Who Is Your Pick To Win The Sinquefield Cup?

Who Is Your Pick To Win The Sinquefield Cup?

| 42 | Chess Event Coverage

Ten of the world's top 18 players will compete at the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, the third leg of the Grand Chess Tour. In this preview, I look at head-to-head stats and recent games.

While World Champion Magnus Carlsen opted out of the GCT and world number-three GM Vladimir Kramnik is sidelined by chronic back pain, two of the world's four players rated over 2800 will vie for the $75,000 grand prize and precious tour points. Seven of the eight participants in the recent candidates' tournament will make the annual pilgrimage to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, the mecca of American chess.

Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. | Photo: Lennart Ootes.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave spearheads this impressive cast of chess characters, a who's who of the world's elite. The Frenchman with two names has been on a tear recently, earning clear first in the prestigious Dortmund tournament and then following that victory with a 3-1 classical match victory over GM Peter Svidler. MVL arrives in the states at his peak rating of 2819, the seventh-best mark in history.

The match with Svidler was topsy-turvy, but Maxime's tournament-clinching win in Dortmund over GM Ruslan Ponomariov was a true masterpiece.

Can Maxime Vachier-Lagrave keep up the top shape he has shown in July?

Such displays of positional dominance had the new world number-two in a great mood.

Vachier-Lagrave will surely also be delighted that Kramnik and Carlsen are sitting this one out. Against them, he has a miserable collective score of one win, eight losses, and 17 draws in classical chess. He only beat Carlsen once, way back at Biel in 2011, and he has lost six times to the reigning world champion. On the other hand, Vachier-Lagrave has at least an even score against all but one player in the field.

Perhaps it might surprise you that that player is GM Hikaru Nakamura, who actually boasts three wins and no losses in decisive classical contests against Vachier-Lagrave. That record includes an important win from the Khanty-Mansysk Grand Prix event, which helped the four-time U.S. Champion qualify for the Candidates'.

Hikaru Nakamura came second at the recent Bilbao tournament.

Nakamura got the monkey off his back by finally beating Carlsen, but his struggles are not limited to Magnus. He has a poor record against Svidler, though the numbers are misleading since the Russian grandmaster won the first six decisive games, but he has won none since 2011. Nakamura's true Kryptonite in this field is last year's Sinquefield Cup winner, GM Levon Aronian. Aronian leads their classical series 12-6, with many draws sprinkled in.

The World Chess Hall of Fame, with its iconic wooden king,
opposite of the playing venue. | Photo: Lennart Ootes.

The Armenian, who defeated all three Americans en route to the title at last year's Sinquefield Cup, has expressed immense disappointment at falling short in the Candidates' for the second consecutive cycle. However, he has seen his rating increase from 2765 to 2792 in a year's time, indicating a return to form. Who else can claim to have beaten Magnus Carlsen twice in a five-month window?

Levon Aronian is defending his Sinquefield Cup title.

While Aronian is on the rise, GM Anish Giri is experiencing a major slump. Giri is (unfairly) mocked by chess fans for his proclivity for draws, including 14 straight at the Candidates'. In Bilbao just two weeks ago, Giri hallucinated and blundered away a half-point against GM Wei Yi. Another bad tournament could drop the Dutch hyperglot out of the top ten, but if he can convert advantages (something he failed to do in the following game), he will surely right the ship.

If Anish Giri finds his form, he'll be a force to reckon with.

Giri certainly isn't the only player hoping the Sinquefield Cup is the cure to their chess woes. GM Ding Liren looked outmatched against GM Alexander Grischuk and was fortunate that the 2.5-1.5 loss wasn't more lopsided. A further loss to a 2500-player knocked him down another rung.

Yet the nosedive was sudden. A second-place finish in Tata Steel behind Magnus Carlsen and a 2.5-1.5 match win over Wesley So brought the top Chinese player to 2783. If Ding Liren can play as precisely as he did in this win over Aronian (against whom he has accumulated two wins and two draws), perhaps he will find himself toward the top of the crosstable.

Not in great shape either: Ding Liren.

Ding Liren's inexperience, highlighted in this video by FM Mike Klein, does the wildcard entrant no favors. GM Wesley So struggled as the wildcard last year, scoring 0.5/5 against the top five finishers and floundering to a last-place finish. So actually has an extremely poor classical chess record against the field, as he does not have a plus score against any participant in the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. Still, the current world number-seven is obviously capable of amazing chess, as evidenced by his demolition of GM Garry Kasparov in this recent (blitz) game.

Wesley So, one of the co-leaders in the Grand Chess Tour.

On the absolute other end of the experience spectrum is former world champion GM Viswanathan Anand. Anand has been among the world's elite players for longer than some of today's best have been alive. For context, Wesley So was not even two when Anand took on Kasparov for the 1995 PCA World Chess Championship, which Kasparov won 10.5-7.5. Included in that score is one of Anand's finest career victories, a beautiful exchange sacrifice leading to the sound defeat of Garry the Great.

While many of Anand's games can be found in "best-ever" discussions, understandably his results have suffered in the past year. Last August, he was rated 2816 and still seemed nearly invincible against anyone not named Magnus Carlsen or Hikaru Nakamura (Amazingly, Hikaru boasts seven victories to merely one for Vishy.). However, the number 46 has not been kind to Anand as he has dropped as many points as his age since last year's Sinquefield Cup. He did flex his muscles at the Candidates' with some vintage Vishy performances, but a late loss to Nakamura dashed his hopes. Will he be able to stave off Father Time a bit longer and add the 2016Sinquefield Cup to his vast trophy collection?

Viswanathan Anand, still going strong at 46.

That very same question applies to GM Veselin Topalov. Like Anand, Topalov has suffered a precipitous drop from 2816 a year ago. Topalov, 41, finished dead last at both the London Chess Classic and the Candidates' Tournament before proving he had something left in the tank at the Altibox Norway Chess tournament. In Norway, the Bulgarian beat the lower-rated GM Nils Grandelius and made peaceful results with the 2750+ octet. It is unlikely Topalov will steal the Sinquefield, but a good showing could catapult him back into the world's top-10. If he can replicate the quality of chess demonstrated in his win over Nakamura from last year, Topalov has chances for a comeback.

How will Veselin Topalov, the winner of last year's Norway Chess, do in St. Louis?

Hoping that neither legend steals his St. Louis spotlight is reigning U.S. champion, GM Fabiano Caruana. Caruana, who suffered heartbreak by narrowly losing out on the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world championship, has some great chess memories at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Caruana reeled off a historic seven straight wins in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup and beat Nakamura in November's Showdown in St. Louis. Currently rated 2807, Caruana is a perennial favorite to win the Sinquefield Cup.

Below, witness how Caruana outprepared and then crushed Anand at the recent candidates' tournament.

St. Louis has been very generous to Fabiano Caruana so far! 

This field is rounded out by the last-minute replacement, GM Peter Svidler. Svidler is a powerhouse player, a Grünfeld guru, and somehow still manages to always be overlooked.

Nakamura's tweet was written in partial jest, but it raises a fair point. Svidler, a seven-time Russian champion, five-time olympiad gold medalist, and the 2011 World Cup champion, just doesn't get the love from the masses that he deserves. Svidler's ingenuity has been on full display in his battles with GM Sergey Karjakin, including at the 2015 World Cup. This game from 2013 is a prime example of Svidler's fight and might.

Seven-time Russian champion, Peter Svidler, makes his debut in St. Louis.

Now that I've covered the entire field, I guess I have to pick a winner. I'm going with Aronian, because I feel that his preparation and current form will make him a tough out. I know Levon loves playing in St. Louis, and his inspired play reflects his dedication to his craft.

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