John Henderson
By John Henderson

The final round of the 6th Sinquefield Cup proved to be the most spectacular round of any competition ever staged at the fabled Saint Louis Chess Club, as it was filled with lots of high drama, nervous tension, a walk in the deep dark forest, not to mention an epic trademark grind and one almighty endgame blunder – and all of which led to a potentially embarrassing playoff only being averted by ‘player power’ and an unprecedented three-way share of the title!

The day started innocently enough with the overnight leader, Fabiano Caruana, easily drawing in his favourite Petroff Defence against Wesley So, to leave the tournament frontrunner the clubhouse leader with his unbeaten score of 5.5/9 and a guaranteed tie for first place. The chasing pack then had to decide who was going to risk everything by going all out to win in order to catch up with the American World Championship Challenger.

And the first to go ‘all-in’ was was Levon Aronian, as the amiable Armenian picked just the right ‘Mikhail Tal walk in the dark deep forest’ moment to unleash a stunning and very gutsy rook sacrifice that totally flummoxed his time-stricken Russian opponent, Alexander Grischuk, who succumbed to an inevitable series of mistake amidst all the ensuing chaos swirling around his king. Fortune favoured the brave, and now Aronian was tied with Caruana.

With Magnus Carlsen, it was not so much a gamble or bravery, but more a case of a long trademark grind for the World Champion, who simply refused to concede a draw in an equal ending against Hikaru Nakamura. Carlsen had a little pressure and nothing to lose – but he continued to do what he does best of all by again extracting blood from a stone, as Nakamura lost the plot by blundering away a vital passed pawn, and with it, falling into a technically lost rook and pawn ending, which the World Champion expertly converted in 97 moves.

Another in contention for first place to make it a four-way tie was Shakhriyar Mamedyarov if he could beat Vishy Anand – but the in-form Azeri walked into some very deep preparation in the Open Lopez from the five-time ex-world champion, and from then on he was always struggling just to stay in the game and to hold the draw, which he eventually did.

This left Caruana, Carlsen and Aronian in a three-way tie for first place on 5.5/9.  The only snafu was the tournament rules dictated – as it did last year – that there now had to be a drawing of lots to eliminate one of them, and the other two returning to do battle in a speed playoff for the title. It seems that Carlsen didn’t like this option and pointed out how unfair everyone thought this ruling was last year, and yet still it hadn’t been changed, so he made a counter-proposal to the organisers of either a three-way playoff or shared first place (all nicely caught on Twitch TV by the on-the-spot Chess.com team). All three rejected the original tournament ruling, but one didn’t want to play in a three-way playoff, so it was decided that the title would thus be shared – fittingly – between the first three winners of the Sinquefield Cup (Carlsen 2013, Caruana 2014 & Aronian 2015).

A highly unusual development and a clear demonstration of ‘player power’ in today’s game – but in this case, and especially with it being highlighted just how unfair last year’s ruling had been, it probably saved the organisers the potential for a huge embarrassment of having to see either Carlsen or Caruana, one of the the two upcoming world title combatants, drawing the short straw by being eliminated.

But we still have a need for a playoff to decide who goes forward to be the fourth player in the Grand Chess Tour Final in London in December! Nakamura, Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took the top three tour spots, with Caruana and So now having to return today to do battle to decide who will join the other three in London.

Sinquefield Cup final standings:
1-3. L. Aronian (Armenia), M. Carlsen (Norway), F. Caruana (USA) 5.5/9; 4. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 5; 5-7. A. Grischuk (Russia), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), V. Anand (India) 4.5; 8. W. So (USA) 4; 9-10. S. Karjakin (Russia), H. Nakamura (USA) 3.

Grand Chess Tour Final Standings:
1. H. Nakamura ($105,000) 34.5; 2. L. Aronian ($95,000) 4; 3. M. Vachier-Lagrave ($80,000) 31; 4-5. F. Caruana ($85,000), W. So ($80,000) 26; 6. S. Karjakin ($72,500) 25.5; 7. S. Mamedyarov ($75,000) 25; 8. A. Grischuk ($45,000) 18; 9. V. Anand ($45,000) 15.

Photo: Aronian takes Sasha for a Tal-like walk in the forest | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

GM Levon Aronian – GM Alexander Grischuk
6th Sinquefield Cup, (9)
Old Indian Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d6 3.g3 Nbd7 4.Bg2 e5 The Old Indian is a little like the Philidor Defence, where Black doesn’t weaken his kingside with …g6 and fianchettoing his dark-squared bishop. 5.c4 c6 6.Nc3 e4 7.Nh4 d5 8.0-0 Bb4 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.f3 This is the correct way to handle Black’s set-up by immediately hitting the pawn chain – and if Black captures with 10…exf3 then 11.Rxf3! and the game is opening up to White’s advantage. 10…Bxc3 11.bxc3 0-0 12.Ba3 Re8 13.Nf5 The knight is heading for the big hole on d6 – an easy and seductive target that no chess player could ever resist! 13…Nb6 14.Nd6 Nc4 15.Nxc4! Stronger than 15.Nxe8 Qxe8 16.Bc1 e3! where Black has genuine counterplay, as White is slightly cramped by the …Nc4 and …e3 pawn. What Aronian seeks is to open the game up for his bishop-pair, which he achieves with 15.Nxc4. 15…dxc4 16.fxe4 Nxe4 17.Qc2 Qd5 If Grischuk can consolidate with this position, he may well be OK – but Aronian has a big shock in store for the Russian. 18.Rxf7!?!? This comes as an almighty bolt out of the blue! With Grischuk eating heavily into his clock time to reach this position, and now with only 15 minutes to make 22 moves, Aronian channels his inner-Tal by taking the Russian for a walk into a “dark deep forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.” Grischuk was probably more expecting 18.Rf3 and likely had his next half dozen or so moves ready to play – but now he has to readjust to the new situation of an explosive, unexpected sacrifice that eats heavily into his remaining time. 18…Kxf7 What else is there? If 18…Qxf7 19.Bxe4 and White’s bishop-pair (with the rook also coming to f1) will wreak havoc on Black’s kingside defences. 19.Rf1+ Bf5 The point of the gutsy sacrifice is that Black can’t retreat with his king with 19…Kg8? as 20.Bxe4 and you can’t recapture on e4 due to the threat of Rf8 mate! 20.g4 g6 21.Qc1 The queen is heading to h6 to further harass the loose Black king. 21…Kg7? Tick tock, Sasha. With Grischuk’s flag metaphorically hanging on the digital clock, he over-worries about the Qh6 threat and walks right into a cunning trap. He had to try to activate his pieces around his defence and should have played 21…Re6! 22.Qh6 Kg8 23.gxf5 gxf5 24.Qh5 Rf6! where Black is holding the line and retains a big material advantage. The engines all say Black is winning with “-1.94”, but the position is still fraught with many dangers for Black – and certainly even more dangerous with your flag precariously hanging! 22.gxf5 gxf5 23.Bxe4 fxe4 24.Qf4 The threat is Qf6 and if …Re6, then Qf7+ – this is just a position with many pitfalls to fall into. 24…h6 Offering a bolt-hole for the king on h7 after Qf6+ – but now Aronian’s pieces are all set to chase down Grischuk’s king wandering dazed and confused in no man’s land. 25.Qc7+ Kh8 It’s not so obvious, but for reasons we’ll soon see, Grischuk had to risk wandering further into no man’s land with 25…Kg6! 26.Rf4 Rg8 27.Kf2 Rac8! Where the king is safe and White is running out of useful moves. But then again, there’s this little-added thing that Grischuk has had a lifetime of addiction to: his chronic time trouble! 26.Bd6! Oops, suddenly the threat of Be5+ is something more to worry about – and to use more thinking time about! 26…Rg8+ 27.Kf2 Rg6 28.Be5+ Kg8 29.Ke3! You got to admire Aronian’s chutzpah here, as he simply walks his own king away from any time-saving checks from Grischuk, and – should queens be traded – his king also closer to those loose Black pawns on e4 and c4 for a likely winning endgame advantage. 29…Rd8? Would there be a worse player to be in time trouble against than Aronian? His fantastical conceptions and willingness to gamble would be even more dangerous than Magnus’s precision in such circumstances, I would hazard a guess. And here, with the human instinct being to connect the remaining rook to the queen, Grischuk walks right into Aronian’s fiendish trap. Under the circumstances, he needed to find the somewhat unnatural try of 29…b6! 30.Qe7 Qe6! 31.Qxe6+ Rxe6 32.Rg1+ Kf8 33.Kxe4 and take his chances with the worse ending. 30.Qe7!! [see diagram] It’s not so obvious why, but 30.Qe7!! is a winning zugzwang for Aronian, with …Rd7 and …Qd7 both being answered by Rf8+! – and Grischuk can be forgiven for missing this key move from Aronian due to his habitual time trouble predilections. 30…b5 31.h4 a5 If 31…h5 32.Rf5! and there’s no answer to the looming threat of Rxh5-h8 mate. 32.h5 Rg5 33.Rf6 Now the threat is simply Rxh6-h8 mate, and if the Black rook vacates the g-file then there’s Rg6+ mating. 33…Rxe5 34.Rg6+ 1-0

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