Caruana weathers the So storm

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/22/2019 – Ding Liren joined the leaders Viswanathan Anand and Fabiano Caruana at the top of the table with 3 points after a round of hard fought battles in almost all games at the Sinquefield Cup. Nemponiachtchi was the other winner of the round after his opponent Hikaru Nakamura played unevenly to lose a game where he didn't seem to be in his best of form. Anand, Caruana and So demonstrated very sharp opening preparations which made this round the most memorable of the tournament so far. IM VENKATACHALAM SARAVANAN reports from the venue. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

The Art of the Positional Exchange Sacrifice The Art of the Positional Exchange Sacrifice

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Three-way lead between Anand, Caruana, Ding

The spectators present at the Saint Louis Chess Club were presented with a treat when the all-American clash between Wesley So and Caruana produced a full-fledged battle right from the opening stages. To start with, in an English Opening resembling a reversed Alapin Sicilian, So mildly surprised Caruana with 4.f3, as he had gone for 4.d4 against Anand in the Zagreb GCT game in June 2019. But Caruana had a bigger surprise in store.


8...c5!? A surprise. Caruana has played this position with black pieces four times before, and has always gone for 8...d5. 9.0-0 This natural move is a novelty. Wesley played the whole of the opening phase fast, thus indicating that he had come to the board well armed 9...e3 10.fxe3 xe3 11.h1 g4!? Though he hesitated a wee bit, Caruana resumed playing fast through the opening phases, indicating his level of preparation and gladdening the spectators who were thirsting for a full fledged tactical clash.


13...d5!? Caruana sacrifices a pawn! Fantastic! 14.cxd5 and the game became a complicated mess.



There is a beautiful sentence of annotation which I read as a kid, something I could never forget. The moment I saw Caruana's move on the board, I was reminded of it: “Having retreated his only developed piece to the first rank, Black feels that he is fine here!!"

Think of it: Black has sacrificed a pawn, which he claims to compensate by creating a certain 'looseness' in white's strategic construct — lessening of pawn cover around the white king and the potential light square weakness. At the same time, white is almost fully developed whereas black, as we said before, is confined to the first rank. Who would be better off here?! (Silence your engines for a moment and start thinking, you will understand the dynamics behind this position).

18.g5 f6 19.xf6!? and thus broke out a fantastic battle!

It would be next to impossible to analyse and understand such a sharp position fought by two of the best brains of world chess. Hence, let us just limit ourselves to certain snapshots.


23...d7. Here, the engines were evaluating this position as equal, but impossible to believe that rationally. If you try to understand such a tactical position strategically, here's the rationale:

At first glance, although all White's forces are developed and ready to strike, 'the Force is not with him'. Not much firepower to crash his way through the kingside. This was the feeling White probably got here, which made him go the way he went in the game. The engines recommend a line here which can take the battle to its highest tactical flash point, but it is inconceivable that a human brain can process it and understand it.

24.d6 ♛g8 Seriously?! Is this the best place for the black queen?! 25.e5 h6 26.♕e3 ♞h7 — but why in the world is the natural looking 26...♞d5 rejected by the engines?! 27.♖f7 ♝h3+! How many chess players can even find such a candidate move?! 28.♔xh3 ♞g5+ 29.♕g5!! Of course, the most natural move in the world — a queen sacrifice! 29...hxg5 30.♔g2 and the engine finds this position equal. Please try solving various points raised above — good luck with that!!

Considering the crazy variation above, it makes perfect sense why So chose what he did.


A simple solution for the human brain. The black king doesn't have enough cover any more, and White can either capture the piece back or settle for perpetual check. Peace. The game ended in a draw after 36 moves. Undoubtedly, a wonderful clash.

Vishy Anand — excellent opening preparation | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

But during same early opening phase, when this clash was shaping up, there was another guy showing why he is a past master in inventing opening surprises. 


8...a5!? A novelty in this particular position, just along the lines of his game against Aronian in the 3rd round.

9.d4 a7 10.h3 g5!? and it was obvious that the former world champion had come to the board heavily armed, as he is already on his way to sacrifice a pawn. When I asked him about his preparation, he replied:

Yes, I had glanced at this quickly (before the game). It is a mix of knowing that it is my preparation but not completely sure of what it is that I had prepared! (chuckles).


14...g4!? Played fast, making it obvious that he has it all covered in his preparation. After all, if this sequence was inspired play over the board, Black might at least have hesitated to consider 14...♜e8 or 14...♚e7.

15.hxg4?! It was better for White to give the pawn back with either 15.♗e3 or 15.♗c4.

15...♞xg4 16.♗e3 ♝xe3 17.fxe3



When I asked him what was the need to go for this, (especially when he wasn't too sure of his exact preparation) Anand replied,“I didn't remember everything, but why should I allow the bishop to go to h5? It didn't make sense to me”.

But it was exactly this reasoning which wasn't accurate, as Black had a better move in 17...♚e7! 18.♗h5 The move Anand was apprehensive about 18...♞f6 19.♗f3 ♜d8! and White can't develop his pieces at all — a huge compensation for the sacrifice of a pawn, which is now doubled. Is it too much to expect from Anand, with all his phenomenal strength and understanding? Difficult to say. 

The best move, by the way, after 17...♚e7 was 18.♗d5 c6 19.♗c4 ♝e6! 20.♘d2 ♜ad8 and black is even pressing here, a pawn deficit being a negligible factor.

However, the move played in the game gave Anand complete compensation and it ended in a draw after 25 moves.

Ding vs Caruana

Ding vs Giri | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

Observing Ding Liren's game today, I couldn't help but get reminded of the Tamil proverb, 'Be concerned of the rage of the quiet man!' as it seemed to suit the occasion perfectly.

If you study his games, the soft-spoken Chinese ace gives the impression of an erudite and concept-loving chess player rather than an aggressor, most of the time. But today, when Anish Giri uncharacteristically played moves which seemed to flirt with danger a little too much, Ding unleashed his potential. 


One of those positions which might seem to be 'regular' but actually required alertness from Black. Maybe he was too distracted by the isolated and backward pawn on c3? Can anyone find fault with him for assuming so?! Whatever, Giri didn't appreciate White's inherent potential to get dynamic.

23...f7?! The starting point of Black's problems. 24.cd1! dc8 From the first look, everything seems to be going fine for Black, but watch out. 25.b5! Only now, does it get clear that White has dynamic potential, the weak f5-pawn being the immediate target.

25...g6 Weakening the kingside pawn structure but probably black didn't have a choice. 26.e2 and suddenly, black doesn't have a good course of action, and he is probably regretting weakening of the position.



Anish Giri is known for his nuanced understanding of strategic positions. It is difficult to understand why he goes for such a rash course of action. Did he actually overlooked White's strong retort?

32.d5 c6 33.c5! and the white c-pawn became a monster. Ding coasted to a win in 47 moves.

Ding Liren in a quiet rage | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour


Nakamura is a past master in this position with vast experience. The diagrammed position has been played before, between Grischuk and Anand in the 2018 Saint Louis Blitz which continued 14.♘b3. Nepomniachtchi came up with a novelty here: 14.c2 b4?

Played after 14 minutes of thought, this was a shocker, just when 14...g6 and 14...h6 were considered to be simple solutions. For such a strong theoretician and player in the class of Nakamura, it is puzzling what he prepared, what he remembered (wrongly?) or what he missed over the board.

15.xh7+ h8 16.c7! and it was obvious that black had gone wrong in his preparation somewhere.

But as the game progressed, there was further drama. 


Here, Nepomniachtchi unexpectedly played 34.e4?! which looked to throw away the win. White had better chances of achieved by 34.h3 or 34.♔d4. It was unclear what would be White's winning plan after 34...♚e6 35.♗xg7 ♝xh2 36.♔d4 fxe4 37.fxe4 ♝g1!

However, Nakamura's continuation too wasn't easy for White to break through: 34...dxe4 35.fxe4 e6.

There was a cute point in 35...fxe4 36.♔xe4 ♝xh2 37.♗e5! ♝xe5 38.♔xe5 and the pawn ending is winning for white!

36.xg7 xh2 37.d4 and White still retained his winning chances.



Black had a better defence with 57.♗a3 58.exf5+ ♚xf5 59.♔d4 ♝b4 60.♔d5 ♝e1 61.♔c6 b4 and the position seems to be drawn.

58.b8 f6 59.d6 e6 60.e5 and he further blundered with 60...♝a3?? 61.♗d4 and white went on to win easily.

Nepomniachtchi – back to his Chonmage hairstyle | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Though Aronian vs Mamedyarov and Carlsen vs Karjakin were long drawn-out affairs, they never got interesting enough to be of any great interest.

When Caruana opined after the fourth round that one of the reasons for opportunities not being converted into wins in some of the games, he came up with, “Probably because we are (all) playing so much! Because of that, players are not at their freshest, and that leads to shaky technique”. This automatically led to the thinking that the new players who turned up at Saint Louis fresh at the Sinquefield Cup skipping the Blitz & Rapid event here last week would be fresher. But as every generalist theory goes, it seems to be a false one! How would anyone justify the play of Nakamura and Anish Giri in this round?

Round up show by Yannick Pelletier

Round 5 games annotated by V. Saravanan


Standings after round 5


All games


Commentary webcast

Commentary by WGM Jennifer Shahade and GMs Yasser Seirawan 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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