The final round of the annual Sinquefield Cup, the marquee fixture at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club, turned into something of a big anti-climax to America’s most prestigious tournament, with five draws nevertheless seeing a welcomed return to top-form for Maxim Vachier-Lagrave, as he edged out his three US main rivals to clinch the $90,000 first prize plus a bonus $50,000 for finishing behind Wesley So in the overall Grand Chess Tour standings.
“Le shark is back”, was MVL’s celebratory tweet as he finished on 6/9 to become the first two-time overall winner of the annual Sinquefield Cup – and with it, it capped a remarkable rehabilitation in form and standing for the popular Frenchman, following his year-starting disastrous performance in the Tata Steel Masters and resulting spectacular crash out of the Top-10.
MVL has now jumped six places on the unofficial live ratings following his big victory in Saint Louis, to edge out Shakhriyar Mamedyarov as the new world #10. And on the home-front, jumping nearly 12 Elo-points, he’s now put some daylight between himself and new rival Alireza Firouzja, after the 18-year-old – who now officially represent France, following his exile from Iran – momentarily occupied the French #1 spot for a couple of days at the start of the Sinquefield Cup.
And as one Tour comes to end, another draws ever-nearer to its conclusion, with Saturday seeing the start of the Aimchess US Rapid, the ninth and final leg of the $1.9m Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, with the best players in the world all vying for a coveted place in September’s Tour Final in San Francisco.
The Aimchess US Rapid sees defending tour champion and current leader Magnus Carlsen returning to the fray following his exploits in the FIDE World Cup, where he’ll be looking to fend off a challenge from nearest rival Wesley So in the overall tour standings. The 16-player field also includes: Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Levon Aronian, Anish Giri, Alireza Firouzja, Lenier Dominguez, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Santosh Vidit, Liem Quang Le, Vladislav Artemiev, Jorden Van Foreest, Daniel Naroditsky, Eric Hansen and Awonder Liang.
The Aimchess US Rapid runs 28 August through 5 September, starting at 11:00 EST (08:00 PST | 17:00 CET). There’s live coverage on the official Meltwater Champions Chess Tour site with the regular commentary team of Kaja Snare, GM David Howell and IM Jovanka Houska.
Sinquefield Cup final standings:
1. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), 6/9; 2-4. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Leinier Dominguez (USA), Wesley So (USA), 5½; 5. Richard Rapport (Hungary), 4½; 6-8. Jeffery Xiong (USA), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Sam Shankland (USA), 4; 9. Peter Svidler (Russia), 3½; 10. Dariusz Swiercz (USA), 2½.
Photo: Le shark is back, as MVL wins his second Sinquefield Cup | © Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Sinquefield Cup, (6)
Sicilian Defence, English Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 As we explained in a previous column from this tournament, the English Attack is so called because it was popularised by John Nunn, Nigel Short, Mickey Adams, and Murray Chandler – but long before the top English quartet were hammering people to bits with it, to have it re-christened as such, it was Robert Byrne, the New York Times columnist and former US champion who was really the first to deploy this easy-to-play, more positional system in praxis, as it avoided all the tricky big Najdorf mainlines. 6…e5 MVL remains faithful to the ‘old school’ Najdorf treatment. More popular for Black has proved to be 6…e6 and a transposition into a Sicilian Scheveningen without the pitfalls of the dreaded Keres Attack with g4. 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3 Be7 9.Qd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 Nbd7 11.g4 b5 12.g5 Nh5 13.Kb1 Nb6 14.Na5 Rc8 15.a3 Caruana deviates from 15.Nd5 that worked out well for Leinier Dominguez against MVL in round 4, the Frenchman’s only loss in the Sinquefield Cup – but I’m pretty sure MVL would have repaired what needed to be repaired from that game. 15…g6 16.h4 Ng3 17.Rg1 Nxf1 18.Rgxf1 Na4 19.Nxa4 bxa4 20.h5 Qc7 The natural square for the queen in the Sicilian – but worthy of note here is 20…Qd7 21.Rh1 Rfe8 22.Qh2 Bf8 23.Bd2 Rc7 24.Bb4 Rb8 with chances for both sides, as seen in Aronian-Carlsen, Tata Steel Rapid 2019. The reason I mention this is the similarity of the piece layout/resources for Black that comes in this game. 21.Rh1 Rfe8 22.Qh2 Bf8 Indirectly defending the dangers down the h-file, by answering 23.hxg6 with 23…fxg6. 23.c4 Re7! Now White has to do something about the hanging Na5, with the rook defending h7. 24.Bd2 The pawn sacrifice is now forced – and with it both sides having mutual dangers/chances on both wings. 24…Bxc4 25.Bb4 Rd7 26.f4!? Caruana pushes the envelope a little here by seeking more complications, rather than opting for the safer 26.Nxc4 Qxc4 27.Qh3 Rb7 28.hxg6 fxg6 29.Rd5 Qc2+ 30.Ka1 Re8 31.Rb1 and White will pick off one of Black’s weak queenside pawns sooner or later. 26…Bb5 I do like the bishop here rather than the alternative of 26…Be6 but then again, after 27.fxe5 dxe5 28.Rc1 Qb8 29.hxg6 fxg6 30.Rxc8 Qxc8 31.Qxe5 White does have the potentially worrying issue of what to do about his very offside Na5, but it appears to be no ‘biggie’, when the engine quickly hits on the sacrificial idea of 31…Rf7 32.Bxf8 Rxf8 33.Rc1! Ba2+ 34.Kxa2 Qxc1 35.Qd5+ Rf7 36.Qd8+ Kg7 37.Qd4+ etc and a perpetual. So perhaps MVL just tried to keep his options open a little longer by preferring …Bb5 to …Be6? 27.hxg6 fxg6 28.f5 This is the most obvious punt with the bishop not on e6 -admittedly Caruana’s attack does look dangerous, but it turns out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. 28…Rg7 29.f6 Rf7 30.Qd2 Qd7 31.Qd5 Be2 The position is double-edged, and it might well be that the only try for MVL was going ‘all in’ with the risky 31…h6!?- but after the accurate 32.Rd2! (With lots of possibilities, as …h6 only really works if White plays 32.gxh6 Kh7! and you can envision endgame scenarios such as 33.Bxd6 Bxd6 34.Qxd6 Qxd6 35.Rxd6 Rcf8 36.Nc6 Bxc6 37.Rxc6 Rxf6 38.Rc5 Rf1+ 39.Rxf1 Rxf1+ 40.Ka2 g5 41.Rxe5 Kxh6 42.Re6+ Kh5 and Black may well have winning chances in the R+P ending with his king strategically better placed to support the running g-pawn.) 32…Bc6 33.Nxc6 Qxc6 34.Qd3 and the danger still lurks on the h-file; and if 34…h5 35.Re1 Rfc7 36.Qf1 Kf7 37.Qf3 and despite Black being a pawn up, White still has the better attacking chances if he can keep the queens and rooks on the board. 32.Rc1 Rxc1+ 33.Rxc1 h5 It’s too late now for 33…h6 as White has 34.Nc6! hxg5 35.Ne7+ Bxe7 36.fxe7 Qxe7 37.Bxd6 Qb7 38.Qxe5 forcing Black to seek the bailout with 38…Rf1 which should be good enough for the draw. 34.Nc4! [see diagram] The knight finally returns to the fray just at the right time, and MVL has no option now other than to trade it and thus ceding his possible game-winning bishop-pair. 34…Bxc4 35.Rxc4 h4 36.Rc2 h3 37.Ka2 Best just to safely get the king out of the way of any possibility of the pawn queening with check, that might well stop a saving resource for White. 37…Kh8 38.Rd2 Rh7 39.Bxd6 It all now fizzles out to a draw – but nevertheless a wonderful battling scrap by both players, who tried their level-best to keep the game as ‘active’ for as long as they possibly could. 39…Qxd6 40.Qxd6 Bxd6 41.Rxd6 Kg8 42.Rd8+ Kf7 43.Rd7+ Kg8 44.Rd8+ Kf7 45.Rd7+ Kg8 46.Rd8+ ½-½