For those of a certain generation (not to mention country location), the Sinquefield Cup is beginning to take on the appearance of an Enid Blyton early schooldays adventure yarn at the Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri, with lashings of draws as “five run away together” to take a share of the lead – and despite his best efforts with a piece of enterprising Alpha Zero-like sacrificial pawn play, one of them isn’t Magnus Carlsen!
The world champion’s tournament has been beset thus far with a run of draws, and despite the Norwegian’s best intentions of attempting to break the hex against Ding Liren, that, too, went down to the “bare kings” and an eighth successive draw for the world champion. But Carlsen is not out of the running, as he heads the chasing pack a half-point behind the leaders – and now with a run of 87 games undefeated, he’s also closing in on Ding’s elite-level unbeaten streak of 100 games that came to an end last November.
While Carlsen can’t get a winning position he can covert for the full point, the man whom he replaced as world champion, Vishy Anand, 49, just can’t convert the many promising winning positions he’s been getting, and the veteran ex-champion could well come to regret failing to covert his trifecta of excellent full-point chances he’s had against Anish Giri, Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana in successive rounds.
But the day and the wins belonged to Russia, as Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sergey Karjakin proved to be the only victors of Round 8, with a pair of impressive wins against Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave respectively, and they now join Fabiano Caruana, Ding Liren and Vishy Anand in a five-way tie at the top going into the final four rounds.
1-5. F, Caruana (USA), Ding Liren (China), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), V. Anand (India), S. Karjakin (Russia) 4½/8; 6-8. M. Carlsen (Norway), W. So (USA), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 4; 9-11. A. Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), H. Nakamura (USA) 3½; 12. L. Aronian (Armenia) 3.
Photo: It was ‘Russia Day’ at the Sinquefield Cup, as Nepo and Karjakin join the leaders in a five-way tie at the top | © Lennart Ootes / St Louis Chess Club
GM Sergey Karjakin – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
7th Sinquefield Cup, (8)
Grünfeld Defence, Exchange variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 c5 8.Ne2 Nc6 9.Be3 Up until the 1980s, the classical approach was almost the de rigour in the Grunfeld Exchange and favoured by World Champions Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov. But it was replaced in popularity by the more modern approach with 7.Nf3. 9…0-0 10.0-0 b6 11.dxc5 Usually this pawn sacrifice is fine for Black, who gets lots of good compensation with open lines for his pieces in return. 11…Qc7 12.Nd4 This is better than the “full” pawn sacrifice line with 12.cxb6 axb6 where Black follows up with …Ne5, …Rb8 and …Ba6 with active play and pawn targets on a2, c3 and e4 – and according to the databases, with excellent winning statistics for Black. 12…Ne5 13.Nb5 Qb8 14.Bd5 Ng4 15.g3 Nxe3 16.fxe3 a6 This position isn’t exactly new for MVL, as, he also had the same position against Boris Gelfand in the 2013 World Cup in Tromso, Norway – only with the colours reversed! In that game, MVL tried the speculative 17.Bxf7+!? Kh8! (If 17…Rxf7 18.Qd5 Bf6 19.Nd6!? e6 20.Qd1 Rf8 21.e5!? all looks complex, hence Gelfand’s more pragmatic approach) 18.Nd4 bxc5 19.Bd5 Rxf1+ 20.Qxf1 cxd4 21.Rb1 Qa7 22.Qf7 Be6! and the game soon petered out to a draw. After the MVL-Gelfand game, it was accepted that if White wants to try to fight for more, then he has to try a different approach. 17.Nd4 bxc5?! Also possible was the safer 17…Bh3! 18.Rb1 (If 18.Bxa8 Qxa8 19.cxb6 Bxf1 20.Qxf1 Rb8 21.Qb1 e5 22.Nf3 Qc6) 18…Bxf1 19.Qxf1 b5 20.a4 Qe5!? 21.axb5 axb5 22.Bxa8 Rxa8 23.Rxb5 Qxe4 which all looks roughly even – but MVL, somewhat unwisely, once again lives on the edge by opting to press the “gamble button”. 18.Rb1 Qa7 19.Nc6 White can’t risk accepting the exchange sacrifice. After 19.Bxa8 cxd4! 20.Bd5 dxc3 21.Qf3 e6 22.Bb3 Bh6! 23.Rfe1 Bd7 Black has a big advantage with threats of …Qc5, …Bc6 with the idea of …Qe5 and …f5. 19…Qc7 20.Nxe7+ Qxe7 21.Bxa8 Bh3 22.Bd5 Bxf1 23.Qxf1 Bxc3 24.Qxa6 Qg5 25.Qe2 In the battle of the opposite coloured bishops, Karjakin has the better bishop with his powerful outpost on d5 that not only hits f7 but more importantly controls the queening a8 square – and that makes White’s passed a-pawn the deciding factor in this game. 25…Kh8 26.Kg2 f5 To his credit, MVL is doing his best to try to breakdown the position – but there is no easy answers to what to do when the a-pawn starts running. 27.Qd3 Be5 28.Rf1 Kg7 29.exf5 Rxf5 30.a4! Now the a-pawn is running! 30…Rxf1 31.Kxf1 Bd4 32.Bc4 Bxe3?! Obviously capturing the pawn with the queen is taboo, as after trading the ladies, Black’s bishop has no route back in time to stop the running a-pawn. But while capturing the pawn with the bishop restores the material imbalance for MVL, the threat to his king and the running a-pawn is just too much for the Frenchman to deal with. Instead, the engines offer up the possibility of 32…Qf6+ but after 33.Kg2 Bc3 34.Qd7+ Kh6 35.Bg8 Qh8 the defence, while ugly and uncomfortable, may well be holding. For example: 36.Bd5 (If 36.Qf7 Qg7 37.Qf4+ g5 38.Qd6+ Qg6 39.Qf8+ Qg7 40.Qxc5 Qxg8 41.Qxc3 Qd5+ 42.Kf2 Qa2+ 43.Kf3 Qxa4 and good luck with your extra pawn trying to avoid a perpetual check in the queen ending.) 36…Qf6! 37.Qb5 Be1 38.Qe2 Bb4 all of which may well be the saving resource that MVL missed. 33.Qd7+ Kh6 34.Qh3+ Kg7 35.Qe6 Bd4 In most cases with the opposite-coloured bishops, Black would be itching to trade the queens with 35…Qf6+ 36.Qxf6+ Kxf6 – but here, as noted above, after 37.a5 there’s no way to stop the pawn from queening. 36.Qf7+ Kh6 37.a5! This time trading the queens with 37.Qf4? as 37…Qxf4+ 38.gxf4 Bc3! the pawn is stopped, and it is a draw. 37…Bf6 38.Kg2! There’s a certain irony here with Karjakin’s king move, as all MVL can do is check it up the board to safety – and at the same time sign his own death warrant by creating an unlikely mating net! 38…Qd2+ 39.Kh3 Qg5 40.Qf8+ Bg7 41.Qf3 If 41.Qf4 Be5! 42.Qf8+ (Trading queens doesn’t help White now. After 42.Qxg5+ Kxg5 43.Kg2 Kf5 44.a6 Bb8 45.Kf3 Ke5 and again a draw.) 42…Bg7 43.Qf3! A wonderful controlling retreat, as from f3 the queen stops …Qh5+ and dominates the a8 queening square – and with the added bonus that 43…Qe7 44.Qf4+ g5 45.Qf5 Be5 46.a6 Bb8 47.Bd3 and the Black king is also in danger. 41…Bd4 42.a6 Qe7 43.Qa8 Bf6 The bishop is in the way of the checks – not that it matters much now anyway, as Karjakin has it all under control. 44.a7 Qd7+ 45.g4 Qe7 46.Qf3! Either the pawn queens or MVL has to give up his bishop – but the Frenchman has one final ‘Hail Mary’ saving chance. 46…Qxa7 47.Qxf6 Qa3+ 48.Bd3!! [see diagram] A wonderful by-product of Karjakin voluntarily walking his king up the board, as now his opponent’s king is in grave danger, and he avoids MVL’s cunning queen sacrifice stalemate trap of 48.Kh4?? Qh3+!! (also 48.Kg2?? Qg3+! and 49.Kf1 Qe1+! or even 49.Kh1 Qxh2+!49.Kxh3 is the same stalemating-theme) and no Black piece can legally move – but with the bishop sacrifice, the c-pawn is now suddenly free to move. 48…Qxd3+ 49.Kh4 Qd4 50.Qf8+ Qg7 51.g5# 1-0 Typical for MVL, the Frenchman sportingly acknowledges Karjakin’s enterprising play by allowing the crowd-pleasing mate.