John Henderson
By John Henderson

It’s old news now, to use a common oxymoron, but a combination of ‘player power’ and a dispute over the tiebreak playoff rules forced the organisers of the 6th Sinquefield Cup held at Rex Sinquefield’s now fabled Saint Louis Chess Club, to succumb to the pragmatic solution of allowing the title to be shared for the first time, as Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian – fittingly, the respective first three winner’s of the trophy – all equally enjoying the bragging rights and sharing the financial split of $55,000 each, after they tied for first place.

With a high percentage of draws (over 80%) for an elite tournament, it was incredibly tight at the top, and the trio all finished tied on 5.5/9 – but with all three having the identical tiebreak first preference scores of drawing their individual games, number of wins (two) and number of wins with Black (zero), it looked as if it was all going to be decided by a somewhat unfair drawing of lots to see which two would have gone forward to contest the tiebreak.

Carlsen and Aronian rejected the option of drawing of lots, and instead proposed a three-way playoff. But Caruana nixed this solution since he also had to face a separate playoff with Wesley So on the same day for the fourth and final spot in the Grand Chess Tour Final. A compromise was soon suggested by the players that the Sinquefield title be shared this year, and the organisers, faced with an outcry with the possibility hanging in the air of having to default the world champion or his challenger, just ahead of their big World Championship clash (in London, in November), readily agreed.

 

But Caruana carried on his career-best year by easily beating Wesley So in the subsequent rapid tiebreak, and the US world #2 and title challenger will now join Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the GCT Final that will be held as part of the London Chess Classic in December, and contested by a series of knockout matches (classical, rapid and blitz) for the $300,000 (£230,000) prize fund.

Grand Chess Tour Final Standings (and prize money):

1. Hikaru Nakamura ($105,000) 34.5; 2. Levon Aronian ($95,000) 34; 3. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ($80,000) 31; 4-5. Fabiano Caruana* ($85,000), Wesley So ($80,000) 26; 6. Sergey Karjakin ($72,500) 25.5; 7. Shakhiryar Mamedyarov ($65,000) 25; 8. Alexander Grischuk ($45,000) 18; 9. Vishy Anand ($45,000) 15. (*Caruana takes fourth spot after tiebreak playoff win).

Photo: Caruana, Aronian & Carlsen: A trifecta of Sinquefield Cup winners! | © Austin Fuller / Grand Chess Tour

GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Wesley So
Sinquefield Cup/ GCT Rapid Playoff, (2)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Romanishin-Kasparov Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.g3 The Romanishin-Kasparov variation, a close cousin to the Catalan, and something of a surprise package these days in elite chess. It was the pet-line of the Ukrainian/Soviet player, Oleg Romanishin, who played it almost exclusively through the mid-to-late 1970s – but it was then championed in the early ’80s by the rising Garry Kasparov, en route to becoming world champion. 4…0-0 5.Bg2 d5 6.Nf3 dxc4 7.0-0 Nc6 8.Qa4 Nd5 9.Qc2 Be7 10.Rd1 Bd7 11.e4 Ncb4 12.Qd2 Nb6 13.Ne5 Nc6 Play becomes somewhat “murky” after 13…f6!? 14.Nxd7 Qxd7 15.b3!? where White offers up a typical sacrifice of a pawn to try to open the game for his rooks and bishop-pair. 14.Nxc6 Bxc6 15.Qc2 So may well have an extra pawn – but Caruana has the centre, and will look to prepare the ground for either an awkward push with d5 or perhaps even a better version of b3, as noted above. 15…f5 16.a4 fxe4 If 16…a5 there comes 17.Be3 threatening the d5 push. 17.Bxe4 Bxe4 18.Qxe4 Qd7 19.d5 exd5 20.Nxd5 Nxd5 21.Rxd5 Qc6 22.Rd4 Bc5 23.Qxc6 bxc6 24.Rxc4 Bxf2+ 25.Kg2 c5 26.Ra2!! With extra time on his hands, and sensing this was the key moment of the game, Caruana thought for just over 5 minutes – and he found a move of outstanding world championship calibre that solves all of his problems and leaves his opponent with a headache. The instinctive move is 26.Bf4, but after 26…Bd4 27.Rd1 a5 White stands worse due to the vulnerable b-pawn and the potential of a …Rf2+. But with 26.Ra2, Caruana not only solves the problem with 1) his b-pawn 2) the threat of …Rf2+ but now 3) he has an added resource with So’s bishop lacking squares to go to. 26…Bd4 The big point behind 26.Ra2!! is that now, if 26…Rad8 27.b4!, and with the double hit on f2 and c5, White has the upper-hand. 27.b4! Rad8 28.bxc5 c6 29.Bf4 Also good was 29.Rd2 Be5 30.Re4! Rxd2+ 31.Bxd2 Bf6 32.Bf4 with a clear advantage heading into the endgame, as Black’s queenside pawns will be vulnerable to White’s active rook. 29…Rfe8 30.Rd2 Bf6 31.Rd6 Caruana has a lasting bind, as the endgame is going to be extremely difficult for So to hold – but he tries his best to hang on. 31…Rc8 32.h4 h5 33.Kf3 Re1 34.Re4! Caruana is slowly but surely tightening his grip on the position. So can’t afford to trade rooks, as the White king will waltz over to simply pick off the vulnerable h-pawn with an easily won game. And faced with this scenario, Caruana’s active rooks and his bishop now become a handful to cope with. 34…Ra1 35.Rd7 Ra3+ 36.Kg2 a5 37.Bd6 Kh7 38.Ra7 Bc3 39.Kh3 Ra2 40.Rc4 Bb4 41.Rf4! The looming threat is allowing Caruana to double rooks on the seventh. But both players were now in time trouble (So more so than Caruana) – therefore Caruana can be forgiven for perhaps not finding the most clinical way to win under the circumstances. 41…Bc3 42.Re7 Difficult to see with little time left on the clock now; but the omnipresent, all-seeing engines find the simplest way to force home the win with 42.Rf3! Ba1 43.Rf5! Rxa4 44.Rxh5+ Kg6 45.Rg5+ Kh7 46.Be5! Bxe5 47.Rxe5 Rc4 48.Rg5 Rg8 49.Rxa5 and, with the ever-present threat on g7, White will also soon be picking off Black’s c-pawn with an easy endgame win. 42…Rd8 43.Re6 It now gets a little “random” in the time scramble – but Caruana has the presence of mind to keep his grip on the position and – more crucially – some extra time on the clock. 43…Rd7 44.Rf5 g6 45.Rf3 Better was 45.Rg5 Rg7 46.Bf4 Rxa4 47.Rxc6 followed by Ra6 and pushing c6-c7 etc. 45…Bd4 46.Re4 Bg7 47.Rfe3 Trading off a set of rooks will make White’s task of winning all the easier. 47…Rb7 48.Re2 Rxe2 49.Rxe2 Bd4 50.Re4 Rb4 51.Rf4 Again quicker was 51.Re7+ Kg8 52.Rc7 and looking to push home the c-pawn. 51…Bg1 Tick tock! So misses his best chance to save the game with 51…g5! 52.hxg5 Kg6 53.Bc7 (No better is 53.Be7 Be5!) 53…Bc3 54.Rf8 (Trading rooks only backfires on White, as 54.Rxb4 axb4! 55.Ba5 Kxg5 56.Kg2 Kf5 57.Kf1 Ke5 58.Ke2 Kd4 59.Kd1 b3! wins.) 54…Rxa4 55.Rg8+ Kf5 and it is hard to see just how White can win this ending. 52.Rf1 Bd4 53.Rf7+ Kg8 54.Rc7 White’s c-pawn now quickly runs home. The rest is now a formality. 54…Rxa4 55.Rxc6 Kf7 56.Ra6 Ke6 57.Bf4+ Kd5 58.c6 Rc4 59.c7 a4 60.Ra8 Bb2 61.c8Q Rxc8 62.Rxc8 1-0

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