Caruana Wins Playoff, Earns Grand Chess Tour Finals Spot
Fabiano Caruana completed an improbable Grand Chess Tour comeback today. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Caruana Wins Playoff, Earns Grand Chess Tour Finals Spot

| 96 | Chess Event Coverage

London calling, again. This time, it's a double chess "clash" for Fabiano Caruana.

Earlier this year he won the Candidates' Tournament to qualify for November's world championship. Now, he will be back in London in December for the Grand Chess Tour Finals, also known as the London Chess Classic.


Both Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana gambitted their c-pawns as White, but So was in more of a rush to get his back. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Today in St. Louis he drew the opening rapid playoff game but beat Wesley So in the rematch to earn the fourth and final spot to the finals. Caruana will be joined by Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who all had the day off by virtue of clinching yesterday.

"I'm incredibly happy, especially with how it all ended," Caruana said "When Magnus (Carlsen) won yesterday, I thought I was out. It was a roller-coaster day."

A correction to yesterday's reporting: Caruana is indeed contractually obligated to play in London. GCT officials yesterday told that no such language existed. Today the GCT officials corrected themselves, telling that all four of those players are required to play.

- video interview with and photos from the closing ceremony will be added here later.

The GCT deficit seemed almost insurmountable at the beginning of the month. Perhaps the two worst events of the year for Caruana were the Paris and Leuven events, which put him in dead last in the tour standings. But a decent fourth-place finish in the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz and a tie for first in the points-heavy Sinquefield Cup allowed him today's destiny.


So arrived in St. Louis three weeks ago with the Grand Chess Tour lead. He will leave as the man who just missed. | Photo: Mike Klein/

The head-to-head matchups in London are also known. Nakamura, the top seed, will play Caruana, the fourth seed. The two middle seeds, Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave, will contest the other opening-round battle.


Caruana grabs a bite and consults with coach GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov in between games. So had no coach on site. | Photo: Mike Klein/

After nine rapid games, 18 blitz games, nine classical games, and a playoff negotiation, here's the second rapid game today that finally gave Caruana the break he's been wanting. Even the final game went the full term—both players had only a few seconds, not counting the delay, at the end.

"I really tried to keep his rook out...You know, low on time, you might get mated!" Caruana said about the nervy final moments.

Much earlier in the game was the site of GM Maurice Ashley's favorite move. About the unnatural 26. Ra2, which his computer was recommending, Ashley simply wasn't sure such an idea would occur to Caruana in a rapid game. After it was played, Ashley momentarily forgot which sport he was covering.

"Slam dunk, baby!" he said.


Soledad O'Brien, a correspondent for HBO's Real Sports, was on site today. Here she chats with Saint Louis Chess Club founder Rex Sinquefield. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Why was this playoff so much more meaningful to Caruana? Well, the nixed Sinquefield Cup playoff was just for posterity, but this one was for a lot of coin. To whit: the four prizes at the GCT finals are a combined value of $300,000 USD, so just making it there gives a player an expected value of $75,000, assuming rough parity among the field.

That, in turn, made being sharp for today's playoff important. Just getting a chair at the two-person playoff was thus about a $37,500 expected value (again, assuming equal chances against one's opponent).


At the drawing of lots, Caruana ended up with the black pawn from chief arbiter Chris Bird's bag. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Here's the first game of the day, where So took White but was neutralized without much trouble by Caruana.

Caruana couldn't explain why his year has been going so swimmingly.

"I'm not really doing anything different," he said. "The year has been more than I could have ever expected."

But he didn't end his remarks about his own play. While he admitted the event produced few wins, Caruana noted that the last 24 hours have produced a fecundity of excitement.

"Levon's Rxf7 was one of the most gangster moves I've ever seen," he said.

The first news from the Sinquefield Cup closing ceremony came off the chess board and involved a lot of zeroes, and two chess heroes. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger announced that Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield today have just donated $50 million into a fund for St. Louis University to promote research, hire professors, and for scholarships. The Saint Louis Chess Club is already the benefactor of the St. Louis University Chess Team.

That's not a typo. confirmed later with Rex Sinquefield, and alumnus of the university, it is $50 million, not $15 million. A portion of the gift, the largest in the school's history, is earmarked for the chess team.


Rex Sinquefield is $50 million lighter, while Levon Aronian, Fabiano Caruana, and Magnus Carlsen are all $55,000 richer. | Photo: Mike Klein/

The ceremony continued with short questions and answers, mostly from the three winners -- Levon Aronian, Fabiano Caruana, and Magnus Carlsen. As you might guess, Carlsen was the most quotable. He was still eager to at least obliquely reference the playoff he wished he'd been afforded.

"I cannot say that I echo Levon's comment that it's nice to share the victory," Carlsen said. "It's much nicer to win on your own I think. I think Levon would also agree with that."


The Sinquefield Triumvirate of 2018 -- Caruana, Aronian, Carlsen. | Photo: Mike Klein/ asked Carlsen about the several mentions of nerves he admitted to on the live show.

"I've been telling people all my life that I get nervous, but they never listen," Carlsen said. "Maybe people will start now. It's part of being really competitive and really caring about the results, that nerves are bound to creep in at some point. It's part of the game. Learning to master it takes a lifetime for most people. I'm hoping to get there eventually." 

His next world championship challenger didn't want to make too much of this tournament's results as it might relate to November.


Mr. and Mrs. Caruana, also now residents of St. Louis, were in attendance and were recognized by their star son. | Photo: Mike Klein/

"We had pretty much an identical result," Caruana said. Did the champ agree?

"I don't mean to sound petty," Carlsen responded. "Actually I kind of do, but I had an extra black game!"


Graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.

Games via TWIC.

The Sinquefield Cup, the final qualification leg of the Grand Chess Tour, was a nine-round tournament from August 17-28. At the end of the tournament, four players will qualify for the London finals. The games in St. Louis began at 1 p.m. Central U.S. time daily (8 p.m. Central Europe).

Earlier reports:

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