Sinquefield Cup: Niemann shocks Carlsen, crosses 2700

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
9/5/2022 – In a shocking development, Hans Niemann, the tournament underdog, defeated Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces to take the sole lead at the Sinquefield Cup. Niemann’s victory prompted him to cross the 2700-rating barrier. Alireza Firouzja and Wesley So also won in round 3, with Firouzja set to face the in-form Niemann in Monday’s fourth round. | Photo: Grand Chess Tour / Lennart Ootes

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The new generation is here to stay

According to today’s live ratings list, a total of 42 players have a 2700+ rating. Out of the 42, there are five aged 19 or younger (ten are aged 25 or younger). This group has Alireza Firouzja (19 years old) as the clear leader rating-wise, with Arjun Erigaisi (19) Gukesh (16), Nodirbek Abdusattorov (17) and Hans Niemann (19) the remaining juniors that have crossed the symbolic barrier.

Arjun, Gukesh, Abdusattorov and Niemann have joined this club recently, prompting pundits to acknowledge the imminent change of generation among the chess elite. Niemann, the latest addition to this group, could not have done it in a more spectacular fashion, as it was a win with black over Magnus Carlsen what allowed him to make it past the magic 2700 number.

Another remarkable feature of Niemann’s ascent is how quick and, perhaps, unexpected it has been — at least if we look at the last 3-year period. In fact, exactly two years ago, the youngster from San Francisco had a 2465 Elo rating. Going from under 2500 to over 2700 is a task that even accomplished and respected chess players have never achieved!

  • Rating in September 2020 - 2465
  • Rating in September 2021 - 2609
  • Live rating today - 2702

Niemann shared a grateful message on Twitter.

Alireza Firouzja, Hans Niemann

The strongest junior in the world looking at his young colleague about to beat the world champion | Photo: Crystal Fuller

The interview

Niemann’s victory over the world champion was remarkable, and we will look at it in the next section, but first we will go over what turned out to be quite a memorable post-game interview. The youngster has shown in the past that he is not afraid to speak his mind, and this was no exception. Commentator Alejandro Ramirez described his personality as ‘candid’, while some people in the comments section referred to it as ‘arrogant’.

Whatever the adjective we use to characterize Niemann’s personality, as Peter Svidler noted, his honesty was certainly welcomed both in the studio and by the audience.

After analysing his game in detail, the man of the hour shared his opinion bluntly on a few topics that had Ramirez visibly astounded. Referring to his crossing the 2700-barrier, he said that this was just a small step forward, as his sole purpose is to become world champion. Talking about this, Niemann clearly rejected the approach of long-standing top-10 players (something that Svidler, who has been in this category, later picked up on):

I’m aware that this chess thing is a very long marathon, that it’s going to take a very long time, so if I don’t win this tournament, OK, who cares? The goal is to improve my chess and become world champion. Because in my opinion, it’s sort of black and white for me.

I see a lot of players who have been top ten for very long in their career, you know. They’re very happy with cashing in, but for me, top ten doesn’t really mean much. I think in chess, the striving to be the greatest is for me the motivation. Of course, there’s a long way to go.

Hans Niemann

A deep thinker — Hans Niemann | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Referring to Carlsen’s demeanour during the game, Niemann confessed that he has, like many fans, followed closely the world champion’s career, including his interviews. Carlsen, for example, has said that if he spends more than ten minutes on a single move, it is probably because he cannot find an acceptable response — which is a very bad sign for him. Since the Norwegian spent more than ten minutes on move 15, Niemann felt confident about his chances, and also noted:

I think he was just so demoralized because he’s losing to an idiot like me, you know? It must be embarrassing for the world champion to lose to me. I feel bad for him.

Amid the much-talked-about rise of the new generation, Rustam Kasimdzhanov recently pointed out on chess24’s commentary webcast that he thinks a player like Arjun Erigaisi would probably score +2 in the Sinquefield Cup, while some of the usual players who get invitations to these events “still behave like they own the world, whereas in fact they soon will be forgotten champions of yesteryear”.

Niemann referred to this phenomenon, noting that he got extremely lucky to get such an invitation, which only came about after Richard Rapport could not make it to Saint Louis due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic. In a reflection that was shared by the commentators, he mentioned that the system should favour a quicker process for talented young players to rise to the top, since established elite grandmasters tend to find a way to keep their spots at the top of the ratings list and remain in this privileged circle — more Tata Steel-type tournaments might be a solution perhaps?

Plenty of food for thought! You can replay the full 17-minute interview below.



The game

Another gem from the interview with Niemann was his utter bewilderment regarding the fact that he had looked at the line that appeared on the board during his preparation before the game. The variation was rather rare, with Carlsen perhaps looking to outplay his opponent in a non-theoretical position — Niemann is the rating underdog in Saint Louis, by quite a margin.

Niemann, for instance, knew in advance that 13...Be6 was the correct way to proceed in the early middlegame.

 

Here is where Carlsen noticed he needed to be precise to deal with this position, despite having the white pieces. A forced sequence, starting with 14.Rxd8 Bxc4, led to an endgame in which it was Black who was in the driver’s seat.

The youngster was proud of his 19...Rc8, which goes for the win instead of simplifying into a position more likely to end in a draw.

 

As Yasser Seirawan emphasized later on, what happened from this point on was a case of the nominally weaker player outplaying the pre-game favourite — instead of the more frequent occurrence in which the stronger player blunders the game away due to an unlikely oversight.

The US grandmaster found good-looking moves on his way to victory, like 32...e3

 

Black forces his opponent to create more weaknesses on his camp by threatening to checkmate with the rook on the back rank.

Carlsen did not resign until move 57, despite finding himself three pawns down in a bishop versus knight endgame not long after the time control.

 

Magnus Carlsen

In deep trouble — Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Cyrstal Fuller

Firouzja and So score

Two remarkable victories by Alireza Firouzja and Wesley So contributed to a very enjoyable round in Saint Louis. Firouzja bounced back after losing to Ian Nepomniachtchi by taking down Levon Aronian in a position with opposite-side castling.

 

Of course, it is all about the initiative and king’s safety in this position with three major pieces per side. White put an end to the game with 37.Rf8+ Kh7 38.Qf7+. Aronian resigned due to 38...Qxf7 39.R1xf7+ Kg6 40.h5+...

 

...and White will grab the e8-rook in the next move.

Alireza Firouzja, Levon Aronian

Alireza Firouzja defeated Levon Aronian | Photo: Lennart Ootes

In the last game to end on Sunday, So defeated Fabiano Caruana after skilfully converting his advantage in a difficult endgame.

 

Here Caruana went for 57...Bg2+, which was followed by White marching with his king to g5 and creating a mating attack with queen, knight and the active monarch.

A more fighting alternative was 57...Bxg4+, which is still winning for White, although So would have needed to find a few counterintuitive moves to get the full point — i.e. after 58.Nxg4 d2 59.Qd8+ Kg7 the only winning move is 60.f5, allowing Black to get a second queen!

 

Only pushing the f-pawn wins, since 60...d1Q leads to a mate-in-four with 61.Qf6+ Kh7 62.Qf7+ Kh8 63.Qf8+ Kh7 64.Nf6#. You can try your own variations on the diagram above!

After the game, So immediately discussed this line with Caruana. Given the moves he showed on the board while being filmed, he had not foreseen the f4-f5 push. Of course, maybe he would have found it had the variation actually been played out in the game!

Wesley So

Calculating — Wesley So | Photo: Crystal Fuller

Firouzja v Aronian and So v Caruana

 

Round 3 results

 

Standings after round 3

 

All games

 

Links


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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