28 Aug

Seems Like Old Times

As we head into Friday’s rest day at the 3rd Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, the second leg of the Grand Chess Tour, it almost seemed like it was old times again on the chess scene, what with the resurgent forms of World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian seeing the former rating-rivals back where they belong, namely sharing the join lead at the top.


For a long time both were the undisputed world No’s 1 and 2 (June 2012 seeing Aronian get to within 10 points of eclipsing Carlsen), and many predicted an exciting world championship match between the two would be on the cards. But as explained in yesterday’s column, Levon, the congenial Armenian ace had numerous Candidates' catastrophes, and in the past year he’s also seen his form collapse to such an extent he's fallen out of the Top 10.

Likewise Carlsen has had his fair share of recent disasters and a plunge in his rating, though he’s hung on to the top spot. The solution for both unhappy campers was to share a camp! Carlsen took the clever step of inviting his former foe to his training camp ahead of the Sinquefield Cup, and it looks to be just the tonic the pair needed to inspire each other, as they bounced back to their fighting best, now leading the tournament on 3.5/5.

Carlsen took his chances with a nice, long-term strategic win over Wesley So, who couldn’t quite find all the right moves at the right time in a difficult position to save the game. Carlsen soon converted his advantage for a third win of the tournament, and he joined Aronian in the lead after frontrunner Veselin Topalov came dramatically unstuck in a trick position against Fabiano Caruana - a result that not only opens up the tournament, but possibly could decide who will go on to be the overall winner of the inaugural Grand Chess Tour.

Round 5:
Aronian draw Grischuk
Carlsen 1-0 So
Nakamura draw Giri
Anand draw Vachier-Lagrave
Topalov 0-1 Caruana

Round 5 standings: 1-2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 3.5/5; 3-4. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Anish Giri (Netherlands) 3; 5-6. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 2.5; 7-8. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Alexander Grischuk (Russia) 2; 9-10. Vishy Anand (India), Wesley So (USA) 1.5.

Magnus Carlsen - Wesley So
3rd Sinquefield Cup, (5)
Sicilian Najdorf, English Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 If there is one sphere of Carlsen's game that lack's polish, it's that he's never been "bothered" by the intensive study of main-line opening variations, instead relying on quiet sidelines and grinding down opponents from nothing. Just think how much greater a force he could be if he had the opening theory knowledge of Garry Kasparov or Vishy Anand? And here, even playing a mainline Open Sicilian came as a surprise to the commentators and fans - and probably Wesley So himself. 3...cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3 Nbd7 9.Qd2 b5 10.0-0-0 Be7 11.g4 b4 12.Nd5 Bxd5 13.exd5 Nb6 14.Na5 Nbxd5 15.Nc4!? White could have gone with material equality with 15.Nc6 Qd7 16.Nxb4 Nxb4 17.Qxb4 - but Black is more than fine here. Instead, Carlsen goes for an idea that seeks compensation for the pawn by dominating and occupying the d5-square. 15...Nxe3 16.Nxe3 0-0 17.Bc4 Nd7 This looks right - the knight heads for b6 to hit the White bishop, threatening a5-a4, and at the same time White will have to be wary of Black playing a future ...Bg5. 18.h4 Both stopping ...Bg5 and carrying on with the attack by throwing forward the kingside pawns. 18...a5 19.g5 Rc8 20.Bd5 Nb6 21.Kb1 Qc7 22.Rhf1 Nxd5 Black exchanges off White's strong bishop, perhaps fearful of it supporting the pawn thrust f4-f5 etc. 23.Nxd5 Now here is a position that computers will fail to comprehend - White is still a pawn down, but the dominant knight on d5 offers more than enough compensation. This position is not easy for Black to defend against. 23...Qb7 24.f4 f5 So just can't allow Carlsen to play f5 and squeeze him further. 25.Qe3 e4 26.h5! The looming h6 is going to cause long-term problems for Black: The bishop is going to be severally restricted defending against Nf6+ and Qg7 mate threats; but strategically more important, as the game moves toward the ending there could well be several tricks with knight sacrifices on g6 passing the h-pawn. 26...Rc5 27.h6 g6 28.Qb3 (See Diagram) All the engines will tell you that Black is better here - but they are only glorified bean counters and do not understand the strategics of the position, with the dominant knight on d5 controlling the game. 28...Rf7 29.a4! Nicely stopping any possible threats Black had with pushing the pawns up the board. 29...Bd8 30.Rd4 Kf8 31.Rfd1 Rc6 32.Ne3 Bb6 33.Nc4! This has to be best, as it retains the wonderful pawn chain f4-g5-h6, with the alternative seeing it fall: 33.Rxd6 Rxd6 34.Rxd6 Bc7 35.Re6 Bxf4 36.Nd5 Bxg5 37.Qc4 Bxh6 38.Qc5+ Kg8 39.Ne7+ Kh8 40.Qe5+ Bg7 41.Nxf5 h6! 42.Nxg7 Rf1+! 43.Ka2 Qxg7 with a draw coming, as Black has weak pawns on e4 and a5 and an open king to give checks to. Carlsen got it right with his 33. Nc4! 33...Bxd4? But alas, So falters at the critical moment, missing the saving resource of 33...Rxc4. "I missed that one," said Carlsen in his post-game interview. 33...Rxc4! 34.Qxc4 (If 34.Rxc4 Rd7! (Not 34...d5? as wins. 35.Rxd5! ) White will be forced to return the material, or else d5-d4 is coming. 35.Rcd4 Bxd4 36.Rxd4 d5 and Black is winning this.) 34...Bxd4 35.Qxd4 Qc7 36.Qxd6+ Qxd6 37.Rxd6 Ra7.  34.Nxa5 Qb6 35.Nxc6 Bc5 36.Qd5 e3 Carlsen said he momentarily began to worry that So would be able to play 36...Qb7, but soon found a nice resource for that: 37.Qxc5! dxc5 38.Rd8#. 37.a5 Qb5? In reflection of what happens now, So would have been safer restricting the scope of the interloping knight with 37...Qc7!? It's very, very difficult now for White to make progress here; and likely the game will peter out soon to a draw.  38.Nd8! The knight causes panic as it comes with the follow-up of Ne6+, and suddenly there's threats aimed at the Black king with Qg8+ etc. 38...Ra7 39.Ne6+ Ke8 40.Nd4 I can't begin to tell you how many times I have seen the wrong move played at the time control. Carlsen had several minutes left, but in the haste to get to the time control, he'd missed a key move in his analysis of what happens after 40.Nxc5! Qxc5 41.Qg8+ Kd7 42.Qxh7+ Kc6 43.Qxg6 And here the World Champion didn't realize that 43...Qxa5 was impossible as it lost on the spot to 44.Qxd6+ Kb5 45.Rd5+.Oh well, c'est la vie.  40...Qxa5 41.Qg8+ Kd7 42.Qxh7+ Kc8 43.Qg8+ Kb7 44.c3! And this is what Carlsen had concentrated his analysis at move 40, rather than the easy win with 40. Nxc5 - he figured that if he wasn't getting mated, he wins. Hence the escape hole for his king. 44...bxc3 45.Qb3+! Qb6 If 45...Kc8 46.h7 wins, as the rook will be lost after Qg8+ and Qxh7+ etc. So is now forced into exchanging queens, after which White's h-pawn decides the day. 46.Qxb6+ Kxb6 47.bxc3 Bxd4 48.Rxd4 Kc6 49.Kc2 Ra2+ 50.Kd1 Rf2 51.Ke1 Kd7 52.Ra4 Ke6 53.Ra8 Rh2 54.c4 Kf7 55.Rb8 Ke6 56.Rg8 1-0

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