Breaking (and shocking) news … Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen abruptly withdrew from the 9th Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis Monday, a day after a painful Round 3 loss to young American GM Hans Moke Niemann described below. Carlsen, who had never withdrawn midway through such a high-profile event before, did not give an explanation but hinted broadly that something less than above-board was afoot, possibly with the Niemann game.
Carlsen, who recently announced he will not defend his world crown after nearly a decade as the planet’s acknowledged best player, never showed up at the board for his Round 4 match with Azerbaijan GM Shahkriyar Mamedyarov, forfeiting the game as the other top grandmasters watched uneasily. As per the tournament rules, his results have been wiped from the slate (including Niemann’s win) and the event will continue without him.
We’ll have more as the details are we learn them.
Monday’s events are a mystery and a shame, for the play of the day before marked a banner Sunday for American chess and for the 19-year-old Niemann, who looks to be America’s next chess superstar and one of its most intriguing personalities.
The brash California GM with the mop of curly hair only got into the field for the superstrong St. Louis invitational when Hungary’s GM Robert Rapport was delayed by COVID travel restrictions. But Niemann, who has a world of confidence to go with a world of talent, has made the most of the unexpected opportunity, defeating the veteranMamedyavov in Round 2 and then Carlsen with the Black pieces in Sunday’s Round 3.
The win not only ended the champ’s 53-game unbeaten streak, but it pushed Niemann’s rating over the milestone 2700-mark and left him alone in first with 2½ points in an event where he was expected to finish far down the scoreboard.
As that game was being played, two of America’s best players were paired off on another board at the Sinquefield, which has quickly become one of the most anticipated events on the global chess calendar. GM Wesley So and fellow Yank GM Fabiano Caruana engaged in an exhausting and absorbing struggle which So finally managed to win, putting him alone in second a half-point behind Niemann.
With their mix of candor, bravado and braggadocio, Niemann’s post-round interviews have become must-watch viewing. But as his rocket-like ascent up the ratings charts show, his chess is even more irresistible these days.
Carlsen’s offbeat 4. g3!? in the Nimzo-Indian backfires badly, as Niemann revealed he had fortuitously been looking at just that very line earlier in the day. Black’s key 13…Be6! and 19…Rc8! (ceding the open file to keep the game lively) already leave him at least slightly better, as White soon must lose a pawn as he untangles him position.
Carlsen is uncharacteristically shaky at several points in this game, including 27. Re8 e4 28. g4? Rc5 29. Ba2 Nc4 30. a4 (the engines say White can some somehow hold the ending after 30. Bxc4!? Rxc4 31. gxf5 Ra4, but Neimann essentially said the computers got it wrong) Nd6 31. Re7 fxg4 32. Rd7 e3!, threatening mate on the move and giving the knight the beautiful e4-square.
White’s hasty 42. Rd7? (see diagram; Black is still much better after 42. Rf4! Rxd5 43. Rxe4 Kf5 44. Re7, but never forget the old adage that all rook endings are drawn) Ng5! (finding the critical fork) 43. Bf7+ Kf5?! (perhaps Black’s one loose move of the game; 43…Kf6!, keeping up the attack on the bishop, wins far more quickly: 44. Rxd2 Nf3+ 45. Kf2 Nxd2 46.
Bd5 b5 47. axb5 axb5 48. Ke2 Nc4) 44. Rxd2 Nf3+ 45. Kg2 Nxd2 gives Black a winning ending, through Carlsen gets some swindling hopes with 46. a5!, with the idea of pinning the Black knight to the wrong side of the board.
Niemann avoids the last pitfall on 54. Bb7 Nxa5 55. Bd5 h5! (there was still time to blow it with 55…Ke5?? 56. Kg3! Kxd5 57. Kxg4 Ke6 58. Kh5 and the last pawn goes) 56. Bf7 h4 57. Bd5, and White resigned not needing to see 57…Ke5 58. Bh1 Nb3 and the knight escapes and the kingside pawns will decide.
Caruana, once the world’s No. 2 player seen as Carlsen’s top rival, has had a rough past year, failing to qualify for a title rematch, losing several games at the recent Olympiad and falling out of the global top 10 rankings.
He’s snakebit again on the Black side of a Petroff’s against So, as his pawn sacrifice in a fantastically complicated position boils down after 31. dxe5 Qc7 32. Qa4 c5 33. Rd2 to a pawn deficit in a far simpler position where So’s knight can dominate the Black bishop.
But White gives himself a load of extra work on 38. Qe2 Rxd4 39. Rxd4?! (39. Rc2 Qd6 40. Ne3, targeting the g- and c-pawns at his leisure, seems much the better choice) cxd4 40. Qxe4 Bxa2 41. Qxg4+ Kf8, and while White is still winning, the only path to victory is to advance his kingside pawns and expose his king to all kinds of mischief from his dogged opponent.
Things get very interesting after 52. f4 d3 (Kg6!? 53. Ne7+ Kf7 54. Nxd5 Qf1+ 55. Kg3 Qe1+ 56. Kf3 Qh1+ 57. Kf2 Qxd5 58. Qd3, and White should win, though it’s still not easy) 53. Qd6, as now both players have mating and perpetual check threats and Black has a very dangerous passed pawn which must be managed.
So passes the test with 57. Qd7+ Kf8 57. Nh6! (apparently the only winning move) Bg2+ (scary but winning for White would have been 57…Bxg4+! 58. Nxg4 d2 59. Qd8+ Kg7 60. f5!! d1=Q 61. Qf6+ Kh7 62. Qf7+ Kh8 63. Qf8+ Kh7 64. Nf6 mate) 58. Kg3 Qf3+ 59. Kh4 Qf2+ (Qxf4 60. Qd8+ Kg7 61. Nf5+ Kg6 62. Qe8+ Kf6 63. Qe7+ Kg6 64. Qg7 mate) 60. Kg5, and it’s essentially over as the king will join the mating party.
The finale: 65. Nd6+ Kg7 66. Qe7+ Kg8 61. Kh6, and mate is threatened at d8, e8 and g7; Caruana resigned.
Carlsen-Niemann, 9th Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, September 2022
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. g3 O-O 5. Bg2 d5 6. a3 Bxc3+ 7. bxc3 dxc4 8. Nf3 c5 9. O-O cxd4 10. Qxd4 Nc6 11. Qxc4 e5 12. Bg5 h6 13. Rfd1 Be6 14. Rxd8 Bxc4 15. Rxa8 Rxa8 16. Bxf6 gxf6 17. Kf1 Rd8 18. Ke1 Na5 19. Rd1 Rc8 20. Nd2 Be6 21. c4 Bxc4 22. Nxc4 Rxc4 23. Rd8+ Kg7 24. Bd5 Rc7 25. Ra8 a6 26. Rb8 f5 27. Re8 e4 28. g4 Rc5 29. Ba2 Nc4 30. a4 Nd6 31. Re7 fxg4 32. Rd7 e3 33. fxe3 Ne4 34. Kf1 Rc1+ 35. Kg2 Rc2 36. Bxf7 Rxe2+ 37. Kg1 Re1+ 38. Kg2 Re2+ 39. Kg1 Kf6 40. Bd5 Rd2 41. Rf7+ Kg6 42. Rd7 Ng5 43. Bf7+ Kf5 44. Rxd2 Nf3+ 45. Kg2 Nxd2 46. a5 Ke5 47. Kg3 Nf1+ 48. Kf2 Nxh2 49. e4 Kxe4 50. Be6 Kf4 51. Bc8 Nf3 52. Bxb7 Ne5 53. Bxa6 Nc6 54. Bb7 Nxa5 55. Bd5 h5 56. Bf7 h4 57. Bd5 and White resigns.
So-Caruana, 9th Sinquefield Cup, St. Louis, September 2022
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Bd3 Nf6 6. O-O Be7 7. h3 O-O 8. c3 d5 9. Bc2 Bd6 10. d4 h6 11. Re1 Re8 12. Rxe8+ Qxe8 13. Be3 Nc6 14. Nbd2 Ne7 15. Nh4 g5 16. Nhf3 Nf5 17. Nf1 Bd7 18. Bd3 c6 19. Qb3 Ne4 20. Re1 Nxe3 21. Nxe3 Be6 22. Qxb7 Rb8 23. Qa6 f5 24. Re2 Qd7 25. Qa4 Bf4 26. Qc2 h5 27. g3 g4 28. hxg4 hxg4 29. Bxe4 fxe4 30. Ne5 Bxe5 31. dxe5 Qc7 32. Qa4 c5 33. Rd2 Rd8 34. Ng2 Bf7 35. Qb5 d4 36. e6 Bxe6 37. cxd4 Qb6 38. Qe2 Rxd4 39. Rxd4 cxd4 40. Qxe4 Bxa2 41. Qxg4+ Kf8 42. Qf3+ Bf7 43. Qa3+ Ke8 44. Qa4+ Kd8 45. Qa3 Ke8 46. Nh4 Bd5 47. Nf5 Qc7 48. g4 Kf7 49. f3 a5 50. Kg2 Qe5 51. Kh3 Qe2 52. f4 d3 53. Qd6 Bf3 54. Qd7+ Kf8 55. Qd8+ Kf7 56. Qd7+ Kf8 57. Nh6 Bg2+ 58. Kg3 Qf3+ 59. Kh4 Qf2+ 60. Kg5 Qc5+ 61. Nf5 Bd5 62. Qd8+ Kf7 63. Qd7+ Kf8 64. Qd8+ Kf7 65. Nd6+ Kg7 66. Qe7+ Kg8 67. Kh6 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]