Nakamura faces Caruana after mouse-slip thwarts Magnus

Nakamura faces Caruana after mouse-slip thwarts Magnus


Magnus Carlsen’s last move in a major tournament as the classical World Chess Champion may have been to mouse-slip and blunder away his queen, as Hikaru Nakamura won an Armageddon thriller to set up a Grand Final rematch against Fabiano Caruana. Earlier in the day Magnus had been in top form as he beat Levon Aronian 2:0 to snatch an automatic spot in Division I of the next tour event in May.

Day 4 of the Champions Chess Tour is when two players get to have a rest. Fabiano Caruana, as the winner of the Winners bracket, got the whole day off before the Grand Final, while Hikaru Nakamura could sit back and watch early on as Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian battled it out for the right to face him.

Not that Carlsen and Aronian need too much sympathy. Both have shown that one of the virtues of online chess is that you can combine it with a holiday. While Magnus has been skiing in Chamonix, France, Levon has chosen the somewhat warmer Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

In their match, however, it was Carlsen’s icy precision that prevailed, with Magnus continuing to improve by the game after he began the Chessable Masters with a loss to Vladislav Artemiev.

He got some help when Levon went for 7…0-0!?, which invited 8.g4!

The not-too-subtle threat is g5 and grabbing the pawn on e4, and Levon decided to allow that with 8…d6 9.g5 Nd7 10.Nxe4 before striking back with 10…f5!?

In what followed Levon seemed to do little wrong, and in fact he found some fine moves, such as 26…a6!

That was an extravagant but correct way of defending c5, with 27.Bxa6 Ra8 28.Bd3 Nb3! 29.Rd1 Rxa2 following. Magnus still had an enduring edge, however, and he made serene progress until Levon had nothing left to do but resign.

That meant Levon had to win the next game to force Armageddon, and while beating Magnus on demand is seldom easy, he at least managed to muddy the waters by offering a central pawn in return for a chaotic position. Magnus continued to play well, however, with 18…Nxb4! offering an exchange sacrifice on f8.

Levon accepted with 19.Bxf8 Kxf8 20.Kh1 and here 20…Nd3! was almost winning on the spot, but required spotting the concealed tactic 21.Rc2 Bxc5 22.Rxc5 Nxf2+! and Black wins.

Magnus played 20…Kg7 instead, but it did no harm to his chances, since he kept control and ultimately got to trap Levon’s knight with 41…Bd6!

It was time to resign, since you can’t protect the knight, but if it moves then after 42…Rxg3+ 43.Kh2 Black can pick up material with check e.g. with 43…Rc3+.

That win already meant Magnus would finish in the Chessable Masters Top 3 and avoid the need to qualify for May’s Champions Chess Tour event, but it was clear he had his sights set on completing his comeback and finally returning to the Winners bracket. To do that, however, he had to beat Hikaru Nakamura. When asked about their great rivalry (Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov were mentioned), Hikaru explained that it had been since the pandemic.

It’s like comparing the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox won a world series in 1918, then didn’t win again until 2004. That’s probably a better comparison, and the Yankees won something like 15-16 world series during that time. I don’t think you could say that in terms of the early days, but the last couple of years I’ve found a way to play well. I think the main thing is I don’t fall apart against Magnus.

While wearing an “I literally don’t care” T-shirt, Hikaru clearly did…

…and a tense showdown followed. Queens were exchanged by move 5 of the first game, but it was a game laced with strategic menace. Magnus gave first one pawn, then a second, yet seemed to be on top with the bishop pair and heavy pressure against the white king.

In the end, however, it was perhaps Magnus who was living dangerously.

32.Rd1 Rab4 33.Rxd4 Rxb3+ fizzled out into a fast draw, but 32.Rf1! would have won the bishop, and after 32…Bxg3 33.Rxg3 Rd2 it turns out there’s no immediate way for Black to force a draw.

In the next game Magnus demonstrated he had ambitious plans with the white pieces.

Once again, however, we soon got a technical rather than a swashbuckling position. 14…Bb7 invited simplifications.

After 15.Qxd7! Nd4! 16.Rxd4 cxd4 17.Qxe7 Rxe7 18.Bxd4 Magnus decided to give up a pawn to reach an opposite-coloured bishops position where the chances of anything going badly wrong were slim. In fact Hikaru offered a draw a few moves later, and we were headed to Armageddon.

Magnus has made a tradition of outfoxing his rivals when bidding for the lowest time he’s willing to accept to play Black, but this time it was Hikaru who won the battle, bidding just 10 seconds less than Magnus.

That meant Carlsen had to win or he was out of the tournament, while a draw would be enough for Nakamura.

The opening went well for Magnus, however, as he fixed a pawn on d5 that gave him long-term pressure against the black position. Hikaru felt, however, that Magnus went astray with 23.g5!?

Magnus described that as:

Not a good decision practically, because it simplified the position. I felt that at that point I had maybe 5.5 minutes left, and I thought he could have just played Qg3 and f4, just kept the pressure up and kept the game going forever, and he sort of simplified a little bit too early.

Hikaru returned to the theme later:

If we reach this queen and pawn endgame, I think it’s something at the start like 3.5 minutes, if I have 2 minutes there, I lose I would say 90% of the time, but because he simplified too soon, that extra 90 seconds, 100 seconds, really did make a huge difference.

It was a valid argument, but on the other hand, things could easily have gone differently. 30.Qh7!? was a challenging move, but 30.Rc6!? might have been stronger.

Hikaru used his response here as an example of how he’s improved in recent years.

In the past I would have fallen apart very quickly. Especially the 3rd game, when he played 30.Qh7, I’d missed this Qh7 idea altogether, and I saw Magnus’ reaction when I played 30…Rf8!, he realised that he had made a slight mistake too, allowing that.

31.e5! might have altered the evaluation of the position, but even though we soon got a queen and pawn endgame it was anything but easy, as evidenced by the fact that Magnus missed a “mathematical” win on move 40.

Calculating pawn endgames is one of the trickiest tasks in chess, however, especially since the stakes are so high. In this case 40.Qe6! was winning, but it meant entering a pawn endgame a pawn down after 40…Qxe6 41.dxe6 Kxe6 42.Kg4 and e.g. 42…Ke5 43.f3 Kf6 44.b3! and it turns out Black is in zugzwang.

In the game, Magnus kept the queens on and managed to keep posing problems, so that Hikaru had to be alert to two ways of potentially losing — getting “flagged”, i.e. running out of time, or simply getting outplayed. Hikaru explained how it felt:

You’re trying to defend, defend, defend, and he can’t win every match. I know he’s the greatest player of all time, but he can’t win every match! Somebody can’t just get lucky every single time. It was just nice for a change to have something go my way.

What went Hikaru’s way in the end was that just when flagging was on the menu, Magnus mouse-slipped by putting his queen on f6, where it could be taken. An intense battle was over, and you could see just how much it had meant to both players.

That meant Magnus Carlsen is out of the Chessable Masters, while Hikaru Nakamura gets a chance of revenge against Fabiano Caruana. There’s a long way to go, however, since for Hikaru to win the Chessable Masters he needs to win two matches. He commented:

It’s going to be tough, coming off the high from today, to have to play Fabiano tomorrow, to have to win one match, then win a second match.

For Fabiano, meanwhile, a win in the first 4-game match will wrap up overall victory and a place in the Champions Chess Tour Play-Offs in December.

The action continued in the other brackets on Thursday, and in fact finished in Division III, where Amin Tabatabaei beat Alexey Sarana in the final to clinch $5,000. He’d previously overcome Aleksandr ShimanovShakhriyar MamedyarovGata Kamsky and Shamsiddin Vokhidov.

The Division II Grand Final will be between Nodirbek Abdusattorov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a repeat of the clash 18-year-old Abdusattorov won 3:0 in the Winners bracket final, including a shock mate-in-1.

MVL managed to bounce back, however, by beating Anish Giri in the Losers final. 19.Qe5! was essential, since after 19.Rfd1? Qb7! White has no good way to deal with the pressure on g2.

20.Qh6 ran into 20…Bf8!, winning the g7-bishop and ultimately the game and match.

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