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Ample chess skill, low drama sometimes when the best play the best

August 28, 2018

These guys are good. Maybe too good.

The plague of draws that infected the 6th Sinquefield Cup that wraps up this week illustrates that paradox that pairing off the world’s greatest players doesn’t always produce the world’s most scintillating chess. The St. Louis field, with an average rating of 2788, boasted world champion Magnus Carlsen, top-rated American challenger GM Fabiano Caruana and eight more of the planet’s very best players.

But because of the skill level and the respect and fear each competitor has for his peers, the number of draws has been distressingly high, with just six decisive results in the first eight rounds of play. The opening repertoires are too solid. The endgame techniques are so high. Middlegame threats are anticipated and defused long before they even reach the board. There have been some intriguing struggles in St. Louis, but also at least three rounds where all five games were drawn.

The Carlsen-Caruana Round 7 match-up, highly anticipated ahead of their November world title match in London, is a case in point. The game’s drama proved a damp squib, as Carlsen’s one chance to make things interesting fell by the wayside. We pick up the key passage from today’s diagram, where Carlsen as White has built up a very promising attacking position, with Black’s queen rook worryingly far from the action.

There followed: 24. g5 Ne7 25. gxh6 Rxh6 26. f5 Rh7 (Rf6 27. Ng4 Rxf5 28. Nh6+ Kh7 29. Nxf5 Nxf5 30. Rg5, and White is better) 27. Ng4, and Carlsen admitted later he really was liking his chances about now. But the resourceful Caruana finds 27...Kh8! 28. f6 Ng8! 29. fxg7+ Rxg7 30. Ne3 c5 31. Bf4!? (better might be 31. Bd2, with the idea of c3-c4 and Bc3) Re8 32. Ne3 Rxg1+ 33. Rxg1 Re6, and the storm has passed. The game was drawn on Move 41.

The action got a little fiercer in Monday’s final Round 9, as Carlsen ground down U.S. GM Hikaru Nakamura and Armenian star Levon Aronian bested Russian GM Alexander Grischuk to land in a three-way tie for first with Caruana at 5-3.

Ironically, the action typically is more entertaining on the lower boards. Take, for instance, the Open Catalan battle between Russian GM Sergei Matsenko and U.S. FM Yoon-Young Kim at this month’s 48th Continental Open in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The storm clouds are already gathering for White’s king after 16. fxg3 Bc5 17. Kh1 Qd7, with Black’s two bishops and the open h-file ready for the final assault. Best now was 18. h4 Bd5 19. e4, hoping to hold on after 19...Bxc4 20. Qxc4 Nf2+ 21. Rxf2 Bxf2 22. Kg2.

Instead, Black exploits a plethora of pins after 18. Bd2? Bd5! 19. e4 Qf5!! 20. h4 (capturing either way is fatal: 20. exf5 Rxh2 mate or 20. exd5 Qxf3+ [Qxc2 is plenty good too, of course] 21. Rxf3 Rxh2 mate; on 20. Bf4, Black wins with 20...Bxe4 21. Qe2 g5 22. Ncd2 Rxh2+ 23. Qxh2 Nxh2 24. Kxh2 gxf4) Bxe4 21. Qd1 Rd8 22. Qe2 (Kg2 g5 23. b4 Ba7 24. Qe2 gxh4 25. gxh4 Rxh4) Rxh4+! (not hard to see, but a nice reward for Black’s aggressive play) 23. gxf4 Nf2+, and White resigned facing 24. Rxf2 (Kg1 Qg4+ 25. Kh2 Qh3+ 26. Kg1 Qg3 mate) Qh3+ 25. Kg1 Bxf3 26. Qxf3 Qxf3 27. Ne3 Bxe3 28. Bxe3 Qxe3 and wins.

Kim-Matsenko, 48th Continental Open, Sturbridge, Mass., August 2018

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 d5 4. Nf3 dxc4 5. Bg2 a6 6. O-O Nc6 7. e3 Rb8 8. Nfd2 e5 9. Bxc6+ bxc6 10. dxe5 Ng4 11. Nxc4 Be6 12. Nbd2 Bb4 13. Qc2 h5 14. b3 h4 15. Nf3 hxg3 16. fxg3 Bc5 17. Kh1 Qd7 18. Bd2 Bd5 19. e4 Qf5 20. h4 Bxe4 21. Qd1 Rd8 22. Qe2 Rxh4+ 23. gxh4 Nf2+ 24. Rxf2 Qh3+ 25. Kg1 Bxf3 26. Qxf3 Qxf3 27. Ne3 Bxe3 28. Bxe3 Qxe3 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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