Sinquefield Cup 1: Caruana storms back to world no. 2

Fabiano Caruana got off to a perfect start in this year’s Sinquefield Cup, getting the chance to play a nice, if relatively simple, queen sacrifice and take down Sam Shankland. The two new faces, compared to the recently concluded St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, were involved in the first round’s two other decisive games, though they had opposing fortunes: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave exploited a crucial error by Peter Svidler, but Dariusz Swiercz was ground down by Lenier Dominguez.

You can replay all the games from the Sinquefield Cup using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Alexander Grischuk, Simon Williams and Andras Toth.

Playing on home turf, and following a good performance in the Rapid & Blitz which earned him second place, the world no. 2 must surely be aspiring to his third Sinquefield Cup victory, and his round one win was the perfect start to the event. 

The two players were on collision course in last month’s FIDE World Cup, but a shock loss by Fabi to Kazakh GM Rinat Jumabayev paved the way for Sam to eventually reach the quarterfinals. The game that might have been came approximately a month later and Fabi, facing off against one of the most prolific Chessable authors, elected to avoid any theoretical clashes and opted for the quiet London System.

That both players were improvising from very early on became apparent already on move 12, when Fabi allowed (and Sam missed) a great opportunity for Black to fight for the initiative. 

Black could have played 12…exd4! (somewhat counter-intuitive, when your preceding play was geared towards establishing a central bastion on e5), and after 13.Nxd4 (13.cxd4 Qa5+ is awkward, both here and on the next move) 13…Nxd4 14.Qxd4 Ng4! White would have to look for equality with a move like 15.Qc4, as Fabi’s intended 15.Qxd6? would run into 15…Bxc3!.

With that moment gone, White’s play in the resulting position was much easier, with his pieces occupying nice, stable squares and his moves flowing very naturally, while Black was having trouble coming up with a plan. Once the f-file was opened, Sam was firmly on the defensive and looking for ways to extinguish the unpleasant pressure. 

One such opportunity, it seemed to him, arose on move 27: exchanging all rooks would have left Black with a weak king and dark squares, and a ‘practically lost position’, as Fabi explained in his post-game interview, but the chosen 27…Ndf5 allowed White to play the simple but very pretty (and devastating) queen sacrifice 28.Ng4!

Taking the queen allows mate in one with 29.Nh6#, of course, but the real problem was that Rxf5! (with the same idea) is now threatened, and Black is forced into catastrophically weakening his king’s position. The multiple threats after 31.Qh6, particularly the obvious 32.Bxg7, forced Black to return the extra piece, but even so he was unable to defend against the rampant white pieces and had to resign a few moves later. An excellent win for Fabiano!

Shankland can still look back to his successful performance in the World Cup, and one key game there was his win against Peter Svidler, after the latter made a serious error in an otherwise fully playable position. Peter’s game against MVL followed a remarkably similar course, on which it set out already on move 3, when MVL played the audacious 3.h4.

Here, as there — and as in his recent Grünfeld Chessable course — Peter went for a King’s Indian setup, but this time play quickly went along Benko Gambit lines, where the move h4 could be argued to be somewhat irrelevant. 

Maxime took his time, trying to maintain some pressure and hoping that a well-timed h5-h6 push would give him some chances, for example after the possible 19…Nxb5, though it seems Black would have equalised in that case. Instead, Peter opted for a forcing simplifying sequence, which culminated in 25.b4.

Black should be OK here with careful play, but the pawn on h6 is a nuisance and the danger of the white queen penetrating to h8 and winning the h7-pawn is lurking. The cool-headed solution would have been 25…Ke8, evacuating the danger zone, and after 26.bxc5 Qxc5 moves like 27.Bd2 (intending Qh8+) can be met by 27…f6, while more violent attempts to invade on h8 by giving up the bishop should allow Black to find at least a perpetual. 

Peter obviously understood all this, but a lapse of concentration led him to choose the unfortunate 25…Ne8??, whereupon he could no longer reply to 26.bxc5 with 26…Qxc5 in view of the simple 27.Bb4 (and Qh8+). The consequences were disastrous, with Black ending up in a form of zugzwang and having to throw in the towel.

One player certainly eager to make amends for an unsuccessful showing in Sochi last month is Leinier Dominguez, and his first round win must have come as an encouraging sign. Pitted with Black against the theoretical underdog of the event, the Polish-born Dariusz Swiercz (a former World Junior Champion), he initially played classically for equality with the solid Petroff. 

Judging by the clock readings, Swiercz likely mixed up his move order a bit (he probably intended the immediate 12.Bg5 Qa5 13.Nh4, as in a much-publicised loss of Fabiano Caruana against Anish Giri in the Bundesliga back in 2018) and quickly had to discard any ambitions for an opening advantage. His 17.Bh4 was inaccurate and gave Leinier something to work with, in the form of the doubled pawns on g2 and g3, and, as a consequence, an inviting outpost on g4 for his knight, from where it could create mating threats; this was further emphasised by 22…h5.

After some back-and-forth Dominguez chose to exchange down to a Q+B vs Q+N ending, where he could potentially create an outside passed pawn. Swiercz may have been discouraged by well-known historical endgames of this type, such as Eliskases-Flohr, Semmering 1937, but in hindsight it seems that playing as actively as possible, and of course avoiding an exchange of queens, would have given him decent chances to resist. 

Instead, he consistently avoided pushing his central passed pawn, allowing Dominguez to quickly create an outside passed pawn — crucially, with the precise 38…Qxb4!, keeping the pawn on the a-file (38…axb4 would have allowed his opponent to safely blockade it on b3).

In time pressure, Leinier missed a couple of opportunities involving exchanging the queens, or the powerful 44…h4!, but the defence was always going to be an impossible task for White, and indeed the Cuban-born grandmaster brought the point home eventually.

The remaining two games of the round both ended in a draw, but following very different scenarios. Richard Rapport surprised Jeffery Xiong with a rare line in the opening and consistently proceeded to dumb the game down to its inevitable conclusion, without any noteworthy moments — certainly not the type of game one would normally associate with these two swashbuckling players! In the confessional Jeffery described it as a lesson learned.

The game between Wesley So and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov also started quietly, with the Azeri trying to equalise in a popular Italian by dissolving the central tension, but unsuccessfully. Alexander Grischuk shared some Russian School of Chess knowledge while commentating on the action.

Wesley soon had a slight but stable and very evident structural advantage, as evidenced by a quick look at the position after 22.Rd1.

With White slowly turning the screws, Shakh made the understandable decision to ditch a pawn with 28…d4 in order to find some counterplay and hopefully complicate Wesley’s task. 

While this may not have been objectively correct, the decision was ultimately vindicated during the mutual time trouble phase, with certain inaccuracies creeping into Wesley’s play, until the last critical moment arrived on the fateful 40th move.

One could imagine Wesley being doubtful of his practical winning chances after 40.Nxc6 Rxc6 41.Rxa5 Nf4 42.Be4, as his king is caught in a dangerous mating net (even though the decisive 42…Rc2 is not currently possible) and it is not clear if he would be able to make any meaningful progress. 

Instead, the engine indicates the sequence 40.Rxf7 Nf4 41.Bh7+ Kh8 42.Re7 as best, but it is understandable why it wouldn’t appeal to a time-constrained Wesley, as his king is again caught in the same mating net and his pawns exposed on the third rank. The computer line continues with 42…Rc3 43.h4 Rax3 44.hxg5 hxg5 45.Nf7+! Kxh7 46.Nxg5+ Kg8 47.Kxf4, and at least now one can finally discern good winning chances for White; but the danger of a miscalculation having crept in here was arguably too big, and this option was also discarded.

What Wesley eventually chose was 40.Nxf7, but this allowed Mamedyarov to force a draw shortly afterwards.

Today’s second round’s pairings see the six US players pitted against each other, with the game between leaders Dominguez and Caruana appearing particularly attractive. The two grandmasters live in the same city and have reportedly worked together in the past, most notably for Caruana’s 2018 World Championship match, but even so their clashes are almost always hard-fought and entertaining, with neither player holding back.

Don’t miss the live commentary, featuring the one and only Alexander Grischuk, from 16:00 ET/22:00 CEST each day

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