John Henderson
By John Henderson

With a record prize fund of $325,000, and now expanded to twelve players and 11 rounds for the first time in its history, the prestigious Sinquefield Cup is not just the marquee summer event for the world-famous Saint Louis Chess Club, but also the marquee event of the Grand Chess Tour regular season. It’s also for fans the eager-anticipated super-tournament of the year, with the star-studded field being led by world champion Magnus Carlsen – and all eyes were firmly on the 28-year-old Norwegian to see if he could bounce back just days after his epic poor performance during the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz.

Carlsen’s glorious winning streak of eight tournament victories may well have come to a grinding halt now, but he was still unbeaten in 79 classical games, and there was still hope he could attempt to break the 2900-barrier at the Sinquefield Cup. To do so, Carlsen needs yet another daunting score, this time of 9/11 – a tough ask, as his confidence wasn’t riding high after his horrific performance in the St Louis Rapid & Blitz.  And after starting with three draws, he’s not only dropped classical rating points, but also any chances of breaking 2900 looks impossible now.

And it is not just Carlsen drawing all his games, as the Sinquefield Cup has got off to a slow start in general with 17 games ending in draws and only one decisive result. It should really have been all 18 games ending in draws, but Ian Nepomniachtchi came down with a nasty case of amaurosis scachistica to gift Viswanathan Anand the full point, and now the veteran Indian five-time ex-world champion leads the field by half a point by virtue of the only decisive game (so far, at least!) of the tournament.

Dr Siegbert Tarrasch was the first to diagnose amaurosis scachistica, as he explained away a bad loss to Emanuel Lasker during their 1908 World Championship Match, in his tome Die Moderne Schahpartie (1912). But before any hypochondriacs start to reach feverishly reach for a thermometer, there’s no need to unduly worry, as the main symptom is making uncharacteristic blunders at the chessboard, a complaint more often known as chess blindness, rather than the fancy Latin name given to it by the good doctor.

1. V. Anand (India) 2/3; 2-11. M. Carlsen (Norway), L. Aronian (Armenia), Ding Liren (China), A. Giri (Netherlands), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), W. So (USA), S. Karjakin (Russia), H. Nakamura (USA), F. Caruana (USA), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 1½; 12. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 1.

Photo: He may well cover his eyes, but Ian Nepomniachtchi also comes down with amaurosis scachistica | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Viswanathan Anand
7th Sinquefield Cup, (1)
English Opening, Kramnik-Shirov Counter-Attack
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 One of the sharpest and most annoying responses to the English is the Kramnik-Shirov Counter-Attack, a line championed by Alexei Shirov and Vladimir Kramnik in the mid-1990s, and named after the two leading young bucks of the day. 3.Nd5 Be7 4.Nf3 d6 5.d4 Nf6 6.Nc3 exd4 7.Nxd4 d5 8.Bf4 0-0 9.e3 a6 10.Nf3 c6 11.cxd5 Nxd5 12.Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Qxd5 cxd5 14.0-0-0 Nc6! Anand just gets on with the job of developing his pieces, as taking the d-pawn is dangerous for White. 15.Bg5 The d-pawn is taboo, as 15.Rxd5 Be6 16.Rd1 Bxa2 and Black not only recaptures his pawn, he’s also going to catch the White king marooned with no escape to b1 after 17.Bd6 Rac8! 18.Bxe7 Nxe7+ 19.Kd2 Rc6! and threats of …Rfc8 coming to c2. Now, if 20.Nd4 Rf6 21.Ke1 Rb6! 22.Rd2 Rc8 it’s all very uncomfortable for White. 15…f6 16.Bf4 Be6 17.Kb1 Rac8 18.a3 Understandably, Nepo want to play Bd3 without ceding the bishop-pair to …Nb4. 18…Rfd8 19.Bd3 Bc5 20.Rhe1 Kf7 21.Bg3 Bb6 22.Bc2 h5 23.h3 Ne7 24.Bb3 g5 There’s really not much in the game – but Nepo has allowed Anand to gain some space on the kingside with his advancing his pawns, and this is what ultimately causes the Russian a headache. 25.h4 g4 26.Nd4 Bxd4 27.Rxd4 Nc6 This puzzled me somewhat, as I thought the Anand’s obvious plan was 27…Nf5!? 28.Rd2 (It’s risky now to try 28.Rf4 hoping for …Nxg3 opening the f-file for White’s rooks – but Black just plays now 28…Rc5! with the better pieces.) 28…Rc5 and again, Black has slightly better pieces. 28.Rf4 d4?! This is Anand’s plan, but it looks like it gives his Russian opponent the slightly more comfortable position now. 29.Bxe6+ Kxe6 30.exd4+ Kf7 31.f3 gxf3 32.Rxf3 Nxd4 33.Rf4 Ne6 34.Rf3 Nd4 35.Rf4 I fully expected …Ne6 and a repetition coming next – as did everyone else! But the game now takes a couple of unexpected twists. 35…Nb3 36.Bf2 Rc4 37.Rxc4 Nd2+ 38.Kc2 Nxc4 39.Re2 Ne5 Again, there’s not much in this, but Anand’s central knight just gives him an edge here – but like everyone else, I still fully expected the draw to come as the players reached the coming time control. 40.Be1 Ke6 41.a4 Rd6 42.g3 Kf5 43.Rf2+?! Nepo has stumbled into a bad position, allowing Anand’s king to become very active. Clearly better was 43.Bc3 with an equal game. 43…Kg4 44.Rf4+ Kh3 45.Rf1 Rc6+ 46.Kb1 Re6 Nepo just seems to have sleepwalked into a bad position – Anand clearly has the advantage now. 47.Rf5 Ng6 Even stronger was 47…Nd3! 48.Bc3 (It’s all more than a little awkward for White after 48.Bd2 Kg4! 49.Rd5 Ne5 50.Be1 Nc4 51.Rd4+ Kh3 52.Bc3 Ne3 and Black should be winning as g3 will fall.) 48…Kg4 49.Rxf6 Rxf6 50.Bxf6 Nc5! and White has too many pawn weaknesses. 48.Bf2 Kg4 49.Rd5 Ne5 50.Rd4+ Kh3 51.Rd5 Re7 52.Kc2 Ng4 53.Bb6 Rh7 54.Rd3 Ne5 55.Rb3 Rd7 56.Be3 Nf3 57.Rb6 Kxg3 58.Rxf6 Nxh4 59.b4 Ng2 More challenging might well have been 59…Nf3!? that centralises the knight better – and now if 60.Rg6+ (If you play 60.Ba7, as in the game, Black has 60…Rg7! 61.Kd3 h4 62.Bb8+ Kg2 63.Ke2 Re7+ 64.Kd3 Ne5+! with excellent winning chances now.) 60…Kh3 61.b5 axb5 62.axb5 h4 it is likely White will find a way to sacrifice the bishop for the passed h-pawn here again for the R v R+N technical draw – but Black may well find a way to corral the b-pawn. 60.Ba7! Nepo has found his best practical shot to draw; his strategy is to put the bishop on the b8-h2 diagonal, and sacrifice the bishop for the running h-pawn, and then try to trade the queenside pawns for a technical draw of R v R+N. 60…h4 61.Kc3 h3 62.Bb8+ Kg4 63.Rg6+ Kh5 64.Rg8 Ne3 65.Rg3 Nd5+ 66.Kb3 Kh4 67.Rg8 Nf6 68.Rg6 Ng4 Now the technically drawn endgame scenario is in play. 69.Rg8 Rh7 70.Kc4 h2 71.Bxh2 Nxh2 72.b5 The good thing Nepo has going for him to achieve the draw by liquidating the queenside pawns, is that all of Anand’s piece are all on the opposite side of the board and aligned on the h-file, and this means it takes time to get rush over to the queenside. 72…Ng4 73.Ra8! axb5+ 74.Kxb5 Nf6 75.a5 Nepo has clearly seen the drawing technique by playing a6 to liquidate the final pawns on the board – and this is what plays a big part in influencing him to make a big blunder. 75…Nd5 76.Ra7 Kg5 77.Kc4?? [see diagram] “A shocker” was how Anand described the end of the game. After six hours of play, his Russian opponent was trying to secure the draw, heading in that direction, but overlooked a blunder. The point was that Nepo had clearly seen that 77.a6?? Nc7+ 78.Kb6 bxa6 was losing but wanted to get a6 in by avoiding the possibility of the …Nc7+ – so in trying to avoid one losing check, he walks right into another that he was blind to. Such positions are tough after six hours of play, where your focus is on trying to avoid one possibility, and you are blind to another – but the path to the draw was with 77.Kc5! that does indeed now force the technically drawn endgame of R v R+N after 77…Nc3 78.Kb4! Rc7 (If 78…Ne4 79.a6 also draws after 79…Nd6 80.axb7 Nxb7 81.Ra1) 79.a6 bxa6 80.Rxa6 Ne4 is also the technically drawn endgame, as noted in the main variation. 77…b5+ 0-1


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