06 Aug

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Baseball giant Yogi Berra died in 2015 at age 90, and beyond his legacy as a Hall of Famer, he left behind a number of celebrated “Yogi-isms” that long ago seeped into the cultural lexicon. Arguably the most famous of them, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” was an offhanded remark made during the 1973 season when the New York Mets were in last place during the pennant race.

How should Magnus (white) have won here?

Against all the odds, Berra helped manage the team back to the top, and against the odds the written-off Mets won that year’s divisional title. The never-say-never optimism of Berra’s words resonated, and the phrase was - to put it in baseball terms, as we’re here in baseball-mad St. Louis - an instant home run.

“It ain’t over till it’s over” became the Americanisation of the opera-influenced “It isn’t over till the fat lady sings,” and either of these expressions would have have been in apt usage as we followed the rollercoaster of an epic fourth round clash between world champion Magnus Carlsen and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the 5th Sinquefield Cup at the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of Saint Louis (CCSCSL), as just about everyone had written off the Frenchman before the final result was known.

It was a most surreal experience at the CCSCSL. Magnus Carlsen, for the third successive game, was turning in a typical Carlsen-like grind-o-rama, and looked set to squeeze out the win and move into the sole lead. The commentators had begun to call the game, as had several titled players. I even called the game and began packing up and heading back to the hotel. Even a prominent chess correspondent - who will remain nameless - for a national newspaper had filed his copy stating that Magnus had won and shown him in the sole lead in the standings.

But as Yogi would say, it ain’t over till it’s over, and it took just one critical slip near the end to witness a clearly exasperated Magnus shaking his head in disbelief, as MVL remorselessly pounced to steal not only his thunder but also the outright lead!

Round 3
Vachier-Lagrave ½-½ Svidler
Caruana ½-½ Nepomniachtchi
Karjakin ½-½ Aronian
Anand ½-½ Carlsen
So ½-½ Nakamura

Round 4
Caruana ½-½ Karjakin
Carlsen 0-1 Vachier-Lagrave
Aronian ½-½ Anand
Svidler ½-½ So
Nepomniachtchi 1-0 Nakamura

Lennart Ootes' photo says it all! | ©  Grand Chess Tour

1. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) 3/4; 2. Fabiano Caruana (USA) 2½; 3-7. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Sergey Karjakin (Russian), Vishy Anand (India), Levon Aronian (Armenia), Wesley So (USA) 2; 8-10. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Peter Svidler (Russia), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 1½

GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
5th Sinquefield Cup, (4)
English Opening
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1 Magnus' opening set-up is superficial and shouldn't be dangerous - but it reminds me so much of the style and methodology of Swedish elite player Ulf Andersson, who from the mid-1970s and through the 1980s, would seek early queen exchanges - and when he did, his rating seemed to dramatically increase by about 100 rating points, such was his expertise in squeezing his opponents in similar endgame scenarios. 7...Bf5 8.Nd2 Nc6 9.e4 Bg6 10.Bb5 Rc8 11.h4 h5 12.Re1 e6 13.a4 Be7 14.g3 O-O 15.a5 Rfd8 16.a6 I would imagine Magnus would have been happy with this position here as long-term, that a6 pawn could become a nightmare to deal with - especially in conjunction with a Nc4. 16...b6 17.Kc2 Ne5 18.f4 Ng4 19.Kb3 f6 20.Nc4 Nf2 21.e5 Ne4 22.Be3 The worry here for MVL is Magnus finding a way to exchanging off the rooks and grave danger of a Nxb6 hanging ominously in the air. 22...Bf5 23.Rg1 Rd5 24.Rae1 Kf7 25.Bc1 Bh7 26.Re3 Rcd8! This is the best way forward for MVL, as the 'threat' of Bc6 (looking to win the exchange) would clarify the position and not a danger for Black. 27.Bc6 Nf2 28.Re2 If 28.Bxd5 exd5 29.Na3 Ng4 30.Ree1 Bd3! Black's active pieces more than compensate for the exchange here - and indeed, if the a6 pawn falls, White could be on the defensive. 28...Nd3 29.exf6 gxf6 30.Bb5 Rg8 Watching the game unfold live at the CCSCCL, I wondered if perhaps now MVL should be seeking to exchange some pieces to relieve the tension in the position, as Magnus is in his element here in such high-tension scenarios. Perhaps he should have opted for 30...Nxc1+ 31.Rxc1 Rd1 32.Rxd1 Rxd1 33.Ne3 Rd8 34.Nc4 Bf5 with equal play - but more importantly, less pressure with fewer piece now on the board. 31.Bd2 Rgd8 32.Be3 Be4 33.Rd2 Worryingly for MVL, who was slightly short of time here, if he is not careful, then the self-trapped knight on d3 could well become a headache to support. For now, it is heavily protected - but it would only take a few exchanges for it to be a problem. 33...Rg8 34.Ka4 Rgd8 35.Kb3 Rg8 36.Ka2 f5 37.Rh2 Rc8 38.Rd2 Rg8 39.Re2? Both players were basically just biding their time till they reached the time-control, but this move is a mistake that MVL fails to notice. 39…Bf3? In the haste to safely make the time-control (he was down to his last minute), MVL missed the stunning shot of 39…Bxh4! 40.Rh2 (There's no other continuation now. If 40.gxh4 Rxg1 41.Bxg1 Nc1+ is easily winning.) 40...Bxg3 41.Rxh5 Rg7 and Black has the material advantage not to mention a winning advantage. 40.Rh2 Bf6 41.Nd2! Suddenly, Magnus spots a small chink in MVL's armour - but is it enough? 41...Bg4 We live in an era of silicon certainty, and here, the cold and unbeating heart of the playing engine simply ignores the threat to the bishop, and instead wants to play the amazing resource of 41…Rc8! 42.Nxf3 c4 43.Bxc4 Rxc4 and although Black is a pawn down, he's soon going to be playing ...e5, and when the dust settles, he will emerge with a very active pair of rooks and should easily hold the game. But you can't blame a human in the heat of battle at the board for missing this spectacular shot. 42.Rf1! Magnus' slowly squeezing of MVL is now paying off, as the rook on f1 stops the bishop coming back to f3, and now his knight is free to find a more dangerous outpost on c4. Also annoying for MVL is that he now has two pieces (Bg4 and Nd3) that can't move. 42...Rgd8 43.Nc4 e5 What else is there? If MVL just sits on the position, Magnus will play Bc6 followed by Bb7, and suddenly there's a real danger of Nxb6 winning. 44.fxe5 Bxe5 45.Bg5! And that was that we all thought, as there was an air of belief in the playing venue that Magnus was simply going to convert his big advantage now to move into the sole lead. 45...Bxg3 46.Rg2?? Chess can be a fickle mistress at times. Everyone in the CCSCSL, including the commentators, media pundits (your correspondent being one of them) and titled-players, all believed Magnus had turned in a typical Magnus-like squeeze here, and all calling the game now as they expected the world champion to play 46.Rd2! and a mostly trivial win. But the Chess Gods thought otherwise. 46...Bh3 47.Rxg3 Bxf1 48.Rf3? Remarkably, this game now becomes a complete table-turner, as Magnus somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He had to play 48.Bxd8! Rxd8 49.Rf3 Be2 50.Rxf5+ and a likely draw coming soon. 48...Be2 49.Bxd8 Bxf3 50.Bxb6 There's nothing else left now but bluffing, as MVL has the extra material and clear run home for his f-pawn. 50...axb6 51.Bc6 Be4 52.a7 Rd8 53.Nd6+ Rxd6 54.Bxe4 Rd8 55.a8=Q Rxa8+ 56.Bxa8 Ne5 57.Kb3 f4 58.Kc2 Kg7 59.Kd2 Ng6 White's h-pawn is doomed - and with it, so goes the game. 60.Kd3 Nxh4 61.Ke4 f3 62.Ke3 Kf6 63.b4 c4 64.Bd5 Kf5 65.Bxc4 Kg4 66.Kf2 Ng6 67.Be6+ Kf4 68.Bf7 Ne5 69.Bxh5 Nd3+ 70.Kf1 Kg3 71.Bf7 Nf2 0-1 Magnus resigns, as there are no easy answers to the twin threats of ...Nd1 (and a deadly threat of ...Ne3+) or ...Ne4 (and the deadly threat of ...Nd2+) and the f-pawn passing. What an epic rollercoaster of a game!

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