Sinquefield Cup: Draws, some short, some hard-fought

by ChessBase
8/23/2018 – In this year's Sinquefield Cup it is completely banned to sign agreed draws. After three rounds with one decisive result per day, the fifth day of play finished with all the games drawn. That does not mean we did not see fighting chess — Magnus Carlsen could not promote a far-advanced passed pawn against Wesley So, while Hikaru Nakamura and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov ended up frustrated after drawing a rollercoaster game where both had chances. V. SARAVANAN reports from Saint Louis. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

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High-quality opening preparation

As the rounds roll on and at least a couple of games get decided just out of the opening every day, it dawns on us: opening preparation is the elephant in the room we all should comprehend first, before criticising top players for the travesty of ‘Grandmaster draws’. Note: not ‘short agreed draws’ but ‘short Grandmaster draws’.

After Tuesday, when Mamedyarov drew Aronian with the white pieces without even putting up a show, we were treated to another spectacle when Vishy Anand neutralised Aronian’s …Bf4 variation of the QGD, after having faced the same line from the other side of the board the previous day!


In a known position, Anand came up with 16…Qf6, a novelty. Very soon, the position got completely simplified and the game ended in a draw in 36 moves.

Understandably, this may not be very good news for all those who follow the tournament — both among those who pay $10 to enter the Saint Louis Chess Club and those who even sacrifice a good night’s sleep staring at a monitor helped by a flask of coffee.

But what did Anand had to say about the whole thing? First, about his new move, “I have had it in my notes for a while. Two or three times I played 16…Qd5, thinking that it was our improvement over 16…Qf6, and [my seconds] would look at me and tell me, ‘No, you mixed it up again!’ So I had this nice note in block capitals saying ‘Not …Qd5’! When you have had both moves in your head you don’t know which one is which! But luckily I have figured out by now that it is Qf6, and I have played it [today]. It is quite an important improvement, as it kills this particular line.” 

Levon Aronian came well prepared | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Let us see it from the white player’s viewpoint. With today’s multi-core machines, opening preparation and chess itself have evolved drastically in the last decade. In a top tournament — like the current one — all the players are well-prepared with computer databases, and it is difficult to find an area in the opponent’s arsenal where one can probe with a concept worked-out at home. This means a high percentage of draws in top tournaments.

Aronian echoed the predicament, starting by pointing out that the start of the round earlier in the day had its effect too — once you focus on a certain line, you have to play it. (He declared later that games usually start around 3.00 pm, unlike the 01.00 pm start at Saint Louis). “You don’t have the time to change your mind, as chess players usually do. I decided to play this opening in the morning. I checked 14…d4 but didn’t analyse 16…Qf6. Once it appeared, I realised that Black has very comfortable play”.

Of course, Vishy sympathises with the chess public, “I know it doesn’t warm your hearts, this kind of draw. Well, it’s [my] bread and butter, it is a tough line, Black can easily suffer if he is imprecise. So, 14…d4 and 16…Qf6 is nice to have”.

Anand’s novelty kills this line played by Aronian…and it’s his bread and butter | Photo: V. Saravanan

Aronian has similar views too, “Of course, it is very disappointing to have a game like that…but you don’t have the time to analyse so deep before the game”.

Your seconds do not analyse such things long in advance? “Not really. I mostly nowadays work on my own”.

Another game was shaping up in a better way for the white player around this time:


The position arose from the Petroff, one of Caruana’s main weapons, the ‘original equalising weapon’ before the Berlin came into fashion.  The position has occurred before, and it is surprising that Caruana entered the position at all, as this is the kind of position which white players can expect in modern chess, even if Black finds a new idea! Fabiano agreed, “I knew I was very close to equal, but I was a little bit uncomfortable with how I should play”.

His opponent was happier than Caruana probably thought:


Delighting the audience by getting into the Confession Booth here, Vachier-Lagrave sounded quite optimistic, “Pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the opening so far. Saw so many nuances, I am able to keep the pressure going. If I manage to keep the bishops, it is clear that I am going to press for some time. My main idea is to press not only the kingside — the h-file — but also on the e-file, and the long diagonal. I don’t see Fabi’s counterplay here. I am sure he will find some, but I think I have the upper hand here”.

Vachier-Lagrave, optimistic during the game | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

Caruana and his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

So, we had proof in the same round that our Grandmasters still remain imperfect, thankfully, and hence we will get to see lots of fighting games after all! However, surprisingly, Maxime’s optimism was not really appreciated in Caruana’s calm assessment of the position, as he seemingly went on to find equality from the diagrammed position: 20…Bf5 21.hxg6 hxg6 22.Rh7 Re7 23.g4 Bd7 and White had nothing to show here.

Talking of openings, there is another topic about which we shall never discuss in these pages: the Berlin Wall! We shall all be intrigued by this system forever, as it seems there are many personal ways to understand the opening, as expressed by Aronian a couple of days ago. We can only remain intrigued whenever it appears in a high level clash:


21.Nd4 Bc8 and do have a look at this position – all Black’s pieces are in the first rank and, as it happens so often in modern openings, he is fine! Once again, it is impossible to analyse such positions in full, with all their intricacies and nuances. We can only hope that White is slightly better, for the sake of chess being a ‘just’ game! The game ended in a draw after 40 long moves and nothing much happened, as far as we could see. ‘Sasha’ Grischuk echoed our sentiments too when he answered the question “What were you trying to accomplish in this game?” His answer: “I was trying to finish it!”

Karjakin and his second Alexander Riazantsev en route to starting the game | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios

‘Sasha’ en route to finishing it! | Photo: V. Saravanan

Now, continuing our musings about openings, we were delighted to find that the Tarrasch Defence, a relatively rare guest at the top level, was employed in two games in round five. Though Wesley So has employed it occasionally — against Carlsen himself twice in online blitz events — it was still a surprise.

The World Champion and his entourage are always in a jolly banter when coming to the game! | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Spectrum Studios


9.Qe2 b6 10.Rd1 cxd5… White does not seem to be pursuing any advantage seriously. This approach is typical of the World Champion, following a ‘maximalist’ path in openings — choosing an obscure setup in the opening and probing the opponent to the fullest.

Carlsen finally seemed to gain something out of the position and reached an advantage in the middlegame:


Magnus played 17.Ne5 getting into forced lines, convinced of his advantage (17.Rac1 Rac8 18.Rc3 and doubling the rooks might have given him a bigger advantage) 17…Rfc8 18.Qb5 Na5 19.Bxb7 Nxb7 20.Qd7 Nc5.


21.dxc5 Later on, after establishing that Carlsen indeed did not have a win in the game, an improvement was found here: 21.Qxf7+ Qxf7 22.Nxf7 Kxf7 23.dxc5 Rxc5 24.Rd7 + Kf6 25.b3!? and White might be able to pursue an advantage here (25.a4 Rac8! and Black might equalise the endgame). There followed 21…Qxe5 22.c6 h5 23.Rd6 Qxb2 24.Rad1 and it looked like Carlsen indeed had a very good advantage. 

At this point, Vachier-Lagrave had finished his game and opined he considered Magnus to have a clear advantage: “I am pretty sure Magnus is going to win, the engines might think otherwise but I think he is just winning”.

But to his credit, So held a tough position and achieved the draw:


25…Rd8! 26.Qxd8 Rxd8 27.Rxd8 Kh7 and Wesley proved that this position was indeed holdable for Black. Carlsen acknowledged, “Today is one of those days when you have to say, ‘Good defence!’ and try again next time!” 

Finally, let us see the most dramatic game of the day, which also followed the most interesting path in the opening:


9.h3!? Curious. Surprised by the Tarrasch Defence, which his opponent has almost never played, Nakamura plays the mainline with the white pieces, but sidesteps with a rare move here, taking the chance that his opponent might not have prepared for it. Clever!?  9…Ne4 Nakamura probably got the surprise right, as Mamedyarov took almost ten minutes for this move. Assuming that Nakamura had not prepared this position before the game, we have two of the strongest players in the world playing chess on their own from the opening stage itself. There followed 10.dxc5 Bxc4 11.Bf4 and finally a new move, played after a 10-minute thought — hence, an over-the-board creation…


When two of the most spirited players in the world play a strategically dynamic opening relying on their own middlegame prowess without prior knowledge of the position, you have an interesting game on the cards! 22.Qd2 f5!? One can always rely on Shakh playing such spirited chess! The position erupted into a full-fledged fight now, delighting the spectators. 22…Ne5 was possible too, aiming to sacrifice the pawn and hoping that white has a ‘loose’ position strategically: 23.Bxe5 Bxe5 24.f4 Bd6 25.Qxd5 Qe7 and Black has enough compensation for the pawn.


By now, Mamedyarov had understood that his position was worse and had repeated the position twice with the text. 34.Ne4 here was a threefold repetition and a draw, but Hikaru fought on with 34.Nf5! Also interesting was 34.g5!? hxg5 35.Ne4 Qh6! (35…Qxf4 is met with 36.Qxf4 gxf4 37.Nd6). After 34…Kh8 35.Bxf7 Rxf7 36.c5 White has a clear advantage.


38.Re1 does not squander the advantage away, but he had a clear path to a win with 38.Qe4! here. The point is that White has almost succeeded in creating a tactical zugzwang — almost! If nothing else, he has 39.Nxd4 as a threat. After 38…Rf8 39.Nxd4 Re7 40.Qxc6 Qxf4, though White’s kingside is not too encouraging, Black does not have complete compensation for the piece. This is only a sample variation, as the position is rich with possibilities. When 38…Rf8 was played, both players were down to their last minute. 39.Qe4? Full of spirit but low on time, Nakamura goes wrong here and blunders all his advantage away. He missed a simple knight fork for the opponent, whereas sidestepping it with 39.Kg2 would have preserved all his advantage. 39…g6! is the only move, and Mamedyarov played it immediately.


40.Nxd4 was Naka’s choice. After 40.Nxh6 Re7 there are several interesting lines, but both sides have enough tactical resources to achieve parity:

A] 41.g5 Rxe4 42.gxf6 Rxe1 43.Rxe1 Rxf6 with a level ending.

B] 41.Qf3 Ne5 42.Rxe5 Rxe5 43.Nf5! Rxf5! 44.gxf5 Qxf5 with equality.

C] The most interesting was 41.Qh1 and Black can achieve equality in many ways — the prettiest of them being 41…Rxe1 42.Rxe1 Kg7 43.Qe4 d3! (43…Qxf4? 44.Nf5!) 44.Qxd3 Qxf4 45.Nf5! gxf5 46.Qd7 Rf7 47.Qxc6 Qxg4+ which leads to a draw. 

The game followed with 40…Qxd4 and Black survives due to the knight fork after 41.Qd4 Nxd4 42.Rxc7 Nf3+ leading to a drawn ending.

A funny situation was observed on the board when Mamedyarov played 40…Qxd4: both players were disappointed with themselves and were shaking their heads for a long time! Hikaru was obviously upset that he squandered an advantage after building it up for so long in the middlegame; Shakhriyar’s case was a little puzzling: first he thought he had messed up and was losing, but after 39…g6 he was optimistic about his chances, though he was not sure he had a win.

Hikaru Nakamura, upset with the position | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, also upset with the position | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Still upset, they discuss the position with Rauf Mamedov at the lobby | Photo: V. Saravanan

What were everyone’s rest day plans?


“I am just going to rest. Take a day without any chess in it. Just feeling like a normal person! Going to the movies, doing some sports, playing some game with somebody…but not too stressful”. 


“I am going to rest! I am actually looking forward to a little break. All the work during the rounds and before the rounds is quite tiring. So you have to grab your only rest day. Probably I will hit the gym today, try to get some tension off”.


“I have been focused on the games in the last few days, I haven’t thought much about it”.


Caruana: “I think I will be playing some tennis, tennis doubles with Cristian Chirila, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Rustam Kasimdzhanov”. 
Q: “Who is the best among them?”
Caruana: “Not me! By far I am the worst among them!”


Vachier-Lagrave: “Will join for the tennis”. 
Q: “How good are you?” 
Vachier-Lagrave: “Pretty bad! Doesn’t matter! I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough with videos of me doing sports. [If anyone comes to film] they will have to show only the highlights!”


“Depends. If Magnus will organise basketball with Peter Heine Nielsen, I will be able to join. And another idea is to play dominoes with Shakh. It is extremely popular in Azerbaijan. And, as usual, just to rest — it is always nice.” 


“I have some friends in Saint Louis. Hopefully I will meet with them”. 


“I am tired a little bit from chess. In the last 3 months I have been playing chess for 71 days. So I will go to some restaurants and relax. I love dominoes too much. Some days, when Sasha comes to Baku, I play 10 hours of dominoes with him! We have brought dominoes here, and we will play! I even play the Azerbaijan Dominoes Championship. After 3 rounds I was leading there. I play first board in dominoes!”

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