In a climax no-one could have predicted, Fabiano Caruana, Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian all won the Sinquefield Cup for a second time after Carlsen rebelled against drawing lots to decide who would miss out on a two-player playoff. Before that he had ground down Hikaru Nakamura in 97 moves, while Levon Aronian gambled and won brilliantly in Alexander Grischuk’s time trouble. Wesley So showed no ambition as he drew against Fabiano Caruana, but was still rewarded with a playoff against the same opponent on Tuesday to decide who’ll join Nakamura, Aronian and MVL in the London final.
You can replay all the 2018 Sinquefield Cup games using the selector below:
And relive the final day’s play with the live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley:
It was to be a final round of fantastic drama in St. Louis, but the only contribution made by the all-US clash So-Caruana was to set the scene. There was something about the unconvincing way Wesley So had said, “I simply have to go all-out if I want to qualify for London,” the day before that had provoked Maurice Ashley to ask Wesley if he really did want to qualify. The sensation was the same in the final round, when Wesley looked surprised to see his opponent play the Petroff, though that was one of the least surprising things that could have happened.
So picked the rare sideline 4.Nd3, which he described as “a little bit interesting”, but he got nothing except a slightly worse position by move 20, with the game fizzling out into an early draw on move 35. The result meant Fabiano would at least tie for first but, as we’ll see, it was unclear what that would bring. His frustration with his opponent’s approach came out as mild sarcasm:
He said yesterday that he would go all-out, so I was expecting something like what he played! It was just such a dull game - nothing really happened. I was expecting him to try something better, because it was kind of a must-win for him, but he didn’t really want to play today.
Wesley himself spoke as a man who had failed in St. Louis and let a leading position in the Grand Chess Tour fade away over the course of two poor events. He reflected, “I need to bring the good days back - I need to have more focus and determination”. At this point he didn’t seem to have any hopes of playing in London.
That result meant that the four players who had begun the day half a point behind Fabiano now knew for a fact that a win would give them a tie for first place. The game involving two of those players would be the day’s most vivid encounter:
There was no lack of ambition by either player here, with Levon summing up:
I had this advantage before it started that my opponent needed to win much more than I did, and I had this strategy, I’m going to play a normal game and if a draw happens, it’s ok… and then I got too excited!
Levon spent 29 minutes on move 9, and when the game entered unchartered waters with 10.f3 Grischuk sank into a 42-minute think, an impractical decision even by his own exalted standards.
The Russian star was playing well, and offered a brilliant exchange sacrifice on move 14 (it was declined), but time would suddenly become a major factor when Aronian took a dramatic decision on move 18:
Levon had memorably mentioned champagne earlier in the tournament:
And now he commented:
I thought that with 18.Rf4 probably the game should be balanced but 18.Rxf7 looked kind of a move that might work, because it completely changes the dynamics of the game, and if you have more time this can be very unpleasant for your opponent. It’s a very risky decision, but as I already mentioned... the champagne part. I have to do something, because I do like champagne!
Aronian had 36 minutes to Grischuk’s 16 at this point, though the decision on how to capture already took 3 minutes. That was understandable, since it was far from obvious. Aronian told Peter Svidler afterwards that he expected 18…Qxf7, but Grischuk stayed true to himself by playing the better but more dangerous 18…Kxf7! If after 19.Rf1+ Bf5 20.g4 g6 21.Qc1 Grischuk had played 21…Re6! he might have been the one drinking champagne, but as it was things began to go White’s way, until with a bishop on e5 and the king safely tucked in on e3 nothing could go wrong for him.
The same couldn’t be said for Grischuk, who went astray with the plausible 29…Rd8? (29…b5 or 29…Re8 and Black should still survive):
Black was no doubt hoping to defend with Rd7 or Qd7, but Levon pounced with 30.Qe7!, and suddenly there was no way to drive the white queen away from its dominant position (30…Qd7?? 31.Rf8+!). The Armenian no. 1 commented:
Of course it’s very pleasant to have a position where your opponent cannot improve his position in any way, and yeah, I’m very happy that after all my sacrifice works so beautifully. As Larsen always said, “when you take risks you will lose, you will win, but you will only remember the wins!”
With Black paralysed the only question was whether Levon could find a way to finish off his opponent, and he did with the elegant advance of his h-pawn: 30…b5 31.h4! a5 32.h5! Rg5 33.Rf6. 33…Rxe5 was a clever try to confuse matters, but you could see Grischuk rocked back in his chair for the second time in the game by 34.Rg6+!, with mate next move. The game was over:
GM Niclas Huschenbeth has covered the entire game in a video:
The praise rolled in:
Aronian had ended the tournament as he began, and commented:
I think it’s good to start with a win and finish with a win, but the job is not yet done. I’m very happy, but when you’re lucky you get hungry for more.
He was thinking of a playoff, and at this stage what we thought we knew for a fact was that there would be a playoff. We didn’t know the identities of the players for certain, but Caruana-Aronian looked a very strong bet. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was putting up an impressive defence against Vishy Anand, but over the course of their 59-move draw never had any chance of getting the win he needed to tie for first.
Meanwhile things had started well for Magnus, but by this stage it was hard to imagine him beating Nakamura…
Hikaru Nakamura had little to fight for in the final round. He’d already wrapped up Grand Chess Tour qualification and was unlikely to salvage anything from a miserable tournament with Black against the World Champion. There was pride at stake, though, and maintaining the improved form that had seen him beat Magnus and then score six draws in their encounters, almost exorcising the painful memory of 12 losses without reply.
Hikaru played fast early on, with Magnus summing up the approach, “The line he goes for is very solid, but it’s also a little bit sad for Black”. The passive defence was put to the test with 25.Bxh6!
The new requirement for accurate, tactical defence brought out the best in Nakamura, though, and beginning 25…Re8! he confidently went about his task until Magnus admitted that he “didn’t have any particular hopes”, but played on since only a win mattered.
Things turned again on move 55:
Magnus admitted that if Nakamura kept queens on the board (e.g. playing 55…Kh7) there were no chances, but after 55…Qf7?! 56.Qa2! Qxa2 57.Rxa2 there was some reason for optimism. Nevertheless, he showed Svidler that Hikaru could have forced a draw almost immediately with the “very easy” 57…g5! 58.Kg3 Kg7 59.Kg4 Kg6 60.g3 Rb1! 61.Rxa7 Rg1:
Instead in the game after 57…Kh7 58.Ra6 Kg6 59.h4 Kh5 Magnus said that his opponent already “had to pick his poison… I cannot for the life of me imagine that it’s winning at this point, but he has to make some decisions”.
Those didn’t go well for Nakamura, whose 62…g5?! allowed White a passed pawn on h5, and whose 66…a5?! smacked of desperation, though Magnus told Svidler that he was slightly worried at this point that the idea he’d already foreseen of getting his king to b8 might fall foul of the 50-move draw rule:
Those fears proved unfounded, however, and the king made it to b8 on move 85:
Magnus had foreseen all that followed, but the surprising thing was that Hikaru seems only to have realised he was lost at the very last moment, when he went through all the stages of grief in a final position where there was only one legal move.
The winning technique was familiar to Magnus, who commented:
The idea is in general well-known to hide behind these pawns with the king. It’s funny that at the end material is equal and it doesn’t look all that bad for him – actually when he resigns he’s a pawn up, but it doesn’t matter!
After 97…Kg8 98.Re7 the only move to stop a fast mate is 98…Ra8, but after 99.Kxf6 all the black pawns fall and it’s a trivial task for White’s passed pawns to win.
It was a remarkable end to the tournament for Magnus, who with this and the victory over Sergey Karjakin had scored two of the kind of wins that used to be his bread and butter:
It’s great, it just makes the whole difference from a mediocre tournament to a good one, so now I’ve gained rating and I’ve shared first place, so that’s quite different from whatever 4th or 5th or what I would be with a draw.
When Maxime Vachier-Lagrave fell short against Sergey Karjakin and a stalemate was reached on move 119 the main part of the 2018 Sinquefield Cup was over, with three players tied for first place:
That wasn’t the end of the drama, though. According to the regulations there should have been a tiebreak for first place, but although that would take place on Tuesday, with plenty of time, it was only to be between the “two top players” (perhaps the rule applied more to the rapid and blitz events where the schedule is tighter). That would be determined by 1. results between the players, 2. number of wins and 3. number of wins with the black pieces. The players were actually tied on all three of those criteria, however, so we got the reductio ad absurdum that the player to miss out on the playoff would be decided by picking pawns out of a hat – the player who got the black pawn would be unable to fight for the title.
The World Champion wasn’t going to have that, though, and on the Russian broadcast he told Svidler:
My basic stance is that I’m not going to play a playoff with two people – I think it’s just too ridiculous – so we’ve got to find another solution.
Shortly afterwards a discussion with Tournament Director Tony Rich followed, in which Magnus proposed either a 3-player playoff or simply sharing the title without a playoff.
Levon Aronian was willing to play that playoff, but the agreement of all three players was needed, and Fabiano Caruana, phoning in to the venue, objected. So we got the anti-climax of no Sinquefield Cup playoff and a shared prize.
It might be easiest to engrave arrows for the 3 repeat winners!
Arguments raged online, with some pointing to the contract that the players had signed, while others felt it was right to rip up a contract with badly thought-out regulations.
That was Greg’s more family-friendly tweet. As so often, Anish put it most eloquently
It recalls the situation with the Candidates Tournament, where in London 2013 almost everyone agreed that it was wrong to have the challenger determined by mathematical tiebreaks rather than have a playoff between players tied for first at the end. Nevertheless, the regulations have remained unchanged in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and that for arguably the most important event in chess.
That’s not quite all for these two weeks of chess in St. Louis, though. One of the reasons Fabi had for not agreeing to a Sinquefield Cup 3-player tiebreak was that he has to play a tiebreak of his own anyway – two 25+10 minute games against Wesley So to determine the 4th spot in the Grand Chess Tour final in London in December:
It’s ironic that Nakamura’s painful defeat actually sees him go into London as the top seed (otherwise he would be behind Aronian), while it gave a lifeline to Wesley (otherwise Caruana would have qualified automatically). You can watch the tiebreaks at the usual time on Tuesday, with the usual commentary teams, live here on chess24 from 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST)!
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