It’s a bit of a writers’ crutch to take any winning streak by GM Fabiano Caruana and allude to his seven straight wins at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, but sometimes the man gives us no choice.
Caruana made history again today, this time at the 2018 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, where he became the first person to start any Grand Chess Tour rapid event 3-0 in the opening day of the rapid portion (hat tip: Isaac Steincamp on Twitter). The scoring system awards two points for a win, so the world championship challenger sits on six points, two more than both GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and GM Sergey Karjakin.
Not only did he win all of his games, you could make an argument for his trio all being “game of the round.” Caruana forces this writer’s hand again — they’ve all been included below.
While his countryman had a memorable day, the Grand Chess Tour leading GM Wesley So had a forgettable one. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
The day was also a chance for those mired in the Grand Chess Tour’s basement to flip the tables. In round one, exactly that happened, as three bottom-enders all won: GM Viswanathan Anand, GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and last-place Caruana. (Anand’s outlook: “I’m not thinking about the total because I’ve very far off the pace.”)
Anand got the reversals of fortune going first by sacrificing an exchange to rip open GM Hikaru Nakamura’s king. All he needed to do after that was provoke some weaknesses by first toggling some checks with his queen, then some diagonals with his bishop.
“I liked my position after 15. f3; I like the structure for White,” Anand said, even though he was expecting a Pirc, which Nakamura sometimes opens with against him.
GM Viswanathan Anand got off to a fast start today. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
He thought about going for 20. Bf4 Qd7 21. Rxf6! right away, but instead chose the more solid posting on e3. Then Nakamura lunged with 20…h5 and Anand didn’t have to be asked twice.
“I’d been dying to sac on f6 for a while already,” Anand said. “When he played …h5 it was too good to pass up.”
The GCT’s overall leader, GM Wesley So, had a tough day at the checkerboarded office. He dropped his two opening games, the first to Mamedyarov in a dismal effort.
You have to go back a long way to find a loss for So in rapid. And when your research ends, you’ll see Mamedyarov waiting there, too. The Azeri also beat him in the Paris event earlier this year and thus had accounted for So’s only two rapid losses on the 2018 GCT circuit up to that point.
Besides Vachier-Lagrave and Mamedyarov, who both played in Biel, most of the players have been on an extended break of more than a month. Nakamura said that can have negative effects.
“I think everyone’s just trying to find their way,” he said. “You can prepare all you want, but when you haven’t played, everything is just a little bit off.”
Defending Sinquefield Cup champ GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, right, currently holding down the fourth and final spot to London. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Speaking to Chess.com when the day concluded, Nakamura said returning to chess in a rapid format is especially tricky.
“It makes a big difference — the more time you have, the easier it is after a break,” he said. From his own experience, he explained that a 3.5-week or one month break is ideal for him in between events. Recharging without rusting.
“Any time I’ve had a break of six weeks or more, I haven’t played well when I’ve come back.”
Last year GM Levon Aronian won this event, but this year it will also serve as a tune-up to his re-entry to the Olympiad. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
The final winner of the day was the man of the day. Caruana rebuffed a queen sortie then launched the house at GM Alexander Grischuk’s king. A sacrifice on h3 then ripped the doors off.
Analysis by WGM Tatev Abrahamyan:
“This is ‘Murder She Wrote’ on the chessboard,” was GM Maurice Ashley’s take on the finish.
Nakamura shook off his rust in the first hour by handing So his second straight loss, despite the latter claiming he didn’t play that poorly in the endgame until he faced time pressure.
GM Hikaru Nakamura had a chat with second NM Kris Littlejohn after his opening-round loss, then righted things in the next hour. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
The game had some similarities from the opening round for both players. So got into another 19th-century opening (first the Two Knights’ Defense, now the Scotch Game), while Nakamura again built up a queen-and-bishop battery leading to h2/h7. The quirk of having that same mechanism repeat in two games was nothing more than that — Nakamura said he didn’t even realize the similarity.
In fact both players had chances on the h-pawn early:
Meanwhile Caruana laid waste to GM Levon Aronian’s king as the Armenian’s pieces seemed to commit mutiny. They mostly were absent from their posts, especially the queen, as Caruana’s queen and knights hopped in with precision and beauty.
Karjakin may have topped Caruana in terms of number of offerings into the collection plate. He jettisoned both rooks with 22. Qa1 and caused GM Leinier Dominguez to burn much of his remaining time before replying with the feeble 22…f6.
That pawn was like a s’more to a campfire and melted after the Russian built up five(!) pieces on it. When it cleared out of the way, Karjakin charred the black king.
The heroic save of the round came by Grischuk and cost Mamedyarov a 2-0 start. Up an exchange and coasting to victory, Mamedyarov then faced a crises when Grischuk played a seemingly-desperate double-pawn sacrifice just to shut down a diagonal.
GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov wasn’t too pleased after he couldn’t keep pace with Caruana. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Grischuk had only 13 seconds left when he conjured the idea, but it obfuscated the win just enough and the game ended in a perpetual.
With Vachier-Lagrave beating Anand, only this Houdini act prevented the round from producing five winners from the five games.
The blistering pace came almost to a stop right away. But even in a pitch-drop test, excitement eventually comes.
With four of the five games ending drawn after varying degrees of nothingness, can you guess which player continued to excite? Even amateur mathematicians can tell by the lede it had to be Caruana. It might also not surprise that his opponent was then second-place Mamadyarov.
Caruana had already won twice as Black, but this time got into a spot of trouble as White. The 21…Nxb4 piece sacrifice is classic Mamedyarov, and produced a game that left fun analysis all the way even to the final moves.
Caruana’s take on the final game to finish: “This last game was especially tough. I wasn’t sure if I was better or worse or losing.” | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Once his offsides bishop on a2 recovered and the dangerous d-pawn was vacuumed, all seemed easy enough for Caruana, who said he planned to zugzwang Black with his extra piece in the ending. But then it turned into a tense pawn race, but with all lines leading to a win by a tempo.
Chess.com will have GM Robert Hess do a full treatment of this Game of the Day, but for now, we will satiate you with some fun ending tricks that Caruana showed off:
Chess.com also caught up with the day one leader and asked about being aggressive in rapid chess games, if he will upgrade his computer before the world championship, and other subjects:
Watch Fabiano Caruana On A Record Start In The Saint Louis Rapid from Chess on www.twitch.tv
Pairings for day two:
All graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.
The Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz is a five-day event from August 11-15. The first three days are a rapid round robin and the final two days are a blitz double round robin. The games begin at 1pm Central U.S. time daily (8pm Central Europe).