Saint Louis: Caruana bests So in GCT playoff

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/29/2018 – Following the Sinquefield Cup 2018 in Saint Louis, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana were working overtime: they played a tiebreak to determine who would participate in the London Chess Classic, the Grand Chess Tour final KO event for the top four finishers. Caruana won the match by taking the second rapid game to score 1½-½. V. SARAVANAN files one more report. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club, Lennart Ootes

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Caruana scores in second rapid game

The tiebreak match to decide the 4th spot of the final at London was played at the Saint Louis Chess Club on 28th August. The time control was 25 minutes per player for the whole game, with a 10-second time delay per move.

Final GCT standings

Grand Chess Tour final standings (click or tap to enlarge) | Graphic: Grand Chess Tour

There is a debate in chess on separate opening repertoires for Classical, Rapid and Blitz chess. Whether it is brave to keep the same repertoire for all three? Or whether be ‘safe’ and play openings which cannot have the theoretical depth to surprise you in shorter time control? This is typical to the question of playing chess itself - every man and woman for their own, every theory to one’s own… 


The position in the diagram is a well known one, 13...Qd5 being the only move played here. Caruana now plays a move first employed by Bu Xiangzhi against Vidit Gujrathi just three weeks ago: 13...Qe8. If not anything, it made Wesley So spend more than two minutes on his clock…

Subsequently, White was not able to gain much throughout the game, which never wavered much out of an assessment of balance. Should we declare that the successful holding of the game with black pieces was due to the surprise in the opening? Again, one will never know... 

Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana at the start of the playoff | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Curiously, the next game featured an opening which is not part of either’s players repertoire! The time before the tie-breakers have been spent efficiently indeed…


Till this point, both the players were making their moves quite fast, almost instantly, thus indicating their knowledge of the opening. Here, Caruana took about a minute and went for 11.e4!?

There is an ageless wisdom of Yusupov that in a match, it doesn’t matter whether one plays the ‘correct’ moves or not, as the position demands. More important is to show fight. Play in a way that your opponent doesn’t feel comfortable. Looking at the way Caruana played the middlegame, it was difficult to ignore the thought that he was taking the fight to his opponent…

And this is where the match really turned in Caruana’s favour when he got the momentum behind him:


At this point, Caruana had 19 minutes to So’s 13 minutes in his clock, and he looked being under pressure too. It was obvious that he didn’t like the obvious 26.Bf4 in the position. After a 6 minute think, he came up with the excellent resource 26.Ra2!?

If at all any particular moment be pointed out, this was the position where I feel the momentum shifted. So was visibly surprised by the resourcefulness of the move. b2-b4 is an annoying threat here with many details, surfacing in variety of ways after this. Needless to say, So didn’t react correctly even after consuming 5 minutes in reply.

26...Bd4 27.b4 Rad8 28.bxc5 c6 29.Bf4 Rfe8?! 30.Rd2 and White’s pieces looked better placed.


Again, another important moment. Since this is a Rapid game, we need not analyse it deeply, but comprehension of the position is important to appreciate Caruana’s move here.

Black’s c8-rook is tied to defend the c6-pawn. His bishop has to stay on f6 to look over the kingside and to diffuse any rook invasion. So, he has only the rook-e8 to achieve any dynamism. It is too soon for his king to come out, as he will only make himself a target.

Contrastingly, white has the potential to activate almost all his pieces. So, I was curious what Caruana would do here. After a minute of thinking, came…

32.h4! Fantastic. It was extremely difficult to stand over the spectator arena watching this game and stop admiring the Challenger. For first look, white’s idea seems to be h4-h5-h6, disturbing the bishop’s solidity. But has more sinister motives…

32...h5. Forced. For example 32...Re7 33.h5 h6? 34.Bxh6.

33.Kf3! The point behind the pawn push. White is now ready to liquidate the only active black piece with Rc4-e4, and in the resultant position, due to holes in black’s kingside, white king will threaten to march over through the f5 & g6 squares. Which means that the move 32.h4 is just not a routine move with a tactical threat. Or even a positional threat! It is about creating holes in black’s position. It is ultimately about activating white’s king. Well...

33...Re1 34.Re4 [It’s all happening!] 34...Ra1 35.Rd7 and white’s advantage has grown.

It is not advisable to analyse all the moves of the players thoroughly when they had 5 and 2 minutes in their clocks respectively. But it is admirable that Caruana had such clarity of thought in a fast game.

Somewhere after the 36th move, Caruana couldn’t play accurately anymore, both the players having less than 2 minutes in their clocks. The final came at:


55...Kf7?? [Black’s only defence was to give away the exchange: 55...Rc4 56.Ra6! (56.Rc8+? Kf7 57.c6 ke6 draws) 56...Bxc5 57.Rc6 Bxd6 58.Rxc4 Kf7 and it is a question if White can win this position, that too in rapid chess] 56.Ra6 Ke6 57.Bf4+ Kd5 58.c6 Rc4 59.c7 a4 60.Ra8 and White won soon.

Caruana So shake hands

After watching the tiebreak games firsthand today, watching Caruana’s feel for the endgame, I felt we all need to seriously re-assess his chances when he will play Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship in November. Maybe, maybe… 

Rustam Kasimdzhanov, ChessBase Author and Trainer of Fabiano Caruana | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Playoff games and commentary


Commentary by Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley


Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.


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