THE BLOG
10/07/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

September Chess

September was a great month for chess.

The world's top-rated chess player Magnus Carlsen played his first official tournament in America, his last event before the world championship match against the titleholder Vishy Anand in November.

The Chinese GM Hou Yifan regained the women's world title. The FIDE Grand Prix winner Veselin Topalov relaxed in the Czech town of Novy Bor while the last GP event in Paris spilled into October with a nice but sad victory for Fabiano Caruana.

The Sinquefield Cup

Within a few years Rex Sinquefield transformed Saint Louis into the center of professional chess in the United States. He founded the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and brought in the Chess World Hall of Fame. The well-financed U.S. championships and visits by world-class players are yearly attractions, drawing the attention of the media.

The Sinquefield Cup, a double-round tournament with the participation of Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky, was the most significant event in Saint Louis since the 1886 first official world championship match between the Prague-born William Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort, a Polish-born player who settled in London in 1872.

Steinitz began the match in New York with a disastrous 1-4 score, but he overcame the deficit in St. Louis, winning three games. From that moment on, Zukertort was in Steinitz's grasp. Exhausted and ill after the match moved to New Orleans, he lost almost without resistance. The final tally was 12.5-7.5 in Steinitz's favor.

Three seems to be Carlsen's magic number in Saint Louis as well. He finished first undefeated, winning three and drawing three games. His victory was far from easy. The start belonged to the local hero Nakamura with two wins and one draw. He won the first game with a little luck.

Nakamura (2772) - Aronian (2813)
Sinquefield Cup, Saint Louis USA 2013

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Nakamura was ready to split the point after 30...Qc6, but Aronian pleasantly surprised him, hanging the exchange.

30...Qb5?

The move will find its way into the gallery of blunders. Not even the world's best are immune from mistakes.

31.Qxb5 axb5 32.Nd7 Rxd7

After 32...Rfe8 33.Nf6+ black loses faster. The game can't be saved anyway.

33.Rxd7 Ra8 34.Kf2 Ra6 35.g4 Nh4 36.f4 Rc6 37.Re8+ Kg7 38.Ree7 Rf6 39.Kg3 g5 40.f5 h5 41.Re6! Black resigned.

In the second round Nakamura played well in time pressure and defeated Kamsky. He outplayed Carlsen with the black pieces, but the Norwegian defended well and secured a draw.

After the first half Nakamura was leading the field, but he had problems in the past to convert leads into tournament victories. Like a "rabbit" in track and field races, he would give his all to lead other players and help them to win by dropping out of sight.

He did it again against Aronian, rather recklessly sacrificing a piece. Nakamura lost and allowed Carlsen to pass him. But Hikaru still had a chance in the key game of the tournament: a victory with the white pieces against Magnus would have propelled him back to first place.

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Carlsen met the Spanish opening with the Berlin defense, hotly contested in the Steinitz-Zukertort match, and the game got on the way.

Nakamura (2772) - Carlsen (2862)
Sinquefield Cup, Saint Louis USA 2013

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4

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The Berlin defense.

5.Re1

The most common move at the 1886 world championship match between William Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort. The challenging 5.d4 deflates the game into a queenless endgame after 5...Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8. Although this has been known for more than a century, it became popular after the year 2000 when Vladimir Kramnik beat Garry Kasparov in the world championship match in London, turning the defense into the Berlin Wall. Without the queens on the board Kasparov didn't find a way to break through.

5...Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7!?

More precise than 6...Nxe5 7.Rxe5+ Be7 8.Nc3 and after the faulty Nxb5? 9.Nd5 gives white a powerful attack:

A. 9...0-0 allowing a pretty finish mentioned by the former world champion Emanuel Lasker in his book Common Sense in Chess.
10.Nxe7+ Kh8 11.Qh5! g6 [11...Nd6? 12.Qxh7+!! Kxh7 13.Rh5 mate.] 12.Qh6 d6

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13.Rh5! gxh5 14.Qf6 mate.

B. 9...Kf8 10.Rxe7 c6 11.Qf3 f6 12.Qg4 Rg8 13.Re1 (13.Qh5 Nd6!) and now after 13...cxd5?! 14.Qb4+ wins.

7.Bf1

Going all the way home, not blocking the d-pawn, has been popular lately. After 7.Nc3 comes 7...Nxb5! for example 8.Nd5? Nbd4! winning a piece. Black's last move was overlooked by Lasker.

Steinitz's 7.Bd3, aiming for the kingside, can be met by Zukertort's 7...0-0 8.Nc3 Ne8. This Lasker's retreat was adopted in the early 1960s by the Czech GM and two-time world candidate Miroslav Filip.

A. 9.Nd5 Bf6 (9...Nxe5 10.Rxe5 Bd6 11.Re3 g6=) 10.Ng4 d6 11.Ngxf6+ Nxf6 12.Nxf6+ Qxf6 13.c3 Bf5 14.Bxf5 Qxf5 15.d4 ½-½ Szabo-Filip, Miskolc 1963.

B. 9.b3 Nxe5 10.Rxe5 d6 11.Re1 (or 11.Re3 Nf6 12.Ba3 Re8 13.h3 Be6 ½-½ Gufeld-Kavalek, Helsinki 1961) 11...Nf6 12.Qf3 c6 13.h3 Be6 14.Bb2 Nd7 15.Ne4 Ne5 16.Qg3 f6 17.Bf1 Bf5 18.d4 Ng6 (18...d5) 19.d5! c5 20.Qc3 Rf7 21.Ng3 Bd7 22.Bd3 (22.Nh5±) 22...Qc8 23.Qd2 (23.a4!?) 23...b5 24.c4 bxc4 25.Bxc4 a5 ½-½ Kavalek-Filip, Kosice 1961.

However, after 8.Nc3 the exchange 8...Nxe5 9.Rxe5, followed by 9...c6 could be a simpler way to equalize.

7...Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 9.Nc3

The players reached a position from the 4th game of the 1886 match Steinitz-Zukertort in which white played 9.d4. Nakamura wants to use his d-pawn to cover the square e4.

9...Ne8 10.Nd5 Bd6 11.Re1 c6 12.Ne3 Bc7 13.Nf5 d5 14.Ne7+ Kh8 15.Nxc8 Rxc8
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The white pawns didn't move and the pieces are reshuffled but undeveloped on the first rank. Only the rook on the open e-file is happy. It is the price the players are willing to pay today for a bishop pair. And their computers may even encourage it.

16.g3

A new move. White's bishop pair has a symbolic advantage only. Carlsen can get space on the kingside before white can mobilize his forces.

16...Nd6 17.Bh3 f5 18.d3 Qf6 19.c3

White could have tried to light a fire with 19.Bf4 but 19...Nf7!? equalizes. Too risky seems 19...Qxb2 20.Be5 Qa3 21.Qh5 for example 21...Kg8 22.Bxg7! (22.Re3?! Rf7 23.Rae1 Rcf8 with black's edge.) 22...Kxg7 23.Re7+ Rf7 24.Qg5+ Kh8 25.Rxf7 Nxf7 26.Qxf5 Rf8 27.Qf6+ Kg8 28.Be6 threatening a perpetual check with 29.Qg5+.

19...Rce8 20.Bd2 [20.Bf4 g5] 20...Nf7 21.Rxe8 Rxe8 22.Qf1 f4!

A well-calculated counter play.

23.Re1 Rf8!

The chances are equal now.

24.Qe2

Unfortunately, white's pseudoactivity 24.Re6 can backfire after 24...Qd8 - threatening Nf7-g5 - 25.Bxf4 Bxf4 26.gxf4 Qh4 and black has plenty of counterplay on the dark squares.

24...h6 25.Kh1 Ng5 26.Bg4 Bd6

The points of entry along the e-file are covered.

27.h4

Weakening the pawn on g3 gives black a new target.

27...Nh7 28.Kg2 Qg6

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29.Bh5

Nakamura decides to repeat the moves. 29.Qe6 is met by Qxd3!

29...Qf5 30.Bg4 Qg6 31.Bh5 Qf5 32.Bg4 Qg6 draw.

The draw brings us back to the match Steinitz-Zukertort. Eight games out of the first nine were decisive. And the only draw in Saint Louis seemed very suspicious to the onlookers. They did not understand why the players could negotiate the result during the game. Something was fishy with the game of chess. The next day, according to news reports, the audience dwindled. Draws and how to avoid them are very much on the mind of chess fans today. The remedy remains the same: play with a fighting spirit. It worked for Bobby Fischer as it does for Carlsen, Nakamura and many others who are willing to fight until only two kings remain on the board.

Final standings of the Sinquefield Cup:

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Hou Yifan regains the world title

With three wins and three draws, the Chinese GM Hou Yifan matched Carlsen's result from Saint Louis after six games of the Women's World Championship 10-game match against the Ukrainian title holder Anna Ushenina in Taizhou, China. Hou regained the title by winning Game 7, scoring overall 5.5-1.5.

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At the age of 12, Hou dreamt of overtaking the all-time best woman Judit Polgar. In 2010, Hou became the youngest women's world champion at the age of 16. She defended the crown next year against Humpy Koneru of India. In 2012 she was knocked out in the second round of the Women's championship, but became a challenger by winning the 2011-2012 FIDE Women's Grand Prix. Now at 19, she is a university student and her ambitions are more modest. She prefers to by happy and healthy.

Parisien blues

Nakamura went straight from Saint Louis to Paris to participate in the last FIDE Grand Prix tournament. Things were looking up for him when he met Fabiano Caruana, one of two players with a chance to qualify for the 2014 Candidates by winning the event alone.

Nakamura (2772) - Caruana (2779)
FIDE GP Paris 2013

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Nakamura just took the pawn on g6. Caruana had two ways of recapturing it and he chose the wrong one.

14...hxg6?

A losing blunder. Black is forced to recapture with 14...fxg6 to be able to protect the h7 pawn after 15.Bxd4 Bxd4 16.Qh6 e5 with an edge.

15.Bxd4! Qxd4

It really doesn't matter what Caruana plays. Black loses a piece after 15...Bxd4 16.Qh6 Qd6 17.Rxd4 Qxd4 18.Qh7+ Kf8 19.Qh8+ Qxh8 20.Rxh8+ Kg7 21.Rxd8 and white should win.

16.Qe1

The skewer wins material and the game is over. Hikaru could have also played 16.Qf4 e5 17.Rxd4 wins.

16...Qxd1+ 17.Nxd1

Having a queen for a rook, white is winning. Caruana dragged the game out till move 34 before he resigned.

The loss must have been devastating for Caruana. Nakamura, on the other hand, moved to the lead by adding a win against Vassily Ivanchuk, who overstepped time in a roughly equal position. Hikaru could win it all, I thought, but there was one problem: his opponent was the 45-year-old Boris Gelfand, the 2012 world championship challenger. He was Nakamura's "angstgegner" and no matter what Hikaru did against the Israeli GM, it usually turned out badly. Yet again, he could not overcome the psychological barrier.

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There was an additional twist: Hikaru has never beaten Gelfand with the white pieces in a major tournament and it was his seventh loss in Paris.

The win helped Gelfand to share first place with Caruana with 7/11. Nakamura and Etienne Bacrot finished a half point behind the winner.
Caruana almost made it to the Candidates, but he needed to win it alone. The Azerbaijani GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov clinched the last spot instead.

The winner of the FIDE Grand Prix Veselin Topalov went to Novy Bor, a Czech town of glass artists, to play a six game match against Viktor Laznicka. It was an equal fight at first, but the Czech GM lost due to his habit - the time trouble. Topalov won 4-2 and took home a nice glass trophy.

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Laznicka's downfall began in the following position:
Laznicka (2677) - Topalov (2769)
Novy Bor 2013

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31...Qg5!

A nice piece sacrifice. The queen goes out of the pin and protects the square d8, not allowing white to exchange the rooks.

After 31...Qf6 computers suggest that white can hold with 32.Qe2!? (32.Rxc6? exf3 33.gxf3 Qxf3-+) 32...exf3 (32...Bd5 33.c6 exf3 34.gxf3 Qg5+ 35.Qg2=) 33.gxf3 Bd5 34.c6=

32.Rxc6?

Greed loses. Laznicka pegged his rook and bishop behind the c-pawn and they can't help the white king. Instead of taking the bishop, white could have rescued the game with a timely deflection: 32.h4!, for example

A. 32...Qf6 33.Qb3 (33.fxe4? Qf1+ 34.Kh2 Rf4! -+) 33...exf3 34.gxf3! Qxh4 35.Rxc6 Qg3+ 36.Kh1 Rf6 37.Qd3 Rg6 38.Qxg6! Qxg6 39.Rc8+ Kf7 40.c6 and black has only perpetual check, not more. The c-pawn is too strong.

B. 32...Qe3+ 33.Qf2=

C. 32...Qxh4 33.Qf2=

32...exf3 33.g3

After 33.Rxe6 f2+ 34.Kf1 (34.Qxf2 Rxf2 35.Kxf2 Qf5+-+) 34...Qxg2+ 35.Kxg2 f1Q+ mates soon.

33...Qe5!?

An unpleasant move in white's time trouble, although black had other ways to succeed:
A. 33...Qf6! 34.Rd6 f2+ 35.Kf1 Qf3 36.Rd1 Qh1+ 37.Ke2 f1Q+ 38.Rxf1 Rxf1 wins.;

B. 33...Qe3+! 34.Qf2 (34.Kf1 f2 35.Qb1 Qf3-+) 34...Qc1+ 35.Qf1 f2+ 36.Kg2 Qe3 37.Rc7 Qe4+ 38.Kh3 Rf5 39.g4 h5 wins.

34.Qf2

After 34.Qd2 Qa1+ 35.Kf2 Qh1 black wins.

34...Qa1+ 35.Qf1 Qd4+ 36.Kh1

After 36.Qf2 Qd1+ 37.Qf1 f2+ 38.Kg2 Qd5+ wins the rook.

36...f2 White resigned.

After 37.h3 Qd5+ 38.Kh2 Qxc6 wins.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game.

Images by Alejandro Ramirez from Saint Louis, Anastasiya Karlovich from Taizhou, Alina l'Ami from Paris and Vladimir Jagr from Novy Bor