Sinquefield Cup: A seven-hour win for Magnus

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/20/2018 – Four out of five games finished drawn in the Sinquefield Cup’s second round. The only winner was Magnus Carlsen, who defeated his former World Championship challenger Sergey Karjakin after enterprisingly sacrificing an exchange in what seemed to be a balanced position. Thus, the Norwegian joined Mamedyarov and Aronian in the lead. V. SARAVANAN reports from the Saint Louis Chess Club. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


No draws by agreement

What promised to be an exciting round on a Sunday ended as a damp squib, as three of the games ended in only three hours of play, while the last two were not showing promise to become interesting at any point in time. And that is what yours truly thought.

The day started with a consultation with the players by Chief Arbiter Chris Bird, who wanted to clarify that in this year’s Sinquefield Cup draws by mutual consents are not allowed at all, unless there is a threefold repetition or a position which is a ‘dead draw’ in an endgame. This was due to a self-revision of his decision to the draw between Nakamura and Anand from the first round, where he admitted that he made a mistake in allowing the players to sign the peace treaty, when the final position was not a dead draw. This also meant that, even if the position offers no way to make any real progress, players are forced to move their pieces and play indefinitely.

Though Bird explained his position in detail, this throws up a very interesting question: how will an arbiter know whether a position is a dead draw or not!? This means that arbiters will have to possess a good degree of playing strength too! But we are not going to debate that…

Arbiter Chris Bird – looking forward to many ‘dead draws’ in this tournament? | Photo: V. Saravanan

The most interesting game of the day looked to be Grischuk – Mamedyarov, where a sharp French was being played out. Grischuk did not seem well prepared in the opening, with Mamedyarov enjoying a time advantage of 30 minutes in his clock by move 12. If you look at the optical mess in the position, the game appeared to be a spectator’s delight:


Black’s last move actually offers the kingside to be completely broken!


If at all there could have been an improvement for White, he could have played 16.Qxe5 here, instead of 16.Nf3, as played in the game. But Grischuk said, “16.Qxe5 Rh5 17.Nxe6 Bxe6 18.Qxe6 Qe8 and I considered this close to a draw, but probably it was better than what I did”.


With his previous move, White threatens a perpetual check starting with Ng4-f6 and Nf6-h7 —  Mamedyarov allowed it by playing 19…Bd7, when 19…e5!? 20.Nxe5 Be6 could have been a promising pawn sacrifice leading to complicated play. Grischuk admitted in a chat with Chessbase that he did not consider this seriously, and that although he was optimistic with such a continuation he was not afraid of it. Curiously, Mamedyarov looked better prepared as he consumed less time in the opening stages, but he missed playing for more.

Speaking with characteristic candour in the postgame chat, Grischuk admitted that he had scant regard for the variation thrown at him today, calling it a ‘Joke Variation’ and insisting that that is precisely how he has named it in his theoretical file. When I asked him if he expected this variation to be played at all, he retorted, “Of course you never expect such lines! I sort of [tried to] recall [my preparation)] but I guess I didn’t manage!”

Grischuk could not grab his chances against the 'Joke Variation' of the French Defence today | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

When Vachier-Lagrave played his pet Najdorf, Vishy Anand showed he was battle-ready with the sharp 6.Bg5 variation after nine long years! Once again, a lip-smacking fight seemed to be on the cards between these two Najdorf connoisseurs.


A real slugfest seemed to be on the cards here, and this was the identical position from a Caruana – Vachier-Lagrave game played just a week ago in the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz. 

Anand would later explain his opening choice with, “[It was] very predictable, he’s very stubborn about this line and that gives you a target. On the other hand, he knows it inside out, so it’s hard to surprise… so I thought we could try something”. 

Note the ‘we’ here — no super-grandmaster operates without an army nowadays…

However, definitely expecting one of those famous Anand preparations, the Frenchman varied here with 15…Nxd3 16.Rxd3 d5 17.e5 Ne4 18.Be1, which looked mildly pleasant for White due to his knight on d4 and Black’s bishop on b7, though Black’s knight on e4 is a compensating factor.


Anand ignored the b4-pawn here and seemed to be trying boldly with 26.Rh3!?, but Vachier-Lagrave took it easy and went for 26…Rc8 27.Qh2 axb4 28.Rh8 Qa7, forcing a perpetual check after 29.Rxc8 Kxc8 30.Kb1 Nd2+.

Vachier-Lagrave the stubborn French, walking only the Sicilian path | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

Wesley So seemed to want to steady himself after his loss in the first round and kept it simple.


Mamedyarov – Nakamura went 10.Qa4 and ended in a short draw in Stavenger 2018 just a couple of months ago. So’s deviation for the game was 10.Qc2, but nothing came out of it for White ultimately — the game ended in a draw in 31 moves.

These three games ended in draws in the first two hours of play, leaving out only a deleted tournament hall, disappointing for the Sunday crowd…whatever was present at the time. As I went to see the games at this point, the positions did not look all that inspiring. It all looked very normal.


A decisive result looked highly unlikely, as these two guys played a tournament last week and long games yesterday. So, an obvious draw…the wish was granted in under an hour.

The other game had different elements. Karjakin had the toughest of tests — having lost against Aronian with Black yesterday, he had the black pieces again, facing a player against whom he had fought for the world title last year. And his opponent was sitting with characteristic concentration:

Carlsen, the Monster on the prowl, though stationary | Photo: V. Saravanan


Again, a decisive result looked highly unlikely, as Magnus did not have much ammunition here and Black is, after all, the ‘Minister of Defence’.

At this point, I let out a large yawn (without noise, I plead) and was silently admonished by Chris Bird in characteristic British dry humour. To my silent pleading, ‘But the players aren’t watching me!’ he gestured, ‘I am watching you!’

Chuckling, I returned back to the media room, to find the other Arbiter’s tweet up on the net:

Arbiter Boyd Reed in a half deadly mood during the second round | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

And as we sat watching the live commentary, out came the monster in Magnus Carlsen:


The whole world came alive. The most interesting point was that Carlsen later told, “I was hoping to sacrifice the exchange at some point”. You what

It is pointless to analyse the rest of the game, so let us try to see how Carlsen brought up enormous pressure on his opponent:


It is difficult to criticise Karjakin here, but it is not clear why he decided to give away the second pawn with 38…Kg6 39.Rc5 Rh8 here. He probably did not want to be pushed into passivity after 38…Rc7 39.e4 Re6. 


“It is awfully unpleasant (for Black) here”, Carlsen. Already White is pushing, having fixed the queenside and keeping his pieces in commanding positions. Mainly, Black cannot give away the exchange back and try for a rook ending at any point in the resultant endings. 51.f4! and Carlsen’s grind started more powerfully.


Both the players were down to their last couple of minutes here, when Carlsen made an uncharacteristic error: 65.Rh1? (65.e5! fxe5 66.Ke4 Re8 67.g5 would have kept the pressure) 65...Kg8 66.Kf4 Re8 67.Re1 g5+ is probably fine, but committal, as a passed pawn appears for White soon on the board and the pressure mounts… 68.fxg6 Kg7.


69.g5! Kxg6 70.gxf6 Kxf6 and though the position is objectively drawn, it is impossible to withstand the pressure at the seventh hour of play. 

“Once we both reached the time delay, I was kind of nervous, but felt that it should favour the attacking side”, opined Carlsen. And Karjakin’s blunder came at:


77…Kc6?? 78.Rh6+ Kb5 79.Rb6 Kc4 80.e6 Re1+ 81.Kf5 Rf1+ 82.Ke5 Re1+ 83.Kf6 Rf1+ 84.Kg7 Ra8


85.e7 and Carlsen achieved a winning position, after six and a half hours of play.

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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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