Despite the 6th Sinquefield Cup having arguably some of the strictest anti-draw rules ever in a tournament, as the great Mikhail Tal once noted, “If grandmasters are intent on making a draw, even flamethrowers can’t make them want to fight.” They know how to circumvent the rules, finding ever-ingenious ways to clear the board, or even perhaps find a very convenient threefold repetition – and this was the reason for there being a high percentage of draws in the tournament and a five-way tie at the top by the end of round five.
To be fair to some players, there were a few very hard-fought halving of the points’ – but in the main, the drawfest has continued through rounds six and seven, with the only notable exception being World Championship Challenger Fabiano Caruana, who turned in a sublime performance to easily beat the former title challenger, Sergey Karjakin, in round six. And with it, he not only took the outright lead, he also put himself back in the mix for one of the four Grand Chess Tour London Final spots – and he moved to within 7-points of toppling World Champion Magnus Carlsen at the top of the world rankings.
And you couldn’t write the script better for the title combatants ahead of their big round 7 “Sinquefield Saturday” clash, in what would be their final meeting before going head-to-head in London in November for the World Chess Championship. The stage was set, the media were there in force, we had a full house at the Saint Louis Chess Club, not to mention a very large online global audience following the always-entertaining live commentary coverage.
As the game got underway, the tension mounted with the atmosphere becoming almost palpable as Caruana made a slip-up in a critical position, and it looked a slam dunk that Carlsen was set to bring his American challenger back down to earth after his series of impressive tournament performances this year. But then the bizarre intervened.
So confident of winning was Carlsen, he purposefully strode over to the confessional booth for the first time, didn’t utter a single word, but instead simply raised his index finger to his lips, much like his chess-playing friend and Golden State Warrior superstar Klay Thompson did to silence the Cleveland crowd in Game 4 of the recent NBA Final. And sure enough, the stunt quickly backfired – and how! When Carlsen returned to the board, instead of winning, he played the wrong sequence of moves, only to see his position going from a winning “+1.95” to a meaningless “+0.60”, as Caruana escaped with a miraculous defensive resource that saw the game ending in an inevitable draw and the American still in the sole lead.
Asked about the incident on the post-game live interview, Carlsen sheepishly lightened up a little by seeing the funny side. “That kind of backfired!” he said with a laugh. “At that point, I was pretty sure I was winning and I just wanted to have some fun. But it didn’t work out.” As for what happened on the board, “First I was slightly better then he missed this Ng4, f6 trick,” Carlsen explained. “Then I felt that I was close to winning, but I miscalculated. My intuition told me to go f6 before Ng4.” But inexplicably, he got the sequence the wrong way round.
If you bring the shushes, Magnus, then you better not miss!
1. F. Caruana (USA) 4.5/7; 2-5. A. Grischuk (Russia), S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), L. Aronian (Armenia), M. Carlsen (Norway) 4; 6-7. V. Anand (India), M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 3.5; 8. W. So (USA) 3; 9. H. Nakamura (USA) 2.5; 10. S. Karjakin (Russia) 2.
Photo: A dejected Carlsen realises he’s just let Caruana escape with a draw | © Lennart Ootes / GCT
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Fabiano Caruana
6th Sinquefield Cup, (7)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Caruana has put his faith in the Petroff’s Defence this year – and this is what helped him win the Berlin Candidates Tournament earlier in the year to become Carlsen’s challenger. 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Bc4!? The standard move here is 8.Qd2 (or even 8.Bd3) – but Carlsen opts for a very obscure alternative that has never been tried by a titled player let alone an elite player. Obviously, the World Champion and his team have found a ‘wrinkle’ in the Challenger’s Petroff – and I think it is safe to say that Caruana never even thought of looking at this move in his preparation. 8…0-0 9.Qd2 Bf5 10.0-0-0 Qd7 Caruana is going for simple and solid development. 11.Kb1 Rfe8 12.h4 Bf8 13.h5! Carlsen is putting his faith in “Harry the H-pawn”! 13…h6 14.Be2 The beginning of a series of strategical retreating moves; a concept that for most ordinary club and tournament players is difficult to understand. 14…Bg4 Caruana clearly didn’t like allowing Carlsen to play Nh2 and g4 and a rapid expansion on the kingside. 15.Nh2 Bxe2 16.Qxe2 Ne5 17.Bc1! This is one high-class retreating move. Carlsen wants to expand on the kingside but doesn’t want to get caught with a sudden …Nc4 with an awkward pin down the e-file on his bishop and queen. He also realises that his bishop is going to be needed to help prise open Black’s kingside, and there’s also potential Black mating threats on b2 – and with the strategic full retreat of his bishop, he covers all of those bases. 17…Qc6 18.f4 Nc4 19.Qd3 Qe4 Caruana is wise to seek the trade of queens here, not that it offers complete relief. 20.g4! Carlsen wants to plough on by throwing his kingside pawns up the board. 20…Ne3 21.Rde1 Qxd3 22.cxd3 Nd5 23.Reg1 Carlsen clearly has the upper hand and looks to capitalise on his big space advantage on the kingside. For Caruana, he needs to find a very accurate defence. 23…Re6?! It’s a human instinct to want the rook active before the knight goes to e7 – but what was needed right now was 23…Ne7! so that if 24.g5 Nf5 the knight is holding Black’s kingside position together. And so after 23…Ne7, White will have to try 24.Nf3 looking to keep Black a little awkward, with his cramped pieces. 24.g5! Ne7 25.gxh6! This attack should all but just win for Carlsen – and so confident was the World Champion, he made his first appearance in the ‘confessional’ for his big shush moment. Trouble is, if you bring it, you better not miss! 25…Rxh6 26.f5 Rh7 [see diagram] This is the key position of the attack – and if you are wondering why Black simply can’t capture the h-pawn with 26…Rxh5?? then you are set for a rude awakening after 27.Ng4!! Rxh1 (Also winning is 27…Rxf5 28.Nh6+) 28.Nf6+ a wonderful little intermezzo that leads to mate after 28…Kh8 29.Rxh1#. And also if 26…Rf6 27.Ng4 Rxf5 28.Nh6+ Kh7 29.Nxf5 Nxf5 30.Rg2 with the plan of Rf2 embarrassing the knight leaves White with a near winning advantage. 27.Ng4?! Getting the sequence of the winning moves in chess is often crucial – and here, this is where Carlsen slips up big-time. The key was finding the ‘knockout punch’ with 27.f6! that denies Caruana of his imaginative, Houdini-like escape. But after 27.f6! first, there’s no …Ng8 salvation and the best Black can hope for is 27…Nd5 28.fxg7 Rxg7 29.Rf1 Be7 30.Rf5! Not only attacking the knight, but also denying Black the immediate chance of …Bg5 trading off the bishops and offering relief from the pressure. But by stopping this, Black now has a major headache unraveling – and there’s always the long-term worry about pushing the h-pawn. You can see how difficult it becomes, after 30…c6 31.Nf3 leaving Black to figure out how to continue here, one scenario being: 31…Re8 32.h6 Rg6 33.h7+ Kh8 34.c4! Nb4 35.Ng5! Bxg5 36.Bxg5 Kg7 37.d4 b5 38.a3 Na6 39.Bf6+! Rxf6 40.Rxf6 Kxf6 41.h8Q+ Rxh8 42.Rxh8 with an easily won game, as the rook will swing over to pick off the queenside pawns. 27…Kh8! Kudos to Caruana for finding the only defence. With a little hard-thought here, Carlsen should have seen there was a big difference in getting the sequence of the winning moves right – now he’ll see why. 28.f6 Ng8! It may well be “defending ugly”, but it is defending – and that is more than we can say for the lines after the clinical 27.f6! 29.fxg7+ Rxg7 30.Be3 I don’t know whether Carlsen’s confidence was shot discovering that Caruana had a defence, but his only slim chance of trying to make something out of the position was to try 30.c4!? Kh7 31.h6 Rg6 32.Rf1 but again, Black is not without resources, and now 32…f6 33.Ne3 Rxh6 34.Nd5 Rxh1 35.Rxh1+ Kg6 36.Nxc7 Rc8 37.Ne6 Ne7 White may-well stand better, but Black should be able to comfortably hold this position with all of White’s pawns on the queenside. 30…c5 31.Bf4 Carlsen went into the tank here by burning clock time – and I don’t think it was to find a way to win this, it was more he was in a state of disbelief that there was no knockout punch. 31…Re8 32.Ne3 Pushing the h-pawn doesn’t achieve anything. After 32.h6 Rg6 33.h7 Ne7 34.Bg5 Bg7! (Not 34…Rxg5?? 35.Nf6! wins as it threatens Rg8 after the trade of rooks on g1.) 35.Ne3 f6 36.Bf4 Rxg1+ 37.Rxg1 Kxh7 38.Bxd6 b6 and yet again, White has slightly the better of it, but there’s not nearly enough here to win. 32…Rxg1+ 33.Rxg1 Re6 34.Nd5 Nf6 35.Nc7 Re2 36.Nb5 With Carlsen now down to his final minute, the moves end up being repeated a couple of times to get nearer to the time control at move 40 – but the realisation is that the game is just going to end in a draw by a threefold repetition. 36…Re6 37.Rf1 Kg8 38.Nc7 Re2 39.Nb5 Re6 40.Nc7 Re2 41.Nb5 Re6 ½-½