Aronian's Chess Comeback

2015-09-02-1441168703-8744301-1ARONIANDSC04348.jpg

Levon Aronian won the third Sinquefield Cup, the second leg of the recently established Grand Chess Tour. The top Armenian grandmaster finished a full point ahead of a group led by the world champion Magnus Carlsen and the U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura.

2015-09-02-1441167579-5736821-1SINstandingsfinal01.png

Last October, Aronian began sliding from the number two spot behind Carlsen on the FIDE rating list, where he resided for almost three years. He even slipped past 10th place and was told by his girlfriend that it had to stop. "I listened," he said with a smile.

On Tuesday, after all results of the Sinquefield Cup were tallied at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, Aronian reentered the elite 10 group. He defeated three U.S. representatives - Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So - and drew the rest of the games. Carlsen and Nakamura also won three games each, but two losses set them back.

"The chess world is a better place when Aronian is playing well," tweeted the former world champion Garry Kasparov. When he is on, Aronian can create beautiful masterpieces. He loves the little combinations, the almost undetectable gems, ambushing his opponents. "I was trying to play for traps, which is useful," he put it succinctly after winning against Caruana.

Aronian,Levon (2765) - Caruana,Fabiano (2808)
3rd Sinquefield Cup Saint Louis USA (1), 23.08.2015
2015-09-01-1441149724-8996268-1sinq.jpg
25.Ne4!!
With the last move, Aronian elevates the game to please the romantic fans - a rare occurence in today's top chess. Caruana is invited to take material.
25...Nd4
Caruana already made some concessions and misplayed the middle game. He accepts the challenge.
26.Qh5 Nxc2
[26...Bf5 27.Rf2!]
27.Nxg5 Bf5 28.Rf1!
2015-09-01-1441150413-3702974-1Asinq.jpg
Threatening to eliminate the main defender, the bishop on f5. Not 28.Qf7+?! Kh6!.
28...Qf6
After 28...Bg6 29.Rf7+ Bxf7 (29...Kg8 30.Qh6 wins.) 30.Qxh7+ Kf6 31.Ne4+ Ke7 32.d6+, followed by 33.Qxf7+ and White mates soon.
29.Ne6+
It was also possible to win with 29.Rxf5, for example:
A. 29...Qxf5 30.Ne6+ Rxe6 (30...Kf6 31.Qxe8 wins.) 31.Qxf5 wins.
B. 29...Qg6 30.Rf7+ Kg8 31.Qh3 threatening to win with 32.d6 or 32.Bd3.
29...Rxe6 30.Rxf5 Qg6 31.dxe6
31.Rg5 is stronger, but it really doesn't matter: Black is lost.
31...Qxh5 32.Rxh5 Nd4 33.e7 Ra8 34.Rxe5 Re8 35.Re4 Nf5
Allowing a little combination.
36.Be6 Nd6 37.Bd7 Nxe4 38.Bxe8 Kf6 39.Bg6!
2015-09-01-1441150656-3665580-1Bsinq.jpg
White wins a piece.
Black resigned.

After his brilliant victory against Wesley So, Aronian said he played in the style of Leonid Stein. "Go for it!" Aronian explained. It went almost unnoticed by the commentators, most of them were born after Stein's death in 1973.

Who was Leonid Stein?
Three-time Soviet champion, Stein was feared by many of the world's best players. He was a heavy smoker, living life to the fullest. Perhaps a bit lazy to hit the books and study. He was unhappy when the Yugoslav publication Chess Informant first appeared in the mid-sixties and changed the way players prepared. He knew he was not going to follow suit.

2015-09-02-1441227468-223873-LeonidSteinKarpov.jpg

Stein would give friendly advice to the young Anatoly Karpov and help him to become grandmaster at the tournament we played in Caracas in 1970. I saw how he won his last tournament in Las Palmas in 1973 together with Tigran Petrosian. A few months later, Stein, one of the best attackers in the history of chess, was gone at the age of 39.

2015-09-02-1441165609-3763786-1SOSLDSC03578.jpg

So,Wesley (2779) - Aronian,Levon (2765)
3rd Sinquefield Cup Saint Louis (4), 26.08.2015

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3
In this sharp variation the black pieces often fight against White's strong pawn center.
4...c5 5.d5 0-0 6.e4 d6 7.Nge2 a6!?
Black plans to expand on the queenside slowly. After 7...exd5 8.cxd5 Nh5 Bill Martz against Boris Gulko, Harrachov 1967, came up with the amazing 9.g4! Qh4+ 10.Kd2 f5?! 11.gxh5 fxe4 and now instead of 12.Ng3, the computers preferred 12.Qe1 with White's advantage.
The advance g2-g4 plays a big part in this variation. It is dangerous as Bobby Fischer found in his only loss at the 1966 Havana Olympiad against Florin Gheorghiu.
Topalov was very successful with the gambit 7...b5. It is the most popular choice.
8.a4 Ba5!?
Aronian credits the Hungarian GM Peter Leko with this move. By blocking the a-file, Black prepares the advance b7-b5 again.
9.Bd2
9.Ng3 b5 10.cxb5 (10.axb5 axb5 Black threatens to win with 11...Bxc3+.) 10...exd5 11.exd5 Re8+ (11...Nbd7 12.Bd2 Re8+ 13.Be2 Bxc3 14.Bxc3 axb5) 12.Be2 axb5 with balanced play.
9...exd5 10.cxd5 Nh5!
The move hinders White's development.
11.g3
With the bishop on d2, the knight on h5 can't be chased away: 11.g4? allows 11...Qh4+.
11...Nd7 12.Bg2 b5!
Gaining space on the queenside.
13.g4?
Inviting black to sacrifice a piece. Bringing the king to safety was called for: 13.0-0 b4 14.Nb1 with roughly equal chances.
After 13.axb5 axb5 14.Nxb5 Bxd2+ 15.Kxd2 Rxa1 16.Qxa1 Qb6 17.Nbc3 Ne5 Black is better.
13...b4 14.Nb1
14.gxh5 bxc3 15.bxc3 Qh4+ 16.Ng3 Ne5 17.0-0 f5 gives Black an easy game.
14...Qh4+ 15.Kf1
White is playing without the queenside pieces and his king on f1 prevents a smooth development on the other wing.

2015-09-01-1441150983-8304978-2sinq.jpg

15...Ne5!
Stepping back is not an option. Aronian is going all out in the style of Leonid Stein: A little stream slowly becomes a river and turns into a powerful waterfall.
16.Be1?!
Accepting a sacrifice is often the best way to refute it, although after 16.gxh5 f5 the white king is not comfortable on the f-file.
16...Qf6! 17.gxh5 Nxf3 18.Bf2
18.Bxf3 Qxf3+ 19.Kg1 Bh3 wins.
18...Bg4!
Black quickly develops and threatens 19...Nd4. 18...Qxb2 19.Bxf3 Qxa1 breaks the flow of the attack.
19.Qc1
White had a better but still inadequate defense: 19.Nd2 Nd4 20.e5!? Qxe5 (20...dxe5 21.Ne4 Qh6 22.N4g3 f5 with edge.) 21.Bxd4 cxd4 22.Nf3 Qxh5 with White's advantage.

2015-09-01-1441151605-8265090-2Asinq.jpg

19...Nd4!?
Aronian chooses to bring his rook on the open c-file. He could have played 19...Ne5 with a hefty advantage.
20.Nxd4 cxd4 21.e5
21.Nd2 Rac8 22.Qe1 b3 is also bad for White.
21...dxe5 22.Nd2 Rac8 23.Qb1
Trying to set up the white-square blockade, but Aronian would have none of it.
23...b3!
Driving the knight from the kingside.
24.Nxb3 Bb6 25.a5 Ba7!?
Simple and strong. The computers proposed the brilliant 25...Rc2!! with the idea 26.Qxc2 d3 but Aronian did not like giving White the chance to play 27.axb6.
26.Kg1 Bf5 27.Be4
Otherwise the black rook lands on c2.
27...Qg5+ 28.Kf1 Qf4!

2015-09-01-1441151796-5384934-2Bsinq.jpg
After 29.Bxf5 d3 30.Qe1 Rc2 wins.
White resigned.

As a King's Indian player, Stein would have enjoyed the So-Nakamura game. The Mar-del-Plata variation is an intriguing opening, having grown rapidly since the Yugoslav veteran Svetozar Gligoric introduced his set-up in 1953. Quality Chess recently released well organized and researched two volumes Kotronias on the King's Indian, Mar-del-Plata I and II. The Greek grandmaster provides original analysis and nicely simplifies the complex and risky defense. Black may have one break from the often cramped position during the entire game. Nakamura is a master in seeing and identifying the critical moment, sometimes ignoring the computer evaluation. His courage brought him nice victories against the world champions Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik.

2015-09-02-1441165350-9498283-1NAKASLDSC_0906.jpg

Nakamura came up with an original idea against So. Usually Black tries to open the g-file, but Hikaru led his attack through the f-file.

So,Wesley (2779) - Nakamura,Hikaru (2814)
3rd Sinquefield Cup Saint Louis (6), 28.08.2015

2015-09-02-1441152054-4957428-3sinq.jpg

Black simply threatens 25...h3 to break the defensive wall. So has to react.
25.fxg4
[25.Rd1 allows a different pawn incursion: 25...h3 26.gxh3 g3! 27.hxg3 fxg3 28.Bxg3 Be3 with a powerful attack on the dark squares.]
25...f3!
A surprising breakthrough along the f-file. 25...Bxg4 26.Bxg4 Nxg4 27.Rxf7 Qxf7 28.Qc7=;
25...Nxg4 26.Rxd7!+-
26.gxf3 Nxe4!
What an attacking spirit! Nakamura is not interested in taking the exchange 26...Bxc1?! 27.Qxc1 and now 27...Nxe4 28.Rxd7 Rxf3 can be met calmly by 29.Kg1 and White survives.

2015-09-02-1441153476-8836608-3Asinq.jpg

27.Rd1
Saving the exchange but not the king.
Other moves are also not satisfactory:
A. 27.fxe4 Rf1+ 28.Kg2 (28.Bxf1 Qxf1#) 28...Be3 29.Rxd7 h3+ 30.Kxh3 Qh6+ 31.Bh4 Rxc1 32.Qxc1 Qxh4+ 33.Kg2 Bxc1-+;
B. 27.Rxd7 Rxf3! 28.Bxf3 (28.Kg1 Be3+ wins.) 28...Qxf3+ 29.Qg2 Qxd3 30.Rd1 (30.Rxd6 h3! 31.Rxg6+ Kf7) 30...Bd2! (30...Qxd1 31.Qxe4 Bg7 32.Qxg6=) 31.Bxd2 Nf4 32.Qf1 Nf2+! 33.Qxf2 Qxd5+ 34.Kg1 Nh3+ 35.Kf1 Nxf2-+;
C. 27.Nxe5 Nxe5 28.Qxe4 Re8 29.Rd1 Nxg4-+;
D. 27.Nc5 dxc5 28.Rxd7 Rxf3! 29.Bd2 Nf2+ 30.Kg1 e4-+;
E. 27.Nf2 Nxf2+ 28.Bxf2 Bxc1Black is much better;
F. 27.Nb4 Rxf3 28.Bd2 Bxd2 29.Qxe4 Rf6 30.Rd1 Be8 with big advantage.
27...Rxf3! 28.Rxd7
A. 28.Nb1 Rf1+ 29.Kg2 h3+ 30.Kxh3 Rxe1 31.Rxe1 Qf2!! one version of the queen sacrifice. Black mates soon. 32.Nxf2 Nf4+ 33.Kh4 Bg5#;
B. 28.Bxf3 Qxf3+ 29.Qg2 Bxg4-+.
28...Rf1+ 29.Kg2
[29.Bxf1 Qxf1#]

2015-09-02-1441153675-353285-3Bsinq.jpg

29...Be3!?
A nice human punchline. The square h6 is free for the queen and Hikaru threatens 30...h3+. But there is a computer-generated brilliant combination: 29...h3+ 30.Kxh3 Rf2!! 31.Bxf2 Qxf2!!

2015-09-02-1441162652-8661121-3BBBNava.jpg

Hikaru was visibly disappointed after being shown the queen sacrifice. 32.Nxf2 Nf4+ 33.Kh4 Bg5 mate.
30.Bg3
A desperation, but what else, for example 30.Bf2 Rxf2+ 31.Nxf2 Qxf2+ 32.Kh1 Bf4 33.Bf1 Qe3-+.
30...hxg3! 31.Rxf1 Nh4+ 32.Kh3 Qh6
The white king is in a mating net and can't escape.
33.g5 Nxg5+ 34.Kg4
[34.Kxg3 Nf5+! 35.Kg2 (35.Rxf5 Qh3#) 35...Qh3+ 36.Kh1 Ng3#]
34...Nhf3!
Now the queen will join the fray.
35.Nf2 Qh4+ 36.Kf5 Rf8+ 37.Kg6

2015-09-02-1441154950-8832744-3Csinq.jpg

37...Rf6+!
There was also a more placid way: 37...Nf7 38.Kf5 (38.Bxf3 Nh8#) 38...Nh8+ 39.Rf7 (39.Ke6 Qf6#) 39...Nd4 mate.
38.Kxf6 Ne4+ 39.Kg6
[39.Ke6 Nd4#]
39...Qg5 mate.
A brilliant performance!

We can understand why Nakamura was upset about not seeing the queen sacrifice on the square f2. It is his favorite square as seen from one of his finest victories.

Krasenkow,Michal - Nakamura,Hikaru
Barcelona 2007

2015-09-02-1441155160-7199154-4sinq.jpg

21...Qxf2+!!
This remarkable queen sacrifice is a brilliant refutation of white's play. The white king is flushed out and the hunt begins.
22.Kxf2
[22.Kh1 Rxf6 23.Ne4 Qa7-+]
22...Bc5+ 23.Kf3
[23.Re3 Bxe3+ 24.Ke1 Bxd2+ 25.Kxd2 Rd6+-+;
23.Kf1 c3+ 24.Re2 c2!-+;
23.Bd4 Bxd4+ 24.Kf3 Rf6+ 25.Kg4 Ne5+ 26.Rxe5 Bc8+ 27.Kh4 Rxe5-+]
23...Rxf6+ 24.Kg4 Ne5+ 25.Kg5
[25.Rxe5 Bc8+!;
25.Kh4 Rh6+ 26.Kg5 Rg6+ 27.Kh5 Bc8+-]
25...Rg6+ 26.Kh5
[26.Kf4 Nd3+;
26.Kf5 Bc8+ 27.Ke4 Rd6]
26...f6
[26...Bc8 27.Ne4 Be7 closes the mating net faster.]
27.Rxe5
[27.Bd5+ Kh8 28.Kh4 Rh6+ 29.Qh5 g5+ 30.Kh3 Rxh5+-+]
27...Rxe5+ 28.Kh4 Bc8
[28...Bc8 29.Bf3 (29.Bd5+ Rxd5 30.g4 Rd3 31.Qf3 Bf2+ 32.Kh3 Rxg4 33.Rb8 Rg3+ 34.Kh4 Rh3#) 29...Rh6+ 30.Bh5 g5#]
White resigned.

The Sinquefield Cup was a magnificent event proving again that professional chess is thriving in the United States.
The world champion Magnus Carlsen can still finish first in the Grand Chess Tour, but he will have to win the last event in London in December.

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 Lennart Ootes