In a previous blog “Levon”, we chronicled the demise of Armenian ace Levon Aronian: how he he fell from grace of going from world No2, a likely world title challenger and rival to Magnus Carlsen, to a series of Candidate catastrophes followed by dramatically falling out of the world’s top 10 for the first time in over a decade. Ironically, the start of his career nose-dive can be tracked back two years ago to the inaugural Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis.
In the final round of the Sinquefield Cup back in 2013, there was Aronian in his pomp, as he looked to be easily beating rating rival Carlsen - but in a critical position, he totally failed to grasp what the young Norwegian was doing, lost the thread of the game, and then the game itself. And instead of Aronian being involved in a playoff for the title, it was Carlsen who had a somewhat flattering margin of victory.
Two years on, and we’re now just beginning to see a rejuvenated Aronian back to his brilliant best: it seems as if he’s exorcised his demons, and suddenly playing chess has no longer become a chore for him. Aronian is happier, more confidant, and instead of Tigran Petrosian-like deep manoeuvres at the board, he’s playing with a much freer spirit.
And in round seven of the Sinquefield Cup, the second leg of the Grand Chess Tour, Aronian - after watching joint overnight leader Carlsen going down to a bad defeat at the hands of Alexander Grischuk - stormed into a full point lead at the top after outplaying Hikaru Nakamura. And there was a degree of karma involved in it for Aronian, because he beat Nakamura only after the lessons he learned from that fateful meeting with Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup back in 2013!
Now, not only does the amiable Armenian have the lead at the top, he’s also rapidly rising back up the world’s top 10 where he rightly belongs. He’s climbed four places to now be number seven on the unofficial 2700chess.com live ratings.
Carlsen 0-1 Grischuk
Nakamura 0-1 Aronian
Anand draw So
Topalov draw Giri
Caruana draw Vachier-Lagrave
Round 7 standings: 1. Levon Aronian (Armenia) 5/7; 2-5. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 4; 5-6. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 3.5; 8-9. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Vishy Anand (India) 2.5; 10. Wesley So (USA) 2.
Hikaru Nakamura - Levon Aronian
3rd Sinquefield Cup, (7)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Marshall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.a4 The Anti-Marshall, played to avoid the Marshall Attack after 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6. Aronian is the modern day maven of this legendary attack that was supposedly "hidden" by American champion Frank J. Marshall, who used it as his secret weapon against Jose Raul Capablanca at New York 1918. The myth goes that Marshall deliberately kept his analysis secret for seven years before playing it - but this has since been debunked by historians. 8...b4 9.d4 d6 10.dxe5 dxe5 11.Qxd8 Rxd8 12.Nbd2 h6 Of course, with most players avoiding Aronian's in-depth knowledge of the Marshall Attack, he tends to get these sort of Anti-Marshall positions more often than not and knows how to handle all the nuances here. In fact, two years ago at the Sinquefield Cup, Magnus Carlsen played this way against the Armenian, got a bad position but somehow managed to win to take the title. And from this bad experience, Aronian learns his lesson of what to play. 13.Bc4 Carlsen-Aronian, Sinquefield Cup 2013, continued: 13.a5 Bc5 14.Bc4 Ng4 15.Re2 Be6 16.Bxe6 fxe6 17.h3 Nf6 - however the position between the two games becomes very similar very quickly. In 2013, Aronian took the overextended a-pawn far too quickly and allowed Carlsen to build-up counterplay against his weak pawns on a6, b4 and e5. As the old Capablanca adage goes of learning more from your lost games as from your won games, likewise Aronian learned his lesson from that sore loss; here, he takes his time and ignores White's a-pawn (which isn't going anywhere anyway!), using it as a decoy as he ties Nakamura in a knot attempting to defend it. 13...Bd6 14.a5 Re8 15.Bd3?! Nakamura wastes a lot of time here moving his bishop between d3 and c4. Best was probably 15.b3 and continuing a la Carlsen-Aronian 2013 without the loss of a couple of tempi. 15...Nd7 16.b3 Nc5 17.Bc4 Be6 18.Bb2 f6 19.Bxe6+ Rxe6 20.Nc4 Rb8 21.Nfd2 Rb5! A common theme here; Black piles the pressure on a5, and will follow up with ...Nb7 to compound the pressure. But if you compare the position now with Carlsen-Aronian 2013, you will see though how better Aronian's position is. 22.Ra2 This is definitely not a Nakamura type of position, and it showed: His body language on the live video feed looked very uncomfortable at this stage. It was pointless over-protecting a5 as Black can't take the a-pawn because - just as in Carlsen-Aronian 2013 - it will leave his own pawn on a6 weak and vulnerable. Instead, Nakamura should have gone the Carlsen route with 22.Nf1 and Ne3 quickly. 22...Nb7 23.Rea1 Bc5 24.Kf1 Re7 25.Ke2 Rd7 26.Nf1 Bd4 27.Nfe3 Bxe3! Now White is also lumbered with the bad bishop; and Aronian rightly sees that his knights are far superior in this position. 28.Nxe3 Kf7 29.f3 Ke6 30.g4 Nc5 31.Nc4 Ke7 32.Bc1 Ne6 33.Be3 Ncd4+ 34.Kf2 It's a tough position for Nakamura to defend, but it would have been even tougher after 34.Bxd4 Rxd4 with ...Nf4 also looming. 34...Ng5 35.Bxg5 As 35.Bxd4 Rxd4 36.h4 Nh3+ is much the same as the previous note, Nakamura opts to take the knight on g5. 35...fxg5! This is what's known as the "wrong" correct recapture, as it opens the f-file for Black to mount an attack on f3. 36.Rd1 Ke6 Not just defending e5, but also clearing the way for ...Rf7. 37.Rd3 Rf7 38.Ra1 Rb8! (See Diagram) Aronian relentlessly keeps the pressure on Nakamura, not interested in 38...Nxc2? 39.Rad1 (threatening Rd8-a8) 39...Rf8 40.Rd7 Nd4 41.R1xd4! exd4 42.Rxc7 where suddenly White has fantastic chances to salvage the game with Black pawn weaknesses on a6, b4 and d4. 39.Rad1 Rbf8 40.Nxe5 Kxe5 41.Rxd4 Rxf3+ The Black rooks are quicker and deadlier. 42.Ke2 No better was 42.Kg1 Rf1+! 43.Kg2 R8f2+ easily winning. 42...Rf2+ 43.Ke1 Rf1+ 44.Ke2 R8f2+ 45.Ke3 Rf3+ 46.Ke2 R1f2+ 47.Ke1 Rxh2 48.Rd5+ Kf4! Not falling for 48...Kxe4?? 49.R1d4+ Ke3 50.Rd3+ with a draw. 49.R1d4 Kxg4 50.Rc5 If 50.e5+ Kf5 soon picks off the e-pawn. 50...Rg3 A final finesse from Aronian - not just threatening mate, but more importantly moving the king away from defending c2. 51.Kf1 Rc3 0-1