The “dog days,” I always thought, were those summer days so devastatingly hot that even dogs would lie around on the asphalt, panting – but originally, the phrase had nothing to do with parched canines or even those lazy days of summer, but, in fact, a celestial occurrence. In the last couple of years, though, I’ve come to associate these dog days of being a long month of hot chess in Saint Louis!
This year, Saint Louis is the final two stops of the Grand Chess Tour, with two mega back-to-back elite-level events. First up was the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, won by US speed maven Hikaru Nakamura. Now comes the big marquee event hosted at the Saint Louis Chess Club: the 6th Sinquefield Cup, that sees World Champion Magnus Carlsen enter the fray as the wildcard pick – and it comes with the subplot twist of it being his last meeting with his US title challenger, Fabiano Caruana, ahead of their November World Championship clash in London.
Fittingly, the Sinquefield Cup has a larger prize fund than the other GCT events at $300,000 and offers more tour points to the winner. And After the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, the four players atop of the tour standings were Nakamura, defending Sinquefield Cup winner Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Sergey Karjakin and Wesley So – and not far behind is Levon Aronian and the in-form Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. And the early rounds soon blew the race for the GCT Final wide open, with So losing to Aronian, and Karjakin going down to a brace of losses to Mamedyarov and Carlsen.
The Russian’s loss to Carlsen shows why the Norwegian is the World Champion – while others might have agreed to the draw much earlier, Carlsen ruthlessly turned in a trademark grind and he was rewarded for it, as his previous title-challenger inexplicably cracked at the critical moment after their epic marathon of six and a half hours of play, when it got down to surviving on the fumes of the delay on the clock.
1-3. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), M. Carlsen (Norway), L. Aronian (Armenia) 1.5/2; 4-8. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), F. Caruana (USA), A. Grischuk (Russia), V. Anand (India), H. Nakamura (USA) 1; 9. W. So (USA) 0.5; 10. S. Karjakin (Russia) 0.
Photo: A trademark grind ends with Carlsen in a three-way tie at the top | © Spectrum Studios / GCT
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Sergey Karjakin
6th Sinquefield Cup, (2)
1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 0-0 5.Nf3 d5 6.a3 Be7 7.d4 dxc4 8.Ne5 Nc6 9.Bxc6 This is a very typical series of Catalan-like early exchanges. 9…bxc6 10.Nxc6 Qe8 11.Nxe7+ Qxe7 12.Qa4 c5 13.dxc5 Qxc5 14.Be3 Qc7 15.Rd1 Nd5 16.Bd4 Rd8 17.Nxd5 exd5 Black is no worse here, and if anything, slightly the better – but long-term, with the all-important d4 square blockaded, if Carlsen can build up enough pressure on the weak pawns on d5 and a7, he could give Karjakin a headache. 18.Qc2 Qe7 There’s no gain in stopping Carlsen castling with 18…Bh3 as after 19.f3 Qe7 20.Kf2! eventually, White will engineer a break with e4 and have his king more central for the endgame. 19.0-0 Bh3 20.Rfe1 Rd7 21.Bc3 Re8 22.Rd4 Qg5 Karjakin was right to worry about Carlsen successfully getting in the e4-break, so he goes for trading queens and looking to the opposite coloured bishops leading to a relatively peaceful draw – but Carlsen finds a way to complicate matters. 23.Qd2 Qxd2 24.Rxd2 Be6 25.Red1 Rde7 26.f3 h5 27.Kf2 f6 28.Rd4 Kh7 29.R1d2 Bf7 30.h3 a6 31.Rf4 Kg8 Karjakin could have played 31…Kg6 – but with his king oscillating between g8 and h7, he’s clearly angling for a draw, so lets Carlsen come up with ‘something’ that will make his position better than what it really is. 32.Bd4 Kh7 33.Bc3 Kg8 34.g4 hxg4 35.hxg4 Kh7 36.Rf5 Many commentators described Carlsen’s coming exchange sacrifice as being “unexpected” – but it is hard to say this, especially after this move, as its an all but risk-free way to try to play for a win, as it forces Karjakin to deal with a difficult defence for hours to come. 36…Rb7 37.Rfxd5!? With the time control looming, and just when all the commentators, pundits and punters alike were indicating that the game was heading for a draw, Carlsen seizes his chance to press the ‘reset button’ with a calculated gamble that takes us into a complex position that at least avoids the drawing tendencies of the opposite-coloured bishops. 37…Bxd5 38.Rxd5 Kg6?! Okay, it shouldn’t lose, but for the life of me, I really can’t understand why Karjakin rejected the simple solution of 38…Rc7! which would have saved the c-pawn? After all, the rook on c7 defends g7 in event of White playing g5, and if he goes now for the a-pawn, with 39.Rd6, then he was 39…Rce7 40.e4 Re6 41.Rd7 R8e7 42.Rd8 Re8 43.Rd7 R8e7 etc and White is never going to make anything of this position. 39.Rc5 The simple win of the ‘bonus’ c-pawn just gives Carlsen licence to grind on here, as it will be near impossible for him to ever lose this position. All Karjakin can look forward to is a long-term tough defence – and the ‘Minister of Defence’ almost flawlessly does this, only to dramatically crack at the last moment when the draw was clearly within his reach. 39…Rh8 40.Kg3 Rb6 41.Rxc4 Rh1 This is what Karjakin has jettisoned the c-pawn for – hoping that his active rooks will save the day. Saving the c-pawn and the rooks being a little cramped looked wiser, though. 42.Rc7 Carlsen clearly envisions positions with his rook on a7 and aiming for a position where a g5 push becomes problematic for his opponent – but Karjakin looks to have it all under control. 42…Rc1 43.Rd7 Rc6 44.a4 Rg1+ 45.Kf2 Ra1 46.a5 And now with the pawn on a5, Carlsen will be trying to get a set-up of Ra7, Bd4-b6 and targeting Black’s weak a-pawn – but amidst all this, Karjakin also gets some moves! 46…Ra4 47.Kg3 Rac4 48.Ra7 Re6 49.e4 Rc8 50.Rd7 Rec6 51.f4! With Karjakin’s rooks all tied up, Carlsen gets on with the job of a trademark grind by slowly improving his position. 51…R8c7 52.f5+ Kh7 53.Rd8 Rc8 54.Rd3 Re8 55.Rd4 Rc7 56.Kf4 Rce7 57.Rc4 Kh6 58.Kf3 Rd7 59.Bd4 Kh7 60.b4 Rd6 61.Ke3 Kh6 62.Rc1 Kh7 63.Bb6 Rd7 64.Bc5 Red8 65.Rh1+ Kg8 66.Kf4 Re8 67.Re1 g5+! Karjakin is more than living up to his moniker of ‘Minister of Defence’ by finding all the brave moves that keeps him in the game. 68.fxg6 Kg7 69.g5 Kxg6 70.gxf6 Kxf6 Karjakin has exchanged off the kingside pawns that was making life difficult – and he should be heading now for the draw. 71.Rh1 Rf7 72.Ke3 Ke6 73.Rh4 Rf6 74.Rh7 Rf7 75.Rh5 Kd7 This is the optimum position Karjakin was aiming for – his rooks are now more active, and his king more central to deal with White’s e-pawn or perhaps the queenside pawns – and now, if 76. Rh6+ there’s …Re6 (followed by …Re8 if 77.Rh8) holding the line. 76.e5 Rf1 77.Ke4 [see diagram] The way to draw is shown in the next note – but perhaps flustered with playing on the air of the 30-second delay now, Karjakin has a total brain freeze. 77…Kc6?? It’s always the case that you let down your guard when you think the pressure is off and the draw is easily at hand – and here, this is what happens to Karjakin with his inexplicable brain freeze. He had to play first 77…Re6! 78.Kd5 Rd1+ 79.Bd4 Rg6! 80.Rh7+ Kc8 and White can’t make any progress with the pin on the bishop, and he’ll soon be forced into playing Rh4, and Black plays …Kd7 again. But now, Karjakin has blundered by allowing Carlsen rook to force his king away from the ‘business area’ of the board. 78.Rh6+ Kb5 Alternatively, keeping the king at the ‘business end’ with 78…Kc7 allows the simple capture with 79.Rxa6 Re1+ 80.Kd3 Rd8+ 81.Bd6+! Kd7 82.Kc4! and the king heads for safety from the checks on b5, where it will also now support pushing the a-pawn home. 79.Rb6+ Kc4 80.e6 Re1+ 81.Kf5 Rf1+ 82.Ke5 A nice final finesse with the king, that avoids the last pitfall of 82.Kg6? Rg8+ 83.Kh7 Rg5! 84.e7 Rh1+ 85.Rh6 Re1 86.Bd6 Kb5 and a draw, as White’s e-pawn isn’t going anywhere, and neither is his rook, as there’s no other way to stop the mating threats with …Rh1+ etc. 82…Re1+ 83.Kf6 Rf1+ 84.Kg7 Now there’s no saving …Rg8+. 84…Ra8 85.e7 Re1 86.Kf7 Re4 87.Rd6 Threatening 88.Rd8 and forcing the win of the a-pawn. 87…Rh8 88.Rxa6 1-0