Matt & Patt columnist Grandmaster Jonathan Tisdall presents a detailed analysis of the recently concluded Sinquefield Cup, and previews the highly anticipated Carlsen-Caruana World Championship match in November.
by Jonathan Tisdall
I like an article to have an overarching theme or a hidden red thread, and when sitting down to report on the state of the elite after the St. Louis events, I couldn’t help feeling that this unifying element was communication. Not terribly clear communication.
Also, no matter what event we seem to follow, there is a massive chess elephant in every room, and that is the looming title match; it is hard not to try and interpret every little thing remotely connected to the London combatants as having some potential predictive power or subtle influence on their future.
St. Louis – London
To be honest, I can’t help seeing the end of the Grand Chess Tour in exactly this light, as one of the key moments to gather intelligence about the Carlsen-Caruana bout. And as we will soon see, this state of mind accounted for the first bit of troubled communication in St. Louis. But first a quick look recap of the climax of the GCT.
After winning in Paris, another convincing display in the Rapid & Blitz disciplines in the St. Louis event made Hikaru Nakamura the solid tour leader going in to the only classical tempo event of the year. With a ‘more serious’ time control and higher tour points and prize money, the Sinquefield Cup would have a weightier role in deciding another climactic chess event in London at the end of the year, the four-man Grand Chess Tour final.
This bit of geographical overlap with the world championship does more than make London the omphalos of the chess world in 2018, it creates potential conversational ambiguity…
Indeed, one of the first highlights of the Sinquefield Cup was an apparently spiky exchange between Carlsen and Caruana at the pre-event press conference, when Magnus fielded a question about how important the tournament was considering London later in the year.
— Olimpiu G. Urcan (@olimpiuurcan) August 18, 2018
The champ said that for Fabiano, winning in St. Louis was essential, but mumbled a bit about it not being a big deal for him. This session was punctuated by loud «OOooohs» from the crowd, who clearly felt that the local boy was being dissed by the Norwegian.
Is this a thing? Will need some Magnus heads to make London suitably picturesque .. https://t.co/bC8A0aAMYK
— Jonathan Tisdall (@GMjtis) August 26, 2018
Fabi was quick to step up and talk back about his ability to outpace the champ, while Mags just as quickly backed down, denying that he was trying to trash talk and acknowledging that he was well aware of his rival’s proven record when it came to finishing ahead. What the gathering seemed to immediately assume was that Carlsen’s answer was match-focused – when in fact, he had interpreted the question as being London – GCT final – oriented.
Magnus thought he was making the safe and clear observation that Caruana needed a convincing victory in St. Louis to secure a berth in the GCT final, it was just the general match fixation – and from the woo-ing crowd, a thirst for fighting talk – that made the answer seem belligerent.
Also, this was very civilized even if judged by normal trash talk conventions – neither of the players strayed from highly factual comments, and it was mostly the crowd that added the heat. There would be further opportunities to discuss mind games; next time Magnus would be even harder to interpret despite avoiding verbal ambiguity altogether…
Even though the event would quickly conform to the normal pattern of decisive games being hard to find at this stratospheric level, round one defied expectations by producing two fine technical wins, Aronian surprising with 1.e4 and a successful grind of Karjakin’s Berlin Defence, and with Shakh relentlessly massaging So deep into the ground.
After this the tournament settled into the more common routine of split points and rare victories. Magnus joined the leaders by producing a marathon victory from a ‘dead’ drawn ending vs. previous title challenger Sergey Karjakin.
This is the kind of ending that Magnus always used to win, and the type Karjakin never used to lose. #SinquefieldCup
— Jonathan Tisdall (@GMjtis) August 20, 2018
The start of this event could hardly be more troubling for Sergey – when the Russian Minister of Defence is succumbing to micro-advantages, something is very seriously wrong.
Grischuk made it a leading quartet when he produced the only black win of the event, in yet another long grind, this time over Nakamura, and when Caruana beat Hikaru the day after in another sophisticated technical display, half of the field was in front with +1.
Caruana became the clear leader by slapping around a wobbly Karjakin in round 6, which set up the major dramatic moment of the event, the focal Carlsen-Caruana clash in round 7. Not only was the game obviously pivotal for the standings here, by now the American was close enough on the rating list that a win would end the Norwegian’s seven year reign at the top of the world rankings.
The game between Carlsen and Caruana attracted ESPN, HBO, Sports Illustrated and the legendary Harry Benson. In fact, there was so much media at the @STLChessClub that for the first 15 minutes of the game only media was allowed in the playing hall while the fans waited in line pic.twitter.com/RrMdqf3wKl
— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) August 26, 2018
And yes, everyone would be interpreting everything for possible impact on the title match. The first talking point:
The Petroff – means…
Not so much. Of course, it might mean a lot. From watching the game cam, I was a bit surprised to see that Magnus appeared to reveal a momentary grimace when his opponent slid his knight out to f6 on move two. But as this event should remind us, communication can be a tricky business, and interpreting a flicker of body language is even trickier. The basic problem is that while this is endless fascinating, when it comes to match preparation, one also has to presume that disinformation and double bluffing becomes standard operating procedure.
So, the Petroff here could mean the defence will not be a regular in London, but Caruana wants Magnus to think it is, or it could be that it will be a regular in London and … you get the picture. Personally, I think it will be a regular in London. It seems at least as reliable as the Berlin, and at least as hard to avoid. Can’t see it being ‘refuted’, and frustrating, unbreakable defences are dream match tools.
But, back to the Sinquefield, and the counter-argument, which is the worrying (for Caruana) ease with which Carlsen just seemed to plonk around and suddenly emerge with a comfortable advantage. Despite the exchange of queens, Magnus exploited a few inaccuracies and built up what appeared to be a huge plus, certainly far more than the tiny edges that usually satisfy him.
Both Carlsen and Caruana may easily find good grounds for self-criticism after this #SinquefieldCup game but the way Caruana was outplayed in his much-hyped Petroff should probably be more concerning than anything else. https://t.co/vSxiG6bYXR
— Olimpiu G. Urcan (@olimpiuurcan) August 26, 2018
And then he went to the confessional.
Dispensing with words, Magnus made the first silent in-game commentary from the booth, holding up his index finger to his lips in a gesture usually reserved for hateful crowds or decisive goals, and then left. Commentators and spectators went wild.
— US Chess (@USChess) August 25, 2018
That was so exciting! The chat was going crazy during that confessional
— Andy A (@pz8qbl) August 25, 2018
Unsurprisingly (?), this bit of provocation didn’t come off. Magnus burnt loads of time realizing his position wasn’t quite winning, and this frustration led to inaccuracies that meant his position wasn’t that much better. Ever calm, Caruana made the most of his defensive chances, and soon escaped completely.
Grischuk shares his thoughts on Carlsen’s visit to confession booth yesterday 😂 pic.twitter.com/IZByFm0zMn
— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) August 26, 2018
Allow me to overthink this
I’m on record as having a soft spot for emotional or outspoken sportsfolk, and can’t help enjoying the adrenaline rush that even extends to the onlookers when a chess player acts like a more controversial type of mainstream sportsman. And the more I think about the hush – and the extremely widespread reaction that it is the sort of thing that should only be done after delivering the goods, the more complicated a matter I think it is.
Anand on Carlsen's shushing confession: "I thought it was insanely witty, very funny! Having said that, these things work better if you convert afterwards" #SinquefieldCup
— chess24.com (@chess24com) August 26, 2018
If Carlsen had done the 'hush' when Caruana was about to resign, that would be a very different thing. Doing it when you are risking embarrassment if you don't deliver speaks volumes about brinksmanship and self-pressure. I'm waiting for the next level, a chess Zlatan…
— Jonathan Tisdall (@GMjtis) August 25, 2018
How is waiting until after success a ‘better hush’? Surely, if all the fuss is about decorum, it is ruder then, when there is no risk still attached? Why isn’t a hush after scoring, or winning, the equivalent of wiggling your fingers from behind your ears at your opponent? When footballers shush after scoring goals, or footballers spike the ball after scoring touchdowns, there is still the risk of losing the game … though the comparison gets blurry with individuals reacting when playing team sports.
In the genteel and decorous chess world, some sort of showy celebration after a game would be more shocking to me – winning is enough. A display of joy, OK, but nothing targeted. Then again, was that hush for Caruana? Surely it was more for the ‘haters’, and those who are growing increasingly hopeful the champ will be dethroned?
The classical contrast is between chess and boxing, and even though we are in the increasingly prickly age of social media, its a pretty mild contrast to pugilistic trash talking. And even in boxing, when it’s over, the norm is mutual respect.
My takeaway from ‘hushgate’ is that it springs, consciously or not, from the extreme standards that extreme champions set for themselves. They are forged from incredible, constant, self-imposed pressure and risking a bit of face is just part of it. They also have to be able to deal with the consequences.
Carlsen on his visit to the confessional: "That kind of backfired, eh? At that point I was pretty sure I was winning. I just wanted to have some fun. But it didn't work out." #SinquefieldCup https://t.co/pJ5uVvedBj
— Tarjei J. Svensen (@TarjeiJS) August 25, 2018
A tricky knot
‘Controversial’ seemed to be the most popular term used for the lack of a St. Louis title tie-break. Maybe it is because my mind seems to automatically wander down side streets, but I found this decision on the unsurprising-sensible scale. For one thing, I don’t always see the premium on the tiebreak spectacle when it is not a simple affair between two players. In this case, the big prizes like money and tour points are not at stake, so presumably this last exertion is for pride and possibly a massive trophy that won’t fit in your luggage.
But in St. Louis there was one additional factor that made it actually impossible to run a fully equitable tie-break; Caruana had to play another one, which was arguably far more important, to decide whether he or Wesley So would take the final GCT berth in the London tour final. No matter which order these tiebreak events would be played, Fabiano would be handicapped in the other – so why not just celebrate all three?* *(I have to admit that while I am quite happy for a title to be split without combat in this case, if a fourth player had joined the logjam, I would feel the event must have detailed play-off regulations in place. To me a four-way tie feels like the event hasn’t ended…)
If I had to choose a non-combative factor for splitting the deadlock at this year’s Sinquefield Cup, I must confess I lean towards the classical tiebreak method of using opponents’ scores; Carlsen and Caruana had identical results*, but Levon beat Grischuk instead of Nakamura, and Grischuk had been fighting for first, not having a nightmare event. *Well, near-identical results.
Caruana: "We had a pretty much identical result in terms of who we beat and who we drew…"
Carlsen: "I don't mean to sound petty – actually I kind of do – but I had an extra black game"#SinquefieldCup #GrandChessTour #c24live
— chess24.com (@chess24com) August 29, 2018
Weighting the wins
For those who prefer to argue about intangibles, there is plenty of food for debate in a closer look at the decisive games by the winners, and how they might appeal to the eyes of the beholder.
Magnus did what he used to do best, use absolutely every atom of possibility in every position, and just pose too many problems. While it was encouraging that this power has returned, he will almost certainly need to produce a little bit more in terms of problems vs. Caruana. One cannot count on trouble at the molecular level being enough to wear down the challenger.
Caruana showed the relaxed, universal style that has characterized his triumphant 2018. I was particularly impressed by his win over Nakamura, which was a blend of subtle creativity and pragmatism.
The remarkable opening novelty (14.0-0-0!?) seems to me to be based on White banking on the ability to use piece activity to guarantee a trade of queens, when he will have the minor advantage of a more active king. Despite appearances, his pawn structure is also quite dynamic, and the biggest long-term worry in the position is arguably the black pawn on c4. None of this amounts to much, but it does provide concrete and rather unexpected practical chances, which are brilliantly exploited in the game.
Never mind tiebreak debates, anyone with a romantic streak surely felt that good old Levon Aronian had a strong claim to be the moral winner of the event. His last round display of aggression, bravado and practical psychology was by far and away the most spectacular game of the event, and we all miss more of ‘this sort of thing’ at this level… His combination may not be ‘objectively winning’ but it is unsettling, very dangerous and multiplies the time pressure challenge that Grischuk is always facing.
Nerves of titanium
In the eventual tiebreak that did occur, Fabiano continued his run of success by eliminating compatriot Wesley So 1.5-0.5 in a pair of rapid games. Once again Caruana displayed remarkable calm, particularly in the decisive game, where he rationed his time to reason out a tremendous finesse and then stayed cool and determined throughout prolonged time pressure to outplay So and sink the full point. Caruana thus earns an extended stay in London at the end of the year, and will contest the Grand Chess Tour final after the title match vs. Carlsen.
Roll over Botvinnik
With the title match just over two months away, both players continue their hectic playing schedules, and will squeeze another event into their preparations.
Caruana withdrew from Isle of Man, so 9 games less, but regardless his activity in a WC year is remarkable.
— Tarjei J. Svensen (@TarjeiJS) August 29, 2018
The immortal Botvinnik, who favored work over practice and was rumored to view even his title matches as training for the serious business of regaining his title in the rematch, is surely spinning in his grave at the modern pace of play. Caruana heads for the Batumi Olympiad, Carlsen to the European Club Cup.
A tale of two teams
Why did Carlsen prefer the latter, you may ask? I might be expected to know, but I don’t, the Norwegian federation did not ask for my services this Olympiad. The usual explanation is that Magnus selects what suits his needs best.
Fabiano has said that the timing of the Olympiad is perfect – not too close nor too early for providing optimum training for the match. I think the simple explanation for Magnus’ decision is that he finds the timing and likely opposition at the Euro Club the better fit for him and his team’s plans – and by team, I mean world championship squad, rather than Norwegian club Vålerenga.
These last pre-match events will doubtless be scrutinized for final clues for title bout divination, and well they should be. Nevertheless, I think the focus for pundits should increasingly shift to off-the-board factors, like team assistants and player psychology. Chess can only pretend to be a team sport, and nothing can properly prepare someone for a title match, except a title match.
There has been something incredibly relaxed about Caruana’s form this year, post-Tata. He doesn’t look to feel compelled to jump through hoops to win games, he just plays calmly and pockets a high percentage of wins. Carlsen’s play feels more stressful in 2018. Of course, that might just be describing what good and sub-par form look like…
In a very direct post-Sinquefield interview with chess.com Caruana made it clear that he understands how valuable match experience is, and that he has none. Just knowing that he must learn on the fly is a key part of his preparation. Karjakin managed this aspect of the bout very well, and this was greatly underestimated at the time…
.@vishy64theking shares his thoughts on the WCh match "Few months ago I said Magnus but Fabi is dangerous. Now I don't see a clear favorite. Based on Magnus' dominance you're still tempted to say him, but right now it's not there…I actually think it's a very open match"
— Grand Chess Tour (@GrandChessTour) August 26, 2018
The distant future…
I hope this match lives up to its promise – it certainly feels like it is going to be a thriller, even a classic. I have to confess that I find it very hard to visualize someone displacing Carlsen for very long – if at all – in the fairly near future. The current rankings reflect a Magnus in an ongoing lull that happens to be very near the absolute highs of a few others. Unless he has journeyed over the hill at a remarkably early age, I picture a Carlsen dethroned as perhaps the most likely thing to produce the long-awaited Maximum Carlsen. In the meantime, he has shown every sign that he relishes the real threat that he acknowledges Caruana poses, and has been re-invigorated by Caruana’s rise. The first pertinent question is – where will that rise stop? Maybe Fabiano will be the one rewriting the top of the scale.
My guess is that some kid, probably Indian, who can do 2900 is what will fit the bill when it comes to keeping Carlsen off the throne for good – Vishy’s ultimate revenge if it happens this way? I know that Magnus himself predicted India as the next global chess power, before the current wave of activity and talent emerged, and Anand’s influence on this wave is profound.
With this in mind, I have some suggested reading, about just one of the Indian prodigies. The little I knew about Nihal Sarin was enough to convince me he’s a very witty fellow, and the details in this story relate a childhood development that sounds astonishingly similar to a certain young Norwegian’s…
Nihal’s recent charity event also augurs well for the reputation of the next generation as well. But don’t relax yet, it might be tiny by comparison, but there’s a boom going on in the north too…