MVL wins Sinquefield Cup | So takes Grand Chess Tour

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was the winner of the 2021 Sinquefield Cup, after the last two rounds of the event failed to produce a decisive game, thus leaving the standings unaltered. But Maxime’s failure to beat Wesley So in Round 8 meant that the latter was assured clear first place in the Grand Chess Tour overall standings, with Maxime finishing close behind in second place.

You can replay any game from the 2021 Sinquefield Cup by clicking on a result in the crosstable below, or hover over a player’s name to see how they performed round-by-round. 

And here’s the Rounds 9 live commentary from Loek Van Wely, Simon Williams and Andras Toth.

After a tumultuous season hampered by travel restrictions and uncertainty, the 2021 Grand Chess Tour title effectively came down to one game in Round 8 of the Sinquefield Cup. The overall leader, Wesley So, only needed to finish no lower than 4th place to win enough tour points to make himself impossible to catch. His solid play to that point in the event had not given any cause for concern, but if there was one critical hurdle to clear, that was the game, with Black, against his closest (only, in fact) pursuer, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. 

MVL had made it clear the day before that he wasn’t going to burn any bridges and put his tournament lead in jeopardy, and indeed he chose the solid 5.Re1 line against the Berlin, hoping to probe a little bit and see what happens. His little idea was 14.Qf3.

This provocative move invites 14…Nf5!?, giving up an exchange for a valuable central pawn (d4 will fall) and good piece play. One could expect Vladimir Kramnik to play this ambitious move in a flash, but Wesley’s game plan was different. During a 10-minute think he may have spotted tricky lines such as 15.Bxf8 Nxd4 16.Qxf6!? gxf6 (16…Qxf6? loses to 17.Re8) 17.Be7 with very unbalanced play, and this would have been enough to sway him away from this direction, especially since a logical, solid option was available in the form of 14…Be6.

This turned out to be the critical moment of the game. While White enjoyed a very slight initiative, Black’s position was simply too solid and sound, provided Wesley played with reasonable accuracy. He did, always carefully covering his weak spots and methodically exchanging pieces, all the way down to a totally drawn endgame. When the two players were left with bare kings on the board, Wesley had secured at least 4th place in the event, and thus was declared the 2021 Grand Chess Tour winner with a round to spare.

While the GCT title was of concern only to those two players, the fight for the tournament victory involved a couple more, and for both of them Round 8 was a good opportunity to try and catch up with MVL. 

Fabiano Caruana took a leaf out of Wesley So’s book (or, rather, Chessable course) with the active  5.d4/6.e5 line of the Italian, perhaps also as a tribute to the recently deceased Evgeny Sveshnikov, who, just like with his namesake variation of the Sicilian, consistently employed and researched this line long before the world took serious notice. 

Peter Svidler appeared ‘more or less’ prepared, in the sense that he essayed a direct and apparently fully sound response, with only a little hesitation and time expenditure, to bring about a rather simplified position.

The opposite-coloured bishops more or less predicate a draw in an endgame, and the only serious danger for Black in this position would be a scenario where White’s major pieces invade the 7th rank and, combined with an unopposed bishop on d4, wreak havoc around the black king. 

Peter came up with an active way to defend: 21…Be4 22.Qxb6 Rf6!?, simply directing all his pieces towards the white king, and thus prompting White to seek safety by exchanging queens with 23.Qd4. Once this was done, Peter’s task was rather easy, and the game was drawn shortly afterwards.

The other suitor for first place, Leinier Dominguez, tried to surprise Sam Shankland in the opening by deviating from his earlier game against MVL, and for a while it felt like both players had been somewhat confused in the resulting early middlegame. Sam infused his Najdorf with some Classical Sicilian ideas and emerged with a satisfactory position. Leinier did get his rook to the 7th rank and, similarly to the possible scenario described in the comments to Caruana-Svidler above, the opposite-coloured bishops seemed to give him unpleasant pressure against Black’s king. 

But Sam did what he does best (and always does!), active defence, forcing Leinier to acquiesce to a draw. In fact, the repetition by which the draw was confirmed involved a curious moment.

White has just played 29.Be6, and it seems Black can safely play 29…Rxe4 30.Bxf5 Rf4, then …g6 and …Rxf2; by no means decisive, but apparently a very safe edge for Black, who can try for a win without risking anything. Instead, Sam simply repeated with 29…Nd4 30.Bd5 Nf5 31.Be6 (again) 31…Nd4 32.Bd5 ½-½.

In the other two games of Round 8, Dariusz Swiercz played a solid London System against Richard Rapport and did secure a slight but permanent advantage, thanks to his superior pawn structure. However, understandably after such a tough event, his play was less resolute than the position demanded, and his advantage gradually evaporated in the face of active defence by Richard — though no clear opportunity to break through can be pinpointed. 

As for the game between Xiong and Mamedyarov, a typical IQP position came to a typical …d4 central break, whereupon some chaotic complications arose. Shakhriyar made a couple of inaccuracies, the engine claims, but the lines were immensely difficult to visualise, and it was probably with relief that Jeffery forced Shakh to take a perpetual.

With the overall GCT winner already decided, in the final round it only took a few minutes for most of the remaining tournament excitement to dwindle. Mamedyarov quickly went down the path of a well-known drawing line against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and the game finished in a flash.

Maxime thus secured at least a tie for first place and, most likely, a clear victory, as both his main pursuers had a difficult task ahead if they were to win. 

Maxime commentated after matching Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in winning the Sinquefield Cup twice:

The first time I won the Sinquefield Cup, I was eager to prove my worth. Over the last few years I felt that I have proven my skill. This 2021 Sinquefield Cup win feels more like redemption.

Indeed, two of them, Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez, did not expend too much effort or time in taking each other out of contention. Wesley chose a quiet line against the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, though one that is not necessarily harmless — as has been proven in the hands of Vladimir Kramnik, Magnus Carlsen and others. Still, most of the terrors of this line have long been shorn, and Leinier could be expected to be fully up to the task, both theoretically and practically. He did not disappoint: a temporary pawn sacrifice led to multiple exchanges and the eventual recapture of the pawn, with a dead-drawn ending. 

Of course, both players can be satisfied with their performances: Wesley achieved his ultimate aim, winning the Grand Chess Tour, while Leinier posted an excellent result, wiping away the unpleasant memories of an unsuccessful World Cup in July.

That left Fabiano Caruana as the only player who could reach MVL at 6/9, and in fact win the tournament due to his better tiebreakers. To do that he had to beat Richard Rapport with Black, and he did try his best. 

The game itself was very complicated and had lots of ups and downs in its evaluation, but mainly in the trends governing the play. Richard met Fabi’s Taimanov Sicilian with the extremely rare 5.Bf4, causing Fabi to spend over half an hour on the next 4 moves, only to end up in a position where White seemed to have some sort of control in the centre.

Fabi now sent a clear sign of his ambitions with 17…Nh7, switching his attention to kingside play with …Ng5/…Bg5 and possibly a later …f5. The problem was, White’s grip on the position was quite solid, and this plan did soften up the underbelly of Black’s position, the d6-pawn. 

Fabiano did not flinch and went ahead with 24…f5 a little later, and a critical moment arose.

White could (and probably should) have refrained from the temptation of blowing the position up with the thematic 25.c5, as he did, and instead play the positional 25.h4 (kicking the knight away from control of e4) 25…Nf7 26.exf5 (26.Qb6!? also looks promising) 26…Bxf5 27.R3d2, when 27…Qxh4 fails to satisfy in view of 28.Qf3, and otherwise Black seems a bit passive and submitted to annoying pressure.

After the game’s 25.c5 d5 26.exd5 Bxd5 27.f4 Ne4 28.Nxd5 cxd5 Fabi had a powerful knight on e4 and excellent chances to play for a win, especially when 29.c6 came and was met with 29…d4!. After some complicated play, where neither side seemed to falter, the game reached a double-rook endgame where Black had a passed pawn one step from coronation, but no clear way to actually make progress.

Of key importance is the fact that the black king is severely restricted and cannot come to the aid of the rooks, who in turn are tied to the defence of the d2-pawn. Given time, Fabi could have perhaps found a way to approach, but Richard did not give him the chance at all; by quickly setting up a passed pawn of his own, and using it as a decoy, he ensured that the passer on d2 would be eliminated. And thus, Fabiano had to give up the fight, leaving MVL as the sole winner.

Peter Svidler was quite critical of his play in Saint Louis, and his last-round game against Jeffery Xiong must have disappointed him further. He came out of the opening with a huge edge, courtesy of Jeffery’s experimental play and Peter’s own very creative setup, which turned out to be quite strong. Already by move 13 Black’s position looked disastrous.

White could have simply kept improving his position with 14.Nf1 and Ne3 next, but Peter’s 14.Bxf6 Bxf6 15.Nxg4 was also quite good. A few moves later, Peter decided to win a pawn with 20.Qxd6, perhaps not the most effective way to proceed, and after 22…h3! Black had managed to secure enough counterplay to keep the balance — or, at least, to annoy White enough to prevent progress. Indeed, Peter tried various things from that point on but wasn’t able to shake Xiong’s defences, and he (surely begrudgingly) agreed to a draw right after the time control was reached. 

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p class=”p4″>This result landed him right between Sam Shankland and Dariusz Swiercz in the standings, after the two US players drew a logical game where the balance was never seriously disturbed.

And thus the 2021 Sinquefield Cup came to an end, practically with two winners (one for the Cup, one for the Grand Chess Tour). 

But chess never stops. Wesley So is right back in action in the Aimchess US Rapid starting on Saturday August 28th at 11:00 EST, 17:00 CEST, 20:30 IST. His Round 1 opponent? A certain Magnus Carlsen!

Follow all the action live here on chess24!

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