Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, 30, France’s top player and the world No 10, edged out three US rivals by half a point on Thursday night to capture the $90,000 first prize at America’s most important international event, the annual Sinquefield Cup in St Louis.
The Sinquefield had begun promisingly with a wave of attacking chess in the first three rounds, but then subsided as all five games in rounds six, eight and nine were drawn. Vachier-Lagrave’s halved final game against Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov followed a sequence which contains a queen sacrifice and looks spectacular until you consult the database and find 15 exact replicas, the majority played among top grandmasters.
It was understandable that the Frenchman would go along with the sequence; he was Black in his pet Grunfeld 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5, he was half a point clear, and the only one who could pass him on tiebreaks was the world No 2 Fabiano Caruana, who was also Black against the tough Hungarian Richard Rapport. In the event Caruana got an edge, toiled for hours in a rook ending, but could not overcome an accurate defence.
Vachier-Lagrave’s success is a plus for his limited opening repertoire, Sicilian Najdorf and Grunfeld as Black, which he knows in depth. That also applies to his playing the white side of the Berlin Wall/Endgame, which Vladimir Kramnik famously used to nullify Garry Kasparov’s Whites in their 2000 world title match. Vachier-Lagrave v Jeffery Xiong turned out to be decisive when the 20-year-old American, the youngest in the tournament, fatally opened up the h file at move 18, allowing the strong 20 Rh1! after which the Frenchman wrapped up the game nine moves later.
ザ・ 2021 renewal of the $325,000 Sinquefield Cup, named after the local billionaire who has made St Louis a global chess centre, was packed with American grandmasters as several overseas invitees failed to overcome visa and/or travel issues. Magnus Carlsen normally plays, but the world champion and his Russian world challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi are currently busy cooking up opening novelties in preparation for their $2m 14-game title match at Dubai that begins in November.
It is rare nowadays for an English grandmaster to be the No 1 seed at a major international, but it is happening now in Reykjavik where GM Gawain Jones, rated 2684, heads the 180-strong entry for the European Championship and its €20,000 first prize.
Two years ago, when Vladislav Artemiev won in Skopje, the top three seeds were all 2700+ Russians, whereas in 2021 the highest-rated Russian is seeded 12th. Geographical location and the pandemic explain the difference. For Yorkshireman Jones, 33 and twice British champion, it will still be a career-best result if he can justify his seeding against a field containing seasoned GMs and rising stars.
Playing White in Thursday’s opening round against a Moldovan IM, Jones produced an opening shock for English fans watching online as he launched the reputedly unsound Milner-Barry Gambit 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Bd3!? cxd4.
Sir Stuart Milner-Barry in his time replied 7 cxd4 Bd7 8 0-0 offering both central pawns. The new approach is 7 0-0!? Bd7 8 Re1, inviting dxc3 9 Nxc3. Jones’s opponent declined the gambit and was level for a while, だが class told later.
Most grandmasters reckon it lucky to have a single opening named after them, but Milner-Barry had four: the Advance French above, his variation of the Nimzo-Indian 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 Qc2 Nc6, the Petroff 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nxe5 d6 4 Nf3 Nxe4 5 Qe2 Qe7 6 d3 Nf6 7 Bg5 Nbd7 and the King’s Gambit Falkbeer 1 e4 e5 2 f4 d5 3 Nc3.
It might sound from this that he was a dedicated openings student, but when we shared a room at the 1952 Helsinki Olympiad and I spent my evening hours poring over opening books and bulletins (no databases then), Milner-Barry would just settle down to his crossword, compose a long letter to his wife, then take a nip of whisky as a nightcap. He still scored better than me.
Milner-Barry was a career Treasury civil servant who became a key code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the second world war and later administered the UK honours system. For a decade while he was in charge, OBEs were awarded or offered to those leading the chess explosion which made England silver medallists behind Soviet Union gold at the 1984 そして 1986 Olympiads.
After Milner-Barry retired in 1987, the supply of OBEs immediately dried up. When Nigel Short defeated Anatoly Karpov and reached a world title match against Garry Kasparov, a greater achievement than any of the OBE recipients, he received just an MBE. For the last 30 年, there have been virtually no awards for chess services in England. Michael Adams, the longstanding No 1 who reached a world final and has led the national team for more than two decades, has never been offered an official honour.
The Reykjavik event is being played at the Hotel Natura, a name more familiar to chess players as the Hotel Loftleidir where Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky both stayed during their historic 1972 match. When Fischer failed to attend the opening ceremony, and Spassky refused to draw lots and asked for a game forfeit, Fischer personally delivered an abject handwritten apology under Spassky’s room door. に 2005, when Fischer was detained in Japan awaiting extradition to the US and was saved by being granted Icelandic citizenship, he arrived in Reykjavik and was accommodated in the same Loftleidir room as in 1972 – Suite 470. The hotel still displays a replica of the 1972 chess table. Rounds of the 2021 championship start at 4pm BST, and can be followed on major chess websites.
Hopes for a new England chess generation to follow the established grandmaster quartet were boosted when Ravi Haria, 22, won last week’s Wood Green Invitational with an unbeaten 7.5/9. The University College London economics graduate from Elstree, Hertfordshire defeated strong GMs from Germany, Russia and France earlier this summer. Haria’s best win, against the Hungarian top seed Tamas Fodor Jr, showed the power of two rooks on the seventh – also known as raging rooks – as they caught the white king in a mating net.
Strike while the iron is hot is excellent chess advice, and Haria is now competing in the GM all-play-all at the Northumbria Masters, with an intense schedule of two games a day until Monday. He still needs around 60 rating points and another GM norm to qualify for the title, and kept up his fine form on Thursday evening with a smooth round one win.
Another success could be imminent in Budapest, where England’s youngest chess hope, 12-year-old Shreyas Royal, is in second place with an unbeaten 4.5/7 with three rounds to go in the Vezerkepzo IM tournament. His third round win was achieved by a crushing attack. This is Royal’s second visit to Hungary, and he has already advanced his Fide rating from under 2200 to approaching 2350. しかしながら, a negative clock is ticking as, unlike some previous English prodigies, the Woolwich boy has no sponsor.
3778 The game went 1 Nxe6+ fxe6 (if Qxe6? 2 Rb8+ Nc8 3 Qd8+ wins) 2 Bxh6! gxh6 3 Qf6+ Ke8? 4 Rb8! Qxb8 5 Qh8+ and 6 Qxb8 winning on material. If 3…Kg8 4 Qxh6! (better than 4 Qxe7 Ra1 5 Rxa1 Rxa1+ 6 Kh2 Rh1+! with perpetual check) will win.