The penultimate round of the 7th Sinquefield Cup, the marquee event of the Grand Chess Tour, taking place at the world-famous Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri, was all about three things: Yet another solid performance from Ding Liren, who is now on the cusp of a landmark Chinese result in a super-tournament; a simply horrific blunder from Ian Nepomniachtchi that could well have blown the tournament for the Russian overnight co-leader; and after a frustrating nine-game drawing streak, Magnus Carlsen’s tournament finally came alive with his first win!
Ding Liren has been the most impressive performer at the Sinquefield Cup, period. And the way he’s playing, not only could the Chinese No.1 be set to be the new name engraved on the trophy, but if he finishes with a flourish, he will now overtake Fabiano Caruana to be the new World #2 on the live ratings. Ding has the sole lead on 6/10, a half-point ahead of the chasing pack going into the decisive final round. His +2 score also comes with stylish standout wins against Anish Giri and Caruana.
And this reassured performance from Ding, all but guarantees him the rating qualification spot into next year’s Candidates Tournament – and many believe he could well be the favourite (along with Caruana) to emerge as the likely winner, and a title challenger that could well trouble Carlsen, and finally realise Beijing’s long-term project of producing a Chinese (male) World Champion.
And he moves into the sole lead by virtue of one of the most surprising moves seen in recent times by an elite-level player. Faced with only two possible knight moves on the board – one drawing, the other losing – against Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Ian Nepomniachtchi, the overnight co-leader, made a howler that surely must have had the Russian “Patriarch”, Mikhail Botvinnik, spinning in his grave at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery – or indeed even his ashes blowing around in the family hole-in-the-wall plot, as the case may be!
Playing too quickly, Nepomniachtchi made what can best be described as a “mouse slip”, when, after just 26 seconds of thought, he rushed to play 21.Nd7?? when 21.Nc6! was just drawing, as MVL readily admitted when he headed into the confessional to acknowledge his “unexpected” good fortune. And that blunder sets up what could well make for an exciting final round in St Louis.
With Carlsen finally opening his account with a masterful squeeze over Wesley So, he now plays MVL in the final round – and after crunching the Tour numbers, it looks as if MVL will need to risk everything to play for a win to qualify for the GCT 4-player final at the London Chess Classic. The risk for MVL also comes as good news for Carlsen, as any slip could open the door for a second win for the world champion – and with it, a possible future title-teaser with a playoff with Ding for the Sinquefield Cup title!
1. Ding Liren (China) 6/10; 2-5. M. Carlsen (Norway), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), V. Anand (India), S. Karjakin (Russia) 5½; 6-8. F. Caruana (USA), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5; 9-10. A. Giri (Netherlands), H. Nakamura (USA) 4½; 11-12. W. So (USA), L. Aronian (Armenia) 4.
Photo: Carlsen shows his relief by finally winning a game! | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Wesley So
7th Sinquefield Cup, (10)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano means ‘quiet game’ in Italian – it is also the name for one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, first recorded in the annals in the 16th century. And like its literal name, things start off initially very quiet with a slow build-up, as both sides patiently position their pieces for the ensuing middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 0-0 6.c3 d6 7.h3 h6 8.Re1 a6 9.a4 a5 10.Nbd2 Be6 11.Bb5 Na7 12.d4! This is the only move that gives White any advantage to work with – the advantage will indeed be small, but it is something that Carlsen can work with. 12…Nxb5 13.dxc5 Na7 14.b3 Re8 15.cxd6 Qxd6 16.Ba3 This is what Carlsen was angling for, as it commits the c-pawn to c5, making Black’s queenside pawns targets. 16…c5 17.Nc4 Qxd1 18.Raxd1 Bxc4 19.bxc4 b6 20.Nh4! There’s not much in the position: the engines giving White a little advantage, sub +0.50 – it’s nowhere near a winning punt, but it soon becomes clear that Carlsen is the one with the better “feel” for the position, as he slowly and steadily outplays his American opponent. 20…Rad8 21.f3 g6 Stopping the knight coming to f5. 22.g3 Carlsen is making a path for his knight to get to d5 via Nh4-g2-e3-d5. 22…Nh5 23.Kf2 Nc6 24.Bc1 Kg7 25.Be3 Rxd1 26.Rxd1 Rd8 27.Rb1 Trading rooks will only help So achieve the draw. With the rooks remaining on the board, it’s going to be So’s rook that’s going to be passive and tied down to defending b6. 27…Rb8 28.Ng2 Nf6 29.Ke2 Ne8 Perhaps a sterner defence was with 29…Nd7!? and then let the knights defend the queenside pawns. Play would likely continue 30.Rd1 Rd8 31.Bf2 f6 32.Ne3 Kf7 33.g4 and a long struggle ahead, as White will still need to work hard to convert any possible win. Still, even here, Black faces a huge back-to-the-wall task of defending the position. 30.Bf2! [see diagram] The squeeze is on! The bishop just nudges back to make room for the knight to come to e3 and into d5 – and this leads to the undoubling of Carlsen’s c-pawns. 30…Nd6 31.Ne3 Ne7 The dilemma for So, is that he has to make moves on the board – but some would argue that this one only helps Carlsen, as he takes advantage of not having to defend his c4-pawn. But once you start making non-committal passing moves for Black, you soon realise how White will continue to ratchet up the pressure. After 31…Rb7 White will continue with 32.h4 followed by g4 and then perhaps Rd1 (or even Nd5 again, as even the ending after …Nxc4 Kd3 Nd6 and Rxb6 looks winning for White) and something will have to give, as the pressure on the Black position will reach critical mass. 32.Nd5 Nxd5 33.cxd5 Rb7 34.Kd3 f5 No better was 34…c4+ as 35.Kc2 Nc8 36.f4 f6 37.fxe5 fxe5 38.g4 Kf6 39.Bg3! (threatening Rf1+ winning the e5-pawn) 39…Re7 (Also losing was 39…Nd6 40.Rf1+ Ke7 41.Bxe5 Nxe4 42.Rf4 Ng5 43.Rxc4 Rd7 44.Rc7 Nxh3 45.c4 Nf2 46.g5 hxg5 47.Rc6 and White’s rook picks off the pawns on b6 and g6.) 40.h4 Kg7 41.Bh2! g5 42.h5 and Black will eventually fall into zugzwang. 35.c4 fxe4+ Some online punters debated that So should have tried for 35…h5 and put his king on f6 – but even here, during his appearance on the Russian broadcast commentary, Carlsen even played to his audience with his comment that his win over So was “a bit of a homage to Mikhail Botvinnik”, and such was the stranglehold he had, he pointed out that after 36.Be1! Kf6 37.Bc3 g5 38.g4 zugzwang is looming large once again. 36.fxe4 Rf7 All lines are losing now, but you can understand So’s relief here, just to be out of the stranglehold with just a brief moment of freedom for his pieces. 37.Rxb6 Rxf2 38.Rxd6 Rf3+ 39.Ke2 With a dip in the engine assessments, the cries from the armchair warriors of “Magnus has blundered!!!” was practically deafening here. Sure, 39.Kd2! was crisp and clinical – but even with his slight inaccuracy, Carlsen is still easily winning the rook ending. 39…Rc3 40.Re6 Rxc4 41.Rxe5 Rxa4 42.Re7+ Kf6?! I think So’s spirit was well and truly broken by now, as any slim hopes of trying to save the R+P ending just flew out the window with this move. Better was 42…Kf8 43.Re6 h5 44.h4 Kf7 45.Ke3! and pray for a sudden earthquake, as White’s king will march to e5 via f4 and/or shepherd home the central passed pawns or a back-rank mate on the Black king. 43.d6 1-0 So resigns, as there’s no answer to e5+ and d7 and the pawns pass.