Sinquefield Cup: MVL WINS!

by ChessBase
8/12/2017 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave wins the Sinquefield Cup, the first classical event of the 2017 the Grand Chess Tour. He settled the matter without consideration for tiebreak rules by winning over Ian Nepomniachtchi to reach 6 points. Magnus Carlsen gave it his best shot by beating and leapfrogging Levon Aronian to reach 5½ points. Viswanathan Anand earlier drew with So, and only reached 5½ | Photos: Lennart Ootes

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Sinquefield Cup

The last round at the Sinquefield Cup began as any other: The players glide in with about ten minutes to spare, they write on their scoresheets, and some make polite banter in the resting arena. Some of them seem to look cool, while some of them seem to mean business, and when you look around really carefully, and you see that someone has not turned up in his usual gear. Some are focused on their own boards, while others seem to take a lot of interest in what's happening elsewhere.

Start of round 9

Start of Round 9 — Click or tap to expand | Photo: Lennart Ootes

And many spectators have turned up to watch this cliffhanger of a round, despite it not yet being a weekend. Thus, it dawns on you that when push comes to shove, this may be an eventful day. And then moves unravel on the chessboard…and you see you were right!

Round 9

The most watched games were Carlsen vs. Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave vs. Nepomniachtchi, for obvious reasons. The World Champion’s game was a summit clash between world numbers one and two on the live rating list. So, when the games actually started, it was one of the best spectacles in town.

Vachier-Lagrave watching Carlsen-Aronian

Vachier-Lagrave looking at the World Champion fight it out with joint leader of the event Levon Aronian | Photo: Lennart Ootes

'MVL' was naturally given high chances to win the event, since he played consistently through eight rounds, and had white against 'Nepo' whose form seemed wanting. Anand, the third leader had a tougher task, playing with the black pieces against Wesley so, though the latter too has struggled mightily over the past week.

So employed one of his usual solid systems against Anand’s Nimzo Indian Defence and at some point Vishy seemed to have botched up his preparation and was looking at an ugly pawn structure, not to mention his minor pieces:

 

Anand’s passivity seemed to start somewhere here, and instead of 18...Nd7 which was played in the game, an interesting line with 18...Na6 19.Qc3 Ba4 20.Rd2 Nc5!? to go on offensive, was an interesting alternative.

They say, over the chess board, players simply do not know what to do with their hands while their eyes and minds are busy with the position. So, was Anand’s posture indicating the pressure he was feeling?

Anand

Hands, what to do with them? | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Ultimately, So’s inconsistent play of the event continued, as he allowed Anand to equalise and the game ended in a draw after 33 moves. Probably, his best chances came at the following point:

 

So preferred the simple 21.Qc3 and exchanged the queens with 22.Qd4 next. Instead, he had at his disposal the clever 21.Qe1. Not only does he wish to focus on c4 with a later Qe1-f1! He also can think of Nf3-d4 followed by f2-f4, when Black’s king suddenly feels unsafe.

Carlsen-Aronian

World number one vs. world number two | Photos: Lennart Ootes

There was no doubt that the clash between the highest rated players in the world was the most interesting. Starting from a quiet Anti-Marshall variation of the Ruy Lopez, Aronian showed his intentions of playing for a win with black against the World Champion by shifting his queen to the kingside in a deeply theoretical position:

 

Now, Aronian pitched for 13...Qe8!? Aiming to go ...Qe8-g6 to drum up an attack on the kingside, thus making all the followers of this crucial game very happy with his bravery, while everyone understood that old compliment from Kasparov: "The chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well!"

Even as the game was in progress, Nakamura dismissed Aronian’s attempt at activity:

“It seemed to me that Levon was kind of bluffing in the sense that he was playing very quickly... and especially his pawn structure”. But at the same time he admired Aronian’s attitude towards the game: “It was a good idea by Levon to go all out try to win the game and try to win the tournament!”

 

But this was probably the position where Aronian still had to play objectively rather than aggressively, as hist trouble started after 17...bxc3 18.bxc3 Nc5 19.Bxc5! Bxc5 20. Qa4. Instead, the cool 17...Bc5 18.Bxc5 (18.d4 Bd6 with a messy position) 18...Nxc5 19.Qe2 bxc3 20.bxc3 Rb2 and Black seems to be doing fine.

But as the game wore on, it looked at a certain point like even the mighty Magnus lost his composure in defending, though just for a moment:

 

Here, instead of the impulsive 31...c5 which lost the game for him after the simple 32.a6 when Aronian was left without any counterplay, he had 31...c6!? When Magnus would have had to find the accurate 32.Qc4 Bxe5 33.Nxe5 Qg5 34.Ng4 h5 35.Ne3 to retain a clear advantage for White.

There was another moment of high drama:

 

Though clearly superior, the World Champion, completed his move with just two seconds remaining in his clock!

Webcast screenshot

Even the World Champion cuts it close sometimes. But he won anyway… | Source: CCSCSL on YouTube

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Even as Anand and Aronian’s challenges for the title didn’t pan out, there was little doubt to anyone that Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had was gunning for the win from the very beginning, when his opponent began pulling faces while still in the opening:

Nepomniachtchi

Nepomniachtchi was unable to contain his surprise | Photo: V.Saravanan

It emerged that Vachier-Lagrave's 6.Be2 against the Najdorf — which he has hardly played with white in his career — was repeating an obscure line that Carlsen had played against Nepo in the Leuven Leg of the Grand Chess Tour just a month ago. Clever!

Clever bit of pickpocketing by MVL, repeating an obscure Carlsen game | Photo: Lennart Ootes

But very soon, he established a kind of control which was hard to believe. Do we not assume that these are the kind of strategically lost positions which every Russian schoolboy knows?

 

Starting from this point, there was almost no analysis to be done, as Black’s position steadily seemed to go downhill, until things finally came to a head:

 

White has steadily increased the pressure and he signs off with a couple of nice touches: 42...Re6 (One of the points of the position was that, the natural 42...Re5 fails to 43.Nxd6! Rxd5 44.Nxe4 Qd4 45.cxd5 Qxd4 46.Qf3! and White wins instantly) 43.c5! So, the weak pawn on d6 is never captured indeed! 43...dxc5 44.Qc4 Qf7 45.Rxc5 and White's advantage is near winning.

In fact, taken on its own, this was game wasn’t terribly exciting, and seemed like an one-sided positional squeeze stemming from MVL’s superior understanding of the position and Nepo’s indifferent form in the tournament. But considered in context with the tournament situation, his rivals’ positions, and the way he conducted the whole game displaying admirable control and balance even in such a crucial game, he deserved to claim the title alone at the to with 6 points.

Vachier-Lagrave

The Champion! Clever opening preparation, admirable control and balance in a crucial game | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Praise started pouring in, from all directions and heights:

 

 

Nakamura and Karjakin

An uneventful draw | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Compared with the all the other games, Karjakin had a narrow chance to beat Nakamura with White and hope for a place in the tie-break, but the game never really took off, as Nakamura kept a tight lid on everything to draw an uneventful tournament.

Which brings us to Peter Svidler who, unchained from competitive considerations, just decided to enjoy himself!

 

14.b4! And Svidler was well on his way to a strong attack here, it seemed, but then he got into the confession box:

“The fact that I couldn’t make 17…Bb4 18.Nf4 Bxd2 19.Nxe6 work is absolutely soul-destroying...Life is hard”

 

And indeed, Svidler's intuition was correct; it was working! Even so, he still gobbled up a central pawn in the middlegame and registered his first win of the tournament.

Games and commentary

 

Commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley, and WGM Jennifer Shahade

Final standings 

 

Correction August 13 - Due to an editing mistake the teaser text initially stated that Carlsen scored 6 points. As is made clear elsewhere including the final standings, in fact only Vachier-Lagrave did.

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