06 Aug

Sans Magnus

Magnus Carlsen has dominated 2016 so far, as he’s pummelled the opposition in super-tournaments this year.  So it probably comes as something of a blessed relief for the others that the world champion is not competing in the $300,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, as he begins his ‘preparation purdah’ for his upcoming November title defence against Sergey Karjakin - and the latest rumour is that a venue announcement for downtown New York is set to be confirmed by early next week.


However the Sinquefield Cup sans Magnus - not to mention the 11th-hour health call off from Vladimir Kramnik - leaves the third leg of the Grand Chess Tour in St Louis wide-open, with any of the field able to capture the title. The field is headed by reigning US Champion Fabiano Caruana, and also includes Maxime Vachier Lagrave (France), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Ding Liren (China), Vishy Anand (India), Wesley So (USA), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), and now Peter Svidler (Russia, who replaces Kramnik).

The first two speed events of this years GCT proved to be a success for America’s third strongest player, Wesley So, who finished fourth in Paris and second in Leuven. Unfortunately, Carlsen was a wildcard for these events (not playing in all four locations) so he cannot collect GCT points for his wins. Therefore, So and Nakamura were tied for first place overall in the GCT heading into the Sinquefield Cup - and intriguingly, the American rivals came face-to-face in an opening round showdown!


In the past, So has a bad record playing Nakamura, with lots of losses in both rapid and blitz.  And in classical, even worse, as he’s never beaten Nakamura who leads 2-0 with seven games drawn.  But So got himself off to the perfect start in his quest to win a major (and perhaps the overall GCT title), with a resounding win to take the early lead alongside Veselin Topalov, who profited from a bad blunder from what looked like a jet-lagged seven-time Russian champion Peter Svidler, who arrived in St Louis hot foot from Biel, Switzerland.

All the action from the Sinquefield Cup is being streamed live daily on www.grandchesstour.org, featuring play-by-play and analysis from the world-renowned commentary team of GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley, and WGM Jennifer Shahade.

Round 1
So 1-0 Nakamura
Topalov 1-0 Svidler
Giri ½-½ Vachier-Lagrave
Anand ½-½ Caruana
Ding Liren ½-½ Aronian

GM Wesley So - GM Hikaru Nakamura
4th Sinquefield Cup, (1)
Semi-Open Catalan
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 This approach is the popular so-called Semi-Open Catalan. 7.Ne5 Other options here are 7.Nc3 and 7.Na3, but 7.Ne5 is by far the most dynamic, and it often leads to mutual crippled pawn structures. 7...Nc6 8.Nxc6 The other option of 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.Nxc6 Qe8 10.Nxe7+ Qxe7 sees White regaining the pawn, but Black often has excellent prospects for his bishop down the long b7-h1 diagonal. 8...bxc6 9.Na3 Bxa3 If not this concession, mutually ruining both pawn structures, then White will have Nxc4 regaining the pawn and long-term play against the crippled Black queenside pawns. 10.bxa3 Ba6 11.Qd2 Black is better after 11.Qa4?! Bb5 12.Qa5 Qxd4 13.Be3 Qd6 14.a4 Qa3! according to Karpov. Also, an option is 11.Bxc6 Rb8 12.Qa4 Rb6 with chances on both sides. But in recent years, China's Li Chao has popularised 11.Qd2 and gambling on playing for a win. 11...Rb8 12.Qa5 Qc8 13.a4 Rd8 14.Ba3!? Instead, 14.Rd1 worked out well for Li Chao against Harikrishna earlier this year in the  IMSA Elite Mind Games (Blitz) - but it was far from convincing. 14...Rxd4 Nakamura throws down the gauntlet by taking the pawn, though fully accepting that it comes with the risk of having to sacrifice the exchange, and hoping his position is enough to hold. But things soon become a little complicated for Nakamura, who seems to stray, and admitted after the game that "I forgot to play my preparation" - and a super-tournament is not the place to forget your preparation! 15.Rfb1 Rb6 Nakamura is trying to complicate the position. If 15...Rxb1+ 16.Rxb1 and Black is in deep trouble on the queenside, as he attempts to hold his position together. 16.Bc5 Rd7 17.Rd1 h6 18.Rxd7 Nxd7 19.Bxb6 cxb6 20.Qd2! So realises that dominating the d-file is the crux of the position, because if the queens come off, then his rook will easily  infiltrate to start hoovering up all those queenside pawns. 20...c5 21.Rd1 Nf6 22.Kf1! (See Diagram) Another nice nuance from So. He wants to play 22.Qd8+ Qxd8 23.Rxd8+ Kh7 24.Ra8 but without the little snafu of 24...c3!! winning for Black. But he's in no hurry, and he has the luxury of a time out to bring his king over to the queenside first before exchanging queens, as Black has nothing else to offer. 22...Kh7 23.Qc2+ Kg8 24.Qd2 Kh7 25.Qd8 Qxd8 26.Rxd8 c3 27.Ke1 So' king majestically slides over to the queenside to play a big part in securing the win, as it prevents Nakamura's queenside pawns rolling with menace down the board. 27...Bc4 28.Kd1 Bxa2 29.Kc2 Nakamura is simply lost here, as So's king is going to pick off the pawn on c3 - but, more importantly, his rook is soon going to decimate Black's queenside pawns. 29...Bc4 30.e3 Much stronger and more clinical would have been 30.e4! e5 (If 30...Ng4? 31.Kxc3 b5 32.Ra8 Nxf2 33.Rxa7 Ng4 34.axb5 Bxb5 35.Rxf7 Ne5 36.Rb7 Bc6 37.Re7 Bd7 38.Bh3 easily wins.) 31.Kxc3 Be2 32.Ra8 a6 33.Rf8 Ng4 34.Rxf7 Nxh2 35.Rc7 and Rc6 is coming, winning either the b- or the c-pawn with an easy win. 30...b5 31.Kxc3 a6 32.Ra8 Nd5+ 33.Bxd5 exd5 Nakamura's compact unit of the bishop and pawns look threatening, but... 34.a5! This stops the pawns in their track, and soon So will be able to pick off the pawns on the queenside. 34...b4+ 35.Kd2 Bf1 36.Rc8 c4 37.Rb8! The final part of the jigsaw, as Nakamura's pawns now become fixed and vulnerable. 37...b3 38.Kc3 1-0 Nakamura resigns, as he's either going to lose his d5-pawn or his a6-pawn, after which his position will collapse. 

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