Sinquefield Cup: Three winners (one playoff)!

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/28/2018 – The sixth edition of the Sinquefield Cup had an unprecedented finish. Levon Aronian defeated Alexander Grischuk in a memorable game, while Magnus Carlsen got a 97-move victory over Hikaru Nakamura. Therefore, Aronian, Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana tied for first — in points and in all tiebreak criteria! The rules stipulated that a drawing of lots would decide which two players would go to the playoff — Carlsen objected, as he thought it to be 'ridiculous'. Finally, the players and organisers decided all three would be declared co-winners! V. SARAVANAN reports. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

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.


A stunner and a grind

The last round of the Sinquefield Cup was one of the tensest in recent memory. Aronian, Caruana, Mamedyarov, So, Grischuk, Vachier-Lagrave, Karjakin were all fighting to make the top four that will 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!

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 top levels of chess, which keeps the game 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 vs Grischuk. The moment and Old Indian Defence appeared on the board, it was obvious that Grischuk had desperate ideas in his mind. Then the inevitable happened — he had a 42-minute think for his tenth move, after which it was just a question of when he was going to get into time pressure...


What to make of this position?! Making sense of the game by looking at general factors as pawn structures, piece placement, king safety, etc., has 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 get-go. 15.Nxc4 (15.Nxe8 Qxe8 16.Bc1 e3! and Black has compensation) 15...dxc4 16.fxe4 Nxe4 17.Qc2 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…in order to have any chance of finishing in the top four in the GCT placings.

He 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 factored in that Grischuk had only nine minutes left to reach the time control at this point. 18.Rf4 would keep the balance, but he made the sacrifice believing he saw enough play for White. However, 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 has a pair of bishops. 20...g6 21.Qc1 Kg7? Both players had missed 21...Re6! (aiming to move to f6) 22.gxf5 gxf5 and Black is clearly better. There followed 22.gxf5 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 the black pieces in practical play, especially when you have less than ten minutes in your clock.

23.Bxe4! fxe4 24.Qf4 White has a roaring attack on the kingside, though there is defence for Black...h6! 25.Qc7+.


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


Triumph of White’s strategy. It is not every day that one’s king gets as cosy on e3, in the middlegame! Now that Grischuk was into his last couple of minutes, it was a question of when a blunder would occur…

29...Rd8?? 30.Qe7 b5 31.h4 Black is practically immobile. a5 32.h5 Rg5 33.Rf6 Rxe5 34.Rg6+ Grischuk was in such 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!"

Levon Aronian

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

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

Was it his intention to make this game a tactical battle? "Yes, I can play tactically. 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 and Svidler

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!

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:


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:


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?!

The 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 that 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 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 a considerable advantage. 23...Qa6 This is the problem of the white rook rushing forward — the a2-pawn is attacked now… 24.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:


From here on, Carlsen manoeuvred for another twenty 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 labouring under tremendous pressure, as he could not afford to let his vigilance slip even for a moment. But I still could not help asking Polish Grandmaster Grzegorz Gajewski, Anand’s second, "Does Carlsen really possesses anything here to press for a win?" Gajewski answered, "That's the point — Carlsen has scored so many times without possessing anything!"

Nakamura under pressure

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


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


"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 on the kingside.


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 notably in Gajewski - Vachier-Lagrave, Reykjavik 2013.

Nakamura resigns

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 vs 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 in 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 looks 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, until one powered on the database:


Vishy’s model of opening preparation discussed yesterday showed its 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:


25.h5 is a 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.

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

Anand and Gajewski

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. However, Vachier-Lagrave missed what looked to be a decisive advantage:


Here, play continued 77...Ra3?? 78.Rh8?? (78.Ra5 is the correct square!) 78...Rxg3?? when going back with 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!.

  1. 82.Ke5 Rf3 wins.
  2. 82.Re8 h4! 83.gxh4 Kh5 84.Ke5 [84.Rh8+ Rh6] 84...Rh6 and Black wins.


Karjakin vs Vachier-Lagrave included 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 playing a tiebreak match as per original rules.

The 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 showed an 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 to by Carlsen, who suggested an all-play-all playoff between all three of them to decide the champion, but this was not agreeable for Caruana. Hence, they came to the compromise that they are declared joint champions of the event.

The lingering questions raised are:

  1. How did the rules were formed 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 by lots letting the other two play the final?
  3. Would this compromise be effected regardless of who finished at the top of the table?

The compromise being worked out...

Caruana and So contest fourth spot in GCT final

In a strange twist, the final results of the Sinquefield Cup left two players tied in 4th-5th place in the Grand Chess Tour overall standings. Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So decided who will go to London in a playoff match with the following rules:

  • The players will first contest a double rapid round-robin where the time limit shall be game in 25 minutes with a 10-second delay per move from move 1.
  • If there is still a tie after these two games, the players shall then contest a series of 2 game Blitz matches at a time limit of game in 5 minutes with a 3-second delay per move from move 1.
  • Further Blitz mini-matches shall take place until the tie is resolved, subject to the provision below.
  • If a relevant tie remains after four mini-matches have been held (one Rapid and three Blitz), the Grand Chess Tour Chief Arbiter or his appointed deputy shall be empowered, after consulting with the players, to direct that the tie be resolved by other means.

As it played out, the two rapid games were all that were required as Caruana took the second game in a high-tension endgame.

More later...

Rapid tiebreak results


Games and commentary


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

Daily Round-ups

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IM Lawrence Trent presents the highlights of the day

Final standings


Games and commentary


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


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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