It is not too early to praise the organisers of the Sinquefield Cup for putting together a fantastic field and event. I cannot recall a supertournament where every single one of the first nine games was a fantastic clash, full of action, sacrifices and drama...
The third round was the bloodiest yet, so we brought in Mister Peter Svidler to help us make sense of the violence.
by GM Jan Gustafsson
Is it too early to call Fabiano Caruana the biggest threat to Carlsen's throne?
He just looks unstoppable so far in St.Louis. Round 3 saw him sending in his strongest application yet, defeating the World Champion with the black pieces.
1. e4 Carlsen has preferred 1. d4 recently, but probably did not feel like another Grünfeld today.
1... e5 2. ♗c4 The Bishop's Opening is a rare guest at top level. When it is used, the idea is pretty much always to avoid the Petroff - 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 - an opening which Caruana never plays. So it's hard to fathom Carlsen's thought process.
3... ♘c6 is still possible here, when in my opinion White has nothing better than to transpose back into the Italian with 4. ♘f3 Hence my surprise about Carlsen granting Caruana the extra option used in the game.
4. ♘f3 d5 5. ♗b3 ♗b4+⁉ An odd-looking move, but with a sound idea. Before going Bd6 to defend his e-pawn, Caruana wants to provoke c3. With a pawn there, Nc3, attacking the d-pawn, is no longer possible.
6. c3 Carlsen goes along with the idea. I don't like this move. More critical is
6... ♗d6 7. ♗g5 Intending to clarify the situation in the center. Anish Giri once wrote something along the lines of, "all top players have one idea which they may like a little too much for their own good. Aronian likes to play g4 and to sac his queen, Anand likes his knights, Carlsen likes... the move Bg5 in Spanish structures". While it's hard to criticise here, the fate of this bishop will be less than glorious.
11. ♗g3? It always feels wrong to assign question marks to moves by these guys. Maybe I just didn't get the idea? Well, I didn't get the idea. White gives up the pin voluntarily and more or less ensures that this bishop will be exchanged for the black knight after Nh5, leaving him struggling to hold the balance.
11... ♗c7 Stepping out of Nc4-attacks before going Nh5.
12... ♘h5 13. h3⁈ Things have gone wrong in the opening and the World Champ switches to desperate measures. He urges Black to capture on g3 instantly - before the bishop finds a new home on h2 - and hopes to use the ensuing half-open f-file for counterplay. Giving up the two bishops, a weak king, an isolated e-pawn and the doubled g-pawns are a stiff price to pay, though.
14... ♘f6 was a safe alternative.
15. ♗xf7+! It tends to be a good idea to change the course of a game that is not going well. Quiet play only promised suffering, so Carlsen uses this chance to make a mess out of it. At the price of a piece, the black king is forced into the wild.
16. ♘h4+ was a serious alternative. The main difference to the game is that the e5-pawn remains on the board. In some lines, this works in White's favour, as the bishop on c7 remains passive. 16... ♔g8 17. ♘g6 ♕g5 (17... ♕d6 18. ♖f8+ ♕xf8 19. ♘xf8 ♔xf8 is probably Black's best bet. He has two pieces and a rook vs a queen and pawn, a serious material advantage. Queens are strong, though. 20. ♕h5 ♗e6 and only Black can be better, but converting that into a full point is no easy task. 21. ♖f1+ ♔e7 22. ♘f3 Planning Nh4-Ng6.) 18. ♖f8+ ♔h7 19. ♖xh8+ ♔xg6 20. ♕f1! is one line where the pawn on e5 helps White. There is no battery of queen and bishop after Qxg3.
16... ♔g8 The only move.
18... ♔h7 19. ♘xh8 Quite a position! At the moment White is an exchange and two pawns up, but the main element of the position is that it's Black to move. He has many tempting choices that see his pieces spring to life and recapture material. Caruana copes admirably.
19... ♕e3+ 20. ♔h1 ♗g4 is the main alternative and should also favour Black after 21. ♕xg4 ♖xf8 22. ♘g6 ♖f7 His initiative will net some pawns back and lead to a better ending, e.g. 23. ♘f1 ♕g5 24. ♘h4 ♕xg4 25. hxg4 ♘xe4 26. ♔h2 ♘f2
20. ♕f1 Forced yet again.
20... ♘d3‼ This might not be the computer's first choice, but it's an amazing move nevertheless. Carlsen himself was full of praise for it after the game as well and admitted he totally missed it. Instead of trying to win material back, Caruana puts another piece en prise by bringing his knight closer to Harald V.
21. ♕xd3 The most resilient move.
21. ♖f7 is beyond the scope of a human being. It doesn't necessarily save White, either: 21... ♕e3+ 22. ♔h1 ♕xg3 23. ♖xc7 ♘f2+ 24. ♔g1 ♘xh3+ 25. ♔h1 ♕xc7 26. gxh3 ♗e6 and Black keeps a pleasant edge after finally picking up the stranded knight and restoring material equality.
22... ♔xh8 was perfectly fine as well.
24. e5+ ♔xh8 Let's take a quick breather and count. The material balance is magically equal, for the first time since move 15, but Black is better. The main factor is his safer king. Carlsen tries to get counterchances by throwing his passed e-pawn into the ring.
28. ♕e5 ♖d5 29. ♕b8+ ♔h7 It should be pointed out that Carlsen has played a great game ever since move 15. He has been resilient and constantly found the best ways to complicate matters. His downfall in this game was his opening play, with Bg3 and h3 the main culprits.
Former World Champion Veselin Topalov had a simple view on the "biggest contender" matter:
Number One losing to Number Two, it's not really a big surprise. To become World Champion, you just have to win the World Championship match.
Of course, one can speculate if Carlsen is distracted by the question of whether he actually wants to participate in the next World Championship match.
However, Carlsen himself pointed out his play in the first two rounds was good and that we should not draw too many conclusions yet.
The Bulgarian had reasons to be happy today as well, winning his first game after starting with two losses.
We certainly have reason to be happy, as we have none other than Super-GM Peter Svidler taking us through the action:
1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 a6 4. ♗a4 ♘f6 5. 0-0 b5 6. ♗b3 ♗c5 This line used to be very popular in the late 90s, and is now enjoying a bit of a revival. Hikaru has had some experience with it with both colours, in fact - playing a very curious game with White against Rustam Kasimdzhanov in Tromsø. After 20 moves in that game, Hikaru was down to about 20 minutes, while RK was actually up from his initial allotment of 90'+30''. Hikaru still won, though, quite convincingly in fact.
16... c5 almost exclusively here, and after the pretty much forced 17. ♗g5 h6 18. ♗h4 the current consensus, insofar as I've been able to determine from my last-century notes and the DB, is that Black is fine after
b2) 22. ♗f1
c) 18... cxd4!N 19. ♘bd2 (19. ♕d3 b3 20. ♗xb3 ♘xb3 21. ♕xb3 g5 22. ♘xg5 hxg5 23. ♗xg5 d3 24. ♘d2 ♗xf2+ 25. ♔xf2 ♘xe4+ 26. ♖xe4 ♗xe4 27. ♗xd8 ♖xb3 28. ♘xb3 ♖xd8 29. ♘d2 f5 30. b4 ♖c8 Navara-Shirov, Carlsbad 2007) 19... ♖e8 20. ♖a4 (20. ♕e2 ♘c6=/+ )
c2) 20... ♗c6 Anand-Shirov, Wijk aan Zee 1998
18... ♕d7 Black's idea becomes clearer: he did not get an immediate break in the center, but the fact the bishop is still stuck on c1 is a huge concern for White. In fact, it is very difficult to come up with a decent plan - in order to play Nf1, White needs to protect the e4-pawn first, and he has no pieces to do that with. Which leaves d4-d5 at some point - a very sad choice, since it opens up the monster on b6, and also gives Black a target for the c6-break.
19. e5⁈ A natural reaction - White is trying to break out of his cage - but also a hugely committal move. I am a bit surprised Veselin took only 7 minutes for this decision, but if the timings on the website are correct (I must admit I didn't watch this round live - way too late for me at my advanced age) he had already spent 40+ minutes by this point, so perhaps he did not feel like falling even further behind Hikaru on the clock. However, White's choice in the stem game, uninspiring as it may be, is probably more prudent.
19... dxe5 20. dxe5 ♘h5 Knight on the rim, I hear you cry... Two of them, even! But in this particular case, the fact that Black's bishops dissect the board completely is far more important. Playing calmly is no longer an option for White:
21... g6? But this is mystifying. Hikaru, one of the best tacticians in the business, decides not to bother with a rather obvious shot, and instead opts for a move which makes White's life much, much easier. After
a1) 24. ♗e4 ♖xg5 25. ♗xb7 ♘xb7 26. ♕xb3 ♘f4 (26... ♕d8 immediately is also quite good) 27. ♕xb7 (27. ♔f1 fails to a calm 27... ♕d8! , and Black is ready to pounce) 27... ♖xg2+ 28. ♕xg2 ♘xg2 29. ♘f3 ♖xb2+! 30. ♔g1 ♕d1+ 31. ♖e1 ♕d8 32. ♗xb2 ♘xe1 33. ♖xe1 f6 , and although it will take some technique, I believe Black is favourite to win this endgame
a2) 24. ♗xh7+ ♔f8 White has a spectacular shot here: 25. ♕f3! , but if Black keeps his cool he is much better: (25. ♘df3 ♕xd1 26. ♘xe5 , which players indicated after the game as a possible chance for White, is quite bad due to the simple 26... g6 - White's pieces are stuck in the corner with no real threats, and Black's material superiority decides matters. ; 25. ♗e4 ♖xg5 26. ♗xb7 ♖e8!−+ ) 25... ♖xg5! (25... ♗xf3? 26. ♘dxf3 is suddenly winning for White) 26. ♗e4 ♖e8! 27. g4 ♗xe4 28. ♘xe4 ♖ge5 29. ♖xa5 ♖xa5 30. gxh5 ♖ae5∓
24. ♕h4 The landscape is quite different now. With Black's kingside weakened, and White's pieces acquiring concrete targets, it is much easier to play this position with White - and it begins to show right away.
24... ♖f8⁈ This move features very prominently in Black's plans, but for now it was more important to bring the a5-knight into play, and stop the Nd2-f3-e5 manoeuvre:
a) 25. ♘df3 ♘c6 26. ♖a4 (26. ♗d2 is well met by 26... e5! 27. ♗c3 ♗d4 - another plus of not hurrying with Rf8) 26... ♖f8! (and now it's time to deal with potential Rf4xf6 ideas) 27. ♗e3 (27. ♖f4 ♖be8 ) 27... ♖be8 28. ♗xb6 cxb6 , and Black is quite comfortable
c21) 28... ♖f8 is another option, but I'd take White in an endgame arising after 29. ♖xc4 (29. ♖xd5 ♗xf2+ 30. ♕xf2 exd5 31. ♕h4 dxe4 32. ♖xc4 ♕d1+ 33. ♔h2 ♕d6+ is a draw) 29... ♗xf2+ 30. ♕xf2 ♖xf2 31. ♔xf2 ♗xc4 32. ♖xd7 ♖xd7
25. ♘df3 Now White is to be preferred - his clearly superior coordination far outweighs a single pawn.
25... ♗d5 Too late for that.
25... ♗xf3 , trying to lessen the number of attackers, is also quite bad: 26. ♘xf3 ♘c6 27. ♗h6 ♖f7 28. ♖a4 , and even without direct threats White is much better - there are simply no good squares for the Black pieces
25... ♖be8 is the sharpest line available, and the one it was time for Black to go for: 26. ♘e5 (26. ♗d2 ♘c6 27. ♗c3 e5 is quite good for Black ; 26. ♗e3 ♗xf3 27. ♗xb6 cxb6 28. ♘xf3 is perhaps slightly better for White - but Black is very much alive) 26... ♕d5 27. ♘gf3 ♘c6 , forcing White to at least sacrifice some material: 28. ♗xg6 hxg6 29. ♘xg6 ♘h5 (29... ♕h5 30. ♕g3 ♘g4 31. ♕xg4 ♕xg4 32. hxg4 ♖f6 33. ♘gh4 ♘b4 is another option for Black, with decent drawing chances) 30. ♘xf8 ♖xf8 31. ♕g4+ ♘g7 32. ♗e3 ♖xf3! , with unclear play.
27... ♘c6? The final mistake of the game. Absurd as this may look, Black needed to return to the previous knight formation:
27... ♘h5! , and suddenly it's not that easy for White to protect the f2-pawn:
b) 28. ♘gf3 ♗xf3! (28... ♘c6 29. ♗c3 ♘xe5 30. ♗xe5 ♕d7 31. ♗e4 ♖f7 is a dramatic improvement in Black's fortunes as well) 29. gxf3 (29. ♘xf3 ♕xb2 30. ♖xa5 ♖xf3 ) 29... ♘c6! 30. ♘xc6 ♕xb2 , and Black is doing great
c) 28. ♘g4 ♕xb2 29. ♗xa5 ♕xa1 (29... ♗xf2+ may look outlandish, but after 30. ♘xf2 ♖f4 31. g4 ♖bf8 the tables are turned) 30. ♗xb6 cxb6 31. ♘xh7 ♖f4 , and all three results are possible - perhaps Black is even better...
29... ♖be8 may objectively be a stronger move, but 30. ♘xe6 ♕f7 31. ♘xf8 ♖xf8 32. ♗d3! is hopeless: White will have to find the beautiful 32... ♘e4 33. ♕xe4! , but since it's the only good move available to him... 33... ♗xe4 34. ♖xe4 ♕xf2+ 35. ♔h1 h5 36. ♖d1! , and the black king is doomed.
31. ♕c4! the dust clears.
35. ♖d1 ♔g7 36. ♗xd5 ♗xd5 37. ♕xd5 And Black resigned. Not the best game these two will play in their lives, but a very entertaining one nonetheless - and a very important win for Veselin, who could have easily found himself with 0/3 had Hikaru been a bit more precise at a crucial moment.
The opening did not go well for the Armenian, who ran into a very strong pawn sacrifice and was already under pressure in this position. The bishop pair, the weakened black king and the strong pawn centre provide ample compensation. After 15...Rf5? 16.Rfb1 Qb6 17.e4 Rf8, development time was lost and the situation turned from "critical" to "lost". Not a good day at the office!
You can replay the whole game here.
Caruana is 1.5 points ahead!
Of course this dominance also affects the other standings I am obsessed with, the Live Rating list.
Caruana is up to 2815.7! This is not only clear Number 2 in the world, but also higher than Kramnik's best! Hmm, could that kid have World Champion potential?
The action continues tonight with:
Check it out right here on chess24, where we are embedding the great live show with Yasser Seirawan, Jen Shahade and Maurice Ashley.
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