Back in 2009, I first visited the ‘little’ chess club that the redoubtable Rex Sinquefield had just built in his home town of St. Louis in the American Midwest as part of the financial guru's retirement plans. Rex’s aim in his support and backing for the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of Saint Louis (CCSCSL) was a clear one back then: to boost the US chess scene to once again make America a leading chess force.
And eight years later, I returned to discover that Rex and his ever-growing CCSCSL had gone from strength-to-strength, with many new tournaments and new buildings - such as the wonderful and un-missable World Chess Hall of Fame - added to his property portfolio, that has not only made the club the talk of the Central West End neighborhood but also now turned St. Louis into one of the world’s leading chess hubs. And with it, the US has indeed become a leading chess force once again, having won gold at the last Chess Olympiad.
And what better time to return to St. Louis than right now, I ask myself? After all, the 5th Sinquefield Cup is headed by world champion Magnus Carlsen, and that was to be followed by the new edition to the Grand Chess Tour of the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz also at the CCSCL that would see the dramatic return to competitive competition of former world champion Garry Kasparov!
But first up was the 5th Sinquefield Cup, with Carlsen heading an all-star line up that also includes Wesley So (USA), Fabiano Caruana (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Vishy Anand (India), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Peter Svidler (Russia) and Ian Nepomniachtchi - and what an exciting opening round it turned out to be!
Despite Karjakin and MVL turning in excellent wins against Svidler and So respectively, the “spirit of St.Louis” in the opening round belonged to Levon Aronian, who after a bad spell for nearly a couple of years, has now found his mojo once again with a brace of big back-to-back wins this year ahead of Carlsen at both the Grenke Chess Classic and Altibox Norway Chess Tournament, and could be set for a third victory ahead of the world champion this year.
“The chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well!”, once commented Garry Kasparov. And right now, the Armenian ace has to be literally on a chess-high, as he’s back to his brilliant, confident best by turning in the game of the round, as his creative home preparation simply reduced Nepomniachtchi to shaking his head in disbelief at the audacity of the Armenian’s early rook lift of 10.Rh4!! that left the Russian totally busted.
Karjakin 1-0 Svidler
Vachier-Lagrave 1-0 So
Aronian 1-0 Nepomniachtchi
Caruana ½-½ Carlsen
Anand ½-½ Nakamura
1-3. Aronian, Vachier-Lagrave, Karjakin 1/1; 4-7. Carlsen, Varuana, Nakamura, Anand ½; 8-10. So, Svidler, Nepomniachtchi 0.
GM Levon Aronian - GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
5th Sinquefield Cup, (1)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e3 Nxc3 6.bxc3 g6 7.h4 Bg7 In the Grünfeld, typically such caveman flank attacks often backfire as Black gets lots of play against White's center - but here, with it being an English/Anti-Grünfeld, this can and is dangerous for Black, as he has no form of typical Grünfeld counterplay. And simply just stopping the h-pawn advancing with 7...h5 doesn't work, as after 8.Ba3 Qa5 (There's just no time for 8...b6 as White moves quickly in now for the kill with 9.Ne5! threatening Qf3 hitting f7 and the rook on a8, as after 9...Qd5 10.Bc4! White's simply winning already.) 9.Qb3 Bg7 10.Bc4! O-O 11.O-O White is well-developed and ready to play d4 to also have the centre and a big advantage. 8.h5 Nc6 9.Ba3! A new novelty from Aronian. In 2013, Svidler-Nepomniachttchi witnessed here 9.Rb1 where Black got a playable game but went on to lose - but Aronian is a cunning fox, and he's done his homework and found an unexpected, deadlier approach here for White. 9...Qa5 It looks OK as it defends the c-pawn, attacks the Ba3, and prevents d4 as the c-pawn will be pinned. But with Aronian, such innocent positions can quickly turn deadly if you’ve fallen into a wicked trap he's found at home. 10.Rh4!! This is the sort of early rook sortie that Bent Larsen would have been proud of! Creative players such as Larsen and Aronian sometimes have been known to break the rules of conventional chess development - and here, the unexpected Rh4 comes as a thunderbolt out of the blue for the Russian, and is as creative as they come from Aronian, as it indirectly defends the attacked Ba3 and comes with the added threat of Ra4 and Rb1 winning the c5-pawn - and if Black plays ...b6 to defend c5, then Ra4 is simply winning the Black queen. 10...Bd7 What else is there? If 10...Bxc3 11.Ra4! (Also awkward for Black was 11.Rc1!? Qxa3 12.Rxc3 Qxa2 13.Bc4 Qa5 14.Ng5! with a ferocious attack brewing, which can't be thwarted by 14...Ne5 as White has the winning tactical blow of 15.Nxf7! Nxf7 16.hxg6 and a totally crushing attack.) 11...Qxa4 12.Qxa4 Bxa1 13.Ng5! and it is difficult to see just how Black can ever get his king to safety, as 13...O-O will be strongly met by 14.hxg6 followed by Qh4 with a mating attack. 11.Qb3 O-O It's a brave man facing Aronian who has the chutzpah here to play the computer top suggestion of 11...Nd8!? that at least manages to defend b7 and simultaneously stopping Ra4. You get a gut feeling it has to fail, but it doesn’t, and despite it looking uncomfortable for Black, it is a very resilient option with no obvious threat of his position collapsing as it does in the game. 12.hxg6 hxg6 13.Qxb7 Rfd8 Nepo visibly looked resigned to his fate here, probably guessing correctly that if 13...Qxa3 he was just going to walk into a devilish piece of Aronian home preparation, such as 14.Qxd7 Nb4 15.Bc4! e6 (There's no time for 15...Nc2+ 16.Ke2 Nxa1 17.Ng5! and there's no good solution to the route one mating attack of Qh3 followed by Rh8+! and Qh7 mate!) 16.Bxe6! fxe6 (If 16...Nc2+ 17.Kd1! Nxa1 18.Ng5 and there's no defence for f7.) 17.Qxe6+ Rf7 18.Ng5 Rf8 19.Qxg6 mating. 14.Qa6 Bxc3 Immediately exchanging queens is just as hopeless, as after 14...Qxa6 15.Bxa6 the c-pawn is set to fall. At least this way, Nepo attempts to find a way to try to get some activity for his pieces - but it's far from having any sort of compensation to save the game. 15.Qxa5 Bxa5 16.Bxc5 Be6 17.Bb5 Ne5 (Nepo is caught between a rock and a hard place. If 17...Rdc8 18.Bxc6 Rxc6 19.Bxe7 Bd5 20.Rd4 White emerges with two clear pawns, so instead Nepo decides he may as well hang for a sheep than a lamb. 18.Nd4! Nepo last hope was that Aronian might have simply got carried away with himself and opted for 18.Nxe5 Bxd2+ 19.Kf1 Bc3 with some sort of hopes to save the game - but even here, White is still winning after 20.Nxf7! Kxf7 21.Rh7+ Kg8 22.Rxe7 Bxa1 23.Rxe6 Kg7 24.Ra6 and after the dust has settled, White will have too many pawns. But this was just wishful thinking on Nepo's part, as Aronian had quickly spotted the clean kill. 18...Rd5 19.Bxe7 Kg7 20.f4 Nd7 21.f5 Bxf5 22.Bc6 Re5 23.Nxf5+ gxf5 24.Bg5! Aronian is just going to win more material, and the rest is simply a thoroughly professional clean-up operation from the Armenian ace. 24...Kg6 25.Bf4 Rd8 26.Bxd7 Rc5 27.Rh6+ Kg7 28.Rd6 Bc7 29.Rc6 1-0