The elephant in the room – or the tournament hall in this case – of Magnus Carlsen’s abrupt departure from the Sinquefield Cup, following his shock third round loss to 19-year-old underdog Hans Niemann, continues to reverberate around the most prestigious tournament of the year being held at the Saint Louis Chess Club.
Carlsen’s mysterious walkout, the first of his career, followed by his cryptic Jose Mourinho video clip tweet “If I speak I am in big trouble” regarding match refereeing, immediately heightened speculations of cheating, which was further raised online, most notably now by Hikaru Nakamura, as the story hits the mainstream media with many commentators believing the whole sordid episode is likely to run and run.
In a response, Niemann’s went on the record in an attempt to clear his name from being sullied, with a statement that in itself proved equally as bizarre as the world champion’s walkout. The top US junior readily admitted to cheating online in the past twice on chess.com, when he was 12 and 16-year-old – but insisted that he was now completely “clean” and was even prepared to play naked to prove his innocence.
During a passionate in-depth response on the official Sinquefield Cup broadcast, Niemann’s accused Carlsen and others – particularly Nakamura – of trying to ruin his career as he offered to go to extraordinary lengths to show he wasn’t using a devise to help him cheat during his games.
“If they want me to strip fully naked, I will do it,” said Niemann. “I don’t care. Because I know I am clean. You want me to play in a closed box with zero electronic transmission, I don’t care. I’m here to win and that is my goal regardless.”
In the fallout, as the marquee final event of the Grand Chess Tour season reached its rest day on Wednesday, Carlsenʼs score is now cancelled but his games will still be rated – the net result of this now means a recalibration of the leaderboard, with the only person losing out being Niemann’s himself, who drops one point in the standings and drops from his perch of outright leader.
1. W. So (USA) 3/5; 2-5. F. Caruana (USA), I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide), H. Niemann (USA), L. Dominguez (USA) 2.5; 6-7. A. Firouzja (France), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2; 8-9. L. Aronian (USA), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 1.5.
GM Alireza Firouzja – GM Levon Aronian
9th Sinquefield Cup, (3)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano – one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century – means ‘quiet game’ in Italian, invariably living up to its name by initially being very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the ensuing middlegame battle. Unfortunately though, no one seemed to tell the players about this! 3…Bc5 4.d3 Nf6 5.h3 0-0 6.Nc3 Na5 7.a3 Nxc4 8.dxc4 The pawns are doubled and Black has the bishop-pair – but Alireza has good potential outposts on d5 and f5 for his knights. 8…d6 9.Bg5 Be6 10.Qd3 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.Nxg5!? So much for the ‘quiet game’ part! 12…hxg5 13.Bxg5 Firouzja likes to live on the edge, and here he has two pawns for the sacrificed piece – but more crucially, a very awkward pin on the Nf6 that forces Aronian into risky measures by endangering his king. 13…Kg7 14.f4! Firouzja has to move swiftly to burst the game open to expose Aronian’s king – and his bravery soon pays off! 14…exf4 Aronian’s position is very precarious to say the least, and highlighted by the fact that 14…Rh8 is easily answered by 15.f5 Rh5 16.h4! Bd7 17.g4! Rh8 18.Nd5 and Black is in grave danger of being overwhelmed by the White attack. 15.Ne2 c6 16.b4 Be3 The most obvious move – however the engine’s first try is 16…Qb6 17.bxc5 (If 17.Qc3 Bf2+ 18.Kd1 Kg8!? 19.Qxf6 Bxc4 and both kings are equally exposed and in danger.) 17…Qa5+ 18.c3 Qxc5 19.Bxf4 Rfd8 20.Rf1 Kf8!? 21.Qf3 Nd7 22.Nd4 Bxc4 23.Nf5! Ne5 24.Qh5! but White’s attack looks very dangerous, although the engine seems to think it is “holdable” with a king dash via e8, d7 c8 to seek a safe haven on the queenside. Both options seem to me to be rather dangerous for Black. 17.Rf1 Kg6 It’s a tightrope walk for Aronian, who is clearly uncomfortable with the seemingly “forever” pin on the Nf6 and the game on the verge of blowing up with the f-file opening. But what alternatives does he have in this potential minefield of a position? There was the speculative try with the immediate 17…Bxc4 18.Qxc4 d5 19.Qd3 (This time if 19.Qb3? as in the game, White gets hit with the stunning riposte 19…Bd2+! 20.Kxd2 Nxe4+ 21.Kc1 Qxg5 22.Rxf4 Qe5! 23.Rg4+ Kf6! 24.Rb1 Nd6 and the Black king gets set to run to safety on the queenside.) 19…Re8 20.Nxf4 Rxe4!? but after 21.Nh5+ Nxh5!? 22.Bxd8 Nf4 White seems to hold the upper-hand with the counter queen sac 23.Qxe4! dxe4 24.Bc7 Bd4 25.Rb1 Nd5 26.Bf4 b5 though Black has some chances to hold with some good outposts for his pieces. Instead, Aronian’s bravely walks into the eye of the storm! 18.h4 Bxc4 The only way for Aronian to survive is by giving back the piece in this way. 19.Qxc4 d5 20.Qb3 Re8 21.Bxf4 Bxf4 22.Nxf4+ Kh7 23.0-0-0! The problem for Aronian is trying to find shelter for his exposed king. 23…Nxe4 24.Ne2 More critical looked 24.Nh5! as the potential of a Nf6+ trick is always on the cards. 24…Nd6? Aronian’s hesitancy ultimately hastens his demise. Black has to quickly create his own counter-chances with 24…a5! 25.Qf3 as Black has the timely riposte 25…Qf6! 26.Qxf6 Nxf6 27.Rxf6 Rxe2 28.Rxf7+ Kg8 29.Rxb7 axb4 30.Rxb4 Rxg2 and the game petering out to a drawish double rook and pawn ending. 25.Qd3+ Kh8 Aronian wanted to avoid the debacle of 25…f5? 26.Rxf5!! Nxf5 27.Qxf5+ Kh6 28.Nf4 Qd6 29.g4 Re7 30.Nxd5!! cxd5 31.Rxd5 Qg6 32.Qf4+ Kh7 33.Rh5+ followed by Rg5 winning. 26.Qd4+ Kh7 27.Ng3 Qb6 28.Qd3+ Kg8 29.Nf5 Nxf5 30.Qxf5 Qe3+ 31.Kb1 Qe6 Aronian has resourcefully managed to stay in the game thus far – but the relentless pressure from Firouzja soon pays off. 32.Qf2 a5 33.Rd3! [see diagram] The rook lift swinging into the fray on the kingside seals Aronian’s fate. 33…axb4 34.Rg3+ Kf8 35.Rf3 Kg8?? It is hard always having to make a series of accurate moves with your king’s safety in peril, as Aronian stumbles at the wrong moment. The only way to desperately try to hang on was with 35…Re7 but after 36.Qd4! Qh6 37.Qxb4 Ke8 38.Rxf7! Rxf7 39.Rxf7 Kxf7 40.Qxb7+ Kg8 41.Qxa8+ Kf7 42.Qb7+ Ke8 43.Qb8+ Kd7 44.Qg3! the Q+P ending looks just lost for Black, one key line running 44…Qh5 45.Qf3! Qh6 (If 45…Qxh4 46.Qh3+! transposes down to a winning K+P ending.) 46.Qf7+ Kd6 47.h5 Kc5 48.Qf2+ Kd6 49.g4 etc and the Q+P ending is winning for White. 36.Rxf7 Rxa3 37.Rf8+ Kh7 38.Qf7+ 1-0