The Norwegian’s second place at the Sinquefield Cup, combined with failures from Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, was enough to keep him clear at the top Magnus Carlsen fought off two challenges to his world No1 ranking at last week’s Sinquefield Cup but gone are the halcyon years when the Norwegian, now 26, outclassed his rivals with rating leads of 50 points or more.
At one stage in the elite tournament in St Louis Carlsen’s edge had diminished to under 10 points, a slim margin which could have disappeared in a single game, but his second-place finish, coupled with failures by his US rivals Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, meant the world champion slightly increased his advantage over the player who is now No2.
That player is France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who like Carlsen was born in 1990, the vintage year for grandmasters. Vachier-Lagrave scored an unbeaten 6/9 and edged out Carlsen by half a point. Their individual game, level for a long time then briefly winning for Carlsen until he blundered it away, was in effect the tournament decider.
Vachier-Lagrave has a different style from Carlsen’s mastery of the gradual squeeze. The Parisian’s favourite opening is the combative Najdorf Sicilian 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6, which was a speciality of the legends Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov in their heydays. Vachier-Lagrave will take on the Najdorf with either colour, and won an impressive strategic game as White in the final round at St Louis where his knight dominated Black’s dark-squared bishop.
The elite grandmaster action now moves on to the 128-player World Cup knock-out, where games start at Tbilisi in Georgia on 3 September.
A loss to a much lower rated opponent in an early World Cup round would immediately endanger Carlsen’s rating. Could it happen? The seeding system puts No1 against No128 in round one, so the world champion meets the little-known Oluwafemi Balogun of Nigeria. Then it gets harder: Carlsen will probably face the Russian veteran Alexey Dreev, France’s Etienne Bacrot or China’s Bu Xiangzhi and seven-times Russian champion Peter Svidler before a likely quarter-final against Vachier-Lagrave, world No1 against world No2 on the live ratings.
Though Carlsen won quickly with the black pieces against the out-of-form US champion at St Louis, he had some anxious early moments due to his inaccurate 12…Nc5?! (Rb8!). The turning point was when 19 b3! would have been good for White instead of the miscalculation 19 Bf4? When Carlsen replied Rxb2! he already foresaw that the seemingly fearsome pin and double attack on his d7 knight by 23 Qxd6 failed to Qe2! which left So’s position disorganised. Black won a pawn by 27…Bxa2 and when a second pawn followed a few moves later So resigned rather than face a lost ending.
Wesley So v Magnus Carlsen
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 Nxd4 Bb4+ 5 c3 Be7 6 Nxc6 bxc6 7 Bd3 d6 8 O-O Nf6 9 Re1 O-O 10 Nd2 Re8 11 Nf3 Nd7 12 Bf4 Nc5?! 13 Bc2 Bg4 14 h3 Bh5 15 Be3 Nd7 16 Ba4 c5 17 g4 Bg6 18 e5 Rb8 19 Bf4? Rxb2! 20 exd6 Bxd6 21 Rxe8+ Qxe8 22 Bxd6 cxd6 23 Qxd6 Qe2! 24 Qg3 Nf8 25 Re1 Rb1 26 Rxb1 Bxb1 27 Bc6 Bxa2 28 Qd6 Qc4 29 Ne5 Qxc3 0-1 3508 1 g5! f5 (if fxg5 2 hxg5 and White advances his Q-side pawns to create a king entry at b5 or c5 ) 2 exf5 gxf5 3 h5! Kxd5 4 g6! hxg6 5 h6! and queens.