Sinquefield Cup 2: Wesley So joins the leaders

Wesley So joined the lead of the Sinquefield Cup by inflicting a second defeat in two games on Dariusz Swiercz. It was the only decisive game of the second round, but there was no lack of fighting spirit or creativity in most of the other games, where both Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Sam Shankland could lament some missed opportunities.

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.

The Sinquefield Cup is the last event in this year’s Grand Chess Tour, which means the players are not only fighting for a share of the $325,000 prize fund for the event, but also an additional $175,000 bonus to be distributed among the top three in the GCT overall standings — and of course the prestige bestowed by being the overall winner. One of the main contenders, Wesley So, seemed to have it all figured out (Maurice Ashley dubbed it “the worst calculation ever”).

Winning games may not have explicitly figured in Wesley’s GCT domination plan, but it clearly was in the back of his mind, as evidenced by his very first words in his post-game interview (“Finally”!). Playing Black against Dariusz Swiercz, a newcomer in events of this level and a last-minute addition to the tournament, he followed the same strategy as Leinier Dominguez did the previous day against the same opponent: play normal, solid chess and look for chances later. 

This time it was the good old Berlin Ruy Lopez, and Swiercz must of course be commended for not trying to end the game in exactly 14 moves as has been the trend for some time now, instead going for a head-on clash in the fabled Berlin Endgame. Alexander Grischuk, one of its most ardent advocates at the top level, essentially summed up this opening in a few carefully articulated words.

After hoovering most of the pieces off the board with a long series of known theoretical moves, executed by both players in only a few minutes, Wesley decided to deviate from earlier games of his with 19…Rad8, and after 20.f4 Ke7 the first critical moment of the game arose.

Swiercz took 46 minutes(!) over his next move, the natural exchange on e6, and while the move itself was perfectly fine, this excessive expenditure of time seemed to signal a certain lack of confidence or form, to which Wesley quickly latched on. Some moves and another long think by Swiercz later, an opportunity to curtail the game arose for White, but it wasn’t obvious at all.

By playing 28.Rf6! Rhh2 29.Ref4 Dariusz could have ensured perpetual check against any of Wesley’s possible tries to play for more, and this would have gotten him on the scoreboard and provided a boost of confidence for the rest of the event. 

Instead, he opted for the natural-looking 28.Rf2, which simplified down to a single-rook ending where White was facing real practical problems (and Wesley could have gotten a slightly improved version of the endgame with the clever 28…Rh1+ 29.Kg2 Rh2+, whereupon the white king would have ended up on g3 instead of f3). 

The endgame was still within drawing bounds, but the defence was neither easy nor obvious. Wesley made the most of his chances, finding the tricky 35…a6!, and Swiercz was called upon to make a crucial decision in serious time trouble on move 37.

The only way to draw here was to bite the bullet and play 37.Rxc6 bxc6 38.Ke4! (38.Kf4 c5 is just lost, and the quick run of the white king to the queenside is the reason why 28…Rh1+ would have been more precise) 38…Kg5 39.a4 a5 40.Kd4 Kxg4 41.Kc5 Kf5 42.Kb6! Kxe5 43.Kxa5, leading to a typical queen ending that should be drawn with correct play. 

But such a committal decision was impossible to fathom with certainty in the very short amount of time available, and Dariusz preferred to give up a pawn with 37.Ra5? and assess the damage later. However, once the time control was passed, it turned out that the position was hopeless for White; one further nice trick by Wesley, 41…b5! and 42…Rc4, forced an easily winning pawn ending.

In the meantime, while Dariusz was thinking and Wesley had plenty of time to follow the other games, the most crucial element of his GCT plan, total domination of the field by Fabiano Caruana, was in serious doubt. We wrote yesterday that his clashes with his (sometimes) second Leinier Dominguez tend to be hard-fought and creative affairs, and this one fit the bill perfectly. Similarly to the So-Mamedyarov game the day before, Fabi also sought to resolve the central tension in an Italian with the …d5 break (and subsequently giving up a pawn) instead of patiently manoeuvring, and again this wasn’t enough for equality. 

Leinier’s forceful play initially seemed excessively risky, with all of Fabi’s pieces menacingly directed towards the white king.

Leinier Dominguez may not be as much of a household name as other top players, but there is no mistaking just how strong he is. In this position (or, more likely, on the way to it) he came up with the seemingly illogical but objectively strong and engine-approved plan of 24.a6! Ba8 25.Ba5!, which clearly impressed Peter Svidler.

However, the position remained excessively complicated and treacherous to navigate, particularly after Fabi’s excellent 26…Qd7!, clearly signalling the forthcoming inclusion of the queen to the attack.

Leinier spent quite some time on his next few moves but failed to find an effective way to diffuse Black’s pressure, eventually resorting to exchanging some pieces at the cost of his extra pawn and his advantage. The resulting endgame was clearly balanced and Fabi had no problems safely steering the game to a draw.

The other Italian Game of the round, the clash between Peter Svidler and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, was a much less structured affair. For starters, Peter’s opening play appeared clearly unsatisfactory.

Peter fully realised this, and, after a 21-minute think, attempted to change the course of the game with the creative 10.Ba3; the ensuing forcing sequence, however, led to an unpleasant endgame.

Black may soon lose his extra pawn, but his queenside majority looks extremely threatening, and Peter felt as good as lost here. One nice idea he pointed out in his post-game interview was 21…a5!, intending 22…a4 to ensure stability for the knight on b5 that holds Black’s position together, and if 22.a4 Nc3 23.Rxc7 Nxa4 24.Nb3 b6 Black has a dangerous passed pawn on the a-file that will be very hard to contain.

This would apparently have been the most troublesome approach for White, as the more direct option Shakh went for in the game brought about a rook ending — and everyone knows what they say about rook endings (‘they are all drawn’)! 

Indeed, after a flurry of activity and both sides’ rooks running rampant among the opponent’s pawns, all winning chances were gone and a draw was agreed.

The round’s only relatively calm draw occurred in the game between Richard Rapport and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Both players indulged in some restrained manoeuvring and careful jabs at the opponent’s position, but the game never lit up. Once the centre was blocked and all the pieces were in optimal positions, it became clear that progress was hardly likely for either side, and the players abandoned the game.

With all other games completed, Sam Shankland and Jeffery Xiong were left alone in the playing hall, with Sam trying to convert an extra pawn, the only remnant of what had earlier been a quite serious advantage. The erudite Shankland was, as usual, very up-to-date with the modern trends in the opening, first with 7.f3

…and then by opting for long castling in an otherwise typical Maroczy Bind position — a distinctly modern approach that appears quite effective.

As often happens in such complicated positions with castling on opposite sides, most decisions are not trivial at all. For example, Sam could have played 14.Ndb5 a3 15.b3, which seems like a good way to freeze Black’s queenside counterplay and is a common response to …a5 ideas; and later, on move 19, he could have skipped the exchange on g6 in favour of keeping the option of h5-h6 in hand: in a line like 19.Kb1 bxc4 20.Bxc4 Bb7 (similarly to the game), 21.h6 Bh8 22.g5 Nd7 23.Bxh8 Kxh8 24.Nd5! Qxd2 25.Rxd2 the benefits of having the pawn on h6 and the black king restricted would be evident in the potential endgame, and the game would be one-way traffic.

It is likely that Sam felt he might be selling himself too cheaply by eschewing a direct attack on the king, but eventually changed his mind, as evidenced by his 28-minute think on move 22 to decide, after all, on exactly this type of endgame. The game’s version was, however, quite fine for Black, had he played the strong 28…Rc5!, emphasising the inability of the white bishop to control dark squares — a common theme in this opening. Xiong must have missed that his chosen 28…Ra8 could be met by the strong 29.b4!.

It now became apparent that White would soon obtain two passed pawns on the queenside, and Black had to react quickly; this he did, immediately activating and centralising his king, and craftily using his knight for counterplay. Things became extremely unclear, especially considering the time shortage before move 40, and it seems Sam missed his last chance on move 39.

Here, instead of the natural 39.Kxa3, White could have posed more problems with 39.Ka5, focussing on his strongest asset, the passed pawn on b5. But the risks of playing in this way with hardly any time to properly evaluate the consequences were apparent; for example, …d5 at some point would block the defence of the a2-pawn by the bishop and, with such an active black king in the mix, one could very easily imagine a scenario where White would even lose the game. The computer seems untroubled by such ‘trivialities’, but after a sequence like 39…g5 40.b6 Rc5+ 41.Ka6 Nb4+ 42.Kb7 d5 it is not at all clear that White is actually making progress or just setting himself on a path to self-destruction.

So, after all, Sam justifiably opted for more clarity, but this also made Jeffery’s task easier. Sticking to active defence, and with his knight displaying remarkable agility, he fended off all of Sam’s efforts and finally reached the safe haven of the draw.

Dariusz Swiercz has had an unfortunate start to the event, and to add insult to injury, in the third round he faces the toughest task of all: Black against Fabiano Caruana. The three main contenders for the overall Grand Chess Tour prizes (So, Mamedyarov, Vachier-Lagrave) all play with White and could look to improve their chances.

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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