‘Half Man, Half Zombie,’ Nakamura Wins Chessable Masters, Beats Caruana Twice

'Half Man, Half Zombie,' Nakamura Wins Chessable Masters, Beats Caruana Twice


GM Hikaru Nakamura defeated GM Fabiano Caruana in the Champions Chess Tour Chessable Masters 2023 Grand Final to win Division I on Friday. The “half man, half zombie,” as GM Robert Hess called Nakamura on the broadcast, came back from the dead (the Losers Bracket), defeating World Champion Magnus Carlsen along the way, and won two matches against Caruana—culminating in a single armageddon game—to take home the title.

In their seven games total on Friday, they made zero draws. Remarkably, Black won six of the games, and the only White win was Nakamura’s in game four of the first set.

GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov won Division II after defeating GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the Grand Final. He defeated Vachier-Lagrave once on Thursday, and he triumphed in their rematch on Friday in four games, without allowing a second match.

GM Amin Tabatabaei won Division III after defeating GM Alexey Sarana in the Grand Final on Thursday. 

Division I

Grand Final 1st Set: Caruana-Nakamura 1-3

Despite being the slight underdog, Caruana won their previous match in this tournament with an overwhelming 2.5-0.5 score, clinching the victory in three games. In order to win the title after coming from the Losers Bracket, Nakamura needed to win the match two times.

He won the first set, in which all four games were decisive—not a single draw.

Caruana was in the driver’s seat for most of the first game, but after tenaciously defending, Nakamura traded queens into an equal endgame. The psychological battle shifted sharply in Black’s favor, and within a few moves the reigning United States champion lost control—a win for Nakamura.

The Black side won the next two games as well. Caruana won game two after meeting a flank attack with an instructive counter-blow in the center, but Nakamura struck back with a victory in game three, in an insanely complicated opposite-colored bishop middlegame. 

In game four, needing just a draw, Nakamura bravely played the Smith-Morra Gambit, sacrificing a pawn on move three. He actually revealed later that he had this opening prepared for Carlsen, but never got the opportunity to use it.

One philosophy is that the best way to play for a draw is to play for the win, and the super-GM streamer’s risky strategy paid off: Nakamura won the game and made it to the second set of the Grand Final. The psychological tide of events was in his favor.

Grand Final 2nd Set: Caruana-Nakamura 1-2

Since he topped the Winners Bracket, Caruana was entitled to a second match. This one would be just two rapid games, not four.

Nakamura won the first game after accurately defending an intimidating-looking pawn storm on the kingside. Once his king was safe, Nakamura went on the counterattack, and showed that it was really Caruana’s own king that was in trouble.

GM Rafael Leitao covers this brilliant defensive effort in our Game of the Day, annotated below.

GM Rafael Leitao GotD

But the match didn’t end there. Caruana was in a must-win situation in the next game with the Black pieces. But when Nakamura grabbed a pawn on b7, opening the path to his own king, Caruana had his chance.

The 2018 world championship challenger didn’t fail to bring home the attack, and finished it with a remarkable queen sacrifice (which Hess pointed out less than a minute before it was played). 

The finale could not have been more dramatic; everything would be decided by a single armageddon tiebreaker. Nakamura would have the Black pieces with 9:16 against Caruana’s 15 minutes; however, with the time odds, Caruana must win or he’d lose the match. 

The evaluation bar showed every possible evaluation over the course of this game: equality, victory for White, and victory for Black. Nakamura, however, had the better nerves and won the topsy-turvy game. 

You can listen to Nakamura’s own thoughts about the match in the video below:

After finding himself in the Losers Bracket on Wednesday, Nakamura said he gave himself a 20% chance of winning the entire event. After the first Grand Final match with Caruana went his way, however, he was more optimistic. 

In the interview, Nakamura also shared: “I think the most important thing is that… Fabiano and I both, once again, were not playing our best chess… I think that when Fabiano wasn’t completely there, that gave me some confidence to basically feel my way through the match.”

The 2023 Chessable Masters champion adds $30,000 to his bank account and gains 150 tour points. Caruana receives $20,000 and 100 tour points for finishing second. Both players, as well as Carlsen, earn spots in Division I of the next CCT event in May for finishing in the top three.

Division I Standings

Division II

Abdusattorov defeated Vachier-Lagrave for the second time in this event to win Division II on Friday. In contrast to Division I, the White pieces won all three decisive games.

This match was closer than the last, where the French grandmaster lost all three games. Abdusattorov won the first game, but Vachier-Lagrave struck back in game two, winning the game with a flashy (yet temporary) queen sacrifice.

The decisive game was the third. In a Catalan Opening, Vachier-Lagrave made a natural move to contest the open c-file. Paradoxically, his move lost control of the c-file; soon after, his pieces were nearly paralyzed with passivity. He dropped a pawn as he attempted to unravel his pieces, but facing the loss of a second pawn, he threw in the towel.

Abdusattorov played the Petroff Defense with Black in game four and was never worse in the game. With a convincing draw, he won the match and the division.

The Uzbek GM earns $10,000, 50 tour points, and most importantly, a first-class ticket to Division I of the next CCT event. Vachier-Lagrave finishes the week earning $7,500 and 30 tour points for finishing second.

Division II Standings

Division III

Tabatabaei took home $5,000 and 20 tour points after finishing first in this division on Thursday.

Division III Standings

The Champions Chess Tour 2023 (CCT) is a massive chess circuit combining the best features of previous Champions Chess Tour editions with the Chess.com Global Championship. The tour comprises six events spanning the entire year and culminating in live in-person Finals. With the very best players in the world and a $2,000,000 prize fund, the CCT is Chess.com’s most important event to date.

Only grandmasters are eligible for automatic entry into the Play-In Phase. Other titled players (IM and below) can play in the Qualifiers that take place every Monday starting February 13, except on weeks with a Play-In or Knockout (21 in total). The top three players from each Qualifier will be eligible to participate in the upcoming Play-In. 

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