BOOM! If the somewhat flaccid round seven at the 2022 Sinquefield Cup was a disappointment, then round eight delivered in a big way.
Tournament leader GM Wesley So was taken down in a dramatic game by GM Alireza Firouzja. As GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana also won, the situation ahead of the last round is as follows: Nepomniachtchi and Firouzja share first place with 4.5 points from seven games, while Caruana has the same score but from eight games and thus his tournament is over. Meanwhile, So is now all the way down in fourth place.
The ninth and last round starts Sunday, at 11:00 a.m. PT/20:00 CEST.
What a round! Your humble reporter had to do breathing exercises to get the heart rate under control and to make the fingers stop jittering and start typing.
In one game a quick repetition draw was possible, but White changed his mind, and the game carried on and ended up being the last to finish. In the others, both sides breathed fire from the outset, although admittedly, for a couple of the white players that fire was seemingly only candlelight that was mostly extinguished with moistened fingertips. But sometimes mostly extinguished embers reignite…
Having had a day off during round seven, So returned reinvigorated to battle for the tournament victory against Firouzja, who has been surging forward since his loss in round two. Ahead of this round, he was just a half point behind So, and having the white pieces in this crucial game might be the advantage he needed to bring him to the top of the leaderboard.
Thus, he determinedly switched from the English Opening, 1.c4, which has served him exceedingly well thus far in St. Louis, to 1.e4 which used to be his preferred starting move.
Somehow, it seemed that this development was not entirely unexpected for So, who was the better prepared of the two. In the post-game interview, it became clear that Firouzja’s 12.Bb2 was not an intentional novelty but rather the result of unfamiliarity with the position. Firouzja said he felt stupid after Black’s 14…Nh5 and White’s position certainly left a lot to be desired, even more so after So’s 15…Qf6!.
White’s position had deteriorated so much that the commentators were already assigning the victory to Black. After a few more moves, the engines entirely concurred, loading a “Black is winning” assessment on the computer screens across the world.
Sadly for So, and luckily for Firouzja, the former messed up the win, in the equivalent fashion of an executioner who swung the axe towards the convicted’s neck but missed so badly that the axe went past both neck and chopping block and ended up in the executioner’s own leg.
From having a won position, So went to a lost one within just a few moves, replicating the dubious feat of GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to a few rounds ago, and once Firouzja was better, he executed with flawless precision.
This loss could well end up costing So no less than $100,000, the prize for winning the Grand Chess Tour. By contrast, by winning this game, Firouzja put himself in a perfect spot to win both this tournament and possibly the overall Grand Chess Tour. If this game will not keep So sleepless Saturday night, nothing will.
Nepomniachtchi’s chances of winning the tournament massively improved after Carlsen’s early departure where his loss no longer counted toward the final standings. However, ever since, he had been able to play the kind of chess that won him the Candidates tournament and that he likes to play. Ending up in a series of prepared lines that made it impossible for him to do more than squeezing some altogether dry rocks did not allow him to display his abilities nor get closer to winning more games. However, against GM Levon Aronian this dry spell could come to an end.
On the board, Aronian played a new move, 12.Nbd2?! that completely miss fired, basically handing Black an advantage. The situation rapidly deteriorated from there, leaving White with a two-pawn deficit. Commentator GM Alejandro Ramirez jokingly said that Aronian probably was hoping to be three pawns down, so that he could resign without further ado.
But like in the Firouzja-So game, a decisive advantage turned out to be less than sufficient to automatically win the game. Sloppy play took the game from won for Black to slightly better for Black to equal to better for White! But toward the time control at move 40, Aronian played a couple of imprecise moves, crowned by a blunder on move 40. After that, there was no coming back, and the Russian grandmaster finally converted his two-pawn advantage.
Upon arriving at the Saint Louis Chess Club, the players were greeted by a welcome sight. A quartet of young women, The Hans Girls, had shown up to support GM Hans Niemann, who has faced an onslaught of negativity and accusations since his round-three victory against the world champion.
Whether it was the women or sleepless nights that jolted Hans out of his pre-existing frame of mind or if it was deliberate preparation (well, it was probably… okay certainly the latter…), we will leave it up to the reader’s imagination, but Hans did a reverse-Firouzja, swinging back from 1.e4 to 1.c4, the move that had served him so excellently in his second-round win against Mamedyarov.
Caruana seemed ready for the English and chose the once very fashionable 2…Bb4 and seemingly reached a playable position without too much trouble, although objectively speaking, White’s position was mildly preferable with more space. However, in the early middlegame, Niemann chose an aggressive but ultimately wrong plan which gave Black the upper hand. An additional mistake meant that Black won the exchange. After that, Caruana showed himself and the audience why he was once the second-best player on the planet: his technique was immaculate and patient, taking home the full point.
A brilliant effort by Caruana and another loss to Niemann, who has not won a game since taking down the champ. For those claiming that stress and lack of sleep do not affect you, here is a prime example of when a brilliant start led to a complete collapse on the shoulders of such factors.
In round seven, Mamedyarov took a half-point bye or the playing equivalent of that, choosing a line that leads to a drawn position right out of the opening.
Against GM Leinier Dominguez, he went for his trusty Open Ruy Lopez, a line he has played, it seems, a thousand times before, and frequently with good results. Unsurprisingly, Dominguez showed up well-prepared and played a novelty on move 18. The engines are not particularly impressed by the new move, but it gave Mamedyarov some new problems to solve. His first inclination was to offer a draw by repetition, which Dominguez led to repeat one time, but then carried on, pursuing an advantage.
The pursuit was rewarded and White got an advantage. But on move 26, after 26.Ne1?!, Dominguez let the advantage slide out of his hands, and for a while, it seemed like Black was over the worst. But then it was Mamedyarov’s turn to err and it happened more than a few times, ultimately leading to a clear/winning advantage for White.
Dominguez transformed the advantage into a much better queen ending where he had an extra pawn and a centralized queen; it seemed like a win was around the corner. But for the St. Louis residing grandmaster, nothing has come easy in this event, and this game was no exception. At first, the conversion was unsteady, allowing Mamedyarov some opportunities which were not taken, and then Dominguez thought and thought until he was running low on time.
They say it ain’t over till the fat lady sings, but either she never showed or wouldn’t stop singing, because the game went on and on. Eventually, however, White, in a winning position played the terrible 76.Qb7??, completely missing 76…Qe1!! after which White could no longer win.
A terrible conclusion for Dominguez who remains both winless and undefeated, but this game was eminently winnable but then wasn’t. Of the two players, I think we know, who will lie awake wondering why it slipped away.
Due to GM Magnus Carlsen‘s withdrawal, GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had a bye for the Saturday round.
All Games Day 8
Standings After Round 8
The 2022 Sinquefield Cup is the fifth and final leg of the 2022 Grand Chess Tour. The 10 players compete in an all-play-all round-robin for their share of the $319,000 prize fund.
Coverage of the 2022 Sinquefield Cup