It’s all over bar the shouting…well, at least as far as the pandemic-curtailed 2021 Grand Chess Tour title is concerned, as it is now mathematically impossible for Wesley So to be caught in the overall tour standings. The US champion clinched first place in the shortened season race by the end of a somewhat peaceful penultimate round of the Sinquefield Cup at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club.
Round eight saw all five games ending in a series of mainly peaceful draws, and this proved to be more than enough for So to seal the deal as he garnered the necessary 7 GCT points needed to secure the overall title plus the little matter of the $100,000 first place bonus.
However, it is far from over when it comes to who will win the coveted Sinquefield Cup, with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave holding a slender lead going into the crucial final round in Saint Louis, and hot on the Frenchman’s heels is the formidable chasing-pack American trio of So, Fabiano Caruana and Leinier Dominguez, who are all just a half point behind the leader.
It’s been an intriguing tournament of comebacks for MVL and Caruana, as both fought their way back from earlier round setbacks to once regain their standings in the world rankings following a fighting round seven in Saint Louis. Caruana had slipped from his world #2 spot and left the ‘2800 club’ – but a big win over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov now sees Caruana back to world #2 and (just) creeping back into the ’2800 club’ once again on the unofficial live ratings.
And likewise its been a redemption story for MVL, who earlier this year sensationally crashed out of the top-ten. For many years, he ruled the roost back home in France by virtually being unopposed as the nation’s #1 player – however, for a couple of days at the start of the Sinquefield Cup, MVL was temporarily supplanted as the French #1 by 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja, who now officially represents France.
Now MVL is rinding high once again with his +3 score of 5½/8 so far in the Sinquefield Cup; where he not only leads the field going into the final round and on the cusp of a major victory, but with it, has seen his stock rise as he jumps six places in the world ranking, back once more in the top-ten on the live ratings, and nudging his new teenage rival out as France’s top player.
1. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), 5½/8; 2-4. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Wesley So (USA), Leinier Dominguez (USA), 5; 5. Richard Rapport (Hungary), 4; 6-8. Jeffery Xiong (USA), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Sam Shankland (USA), 3½; 9. Peter Svidler (Russia), 3; 10. Dariusz Swiercz (USA), 2.
You can follow all the Sinquefield Cup final round action live on Thursday, 26 August starting at 2:50 PM CDT, with the top commentary team of GMs Yasser Seirawan, Alejandro Ramirez, and Maurice Ashley on grandchesstour.org as well as twitch.tv/kasparovchess.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Jeffery Xiong
Sinquefield Cup, (7)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 The so-called “Berlin Wall” Endgame that famously proved to be Garry Kasparov’s psychological downfall against his nemesis Vladimir Kramnik in their 2000 World Championship Match in London – not that Kasparov lost any games playing against it, it was just that he became so frustrated in the match because he just couldn’t break it down. 9.h3 Bd7 Xiong is not looking to complicate matters against his experienced opponent, but instead simply opts for a position where all the pieces come off the board quickly, looking for no more than to share the point. 10.Rd1 Be7 11.Nc3 Ke8 12.g4 Nh4 13.Nxh4 Bxh4 14.Bf4 Rd8 15.Kg2 Be7 16.Be3 a5 17.f4 h5! This is all standard Berlin Wall Endgame fare – White has the space advantage and pressing, but Black is super-solid, has the bishop-pair, and often these positions eke out to a draw with careful play. And I emphasis “careful play” here! 18.f5 hxg4? Fools rush in, as they old saying goes. Xiong first had to play 18…g6! 19.f6 Bb4 20.Kg3 and only now 20…hxg4 21.hxg4 Bxc3! 22.bxc3 Be6 where the h-file opening up can’t be exploited, and if the rooks do come off, then long-term Black has slightly the better of the opposite-colour bishop ending, which should end easily enough in a draw. But alas, Xiong learns the hard way by the errors of his ways. 19.hxg4 g6 20.Rh1! [see diagram] I can only assume that Xiong overlooked this excellent move from MVL; and a move that sees the Frenchman not only seize the h-file but soon with it the game for the overall lead. 20…Rf8 It’s pretty bleak when the engine is telling you that best was 20…Rg8 21.f6 Bb4 22.Ne4 Bxg4 23.c3 Bf8 24.Ng5 Rd5 25.Rae1! Bc5 (25…Rxe5 26.Bf4 Rxe1 27.Rxe1+ Kd7 28.Nxf7 Be6 29.Ne5+ Ke8 30.Nxc6) 26.Bxc5 Rxc5 27.Nxf7! Kxf7 28.Rh7+ Ke6 29.Kg3 Bf5 30.Re7+ Kd5 31.e6 and the rooks and passed pawns will quickly win. 21.f6 Bb4 22.Ne4 Be6 23.c3 Bd5 24.Kf3 The simple fact is that MVL’s kingside pawns and active pieces win hands down here. 24…Bd6 25.c4 Bxe4+ 26.Kxe4 Bb4 27.a3 Bd2 28.Bc5 Rg8 29.e6! 1-0 Simple yet effective – and enough to see Xiong throw the towel in, as 29…fxe6 30.Rh7! Rd7 31.Rxd7 Kxd7 32.f7 and the rook is lost.