knight jumping from f6 to d5 to f4:
Somehow I already wanted to win without allowing any counterplay, and when you start to have this attitude too early a lot of times it leads to losing your advantage.
20.Rxa1 Qf5 was still fine, but here Grischuk’s decision met with universal disapproval:
21.Bxf6? MVL: “A terrible move – 21.h4, any move, just keep the bishops!” Mamedyarov: “I was in big shock when he takes on f6”.
Grischuk felt 21.h4 was “awkward”, but he wasn’t disputing the assessment, explaining that his plan was to consolidate with a3 and Re1-e3, which he felt would be winning… if he was in time: “It’s not as stupid as it looks – it’s bad… but if it worked it would be completely ok!”
The critical moment came remarkably soon, with move 26 the last chance to play for a win:
26.a4! Qxc3 27.Ra3 Qc1+ 28.Bf1 is a variation on Grischuk’s idea, but one that might still have worked, and would at least have prolonged the game. Instead 26.Qd3?! Reb8! 27.a3 Rb3! 28.Rc1 Ra4! 29.Qc2 allowed Magnus to draw on the spot:
29…Qf4! Grischuk had completely overlooked this possibility in advance, having only seen that he could meet 29…Rxc4? 30.Qxb3 Rg4 with 31.f4!, when White is winning. After the move in the game White had to allow a perpetual with 30.Qxb3 Qxc1+ 31.Bf1 Qg5+. In the Russian broadcast Grischuk told Svidler, “On the positive side, you could note that blundering something like 29…Qf4 might easily be losing, so it’s good that it wasn’t!”
The draw still cost Magnus a single rating point, and with Caruana winning it means their showdown on Saturday is set up to perfection. Magnus needs a win with the white pieces to catch and overtake Caruana in the Sinquefield Cup standings, but he knows that a loss in their last classical game before the match will make Caruana no. 1 on the live rating list, at least for a day.
You might dismiss that as a trivial detail, but no-one has managed that feat since Anand was last ahead of Magnus seven long years ago.
When Caruana won his game it seemed a certainty we’d have a sole leader of the Sinquefield Cup, since Levon Aronian was struggling against Hikaru Nakamura, and would do well to draw. Suddenly, though, that all changed, and powerful computers were giving Aronian a serious advantage:
Another powerful computer, Vishy Anand, set about trying to work out why during his interview with Svidler, and eventually did come up with the plan: 45…Rg2+ 46.Kb1 Rf1+ 47.Ka2 Rg4! and Black has blocked 48.b4?, since 48…Rg3 would force White to take drastic countermeasures to stop mate. The 45...Rg2+ line would give Aronian the time he needed to put his rooks on the a-file and stop White’s a-pawn, while the black kingside pawns could then make a dash for glory.
In the game 45…Ra4 let the advantage slip, and after 46.a7 Aronian made the losing move 46…g4?, based on a simple oversight. Play continued 47.Rc8 g3 48.a8=Q Rxc8 49.Rxa8:
Aronian’s plan was of course 49…g2 and Black queens, and wins, next move, but there was a small fly in the ointment:
Yeah, I completely forgot. It’s embarrassing! I completely forgot that he can play 50.Rbb8 and my pawns were not going anywhere… (50...g1=Q 51.Rg8+ eliminates the new queen) The problem was I was trying to play bullet with Hikaru, and that’s not a good idea!
Levon played 49…h5 fast, as if this was all still part of his master plan, and after 50.Rbb8 Kf6 51.Rg8 h4 Hikaru spent just over a minute on 52.Ra6+, the move that threw away the win. 52.Ra3!, that Levon said he’d spotted, was mate-in-27 according to our silicon friends. Nakamura used up all his remaining time in the play that followed, but it was too late and Aronian had escaped. He summed it all up once more:
I think I was still in the rest-day mood - I was just moving the pieces and not calculating! It’s inexcusable to play like this. I’m very ashamed.
Nothing quite so dramatic happened in the remaining two games, but they were both very far from routine draws.
That Shakhriyar Mamedyarov will play g4 at some point in a chess game is almost axiomatic, so his self-criticism of the move against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was a surprise:
It was probably justified, though, since White’s position did get tricky, until both players agreed the critical moment came on move 30:
Maxime took 11 seconds to play 30…f3?! – “a move you want to make by hand, but I should have looked more closely” – and after 31.Nf6+! the game fizzled out into a draw. Instead Mamedyarov described 30…a5! as leading to a “near winning position” for Black. MVL captures the d4-pawn for the b6-pawn, and White’s e5-pawn will also be weak. It was a sixth draw for Maxime, who nevertheless feels he’s playing well in St. Louis.
The highlight of this game was the brilliant post-game interview that Peter Svidler conducted with Vishy Anand afterwards:
Peter asks Vishy how he became acquainted with the Soviet School of Chess, with the former World Champion explaining that the USSR was “a promised land” for chess players when he was growing up, and one he gradually gained exposure to through the coaching of Artur Jusuppow, Mikhail Gurevich and Elizbar Ubilava. While Peter was translating that, though, Vishy came up with a better answer, and one worth quoting almost in full:
Perhaps it’s easier to explain what the Soviet Chess School is if I explain what it is not. I thought of two other schools of chess. One is the “Asian” School of Chess, which of course doesn’t exist in the same way, but it simply meant that you got into trouble very fast in the opening, so you became tactically agile. You played horrible openings and then you just try to compensate for your strategic deficiencies by tactics. I think I’ve benefitted in some ways from growing up like that, because some tolerance for bad positions is a good thing, and not being obsessed with being strategically perfect but being able to mix it up. That’s very useful. So this Asian style arose out of necessity, but it very clearly wasn’t the Soviet style. When you guys mixed it up it’s because you’d studied how to mix it up!
The other thing is the English School of Chess, which was simply the weekend tournament school of chess. So you’d play 6 or 8 games in a weekend tournament and you need to win all six to get a prize, and so your openings were the Grand Prix Attack, the Benoni, the Benko and this was a kind of English style.
I don’t think it worked out too badly, in a sense that I feel before I learned to orient myself properly it was good that I’d been exposed to this kind of thing, because I think the other direction, once you get very strong aesthetic preferences, then it’s very hard to take in new stuff. So I think it was good, but having said that I did have to correct my methods and correct those kind of things.
Svidler was disappointed when they switched to talking about the Sinquefield Cup game instead, so Vishy offered one last quip!
If we can make a funny joke, the American School of Chess is the English School of Chess but you bring your own set and clock! But that was before the St. Louis Chess Club…
Vishy’s account of his game against Wesley So was also highly entertaining, with one moment standing out:
In a tricky position he explained that “as they teach you”, he’d identified the candidate moves 18…f6 and 18…Nd8. He spent almost 10 minutes looking at the knight move:
I was very close to playing it, and then for some reason I decided to keep checking it again and again, and I realised 19.Bd6! and I can resign on the spot.
What happened next?
So I identified two candidates moves, spent all my time on one of them, realised it loses and then instantly played the other one – not the Soviet School of Chess!
No lasting damage was done, though, and Black managed to provoke liquidation that left the game drifting towards a draw. There was one last funny moment:
Vishy said he saw that 42…Rd3 solved any problems he had – either it’s an immediate repetition or he wins the e6-pawn. He managed to convince himself that the ending after 42…Rxa2 was easier, though. “Afterwards I thought I was nuts!” he told Svidler. He then explained that the main reason for capturing the rook was the assumption that Wesley just wanted to repeat moves. When that didn’t happen an utterly unnecessary loss was a possibility, but in the end Vishy held the opposite-coloured bishops ending without too much trouble.
That means that for the first time in the 2018 Sinquefield Cup we have a sole leader:
And you already know the game to watch out for in Round 7!
Will Magnus go all-out for the win that would both give him a great chance of winning the Sinquefield Cup and also strike a blow to Fabiano’s confidence before the match? Or will he be more focused on avoiding the potential loss of his world no. 1 spot? We’ll soon find out!
There's also more at stake, of course - with just three rounds remaining the fight to finish in the Grand Chess Tour top 4 and qualify for the London final is intense:
Follow all the action live here on chess24 from 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST) on Saturday!
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