It was almost a spectacular statement of intent from reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. He outplayed Fabiano Caruana in their Sinquefield Cup Round 7 clash, provoked a blunder and entered the confessional to “shush” Caruana’s fans. It would have been perfect, but the bravado backfired when Magnus failed to find the best follow-up and Fabiano put up an ugly but effective defence to salvage a draw. Their match looks like being a classic, while for now Caruana remains the sole leader with two rounds to go in St. Louis.
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And here’s the day’s live commentary with Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley:
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There was only one game that mattered in the St. Louis Chess Club on Saturday. World Champion and no. 1 Magnus Carlsen was facing his challenger Fabiano Caruana in what’s likely to be their final game before the World Championship match in London this November. As if that wasn’t enough, Magnus had White against the tournament leader he was trailing by half a point with three rounds to go, meaning he was almost obliged to go for a win to boost his chances of claiming a second Sinquefield Cup triumph. And as if that still wasn’t enough, a win for Caruana would knock Carlsen off the top spot on the live rating list for the first time in 7 years. Even Magnus admitted afterwards, “obviously a lot was at stake today, so I was a bit nervous”.
The game didn’t disappoint, with principled chess from both sides. Fabi played the Petroff Defence that had been instrumental in his reaching a World Championship match, and Magnus went for a plan with opposite-side castling. On the Russian broadcast Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk later speculated over whether we’ll see the Petroff in the match, with Grischuk suspecting the Berlin may return instead, while Svidler expects the “Russian Defence” at least once, but also doubts it’ll be Fabi’s main defence.
If they do want to use the opening the game will have given Team Caruana some work to do, since the rare 8.Bc4 had Fabiano thinking for 7 minutes early on. More surprising bishop manoeuvres were to follow, with 17.Bc1 in particular a stylish move:
Carlsen doesn’t fear a discovered attack on his queen by the knight, protects the b2-square against a queen and knight attack and deprives Black of any targets in the centre. With the h-pawn already on h5, White is ready to launch an all-out assault on the black king, and Caruana admitted that something had gone wrong:
Already my position is unpleasant and it has been for quite a few moves, which is strange because I thought I have a very decent position in the early middlegame – after I played 16…Ne5, and then slowly I became worse. It’s strange, because from what I understand about these positions Black shouldn’t be in any trouble here… It feels like my position should be fine, but slowly I’m being pushed back and the endings are unpleasant.
The crunch came on move 24:
Caruana later commented that he had “no counterplay” and that “to defend this you basically have to play perfectly up to the end of the game”. Paradoxically, then, it may have worked in his favour that he blundered immediately with 24…Ne7? (24…Kh8 or 24…Kh7 were better options), having missed that after 25.gxh6 Rxh6 White can play 26.f5! since 26…Rxh5?? runs into 27.Ng4+!
27…Rxh1 28.Nf6+! Kh8 29.Rxh1# is the beautiful point.
Fabiano realised his mistake after 25.gxh6 and sank into an 8-minute think trying to devise a Plan B. While he suffered, Magnus had the luxury of more time and a winning position, and decided to make a brief visit to the confessional!
That was of course taking a risk…
…but as the World Champion later told Maurice Ashley:
At that point I was pretty sure that I was winning and I just wanted to have some fun.
Back at the board Fabiano found the best defence with 26…Rh7, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Magnus had responded accurately:
Caruana called this “a pathetic position” and feared 28.f6! After that Fabi felt 27…Nd5 28.Ng4 was hopeless due to 28…Kh8 29.Bg5!, though the computer suggests 28…g6! may still offer resistance. He was planning to play 27…Nf5, though he’d spotted both 28.Rg5! and 28.Nf3! Magnus spent 8 minutes himself here, but went for 27.Ng4!? instead, later lamenting:
I felt that I was close to winning, but I miscalculated… My intuition told me to go f6 before Ng4, then I only saw afterwards how to refute Nf5… The problem is also in all my games I’m not being practical. I just can’t make up my mind, I can’t follow my intuition and make decisions. It’s frustrating, for sure!
Caruana channelled his inner Stockfish to respond 27…Kh8! 28.f6 Ng8!
It’s not pretty, but suddenly White has no clear wins. One interesting try is 29.h6!? Nxf6 30.Nxf6 gxf6 31.Re1 and at the cost of a pawn Black’s pieces have been totally paralysed.
“It’s not so easy to go for this, but I can’t really move, which is a problem!” was Caruana’s comment on the even worse position after 29…gxh6?! 30.Rh5!, but it seems that in the diagram position Black should be able to sacrifice one of the f-pawns to free himself and get decent drawing chances.
In the game after 29.fxg7+ Rxg7 Caruana began to move confidently while Carlsen fell to under a minute on his clock as he struggled to find a win in a position that no longer offered one.
The suspicion was still that there was a long grind ahead, but by the time the players began repeating moves to reach the time control there was no longer any good reason to continue the battle. That often hasn’t stopped Magnus in the past, but it was clear from his post-game comments that his confidence had taken a hit:
Today was not a good day. A draw with Fabi is not a disaster, but I got serious chances and I just couldn’t calculate.
And he could also see that his opponent was in command. As Fabi put it later, “The good thing about having a dead lost position is you no longer see ghosts in dead drawn positions”. The game ended on move 41, though it had still managed to be the longest of the round.
So the game ended on a positive note for Caruana, who summed up that, “considering the position I had this was really a great result”. He also got to watch his opponent’s confessional appearance, to which he responded, “Yes, I guess he thought it was already over… but it wasn’t!” Magnus himself simply said, “That kind of backfired, huh?” When the emotions die down, though, he can still reflect on having had his World Championship opponent on the ropes in Fabiano’s pet opening, and not only that:
That escape wasn’t the only reason Caruana could be
satisfied with his day’s work. He added, “It was also great that nobody else
won today, so I’m still in the lead.” It often seems to happen that when there’s
one huge game that everyone’s focused on the other players almost deliberately play
quietly to avoid distracting viewers, though no doubt that’s in part an optical
illusion based on the focus of the live broadcast. None of the
other players were interviewed on the English stream, though Alexander Grischuk
and Sergey Karjakin did appear in Russian.
Grischuk replied “nothing” when asked what had happened in his 32-move Italian draw against Vishy Anand, while there was more than a hint of irony in his christening the curious 35.Rbb1 by Levon Aronian against Wesley So the “move of the day”:
MVL seemed to be pressing with his bishop pair against Hikaru Nakamura in another Italian, but shortly after that it was Black who was on the better side of a draw. Karjakin-Mamedyarov, a 6.h3 Najdorf, was the most dramatic game other than Carlsen-Caruana, though it would take very serious analysis to work out what was actually going on. Sergey himself wasn’t sure, but did explain what he knew in the opening:
I remembered how White shouldn’t play! I remembered Dominguez-Kasparov and that White was too slow and got a catastrophic position.
Dominguez played 15.a3 here, while Karjakin struck immediately with 15.f4!
That means that the standings were essentially unchanged, with Caruana still leading Grischuk, Carlsen, Mamedyarov and Aronian by half a point. Their opponents in the final two rounds are as follows:
Of course they’re not the only players with something to fight for, since e.g. So, MVL and even bottom-placed Karjakin are still competing for the 4 places in the Grand Chess Tour final in London. And just for some added spice, the world no. 1 spot isn’t safe for Magnus just yet, since he’s now less than 7 points ahead of Caruana, a gap that can vanish in a single round.
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