We are now officially in what’s often referred to as the “dog days”, that I’ve now come to more associate with a long hot summer of chess at patron/founder Rex Sinquefield’s Saint Louis Chess Club, rather than being a celestial event. Only this year, with added Grand Chess Tour legs, and the marquee event of the Sinquefield Cup being extended, it looks suspiciously as if the players are beginning to feel the strain of what’s become a crowded elite calendar.
Straight after Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s victory in the Paris GCT, the Tour circus crossed the Atlantic and headed more or less right into the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, and a few days after that concluded, came what’s now an extended Sinquefield Cup with two extra players and rounds. The first three rounds were mostly filled with lacklustre draws, save for Viswanathan Anand being somewhat lucky to win the only decisive game, due to an out and out horrific blunder from Ian Nepomniachtchi.
But as the tournament reached its one and only rest day, its slowly beginning to come to life: Fabiano Caruana impressively beat Levon Aronian with a nifty piece of left-over preparations from his World Championship match last year; equally impressive was Ding Liren’s crunching victory over Anish Giri; and last but not least Nepomniachtchi made amends for his earlier blunder, as the Russian demonstrated a nice piece of endgame technique to beat Hikaru Nakamura, who now crashes out of the Top 20 for the first time.
There’s now a three-way tie at the top between Anand, Caruana and Ding – but we could well be set for a very tight finish when the second half gets underway again on Friday, as there’s a large chasing pack just half a point behind the leaders that includes Magnus Carlsen, who, with five successive draws, is clearly misfiring and yet to open his account at this year’s Sinquefield Cup – though his unbeaten run in classical games now extends to 84 games.
Amidst the streak of draws, though, any hopes Carlsen might have had about breaking the 2900 barrier are now officially dashed – but the world champion hasn’t yet given up on winning the tournament. Interviewed on the live coverage, Carlsen commented: “It’s plain to the eye that I’m struggling a bit. I’m not getting anywhere…The good news for me is that I played well after the rest day in Zagreb, maybe I can do the same again.”
Last year the Sinquefield Cup famously ended in a three-way tie between Carlsen, Caruana and Aronian, with the title being shared for the first time in its history – and with the logjam at the top, unless someone makes a move soon on the leaderboard, the odds are that we could also be heading again towards another multi-player tie for first place.
1-3. V. Anand (India), F. Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China) 3/5; 4-8. M. Carlsen (Norway), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), W. So (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 2.5; 10-12. L. Aronian (Armenia), A. Giri (Netherlands), H, Nakamura (USA) 2.
Photo: An instructive piece of endgame technique from Nepo makes amends for his earlier blunder | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Hikaru Nakamura
7th Sinquefield Cup, (5)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Nxd5 exd5 10.Bd3 Bb4+ 11.Nd2 Nc6 12.0-0 Be7 13.Rc1 Qb6 14.Qc2 Nb4?!? At club-level, I dare say the majority reply would have been 14…h6 with now 15.a3 and White would claim the bragging rights to be in control with the more active pieces (the big threat being b4 and Nd2-b3-c5), not to mention the target of the isolated d-pawn, and Black set for a long, tough defence. Rather than having to suffer this, Nakamura attempts to muddy the waters with a somewhat dodgy sacrifice of a pawn to activate his pieces 15.Bxh7+ Kh8 16.Qc7 Qxc7 17.Rxc7 Bd8 18.Bd6 Unfortunately for Nakamura, the tactical free-for-all works for Nepo, as he effortlessly trades down to the ending. 18…Bxc7 19.Bxf8 a5 This is what Nakamura is gambling on – he’s hoping he gets good compensation for the pawn with his bishops being active, and his rook dominating the c-file and easy access to c2. A good try, but I think I would have instead opted for taking the bishop-pair with 19…Kxh7 20.Bxb4 and trying to hold this position. 20.Bb1 Be5 21.b3 Bg4 22.Bc5 Rc8 23.Bb6 Nxa2 24.Bxa2 Rc2 25.Nf3 Bxf3 26.gxf3 Rxa2 27.Rd1 Looking to force the trade of rooks – and, unfortunately for Nakamura, he concurs, and this leads to an ending with bishops of the same colour, so no drawing resources. 27…Ra1 Instead, 27…d4!? and it is doubtful White has enough to play for the win. 28.Rxa1 Bxa1 29.Bxa5 f5 30.Kf1 Long-term, the problem for Nakamura is how to defend the isolated pawns on d5 and b7. 30…Kg8 31.Ke2 Kf7 32.Kd3 Be5 Forced, otherwise Bc3 will see the bishops traded and an easily won K+P ending. 33.Bc3 Bd6 34.e4 The bold choice – the obvious move was 34.f4 to defend the h-pawn. 34…dxe4+ 35.fxe4 Ke6 The point behind Nepo’s bold play is that taking the h-pawn just leads to a lost ending. After 35…fxe4+? 36.Kxe4 Bxh2 37.Be5! Bxe5 38.Kxe5 White’s king is just far too active, and the ending is won. One easy example being 38…Kg6 39.b4 Kh5 40.b5 Kh4 (If 40…g5 41.Kf5!) 41.b6 Kg4 42.f4 Kf3 43.f5 and the kingside pawns will be traded, and White’s king will quickly march to c7 winning the b7-pawn. 36.Bxg7 Bxh2 An added problem for Nakamura is that Nepo has a b-pawn rather than an a-pawn – if it were the a-pawn, then there’s always the hope to sacrifice the bishop for the kingside pawn to force a draw, with the king heading into the light-squared a8 corner. 37.Bd4 b5 38.Bb6 Be5 39.Ke3 Bb2 40.Bd4 Bc1+ 41.Kd3 Ba3 42.Bb6 Bb2 43.Bc7 Bf6 44.Ba5 Be5 45.Bb4 There’a little game of cat and mouse going on right now, as Nepo arranges his pieces on the right squares to head for the endgame win. 45…Bf6 46.Bc5 Be5 47.Ba7 Bf6 48.Bd4 Be7 49.Ke3 Bg5+ 50.f4! Be7 51.Bb6 Ba3 52.Kd3 Bc1 53.Bc7 Bb2 Nakamura has to stop Nepo’s king getting to d4 – if the White king gets to d4, then Black’s b-pawn is doomed. 54.Bb8 Bf6 55.Ke3 Bb2 56.Be5 Rather than playing e5, that gives Black excellent drawing chances by sneaking behind the pawns to attack f4, Nepo forces an error out of Nakamura by moving his b-pawn – and that weakens the b-pawn, as the c4 square is now free for the king, and severely restricts the Black bishop. 56…Bc1+ 57.Kd3 b4? I think the best rule of thumb in such positions is try not to be so haste to move the pawn. Once you commit the pawn, your fate is sealed, as you can’t unmove it, and will eventually run out of moves. Instead, I would have made White work to “show me the win” with 57…Ba3 58.exf5+ White has to make a forcing move sooner or later. 58…Kxf5 59.Kd4 Bb4 (You can’t track-back with the king now. After 59…Ke6 60.Ke4! and f5+ followed by Kd5 gains White even more real estate.) 60.Bb8 Be1! 61.Kc5 (If 61.Bd6 b4 62.Kc4 Bd2! White can’t make progress.) and now 61…b4! 62.Bd6 Bd2 63.Kc4 Ke4 and it looks suspiciously like White can never grab the b-pawn without losing the f-pawn with the bishops still on the board – and if this is indeed the case, Nakamura missed his best practical chance to draw! 58.Bb8 Kf6 59.Bd6 Ke6 60.Be5! [see diagram] With the b-pawn now on b4, this time around with Be5, it is close to zugzwang as Nakamura can barely move his pieces. 60…Ba3 61.Bd4 Bc1 62.Be3 Bb2 63.Bd2 fxe4+ There’s no defending the b-pawn with the bishop now. After 63…Ba3 64.e5! Kd5 65.Kc2! Kc5 66.Bc1 The bishop trade forces a won K+P ending. 64.Kxe4 Ba3 65.Kd4 Kf5 66.Kd5! All roads lead to Rome here, but in an ending, it should always be second nature that you gain a tempo wherever and whenever you can, as this is usually the vital ingredient needed to win – and here, the extra move makes the win all the easier for Nepo, as it either forces a K+P ending or Black going two pawns down. 66…Kf6 67.Kc5 Kf5 68.Kb5 Ke4 69.Bxb4 1-0