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Sinquefield Cup: A tournament unlike any other

Sinquefield Cup, recap, Yasser, Seirawan, chess, tournament
Written by Yasser Seirawan

Dear Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center members,

What a pleasure to be back in Saint Louis and to once again be part of tournament chess history.  My goodness what an event the 2015 Sinquefield Cup turned out to be with thrills and spills galore.  Let us start with the lineup to understand why millions of chess fans across the world eagerly watched this amazing tournament.  This was the strongest ten player round robin event ever staged in the long history of chess.  Reflect on that statement for a moment.  It is easy to see why:  The field was led by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the world’s number one; Former World Champion Veselin Topalov, the world’s number two; American Champion Hikaru Nakamura, the world’s number three; Five-time World Champion Viswanathan Anand, the world’s number four; Fabiano Caruana, the world’s number five; Anish Giri, the world’s number six; Wesley So, the world’s number seven; Alexander Grischuk, the world’s number nine.  Only two players were outside the world’s top ten:  Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave both in the world’s top twenty rated players.  For many chess enthusiasts it is a shock to see Levon outside of the world’s top ten.  From 2011-2014, over a three year period, Levon was firmly ensconced in the lofty world’s number two ranked position.  If Levon held his ‘traditional’ position it would have meant that nine out of the world’s top ten players would be competing in a ten player field.  It will be a challenge for any organizer to bring together and stage such a star-studded ten player event.

Excitement for the 2015 Sinquefield Cup had been building for months.  At the start of 2015, a new series of chess events was announced:  The Grand Chess Tour.  For the inaugural season, three events comprised the tour:  Norway Chess (June 2015), the Sinquefield Cup (August 2015) and the London Chess Classic (December 2015).  Each event will feature the same nine top world class players in addition to one wild card player.  Norway Chess featured Norwegian Jon Ludvig Hammer a top seventy player, the Sinquefield Cup featured American Wesley So a top ten player and the London Chess Classic will feature Englishman Michael Adams, a top thirty player.  World Champion Magnus Carlsen had badly crashed out of the June Norway Chess event to the worse result of his professional career.  Fans understood if Magnus was to have a chance to win the Grand Chess Tour he would have to come up with a stellar result in Saint Louis.  I’m a believer and picked Magnus to win the competition.  My prediction was wrong but not by much.

Instead, the winner of Norway Chess Former World Champion Veselin Topalov repeated his success from Norway by once again defeating Magnus Carlsen in the same round one.  In fact, the event blasted off with a stunning five decisive games in round one.  At the highest levels, a draw is the most likely result, a win or two per round would be normal whereas five wins at the start is practically unheard of.  Chess fans scrambled to recall another elite event that began with such a big bang.  The chess tweeter-sphere was alight with bloggers who had to agree; the Sinquefield Cup was the real deal.  Veselin began the event as an unstoppable juggernaut winning his first two games; he led the field after four rounds with three points.  Belying the extent of his amazing run including Norway Chess was that Veselin began the 2015 Sinquefield Cup with the black pieces for three of the first four games.  That meant he would have three white pieces for the final five rounds.  Better yet, he had played against the very top of the field.  If Veselin could continue his winning ways, he would win the Grand Chess Tour before the London Classic tournament even began.  It was a truly extraordinary run in fact one of the finest streaks in chess history.  Unfortunately Veselin’s dreams of stardom came crashing back to earth with back to back losses in round five and six.

Veselin’s crashing meant that tournament leadership was up for grabs.  Levon played stellar chess including two sparkling tactical brilliancies to share the lead after five rounds of play.  World Champion Magnus Carlsen after his round one loss righted his ship with three wins and a draw to share the lead with Levon.  The chasing pack was nipping at their heels when Russian Alexander Grischuk broke the spell of the World Champion with a hair-raising endgame finale.  Suddenly Levon had clear sailing to tournament victory.  In an eerie echo of his loss in the final game of the 2013 Sinquefield Cup, American Champ Hikaru Nakamura essayed the same opening, the Anti-Marshall Gambit of the Ruy Lopez, which had brought Magnus Carlsen ultimate victory in that tournament.  This time, Levon showed his world-class by winning convincingly with the black pieces.  Thereafter Levon coasted to victory with two final draws to complete an undefeated result.  He had completed a hat-trick against the American’s offering, “The American’s made me feel very welcome.”  Truer words were never spoken.  The complete tournament cross-table is shown below:

2015 Sinquefield Cup Standings

As you can see from the tournament cross-table only Anish Giri also managed to go undefeated in the tournament.  A repeat of his fine success in Norway as well since no one was able to best him in either event.  In his debut appearance in Saint Louis Five-time World Champion Viswanathan Anand got off to the worst possible start, he lost his first two games, never found his form in the tournament as he was unable to win a single game.  Fabiano Caruana, the defending 2014 Sinquefield Cup Champion, disappointed as well no doubts due to a heart-break loss in Round two against Magnus.  A time-pressure scramble that left the audience breathless could have gone either way.  Instead it was the proverbial “last move of time control – the move forty blunder” that cost Fabi a whole point and spoiled his event.  Recovery proved impossible.

With the 2015 Sinquefield Cup added to the history books the Grand Chess tour standings now look like this as the tour moves to the London Classic grand finale event:

2015 Grand Chess Tour Standings

Realistically any of the top six players in the standings have a chance to win the first Grand Chess Tour, all that is required it to win the prestigious 2015 London Classic.  Easy.

The 2015 Sinquefield Cup ended with a Saint Louis specialty:  An Ultimate Moves competition.  For this very special event, only two skills are needed:  Good chess play as well as world-class good trash talking skills.  Father Rex Sinquefield challenged his son, Randy Sinquefield, in a unique format.  From a pool of twelve top grandmasters (the Sinquefield Cup field plus Garry Kasparov and myself, Yasser Seirawan) each ‘captain’ drafted their teams’ one player at a time.  With their lineups completed, Rex and Randy would play the first five moves of a game and then they would call in one member of their team at a time to play the next five moves before a whole rotation was completed.  Then Rex and Randy would repeat their rotation which meant bedlam could break out at any move.  As a special treat legendary player Garry Kasparov returned to competition.  Randy was particularly pleased with his draft choices as he had the two highest rated players in history on his squad.  Rex certainly had a senior moment as he drafted me to match up with Garry in a special ‘one-on-one’ competition.  Good grief.  Fortunately for me, Garry spoiled his winning chances while a pawn to the good and I scrambled my way to a draw.  Yay.

The 2015 Sinquefield Cup ‘festival’ came to a wonderful close with the premiere screening of “Pawn Sacrifice,” a movie depicting the extraordinary life story of Robert James Fischer.  Tobey Maguire ably played the lead role.  While I very much enjoyed the film’s fine storyline and performances it was painfully irksome to see the producers rewrite chess history at various moments for ‘dramatic effect.’  “Based on the life of Robert James Fischer” is quite true.

As a chess fan myself I have to share one of those ‘surreal moments’ that could only occur here in Saint Louis.  Housed at the Chase Hotel, I needed to buy some provisions for the room at the Straubs grocery store across the street.  While picking my snacks I ran into Levon Aronian and we exchanged a few minutes of pleasantries, returning to my floor of the hotel I then ran into former World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov who was the second for Fabiano Caruana.  Again a few minutes of pleasant conversation ensued.  After unloading my groceries in the refrigerator I had just left the hotel when I ran into former World Champion Veselin Topalov.  We got caught up in the latest and greatest before making my way to the Club.  I started reflecting on the whole experience: Bumping into World Champions as well as the finest grandmasters in the world within thirty minutes was a common-place occurrence.  During the Sinquefield Cup of course.  

In closing, a heart-felt mention to my colleagues who entertained their live audiences with in-depth analysis and Q&A: GM Ian Rodgers; GM Benjamin Finegold; GM Robert Hess and GM Alejandro Ramirez.  As always it was a pleasure to be part of the internet commentary team.  Our talented hostess WGM Jennifer Shahade and hard-working play-by-play by GM Maurice Ashley made my life a breeze.  Thank you both for carrying me throughout.  All of the broadcasts went perfectly without a single technical glitch while providing a truly professional broadcast show.  It was great to be part of all the fun.

Finally, a big thanks to Tony Rich, the Executive Director of the Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic’s Center, and his staff as well as for Joy Bray, Chairman for the Saint Louis Chess activities.  Thank you both for your outstanding leadership.  The festival is conducted in such a friendly atmosphere and the players are motivated to display their most competitive fighting spirits.  To Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield for your bountiful generosity, thank you both so very much.