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Sinquefield Cup: Caruana, Aronian & Carlsen share first

by V. Saravanan - 28/08/2018

The last round of the Sinquefield Cup was one of the tensest in recent memory. Aronian, Caruana, Mamedyarov, Wesley So, Grischuk, Vachier-Lagrave, Karjakin were all fighting to make the top 4 to get into the Grand Chess Tour final. Carlsen was fighting for the title. Nakamura wasn’t fighting for anything but he was scheduled to play Carlsen with black! Find out below in the excellent report of IM V. Saravanan what happened in the last round of the Sinquefield Cup 2018 and game annotations of Anand-Mamedyarov by Tanmay Srinath.

Pressure is the word associated closely with modern chess. The ability to create and withstand pressure is what defines the class of any player, even the best in the world. But it is easier said than done to keep your emotions intact and withstand pressure indefinitely. That is why you see mistakes even at the topmost levels of chess, which keeps chess fresh and creative, even in the modern era of ridiculously deep opening preparation. We urge you to keep this in mind when studying games from this round!

The tournament hall at the beginning of the tense last round

The first game to get up and running instantly was Aronian - Grischuk. The moment Old Indian Defence appeared on the board, it was obvious that Grischuk had desperate ideas in his mind. Only, since he had a 42 minute think for his 10th move, after which it was just a question of when he was going to get into time pressure...

Aronian - Grischuk

position after 13...Nb6

What to make of this position?! Making sense of the game by looking at general factors as pawn structures, piece placement, king safety etc. have gone out of the window long ago. It is next to impossible to understand this position unless it is thoroughly analysed. 14.Nd6 Nc4!? [All our marks to Grischuk for playing so boldly (desperately?) from the word go] 15.Nxc4 [15.Nxe8 Qxe8 16.Bc1 e3! and black has compensation] 15...dxc4 16.fxe4 Nxe4 17.Qc2 Qd5

position after 17...Qd5


[Once he won the game, Aronian joked, “Now it is easy to call myself a hero!” Aronian’s strategy before the game was to play a normal game, with the mental makeup that it was okay if the game would end in a draw. After all, Grischuk was more desperate than Aronian to win this game, to have any chance of finishing in the top 4 in GCT placings. 


He also understood that this was a very risky decision, but he ‘also remembered the champagne part’! Claiming that he got too excited and sacrificed on f7, he also factored in that Grischuk had only 9 minutes left to the time control at this point itself. 18.Rf4 would continue the balance, but he made the sacrifice believing he saw enough play for white, but he had missed a detail]


18...Kxf7 19.Rf1+ Bf5 20.g4 [Aronian had intuitively decided that this position can present white a good attack, as the black king is very weak and he a pair of bishops] 20...g6 21.Qc1 Kg7? [Both the players had missed 21...Re6! (aiming to move to f6) 22.gxf5 gxf5 and black is clearly better] 22.gxf5 gxf5

position after 22...gxf5

Have a look at the position without the use of a chess engine, and you will understand that Aronian’s boldness had a logic. It is next to impossible to defend this position with black pieces in practical play, especially when you have less than 10 minutes in your clock.


23.Bxe4! fxe4 24.Qf3 [White has a roaring attack on the kingside, though there is defence for black] h6! 25.Qc7+ 

position after 25.Qc7+

25...Kh8? [White is rewarded for his boldness. Either 25...Kg6 or 25...Kg8 was called for] 26.Bd6 Rg8+ 27.Kf2 Rg6 28.Be5+ Kg8 29.Ke3

position after 29.Ke3

Triumph of white’s strategy. It is not everyday that one’s king gets as cosy as at a square like e3 in middlegame! Now that Grischuk was into his last couple of minutes, by now it was a question of when a blunder would occur rather than if…


29...Rd8?? 30.Qe7 b5 31.h4 [Black is practically immobile] a5 32.h5 Rg5 33.Rf6 Rxe5 34.Rg6+ Grischuk was in such a bad time trouble that he actually allowed this mate to be executed!

Aronian fittingly remembered Bent Larsen’s quote after the game, “When you take risks (sometimes) you will lose, (sometimes) you will win, but you will only remember the wins!"

Aronian - tremendous courage in a crucial game | Photo – Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Chatting with Chessbase after the game, Aronian admitted that he had not anticipated the opponent’s opening choice for this game. ‘But I was sure that he will play an opening which he has never played before!’


Was it his intention to make this game a tactical battle? ‘Yes, I can play tactical. I am strong in playing in dynamic positions also, but I did not have any pre-game plan to make the game tactical today. I just wanted to play a game with pressure, and keep playing’.


Was it a plan before the game that he would do something decisive once Grischuk comes into his usual time pressure? ‘No, I did not want to do anything like that intentionally. Alexander is an excellent player in time pressure. Even if he is low on time, you cannot underestimate his ability to play correct moves even in time pressure. So, I did not have any such ideas before the game’.

Grischuk in conversation with Peter Svidler just after the end of the last round | Photo – V.Saravanan

And of course, someone else was watching all this too!

Source: Twitter

The other superhuman effort of this round came from the world champion. Carlsen had to win the final round game to hopefully catch up with Caruana, and the opening stage looked encouraging for him too:


Carlsen - Nakamura

position after 13...Rc8

This was not an ideal opening to choose against the world champion, with fixed structural weaknesses bereft of dynamics. But probably one cannot control your opening positions so much… The game moved on and reached a critical position:

position after 20.Rd2

White is ready to double his rooks on the d-file, and you can feel the heat on black. That probably explains Hikaru’s choice here: 20...Nb6?! 


Biggest artificial reliever of pressure is exchanging pieces or executing tactics. The former is the probable reason for Hikaru’s choice here. Definitely, he very well knows that ‘chop, chop, chop… is never a draw!’ But it is not easy to keep your nerves under check in the last round of a major event, facing this particular guy across the board.


The point is, even after the exchange of a strong c4-knight, white increases his advantage because of his complete control of the d-file here. Even though both the sides did not play the best moves further on, there was no question from here on that Carlsen was pressing, something which he does quite well:


21.Nxb6 Rxb6 [After the positionally better looking 21...axb7 22.Rcd1 b5 23.Qe2, the threat of 24.Rd7 penetrating the black position is potent] 22.Rcd1 Bf6 23.Rd7 [There was no need to hurry with this. A consolidating move like 23.Qe2 or 23.Bg3 would have preserved considerable advantage] 23...Qa6 [This is the problem of the white rook rushing forward - the a2-pawn is attacked now] 24.Qe4

position after 25.Qe4

24...e5?! [Black could have plunged into complications with 24...Qxa2 25.Be5 Rb4 (24...Bxe5 25.Rd8+ mates) 26.Qf3 Bxe5 27.Qxf7 Kh7 28.Qxe6 Rf8! calmly preventing Qe6-f5+ and black survives, incredibly] 25.Bxh6! Re8 [Regaining balance and defending well. 26...gxh6 is met with 27.Rxf7! winning the game] 26.Qg4 Qxa2 27.e4 and white has a slight edge here.


Somewhere along the way, Carlsen squandered his slight advantage and the game reached the following position:

position after 36.Qd2

From here on, Carlsen maneuvered for another 20 moves back and forth. Standing in the lobby and watching the game, it was not difficult to get bored. But it was obvious that Nakamura was going under tremendous pressure, as he could not afford to let his vigil slip even for a moment. But I still couldn’t help asking Polish Grandmaster Grzdorg Gajewski, Anand’s second. “Does Carlsen really possess anything here to press for a win?” Gajewski answered, “That’s the point - Carlsen has scored so many times without possessing anything!”

Nakamura was visibly suffering towards the end of the game | Photo – Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

position after 55...Qf7

Carlsen finally decided to act here with 56.Qa2 Qxa2 57.Rxa2 and he emerged into the rook ending with a slight advantage. He remarked he felt ‘a little bit more optimistic’ here.

position after 62.Kg3

‘He had so many defensive plans to choose from, and all of them should actually work. But he started to see some dangers, and eventually started to panic’ said Carlsen. 62...g5? A shocker! We will never really understand why Nakamura decided to commit hara-kiri here. 63.h5 and white has a permanent trump card here on the kingside.

position after 85...Kg8

86.Rb6 Kg7 87.Rb7 Rc7 88.Kc8 Rb3 89.Kd7 Rf3 90.Ke6 and white went on to win.

Strangely, the final manoeuvre of walking up the king is a familiar one which has appeared in a few games already, most notable being Gajewski - Vachier-Lagrave, Reykjavik 2013.

A distraught Nakamura offering his resignation | Photo – Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Without any doubt, Carlsen ‘felt great, as it made the difference between a mediocre tournament to a good one’.


Carlsen remarked, “It is extremely tough to grind out wins with these guys, so I am happy that I finished with +2”. Grinding out a win from one of these guys is what you just did, dude!


The sharp line employed in Anand - Mamedyarov was the first game to raise the bar in the last round shootout. Both the players are not strangers to this line, having even played each other the very same variation at the Tal Memorial Blitz 2016. Only, over the board, Shakh’s body language was much more confident, while Anand looked a tad nervous.

Anand - Nervous facing the sharp line? | Photo – V.Saravanan

With so much at stake - qualification to London, even winning the Sinquefield Cup - Shakh admirably entered a sharp line of the Open Spanish for this crucial last round encounter. At some point, the position on the board looked messy and scary, till one powered on the database:


Anand - Mamedyarov

position after 18.Re2

Vishy’s model of opening preparation discussed yesterday showed it’s hand here. Both the players continued blitzing off moves, and it was obvious that both came to the board definitely anticipating this variation. But Vishy seemed to be armed with his usual opening deep pocket:

position after 24...Bh6

25.h5 Novelty. And as is common with modern chess opening preparation, this move has already been employed in correspondence games. 25...Qxh5 26.Rxd2 Qxe5 27.Rd5 Qf6 and white achieved a slight advantage here. But, from here on, Anand and Mamedyarov played near perfect chess, and there was almost no point where play could have been improved for both sides, maintaining near equilibrium all the way.

Annotations by Tanmay Srinath

Gajewski was full of admiration for the near-perfect play by both the players, “Black was under pressure for a long time, and he (Mamedyarov) did defend quite well. This is a very high-quality game”.

Anand with Gajewski | Photo – Saint Louis Chess Club / Austin Fuller

The following game was another example of two (probably) fatigued players in a long encounter with lots of twists and turns. But Vachier missed what looked to be a decisive advantage:

Karjakin - Vachier-Lagrave

position after 77.Rb8

Here, play continued 77...Ra3?? 78.Rh8?? [78.Ra5 is the correct square!] 78...Rxg3?? [Back to 78...Ra5 was still a win!] 79.Rxh5 and this turned out to be a theoretical draw!

From the diagrammed position, black was winning with 77...Rf5 78.Rh8 Kf6 79.Rh6+ Kf7 80.Rh7+ Kg6 81.Re7 Rf6! and black wins

a) 82.Ke5 Rf3 wins

b) 82.Re8 h4! 83.gxh4 Kh5 84.Ke5 [84.Rh8+ Rh6] 84...Rh6 and black wins

Karjakin - Vachier-Lagrave, misses in the endgame | Photo – Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

In an unexpected twist after the end of the last round, Carlsen, Aronian and Caruana reached a compromise to share the title of the Sinquefield Cup equally between them, instead of tiebreak match as per original rules.


Grand Chess Tour stipulates a tie-break match to decide the winner of an individual event in case of players scoring equal points and tying for the first place. Since three players tied for first in this tournament, the standard tiebreak methods applied showed equal score for all three players, which meant that one of the players were to be eliminated by a drawing of lots for the other two to qualify for the tiebreak match. This was objected by Carlsen who suggested an all-play-all play-off between all three of them to decide the champion, but this was not agreeable to Aronian and Caruana. Hence, they came to the compromise that they may be declared as joint champions of the event.


We cannot comment on the wish of the players or the organisers. The lingering questions are:


1. Why were the rules framed without anticipating such a finish to any tournament?

2. Why is it that no one thought of the fact that, among three (or four) deserving top finishers, it is cruel to remove one (or two) by lots letting the other two play the final?

3. Will this compromise been affected regardless of who finished at the top of the table?

Source: Twitter

The compromise being worked out...


Round 9: So - Caruana

Graphic Courtesy: Spectrum Studios

About the Author:

Saravanan Venkatachalam is an International Master and has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, and has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s. He turned complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second and a trainer to a handful of Indian players. He reports on chess tournaments, occasionally being a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels. Apart from chess, he is also interested in Tamil and English literature, music and photography.

Firstpost and ChessBase India have tied up to bring you high quality chess news coverage. You can follow the Firstpost website for daily articles published by Saravanan on the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz and also Sinquefield Cup 2018.

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