Back in late April, World Champion Magnus Carlsen was cruising to a resounding victory ahead of the elite field at the Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, going on to claim he could “stay at the top for another 20 years”. However in May, he then went on to his homeland of Norway for the first leg of the $1m Grand Chess Tour…only to sensationally come crashing back to earth in one of the worst tournament performances of his career.
But “that’s life”, as centurion Francis Albert Sinatra would say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. The rumours then started swirling that Carlsen had set up an especially strong training camp post Norway and was determined to bounce back with vengeance at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. But in the opening round, he crashed yet again to Veselin Topalov.
Thankfully - albeit with more than just a little luck against Fabiano Caruana in round 2 - normal service has been resumed once again, with a brace of wins finding Carlsen right back in the race. Only this time, the win was more assured as he outplayed and outmanoeuvred Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to join Anish Giri and Levon Aronian in second spot, a half point behind tournament leader Topalov.
The only other win of the round came from the US No.3 Wesley So, who took full advantage of the habitual time trouble travails of Russia’s Alexander Grischuk, to score his first win of the tournament. The loss is yet another setback for Grischuk, as it puts a dent in the Russian’s chances of snatching the second FIDE rating spot for next year’s Candidates.
So 1-0 Grischuk
Aronian draw Giri
Carlsen 1-0 Vachier-Lagrave
Nakamura draw Caruana
Anand draw Topalov
Round 3 standings: 1. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 2.5/3; 2-4. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 2; 5-7. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Wesley So (USA), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 1.5; 8. Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 1; 9-10. Vishy Anand (India), Fabiano Caruana (USA) 0.5.
Magnus Carlsen - Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
3rd Sinquefield Cup, (3)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 c5 5.d4 cxd4 6.Nxd4 0-0 7.Nc3 Qc7 More standard here is 7...Nc6. However the text - which is a big faourite of Azeri Teimour Radjabov - looks to steer the game away from normal channels. And Carlsen also has history with this line, as Boris Gelfand deployed it against him at the Amber 2011 blindfold contest; and it stumped Carlsen sufficiently that he unwisely opted for 8. Ncb5 and went on to lose the game. 8.Nd5 Standard options here are 8.b3 and 8.Qd3. But Carlsen, after the lesson of going astray against Gelfand, perhaps not unsurprisingly plays the forcing line into an early endgame where he lands his opponent with a difficult pawn structure to defend. 8...Qxc4?! The other option, which leaves White with the better pawn center, came about last year in the game between Wang Hao and Alexander Grischuk: 8...Nxd5 9.cxd5 Qa5+ 10.Bd2 Qb6 11.Bc3 e5!? and Grischuk went on to win a scrappy game. In hindsight, perhaps MVL should have gone for this. 9.Nxe7+ Kh8 10.Nxc8 Rxc8 11.0-0 Not 11.Bxb7?? as 11...Qb4+ picks up the bishop. 11...Nc6 12.Be3 Ng4 13.Nc2 Nxe3 14.Nxe3 Qe6 15.Nd5 Bxb2 16.Rb1 Be5 17.Rxb7 Rab8 18.Rxb8 Rxb8 19.e3 The dust has settled, and at least you have quickly exchanged off a lot of pieces against the World Champion - but long-term, Carlsen will be honed in on the weak and isolated d- and a-pawns. This is not the way to play against Carlsen; he thrives on such positions. 19...Rb2 20.a4 Ne7 To try and further ease the pressure, MVL looks to swap off Carlsen powerful knight on d5 - hoping that in doing so, as the position further simplifies, he can perhaps pick off Carlsen's strong a-pawn and head for an ending a pawn down, but crucially with all of the pawns on the kingside and good chances of drawing. 21.Nf4 Bxf4 22.exf4 Qb6 MVL's only plan here is to tie Carlsen down to the defence of f2. 23.a5! Qc5 A tempo-free advance of the a-pawn, which can't be taken as 23...Qxa5 24.Qd4+ picks up the rook. 24.Qxd7 Ra2 25.Qd3 (See Diagram) 25...Kg7? MVL tries to finesse, perhaps fearful that taking the a-pawn immediately would have rapidly activated all of Carlsen's pieces - but realistically, this was Black's only chance: 25...Rxa5 26.Qd2 Rb5 was the best option, said Carlsen after the game. White's pieces will unravel here, with moves such as Rc1 or Re1 - but defending this has to be better than what happened in the game. And no better was 25...Qxa5 26.Qd4+! (If 26.Qd6 Re2! 27.Bf3 Re6 and Black should be okay here.) 26...Kg8 27.Rb1! Nc8 28.Bh3! Nb6 29.f5 will be very uncomfortable for Black to defend against. 26.a6! Now there will be no chance of MVL picking off the a-pawn. 26...h5 27.Bb7 Nf5 28.Qe4 Nd6 Black can't play 28...h4 as the trade of queens with 29.Qe5+ leaves Black hopelessly lost in this ending. 29.Qb1 Not 29.Qe5+? this time, as 29...Qxe5 30.fxe5 Nxb7 31.axb7 Rb2 32.Ra1 Rxb7 33.Ra6 g5 and Black will easily draw this rook ending. 29...Rd2 MVL is still hoping the pressure on f2 might salvage something; but Carlsen finds a way to unravel. 30.Qa1+ Kg8 31.Bg2 Nf5 32.Qe5! Qxe5 Carlsen forces the queens off to his advantage, as 32...Qb6 33.Bd5! and now there's a big threat of Qe8+ and Qxf7+ winning. 33.fxe5 Re2 34.Rb1 And with one bound, the rook is free - and how! Once White gets in Rb7, the a-pawn will fall, f7 will be under attack, and the a-pawn will soon pass. 34...Rxe5 35.Rb7 Re1+ 36.Bf1 h4 37.Rxa7 h3 38.Rd7 Stopping the little matter of ...Nd4, threatening both ...Nf3+ and ...Ne2+ winning. 38...Ra1 39.g4 Nh4 Has MVL found a saving grace? 40.Rd3! No! Carlsen has it all under control - the rook defends against ...Nf3+, attacks the pawn on h3, and indirectly defends the a-pawn as Rd8+ will be a discovered attack on the rook. 40...Ng2 41.Rxh3 Nf4 42.Rf3 g5 43.Rb3 1-0 Black resigns, as 43...Ne2+ 44.Kg2 Nf4+ 45.Kf3! Rxf1 46.a7 easily wins.