Sinquefield Cup: Round 8 - Poised for a photo-finish

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/11/2017 – Anand is still in the joint lead after draw with Vachier-Lagrave, as Aronian drew with Svilder. Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin are lurking a half point back and will have to win in round 9 to have any chance for tournament victory | Photos: Lennart Ootes

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Saturday Playoff likely

Empty chairs

As stakes got higher and the Sinquefield Cup looked to be up for grabs for a probable four players who occupied the top slots, things suitably hotted up on the board from the word go, a delightful sight for the spectators

Levon Aronian, who was in joint lead along with Anand and Vachier-Lagrave too, could not score a victory against Peter Svidler, while Magnus Carlsen could not overcome Ian Nepomniachtchi. Thus Anand, Vachier-Lagrave and Aronian continued to be the joint leaders with 5 points each heading into the last round and the tournament is interestingly poised for a photo-finish on Friday.

First of all, Aronian decided to be faithful and got involved with his h-pawn from early on:

 

Daredevilry is even more admirable than bravery on the chess board — especially if a lot is at stake in a high level competition. It was really admirable that Aronian decided to pick up the gauntlet against such a strong opponent in such a crucial round when a win will probably give him best chances for the title but a mishap means exile to obscurity. There's absolutely no doubt that Levon Aronian is one of our bravest knights in shining armour!

Aronian

Levon Aronian went beyond bravery to demonstrate daredevilry | Photo: Austin Fuller

The game followed Aronian’s first round victory over Nepomniachtchi, quickly became a violent combat, and foretold an exciting contest. Complimenting Aronian’s choice, Maurice Ashley dubbed the thrust with h2-h4-h5 the ‘Aronian Variation’.

When Peter Svidler look a long think for Aronian’s improvement for this particular game — 9.Be2 instead of 9.Ba3 which he played in the first round against Nepo — it was difficult to understand if he had come well-armed for the game, or he was thinking for a move at the board. However, as the game developed, it was obvious that Peter Svidler indeed had prepared his own armour and was thirsting for a fight.

 

Such a heightened tension gave hopes of a violent clash, and Peter Svidler had chances to go for a brilliant sacrificial attack: 15.Bb5 Qd5 16.Nf2 Qd6?! (Svidler missed for a chance of eternal glory with 16...Qxg2! 17.Bf1 (17.e4 0-0!! 18.Bxc6 Rxc6!! 19.Qxc6 g4 and Black is close to winning!) 17...Qg3 18. Bb5 O-O! 19. Bxc6 gxf4 and Black gets sufficient compensation due to White’s weakened King) and a draw was agreed after 17.Ne4 Qd5 18. Nf2 Qd6 19. Ne4 1/2-1/2

Svidler admired the analysis thrown in by the computer with 17...0-0 and 18...Rxc6 but pointed out that it was very difficult to decide on such sacrifices unlike the commentators who are armed with chess engines when analysing, for whom it was ‘very easy to give (pieces) away when they are not your pieces!’ But for posterity, he gave the best comment of the day:

“This is very beautiful. This is not impossible to find, but it is not easy to find also!”

Aronian vs. Svidler

Aronian and Svidler analysing after the game | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Though holding an initiative for most of the game, Anand could not make headway against co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s defence, settling for a draw in the 8th and penultimate round of the Sinquefield Cup.

Anand vs. Vachier-Lagrave

Pondering the opening in Anand vs. Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

One of the main reasons for Anand’s longevity as a performer in chess has been his ability to reinvent himself periodically in his long and illustrious career spanning more than three decades now. Until his World Championship Match in 2008 against Vladimir Kramnik, Anand was always a player who opened with the king’s pawn on the first move: 1.e4. When he expanded his repertoire to 1.d4 for the match and emphatically defeated Kramnik, his arsenal got richer by the addition, as it combined with his meticulous opening preparation which would ultimately become one of the hallmarks of his strengths. Playing many different openings can also provoke a change of style in one’s play, along with the ability to play more varied types of positions and pawn structures, and a general widening of one’s knowledge. This is one of the main reasons for Anand’s rejuvenation in the post-2008 period.

Anand

Anand is keeping his opponents guessing | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Since 2015, Anand has again reverted back to be faithful to 1.e4, and has been consistent with his first move, more often than not.

Here in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup, when he opted for 1.c4 — the English Opening — in his fifth round game against Caruana, it must have raised quite a few eyebrows of his fellow competitors, especially as he won that game and proved his knowledge of the position to be the result of deep preparation rather than speculative play. However, his rivals also have to cope up with another possibility: that this whole change is just a smokescreen to keep opponents guessing his opening move intentions in the forthcoming World Cup in September — a crucial event for many of the top players.  

In the 8th round game against Vachier-Lagrave too, Anand also opted for the English opening, though it started with the move order 1.Nf3 and 2.c4. Once again, it was obvious that Anand was well prepared in the ensuing variations and was able to squeeze out an advantage out of the opening, proving anew that his employing the English Opening has come about only after a thorough preparation of the requisite theory.

Magnus takes an interest in the opening of Anand vs. Vachier-Lagrave

Vachier-Lagrave decided to be active very early too:

 

Soon, Anand seemed to be developing one of those nagging edges, and seemed to be well on his way to creating a serious stranglehold:

 

Anand missed improving his advantage when he played the routine looking 20.Rad1, whereas 20.Bd7 Rc7 21.Be6+ Kh8 and now 22.Rad1 would have preserved his advantage. The game petered out into a draw after the move played.

And then came the incredible Nakamura, who seemed to be looking skywards and trying to remember where he had hidden unique stuff in his brain. With patience, we realised that he did have something special for the occasion.

Nakamura

Nakamura - Looking upwards at heaven but actually looking inwards into his preparation well | Photo: V.Saravanan

First of all he played the complex Kings Indian Defence against Fabiano Caruana (good idea), faced the h3 variation (fine), moved his d-pawn and then his c-pawn (ok), and then moved the d-pawn again (what?)!

 

His surprise for the day had good effect, as he managed to get an advantage with a fantastic break eventually:

 

Now Nakamura uncorked 16...b5! and soon wrested the initiative, which he held on till tragedy struck in time trouble.

 

Holding on an advantage for a long time in the game, Nakamura erred with 38...Be4??  (38... Rd7 39. Rc1 Bd5 and Black pieces are dominating the board, with a weak pawn structure on the kingside for White)  39.Nxe4 fxe4 40.Qc3 Qa6 41.d5+ Kh6 (the tables are turned — White is better now)  42.Rg8?? Now it is Caruana’s time to blunder away a very good advantage! Allowing an easy but pretty combination (42.Rxe4 and White is clearly better here: 42...Ra1+ 43.Re1 Rxe1+ 44.Qxe1 Qd3 45.Qe3) 42...Ra1+ 43.Kh2 Rh1+!! 44. Kxh1 Qf1+ with a perpetual check.

Caruana

Caruana unfortunately echoed Nakamura’s blunder in time pressure with one of his own | Photo: Spectrum Studios

On the other hand, World Champion Magnus Carlsen who was trailing the leaders by half a point overextended his position and was forced to defend an inferior position which he was relieved to draw after 32 moves against Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Facing the World Champion, Nepomniachtchi had the enviable record of having beaten Carlsen thrice apart from three draws. He also came up with an "almost novelty" by playing an early bishop sorties early in the opening.

 

But the important moment of the game came much later on:

 

White holds a slight edge here, and Nepo missed a cute little more here: 21.Bxg4? (21. Be2!! [More than the strength of the move, it is the backward movement of the Bishop which matters — any movement of a piece going backward is always difficult to spot for the human eye!] 21...Bxe2 22. Rxe2 Rd8 23.e5 Ne8 24. Red2 and white maintains an edge) 21...Nxg4 22.Kg2 Ne5 23.B3 Nc4 24.bxc4 Bxc3 25.Rc2 Bg7 and Carlsen managed to hold the position.

Nepomniachtchi

Nepomniachtchi has had his share of misses | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Later on when asked about how he got into difficulties, Magnus Carlsen came out with a memorable justification: starting with a confession about not being able to find a plan to play the queenless middlegame, he complimented Nepo’s plan to centralise by doubling the Rooks as quite strong.

“Maybe I should have played for a draw, but I did not want to play for a draw! I used up all the time, and I realised that my position was worse. I am lucky that I got off so easily — I could have been much worse for sure. I am lucky today, I am still in with a chance (to play for top places) Obviously, tomorrow only a win counts”.

Well, what do we say?! Welcome to planet Magnus!!

Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen, to win is to live, to live is to win | Photo: Lennart Ootes

When Marice Ashley asked Nepomniachtchi later on, “Magnus wanted to beat you to get into a tie for first, MVL says he has to beat you tomorrow with all guns blazing [to have chances to win the title] what are your thoughts about that?”, Nepo kept an amused demeanour and replied, “(MVL) will have to atleast try a little bit! So far in this tournament, it is not like anyone is beating me! I am losing the games myself, that’s a little bit annoying”. In good humour, and admirable balance after a difficult tournament (so far).

So

Wesley So, looking brilliant in dark glasses but unfortunately in poor form in this event | Photo: Lennart Ootes

And then you find Wesley So in his amazing dark glasses having planted an amazing black knight at f4!

 

And then he got another chance to replant the knight at the same square but missed it!

 

Here So missed an excellent chance to seize the initiative with 22...Nf4! 23.axb5 (23.gxf4 Qg6+ 24.Kh2 exf4 — watch that rook on e3!) or (23.Nxf4 exf4 24.Ree1 24...bxa4 25.Qxa4 fxg3 26.fxg3 Qxc3) 23...axb5 24.Nxf4 exf4 25.Ree1 Ne5 with initiative for Black. He got slowly ground down by Karjakin in a lengthy protracted struggle.

This means that Anand, Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave continue to lead the tournament with 5 points each followed by Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin on 4½ points. A tibreak playoff is now likely.

Anand faces Wesley So in the final round, and while So’s uneven form is an encouraging factor for Anand, scoring a victory with black pieces is never an easy task.

All eyes will be on Magnus Carlsen, with White against Aronian — #1 and #2 in the world (on the live rating list), with Magnus in a must-win situation.

Thus, Vachier-Lagrave is the only one among the trio of leaders with White in the last round. He faces the erratic Nepomniachtchi.

Round 8 - Games and commentary

 

 

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

Links



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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