Carlsen on epic blitz match vs. Nakamura

Carlsen on epic blitz match vs. Nakamura

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Hikaru Nakamura described a 40-game match against Magnus Carlsen as “one of the biggest mistakes” of his career, but the triple world champion doesn’t believe his explanation.

On the last day of 2010, Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura played a “legendary” private blitz match of over 40 games in Moscow. That year was Carlsen’s first as the world #1, while the American star had just broken into the world Top 10 in classical chess. Nakamura was already hailed as a legend due to his play on the Internet Chess Club (ICC) as “Smallville”.

The match took place just after the closing ceremony of the World Blitz Championship, where Carlsen finished 3rd and Nakamura 5th. The two had not had enough chess that day, and Macauley Peterson, chess journalist and producer, told the story for USChess.com.

After the games, as Carlsen was on his way out, I casually asked him if he had any interesting plans for the evening — now that the event was over — before leaving Moscow the next day. He had none, and turned to leave, but then, after a moment’s thought, he spun back with an idea:

“Well, maybe ask Nakamura if he wants to play a hundred blitz games.”

Now, to play a hundred games of blitz takes a seriously large chunk of time. Even if you could play them back-to-back with no breaks, ICC caffein-binge-marathon-style, it would take over eight hours. So, naturally I thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.
“OK, I’ll ask him.”

It didn’t last 100 games, but eventually they agreed on 40 games, which lasted more than six hours, until 4.30 am, according to Peterson, who says the match was taken very seriously by both players. Initially planned to take place in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton hotel, it was moved to Henrik Carlsen’s suite.

“I think both he and I were a bit disappointed after the World Blitz Championship, so I got the idea that we would play 100 games. I remember he was immediately rather sceptical, but then he thought it would be fun,” Carlsen told NRK in a recent interview.

The interview is a response to Nakamura’s appearance on Lex Fridman’s podcast last year, where he said he regretted that he agreed to play the match in the first place.

The final score of the match was long kept private, but eventually leaked. Some sources claim it ended 23.5-16.5, others 24.5-15.5 in Carlsen’s favour.

“I agreed to play this match, probably I should not have,” says Nakamura on the podcast.

He explains that he had a nice dinner with Peterson that evening, where they had a few drinks, but that’s not why he thinks it was a mistake.

“The reason that I should probably should not have agreed to play the match, and why I very often reference it as one of the biggest mistakes, in terms of competive chess, that I made, is specifically because it gave Magnus the chance to understand my style of chess,” the 35-year-old continued.

Hikaru Nakamura’s first classical win against Magnus Carlsen came during the 1st round of the 2016 Bilbao Masters. Their Round 6 game was a draw | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

In the years to follow, Nakamura struggled in classical encounters against the three-years-younger Norwegian. To date, Carlsen has an astonishing 14-1 score in decisive games.

“At the time I actually had pretty good results against Magnus. I think maybe he was up one or two games, but there were many games where I had been pressing or close to winning against him prior to that match.”

“When I went to play that match there were a few things that happened. First of all, Magnus started to understand my style, because we played all sorts of openings. I think he understood that at times I wasn’t so great in the opening, and there were many openings where I would play slightly dubious variations as opposed to main lines.”

The match was played with 3 minutes per player, plus a 1-second increment each move. Nakamura says the games made him realize how difficult it was to beat the then future World Champion, as Carlsen defended endgames “amazingly well”.

Speaking to NRK, the Norwegian doesn’t buy his rival’s takeaway from the match.

“He has done very well with his chess, so it all worked out. I doubt it was decisive, unless he really got inside his own head.”

Carlsen does agree that his rival’s openings were poor at the time, which gave him an edge in the blitz match.

“It was partly because his openings were bad, especially with Black, and in part due to some psychological factor. I think he was more inside his own head there than necessary. At least I didn’t think about it like that.”

Over the last couple of years Nakamura has combined a very successful career as a full-time streamer with several good results in over-the-board chess, taking him to 5th place on the FIDE rating list, his highest spot since 2015.

Chess fans will be happy to see the two fierce rivals battle it out once again in the Chessable Masters, which begins on Monday, April 3. Carlsen and Nakamura are also both confirmed for the 11th edition of Norway Chess in Stavanger, that runs May 29 – June 9.


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