Caruana’s cup runneth over with win at Sinquefield chess clash

China’s GM Ding Liren may have won the world championship this spring, but it’s hard to think of another player who has had a better 2023 than America’s own GM Fabiano Caruana.

Caruana, who has already qualified for the 2024 Candidates Tournament for a chance to take on the Chinese star in a title match, capped a banner year by finishing first outright at the super-GM 10th Sinquefield Cup that ended in St. Louis last week.

The 31-year-old Caruana was undefeated in St. Louis, finishing at 5½-2½, a half-point ahead of fellow American GM Leinier Dominguez Perez. In addition to qualifying for the Candidates, Caruana’s year included wins at the SuperBet Chess Classic in Romania (ahead of Ding), a third U.S. Championship title in October, and a win at the recent St. Louis Rapid & Blitz Tournament.



His victory in the Sinquefield, annually the strongest invitational tournament played on U.S. soil, came with a couple of milestones. Caruana won the yearlong 2023 Grand Chess Tour series and its $175,000 first prize, and his performance at the Sinquefield pushed his rating once again over the 2800 mark, second only to Norwegian former world champ Magnus Carlsen.

Russian GM Peter Svidler, commenting on the action at the Sinquefield, said having secured a berth in the Candidates tournament in Toronto in April allowed the American star to play more creatively in St. Louis.

“I think this is part of the reason why he’s playing so well [is] he doesn’t actually need it anymore,” Svidler noted. “… He’s pretty much free to roam here, free to express himself.”

After four draws to open the event, Caruana broke through with wins over French GM Alireza Firouzja and American rival GM Wesley So. The results were the same, but the two victories played out in radically different fashion.

Firouzja as White surprised his opponent on Move 4 with one of the sharpest lines in the Two Knights Defense, and Black survived White’s preparation while walking a tightrope in the opening. Caruana ends up gambiting a pawn in return for a pronounced space advantage as Firouzja’s pieces cluster on the queenside.

The middlegame complications are ferocious — Caruana’s own fascination post-mortem on Chess24.com demonstrates both the amazing amount of things a top grandmaster sees during a game and how hard such messy positions are to assess even for the strongest players.

Simplifying massively, it appears White’s decision to accept the exchange sacrifice after 27. Ba3 Qa5 28. Bxb4?! Qxa4 was a wrong turn, giving up a crucial defensive piece, and that Firouzja would have also been better off with 29. Qc4+ instead of the game’s 29. d4?! e3, giving Black a passer that will prove critical in the ensuing play.

Black recovers the exchange and claims a clear edge on 31. Na3? (the computer likes 31. Na4 Kh7 32. Qc4 Bf5 33. c3, with better chances of holding the defense) Bg4 32. Qc4+ Kh7 33. Qf7 (Ra1 Qb6 32. Nab1 Be6 35. Qc5 Qxc5 36. dxc5 Bf5 37. Re2 Bxc2! 38. Rxc2 e2 is one line showing the headache Black’s e-pawn poses for the defense) Rf8 34. Qe7 Bxd1 35. Rxd1 Rf2!? (c5! may have been more accurate here), and White misses a last chance to hold the game with 36. Ne4? (Nc4 Rxc2+ 37. Kb1 Qf5 38. Nxe3 makes Black’s chore messier) Rxc2+! 37. Kb1 (Nxc2 Qa2+ 38. Kc3 Nd5+ 39. Kc4 [Kd3 Qa6 is a nice mate] Qxc2+ 40. Nc3 Qxc3 mate) Rf2! Ng5+ (Nxf2 Qxa3 and White must surrender a queen or a rook to stop instant mate) Kh8 39. Qe8+ Rf8 40. Qxg6 Qf5+! (neatly thwarting the scary mate threat) 41. Qxf5 Rxf5.

Black is still down a pawn, but his passer on e3 is a monster, and after 42. Re1 Bxd4, Firouzja faces back-rank threats as well. The finale: 42. Nc2 Bc3 44. Nxe3 (Rxe3 Rf1+ mates) Rxg5!, and Black is just a piece up after 45. hxg5 Bxe1; White resigned.

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There was a good deal more clarity on offer in Caruana’s win in the very next round against So. Mixing up his lines in one of the most heavily analyzed Nimzo-Indian variations, Black is already in dire straits after 9. Ng3 b6? (Nxc5 10. Bxc4 limits the damage here) 10. Qf3!, totally disrupting  Black’s game as 10…Ba6? is not on tap due to 11. b4! cxb3 12. Bxa6 Nxc5 13. Bb5+ Nfd7 14. 0-0 and White has won a piece for two pawns.

A reeling Black only makes things worse with 12. Qf4 Bxc3? (Nxc6 had to be played, with some hopes of saving the game after 13. Qxc4 Bb7 14. b4 b5! 15. Nxb5 Bb6) 13. Bxc3 Nxc6 14. Rd1 Qe7 15. Bxc4 — it’s remarkable how one of the world’s best players can get himself into such a fix in so few moves.

It’s one thing to get winning positions; it’s another thing to win them. Caruana shows his class with an incisive attack that never lets Black recover: 15…b5 (it’s too late for 15…0-0 16. Bb5 Bb7 [e5 17. Qc4 Na5 18. Bb4! Nxc4 19. Bxe7] 17. Bxc6 Bxc6 18. Bb4) 16. Bxf6 Qxf6 (gxf6 17. Ne4! bxc4 18. Nf6+ Kf8 19. Qh6 mate) 17. Qd6! e5 (see diagram; So has been finding some “only” moves to avert disaster, but that streak now comes to an end) Bxf7+!, flushing out the king as 18…Qxf7 19. Qxc6+ Bd7 20. Qd6! Rd8 (Rb6 21. Ne4! Qe7 22. Qd5, with 23. Nd6+ coming) 21. Rd5 is crushing.

The end comes quickly: 19. Qc7+ Qe7 (Kg6 20. Rd6 Be6 21. Qxc6 Rhc8 22. Qe4+ Kf7 23. 0-0, and Black is just down a pawn with a miserable position) 20. Qxc6 Bb7 21. Qxb5! (refusing to play it safe) Bxg2 22. Qc4+ Kf8 23. Nf5! Qf6 (Qb7 24. Rg1 h5 25. Qe6 Re8 26. Qxe8+!) 24. Qc5+ Kg8 25. Qc7, and Black resigns facing such bleak options as 25…Rf8 (h6 26. Rg1 Qxf5 27. Rxg2 Qf8 28. Qxe5) 26. Ne7+ Kf7 27. Nd5+ and wins.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Firouzja-Caruana, 10th Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, December 2023

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Na5 6. Bb5+ c6 7. dxc6 bxc6 8. Bd3 Nd5 9. h4 h6 10. Qh5 Qf6 11. Ne4 Qe6 12. b3 g6 13. Qe2 f5 14. Nec3 Bg7 15. Bb2 O-O 16. Na3 e4 17. Bc4 Nxc4 18. Qxc4 Rb8 19. O-O-O Rb4 20. Qe2 a5 21. Rhe1 a4 22. g3 axb3 23. axb3 Qd6 24. f3 Qc5 25. Nab1 Re8 26. fxe4 fxe4 27. Ba3 Qa5 28. Bxb4 Nxb4 29. d4 e3 30. Kb2 h5 31. Na3 Bg4 32. Qc4+ Kh7 33. Qf7 Rf8 34. Qe7 Bxd1 35. Rxd1 Rf2 36. Ne4 Rxc2+ 37. Kb1 Rf2 38. Ng5+ Kh8 39. Qe8+ Rf8 40. Qxg6 Qf5+ 41. Qxf5 Rxf5 42. Re1 Bxd4 43. Nc2 Bc3 44. Nxe3 Rxg5 White resigns.

Caruana-So, 10th Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, December 2023

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Nge2 d5 6. a3 Ba5 7. dxc5 dxc4 8. Bd2 Nbd7 9. Ng3 b6 10. Qf3 Rb8 11. c6 Ne5 12. Qf4 Bxc3 13. Bxc3 Nxc6 14. Rd1 Qe7 15. Bxc4 b5 16. Bxf6 Qxf6 17. Qd6 e5 18. Bxf7+ Kxf7 19. Qc7+ Qe7 20. Qxc6 Bb7 21. Qxb5 Bxg2 22. Qc4+ Kf8 23. Nf5 Qf6 24. Qc5+ Kg8 25. Qc7 Black resigns.

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

Source: WT