Wesley So has won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. He finished a half point ahead of four players after a last round filled with tension and drama.

And the last shall be first. One year after Wesley So of the United States finished last in the Sinquefield Cup, he has won the 2016 edition of the tournament.  (The tournament was held at Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.)

Going into the round,  So was leading by half a point. He played a very solid game with Black to easily hold a draw against  Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, the top seed, who is ranked No. 2 in the world. To win the tournament, though, So needed help, as three players trailed him by only half a point prior to the last round. If any of them won, there would be a playoff for the title.

Two of those players, Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and Levon Aronian of Armenia, were playing each other. After a long struggle, Topalov eached a technically winning position, but he choked just as victory was in his grasp:

Topalov, Veselin vs. Aronian, Levon
Sinquefield Cup | St. Louis | Round 9 | 15 Aug 2016 | 1/2-1/2
54. a5 Rb8+ 55. Ka3? After nursing a small advantage all game, Topalov finally reached a winning position. But his last move threw away the win.
55. Kc3! This was correct. White will play Ra4 and advance the a-pawn, then invade with his king in the center. For example:
55... Ra8 56. Ra4 Kc5 57. a6 Kb5 58. Ra1 e5 59. a7 Kb6 60. Kc4  )
55... Ra8 56. Ka4?
56. Kb4 Even this was good enough. White could still win by repeating the position and correcting his error.  )
56. Ra4! Would have still won, even with the lousy king position of the king on a3
56... Kc5 57. a6 Kb5 58. a7 Kb6 59. Kb4  )
56... Ra7! 57. Rd4+?
57. Kb4 White could still have found the right plan  )
57... Kc5! And Blacks pieces are active enough to save the game.
58. Rd8 Rb7 59. Rc8+ Kd4 60. a6 Re7 61. Kb5 Kxe4 62. Rc4+ Kd3 63. Ra4 e5 64. Ra3+ Kd4 65. a7 Rb7+ 66. Kc6 Rxa7 67. Rxa7 e4 68. Ra4+ Kd3 69. Kd5 e3 70. Ra3+ Kd2 71. Kd4 e2 72. Ra2+ Kd1 73. Kd3 e1=N+ 74. Kc3 Nf3 75. Rf2 Ne1 76. Rd2+ Kc1 77. Rh2 Kd1 78. Rf2 Kc1 79. Rd2 Nf3 80. Rd5 Ne1 81. Rd8 Nf3

Since Viswanathan Anand of India, the other player trailing So, drew against Peter Svidler of Russia, the title belonged to So.

While the critical games to determine the title were all drawn, there were also two decisive games. Hikaru Nakamura of the United States had the most impressive win over Ding Liren of China. As far as I know, this was the first game between these two players — who are also two of my favorite competitors. The game was a bit one-sided, though I commend both players for playing in such a dynamic and uncompromising style.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Ding Liren
Sinquefield Cup | St. Louis | Round 9 | 15 Aug 2016 | 1-0
17. O-O Nh5? This was asking for trouble
17... Rc8 Something like this looks better to me, and is a good prophylaxis move. I'd still prefer White, but Black would have a fighting chance.  )
18. d5! White wastes no time opening up the position.
18... Qxh4
18... exd5 19. exd5 Qxe5 20. Re1! This silent move creates a loud threat. Black's position collapses quickly.
20... Be7 21. Bxb5 Qc7 22. dxc6 axb5 23. Nd5  )
19. g3! White has to play this move to slow Black's attack.
19. dxc6? g3 And Black wins because he has a check on c5.  )
19... Qg5 Now the blows start raining down on Black.
20. dxc6! Qxe5
20... Qxc1 21. cxb7!  )
21. cxb7 Rb8 22. Nd5! exd5 23. Qc8+ Ke7 24. Rxa6 Black is obviously busted. The engine is reading +6 for White. A few accurate moves from Hikaru brought the game to an abrupt conclusion
24... Nxg3 25. Bxb5! Ne2+ 26. Bxe2 f6 27. Re6+ Qxe6 28. Qxb8 White will soon be able to promote his b-pawn to a queen.

For Anish Giri of the Netherlands, things went from bad to worse as he had his second consecutive tournament in which he lost three games and won none. His final loss of this tournament was to Fabiano Caruana of the United States — which pushed Giri’s rating down to 2755, a drop of over 40 points in his last 20 games. Still, the young Dutchman has had plenty of setbacks in his career and always overcame them, and I expect that he will bounce back from this recent rough patch.

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Giri, Anish
Sinquefield Cup | St. Louis | Round 9 | 15 Aug 2016 | 1-0
Nxb3 11. cxb3!? An unusual recapture, but not a bad one. White is hoping to use the half open c-file
11... Be7 12. Nc3 O-O 13. Be3 Qd7 14. h3 Rad8?!
14... f6! In light of how the game continued, it made more sense to start with f6 after which White does not have time to double his rooks on the d-file
15. exf6 Rxf6  )
15. Rd2! f6 16. Rad1! White correctly evaluates the queen vs. two rooks position to be in his favor.
16... Nxe5 17. Nxe5 fxe5 18. Nxd5 Bxd5 19. Rxd5 Qxd5 20. Rxd5 Rxd5 21. Qc2! c5 22. g3 White is better here because of Black's numerous weaknesses and the well-anchored White bishop on e3.
22... Kh8 23. h4 Rfd8 24. Qe4 h6
24... Bf6 I would prefer leaving the pawn on h7, but White would still have a lot pressure.  )
25. Kg2 Bf6 26. Kh3 h5 Not a move Black was happy to play, but what else? The threat was g4 and g5.
27. a4 Rd3 28. axb5 axb5 29. Qg6 e4 30. Qxh5+ Kg8 31. Qf5 Bxb2 32. Qxe4 c4 33. bxc4 bxc4 34. Qxc4+ White now wins easily.
34... R3d5 35. g4 Kh8 36. g5 Bd4 37. Bxd4 Rxd4 38. Qf7 R8d7 39. Qe8+ Kh7 40. Qh5+ Kg8 41. g6 Re4 42. Qh7+ Kf8 43. Qh8+ Ke7 44. Qxg7+ Ke6 45. Qh8 Rd3+ 46. Kh2

Top level players will now have a couple weeks off  before they head to Baku for the Chess Olympiad, which begins Sept. 1. 


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 5 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.