Sinquefield Cup 3-4: Caruana, So & Dominguez lead

An avalanche of white wins in Rounds 3 and 4 of the 2021 Sinquefield Cup meant that already, before the half-way mark, only three players are still undefeated, the three leaders — Leinier Dominguez, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So. At the other end of the table, Darius Swiercz got on the scoreboard with his first win, leaving Peter Svidler as the tail-ender.

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

And here’s the Round 4 live commentary from Alexander Grischuk, Simon Williams and Andras Toth.

The third round saw the overall Grand Chess Tour frontrunners all play with White, and this seemed to provide strong motivation to try and pull ahead. One way or another, all of them managed — or all of them failed! While Jeffery Xiong and Leinier Dominguez were playing out a correct but quiet and forgettable draw, white players won one game after another, and in very different styles. 

First up was Wesley So, the GCT overall leader, who notched up one of his characteristic smooth victories at the expense of Peter Svidler. It seems that, in a higher sense, the main culprit was Peter’s opening play from early on.

The problem was that Black, having missed the chance for the freeing …d5 break, was quickly reduced to passivity, and with no clear plan. Peter was burning time trying to find some play, but it didn’t work out, and when the inevitable b2-b4 came, Black was faced with an unpleasant decision.

Wesley thought that Peter, surely intending …b5 (to rid himself of the weak queenside pawn) from afar while heading for this position, had missed that after 16…b5 White can play 17.Ned5! and the tactics prevent Black from ever taking …bxc4, which buys White enough time to pile up on the hapless pawn on b5. 

The same recipe works fine for White one move later as well (after 16…Bxg2 17.Kxg2 in the game). This may still have been preferable to Peter’s less resolute choice though, since Wesley cruised to victory by invading on all the weakened squares with his pieces. Wesley summed up the end of the game well.

Next up was Fabiano Caruana, playing against the newcomer Dariusz Swiercz and hoping to inflict a third loss in as many games upon him. White had a pleasant position from the opening, and one that was easier for him to play, as evidenced by one important moment that saw Fabiano change gears.

In his post-game interview Fabi was amused by the engine’s top choice, the weird-looking 21…Bb2; but upon reflection, the idea of this move becomes apparent: to break with …d5 without allowing e4-e5 with tempo gain on the bishop, and also keeping the bishop on the long diagonal. 

Of course, the truly difficult part is not to understand such a move, but to come up with it in the first place! Dariusz instead sidelined his knight with 21…Nb6 (again preparing …d5), whereupon Fabi suddenly commenced an all-out pawn push on the queenside with 22.g4 d5 23.g3 Be7 24.f5. White’s attack looked menacing and induced further errors from Swiercz, with the game culminating in Fabi’s central pawns reaching the touchdown line.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave must have been quite surprised by Sam Shankland’s unusual aggressive play in the opening. While one does occasionally see Black pushing his kingside pawns in the otherwise tame Italian, combining this with long castling is not exactly an everyday occurrence. 

Maxime was not fazed and set his sights on a slow but steady queenside attack.

White wants to open lines with b2-b4 and c4-c5, and Black should probably have taken prophylactic measures against this plan by playing 18…c6, not letting White proceed with his attack unencumbered. Sam opted for a different and more violent strategy, a race of attacks that reached boiling point after 22…g4.

Maxime said, in his post-game interview, that he was considering 23.c5!? here, but eventually decided to play it safe with the exchanging operation 23.Nxe5 Qxb5 24.axb5 Rxf2 25.Kxf2 dxe5, transposing to a balanced endgame but where White is the only side with practical winning chances, and some accuracy is demanded from Black. Despite having no serious time shortage, Sam may have taken a few decisions a bit too nonchalantly, and he essentially lost the game in two moves.

The most precise here was 30…Kd6 31.Ne4+ Ke7, but Sam’s 30…Nd6 did not spoil much; instead, it was his unfortunate decision to allow a transposition to a pawn ending after 31.Ne4 Ke7? that was the culprit (31…Ne8 was a must). 

As it turned out, White’s c4-c5 breakthrough (after due preparation and combined with the penetration of the white king) was extremely powerful, resulting in an easily won queen ending — Sam resigned shortly after the time control, as MVL’s king was about to become polygamous.

While the third round was certainly not short of excitement, the game between Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Richard Rapport overshadowed the rest by its sheer calculation complexity. Shakh was surprised by a rare line in the opening and opted for a less principled approach, but felt very optimistic after his 22nd move.

After a 22-minute think Richard found the strong 22…Kg7! 23.Qg4+ Kf8 24.Qh4 Ke7, overlooked by his opponent, and soon it was White’s king that seemed to be in greater danger. 

The position remained dynamically balanced, with Rapport rejecting the spectacular sacrifice 31…Rxh2 (to which Shakh had seen the only defence, 32.Qa3+ Ke8 33.Nd4!!, with dynamic equality) but still being the side trying to win the game, until both opponents ended up in huge time pressure and a reciprocation of errors ensued.

Here Black played 39…Rgg8?, which simply looks wrong, and could have been punished by the obvious 40.Rc5, assuming full control of the position. Instead, 39…Qd8! would have posed White some tricky questions, with the engines proposing 40.Re4! as White’s best option. 

With very little time on the clock, Mamedyarov decided to cut out all sacrifices by blocking the long diagonal with 40.f3?, but this weakens the g3-pawn and would have given Black strong counterplay with 40…f4. But Richard, down to his last seconds, played the extremely risky 40…f6??, obviously hoping to crash through on g3…

There were two big problems with this move. Firstly, it was the 40th; the players got plenty of extra time on the clock, and Shakh could now calm down and calculate properly. Secondly, White had a nice but none too difficult defence against Black’s threats in 41.Rxe6 Rxg3+ 42.Kf1!, and after the subsequent 42…Rxh2 43.Qxf6+ Qf7 44.Qe5 Black was completely lost. Some pitfalls remained to be avoided, but Mamedyarov never flinched. Visibly happy, he elaborated on the gory details shortly afterwards.

Remarkably, this was Rapport’s first loss in a classical game for almost two years!

The devastation of the black pieces continued in round 4, and this time it seemed that it no longer mattered who was in form or high on confidence — it was only about the colour! There was again only one draw, but this time it was quite hard-fought and of great competitive significance, as the two leaders, Caruana and So, were facing each other. 

Fabiano came to the game in a fighting mood, avoiding heavily analysed opening lines in favour of a complex English system that neither player seemed to know in great detail. An early inaccuracy by Wesley gave Fabi the chance for 13.e5 (which he decided against), but after that fleeting moment Black did a good job harassing White’s pieces and not allowing him to coordinate them properly. Alexander Grischuk had an explanation.

But the tide seemed to be shifting Fabi’s way by the time he finally did manage to get his pawn to e5 after all.

Wesley opted for 25…Nd5 here, allowing 26.Bxd5 exd5 27.Nd4 and submitting himself to a long defensive effort in the resulting position. 

Such tasks can be very unpleasant during a game, often more so in the psychological sense than the reality on the chessboard, but Wesley has time and again proven his defensive skills, and this game was no exception. Fabi was perhaps too impulsive when he opted for 32.b4, instead of slowly consolidating his positional advantage, and while he kept pushing till the end, Wesley always had sufficient counterplay, not least thanks to the outpost on c4 that was gifted to him by White’s 32nd move, and eventually managed to draw the game.

This draw between the leaders allowed Leinier Dominguez to catch up with them on 3 out of 4, courtesy of a very convincing win against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s Najdorf. 

Leinier came extremely well-prepared against the “quite risky” line chosen by Maxime, and more or less blitzed out all his moves up to 23.Bc2, including the crucial detail of 22.Qe4! (instead of the immediate 22.Bc2 Qc6).

The engines feel that only the awkward-looking 23…Qe8 holds in this position, though it all looks highly unpleasant. MVL played the more obvious 23…Qd7, whereupon White furthered his attack with 24.h5. The critical position arose slightly later.

Leinier sank into prolonged thought here (23 minutes!), initially wanting to triple his major pieces on the h-file with 28.Rh2 but not being completely satisfied with this move; until he noticed that 28.Rd2!, with the same idea, was much stronger. It was 23 minutes well spent, because this excellent move both strengthened his attack and prevented any serious counterplay, and Leinier had no problems crashing through a few moves later. 

After the game he nicely explained all the finer points.

Sam Shankland had an excellent World Cup last month, but his results in Saint Louis in August have been somewhat lacking. He made a first step towards remedying this with a nice win over Mamedyarov, although the first half of the game gave no real cause for optimism. Shakh caught Sam by surprise with the theoretically inferior 7…Qd8 in a topical Berlin line, against which Sam assumed that his 8.Bg5 was the perceived issue; but after 8…h6 9.Bh4 g5 10.Bg3 e4! he had to change his mind and switch to playing for equality. 

He did a pretty decent job at damage limitation, though it can be argued that Mamedyarov missed a couple of opportunities to pose more problems. It was probably this prolonged feeling of being on top that lulled Shakh into a false sense of security, ‘forgetting’ about his damaged pawn structure on the queenside and the strategic implications of this. A few nonchalant moves allowed Sam to start creating threats, and he masterfully exploited the negative aspects of Black’s position all the way into the endgame.

Dariusz Swiercz is playing his first ever top-level tournament, and he only found out a day or two before the start — hardly ideal circumstances for someone to prepare properly, or even to mentally adjust to the task ahead. 

This surely played a big part in his unsuccessful start to the event, with three losses, two of them in his opening games with the white pieces. Now playing White against Jeffery Xiong in round 4, a lot of sympathy and support was there for the former World Junior Champion to get off the mark. In fact, Alexander Grischuk turned out to have been in a similar situation in the past, and was also the recipient of such support, though for entirely different reasons.

The game was another Najdorf, with Xiong choosing a system often seen in MVL’s practice. Jeffery’s 18…0-0-0?! was probably not well-suited to the position, not so much because of any immediate tactical retort (though 19.e5, considered and discarded by Swiercz, seemed promising) but mainly because of the general long-term weakness of the king on the queenside. This became especially apparent after Dariusz broke with 22.a4! (which would have been even stronger a move earlier).

White’s queenside attack soon became overwhelming, with the black king deprived of any pawn cover and seemingly at the mercy of the swarming white pieces, but while ‘everything’ seemed to win for White, actually pinpointing a clear-cut way to finish Black off was not that simple. Then fortunes changed.

White can win in various ways here, including Swiercz’s initial intention 32.Nxe6 and the quiet but killing 32.Ra5!, but Dariusz, perhaps confused by the multitude of options and the complex calculations, erred badly with 32.Nf3?, allowing 32…Rxf2!. Black could have gotten fully sufficient counterplay had he followed up, after 33.Qxf2, with the far-from-obvious 33…Kc7!, moving away from Rb3 ideas, thus freeing the Nc5, and intending to bring his rook over to the queenside, but such a move is very hard to spot. 

After the more obvious 33…Nfxe4 White again had the upper hand and, with a clear target in the black king and no tactical dangers impeding his efforts, he seemed to be driving the game to its conclusion. Xiong, to his credit, did manage to drum up some saving chances, and it almost paid off.

White played the unfortunate 48.Qe6+ here (the immediate 48.Rc2 was the move), and after 48…Ka5 49.Rc2 Black could have now played 49…Bd4! without allowing a queen exchange, posting his bishop on a tremendous central outpost from where it both protects Black’s pawns and increases the pressure on the white king. It seems that after this move White would have no way to make progress (…Qxf1+ followed by …cxb2 is threatened, and 50.b3 Qd3 is a draw), and would in fact need to give perpetual check himself. 

Despite a 5-minute think, Xiong didn’t appreciate the virtues of 49…Bd4 and opted for 49…Ba3 instead, after which 50.b3! solved all the problems and Swiercz was able to quickly bring the game to its conclusion. The sheer complexity of the entire game can be understood from the winner’s comments.

Coming back from a loss is always a tough ask, and conceivably even more so if the previous such occasion was a long long way back in time, as it was for Rapport, but playing with the white pieces in a tournament developing into a slugfest must have at least given him some hope. 

He went for a quiet, unassuming opening, in which both players had to make some unconventional decisions. Richard did manage to gain space in the centre, with hopes of a future kingside expansion, but Svidler held his own in the manoeuvring phase and had a good share of the chances, until White finally got his attack going with 23.g4.

Black should have probably left the kingside structure untouched, for example with a move like 23…c6, but instead went for 23…hxg4 24.hxg4 fxg4, looking for activity. This decision proved ill-fated, particularly after he followed up with 25.Qd1 g3, when White’s pieces suddenly jumped into action. After Richard got to push his f-pawn all the way to f6, and with so many pieces flowing into the attack, Black’s fate was sealed, though Richard did miss a cute tactical opportunity.

Here White simply recaptured on d4, but 32.fxg7 was fully possible, with the point that 32…Nxe5? runs into 33.Qxa6! bxa6 34.Nf6+ Kxg7 35.Nxe8+ and 36.Nxc7. Still, this didn’t change anything, and Peter resigned a few moves later. What is perhaps most amazing is Richard’s speed in noticing the tactic above, once he was told it was there.

The two players still without a win in the event, Svidler and Xiong, can comfort themselves in the thought that they both play White in Round 5; judging by the last two rounds, this is almost a guarantee for success!

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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