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The $325,000 Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis is not just the biggest and most important event on the US chess calendar, but it is also the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour in what has proved to be a very difficult and challenging Covid-curtailed over-the-board season that’s been hit by call offs and doubts with the never-ending, ever-changing travel/visa protocols to be observed.

That, along with clashes with other coming events with potentially tricky travel/quarantine rules, like next month’s Norway Chess, means that for several top stars such as the two upcoming title combatants, Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, plus Anish Giri, Levon Aronian and Alexander Grischuk, it was problematic for them to travel to the US for this year’s Sinquefield Cup.

It is what it is, and despite not having the usual stellar field this year, the Saint Louis Chess Club and GCT organisers have come up with a very practical solution by adding more home-based Americans and just four visiting foreigners in the lineup – and somewhat cruelly, some of the lower-rated players drafted in have already been dubbed “The Replacements”, a play on the sports comedy movie of the same name starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, loosely based on the 1987 NFL strike, that saw the owners hire in substitute players to finish the season.

The Sinquefield Cup has been a happy hunting ground in the past for US top dog Caruana, who is not only a two-time previous winner but his 2014 edition victory going into the annals as the best-ever single tournament performance by a player, with a remarkable seven-game winning-streak start and a record 3103 performance rating, saw him edging just ahead of Magnus Carlsen (3002 – Pearl Spring, 2009) and Anatoly Karpov (2978 – Linares, 1994).

And after some indifferent Caruana performances of late, that saw him unexpectedly going out early in the FIDE World Cup, and momentarily knocked off his world #2 spot in the unofficial live ratings, he would have been looking for a repeat 2014 performance and a third victory. And it must have felt a little like old times again for Caruana with his crowd-pleasing (well, online anyway) opening round win over Sam Shankland, the 2018 US champion, that came replete with a stunning queen sacrifice, making it a very early candidate for the $5,000 best game prize.

The top-seeds and GCT regulars are piling on the wins against “the replacements” in the early stages of the Sinquefield Cup, and Caruana also shares a three-way tie at the top with Wesley So and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, all unbeaten on 2½/3.

There’s ongoing coverage of the 2021 Sinquefield Cup through 17-28 August starting at 14:50 CDT with live coverage from the resident top commentary team of GM’s Yasser Seirawan, Alejandro Ramirez, and Maurice Ashley on grandchesstour.org.

Latest standings:
1-3. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Wesley So (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), 2½/3; 4-5. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Leinier Dominguez (USA), 2; 6. Jeffery Xiong (USA), 1½; 7. Richard Rapport (Hungary), 1; 8-9. Peter Svidler (Russia), Sam Shankland (USA), ½; 10. Dariusz Swiercz (USA), 0.

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Sam Shankland
8th Sinquefield Cup, (1)
London System/KID
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bf4 The London System – once described by the Danish top coach and author Jacob Aagaard as “the Old Man’s Bad Habit, not dangerous and not very interesting” – has the practical advantage of avoiding all the big main-line theory and just looking for a ‘simple position’ to play, was once the staple of the busy/more elderly club player, but with Magnus Carlsen adopting it, we are seeing it much more nowadays by others in the world’s top ten. 3…Bg7 4.e3 d6 5.h3 c5 6.Nbd2 cxd4 7.exd4 0-0 8.Be2 Qb6 Hitting the b-pawn and also the d-pawn – but more trickier at club-level is the quick e7-e5 break with 8…Nc6 9.c3 e5 10.dxe5 dxe5 hoping White doesn’t play 11.Bg5 but gets greedy and snatches the pawn with 11.Nxe5?! allowing 11…Nd5! 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Bg3 Re8 14.0-0 Bxc3! 15.Nc4 (Definitely not 15.bxc3? Nxc3 16.Qc2 Nxe2+ 17.Kh2 Bf5 and White is in trouble.) 15…Bxb2! 16.Nxb2 Nc3 and Black has a pawn and the advantage. 9.Nc4 Covers everything and forces the queen to retreat. 9…Qc7 10.Ne3N Amazingly for the well-trodden road of the venerable London System, this sensible and logical move is a novelty, where more often or not 10.0-0 and 11.c3 has been seen. 10…Nc6 11.c3 e5! This is the whole point of Black’s play, and I would have imagined Sam would have been feeling very comfortable here – but the position is not without possibilities that Caruana masterly demonstrates. 12.Bh2 Qe7 I can understand Sam’s reasoning for removing his queen from the X-ray attack from the London bishop ‘hidden’ in plain sight on h2, but he missed a trick. Better was 12…exd4! 13.Nxd4 (If 13.cxd4?! Qa5+! makes things very awkward for White.) 13…Nxd4 14.Qxd4 (Again, 14.cxd4 Qa5+ 15.Kf1 Ne4 is good for Black.) 14…Ng4! which more or less forces White into 15.Qc4 (The alternatives fare much worse: After 15.Qxd6? Bxc3+! Black is winning. And if; 15.Bxd6 Nxe3! 16.fxe3 Bxd4 17.Bxc7 Bxe3 Black stands well with the White king caught in the middle of the board.) 15…Qxc4 16.Bxc4 Nxh2 17.Rxh2 b5! 18.Bd5 Rb8 and Black has the slightly more comfortable position with more long-term prospects, albeit with a weak d6-pawn. 13.0-0 e4 As ever in the London, this move is a double-edged sword: While Black gains space in the center, it brings the dark-squared London bishop back to life. 14.Ne1 There’s nothing wrong per se with 14.Nd2 but e1 offers more potential, as the knights don’t block things in the center. 14…d5 15.N1c2 Be6 16.Qe1 Just preparing the ground for f3. 16…Nd7 Normally in London v King’s Indian set-ups, White would be worried by a quick kingside pawn-storm with …f5 and …g5 etc, but Caruana is just going to stop this in its tracks with f3. 17.f3 f5 18.fxe4 fxe4 19.Bf4! Caruana skilfully begins the regrouping process with Qg3 coming next – and it is amazing just how quickly this leads to a rapid kingside assault. 19…Rf7 A miss-step from Shankland, as he can never take the f-file. Maybe now was the time to realise White had great potential on the kingside, and just nip it in the bud now with 19…g5!? 20.Bh2 Rxf1+ 21.Qxf1 Rf8 22.Qe1 Nb6 (If 22…Nf6 23.Qg3 and White has a little ‘something’, but nothing much to worry about.) 23.Qd2 (or even 23.Qg3) …Na4! and in both cases Black stands no worse. 20.Qg3 Nf6 21.Rf2! Precision play from Caruana, as he gets to double his rooks first on the file, as Black has to waste a move to avoid Bd6 potentially pinning queen and knight. 21…Qd7 22.Raf1 Raf8 23.Qh4 Ne8 Shankland is looking to re-route his knight to f5 – but in getting to that destination, he fails to spot a very cunning tactic from Caruana that sees his pieces sweeping in like a tsunami to blow away his kingside defences. Hindsight is wonderful thing, and given the chance again, I have no doubt he would have opted for the safer 23…Kh8!? 24.Ng4 Nd6 25.Nce3 Caruana certainly has all his pieces ready for the attack, but it doesn’t look very obvious how he’s going to make the breakthrough – but when he does, it comes like a baseball bat to Sam’s head. 25…Ne7 26.Ne5 Bxe5 27.Bxe5 Ndf5? Shankland doesn’t realise that he faces an existential threat to his king, and had to play 27…Rxf2 28.Rxf2 Rxf2 29.Kxf2 Nc6 30.Qf6 Qf7! 31.Qxf7+ Nxf7 32.Bc7 though White has the better prospects with the bishop-pair and the weak d5-pawn. 28.Ng4!! [see diagram] A stunning queen sacrifice that comes right out of the blue from Caruana, which can’t be taken due to the unexpected Nh6 mate. 28…h5 29.Qg5! Offering the knight sacrifice within seconds, meaning Caruana had worked out the queen & knight sac and all the winning possibilities moves ago. 29…hxg4 30.hxg4 Ng7 31.Qh6 This all but paralyses Shankland, as he can’t untangle his pieces in time to defend his king. 31…Nef5 If 31…Bxg4 32.Bxg7! quickly mates. 32.gxf5 Rxf5 After 32…Bxf5 33.g4 wins just as it does in the game. 33.Rxf5 Rxf5 34.Rxf5 Bxf5 35.g4! Be6 The obvious 35…Bxg4 soon falls to 36.Bxg7 Bxe2 37.Qh8+ Kf7 38.Qf8+ Ke6 39.Qf6#. 36.Qxg6 Qf7 37.Qh6 e3 This at least has the virtue of stopping g5-g6 etc, but Caruana concludes the game now with more than a touch of élan with another piece sac offer. 38.Bf3! 1-0 Shankland throws the towel in, realising that the only way to stop g5-g6 was with …Bf5, but then he’s going to be hit with Bxd5! mating.

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