Speed Chess Championship 2023 (Semifinals): Nakamura Enters Beast Mode In Bullet Chess, Will Face Carlsen In Final

Speed Chess Championship 2023 (Semifinals): Nakamura Enters Beast Mode In Bullet Chess, Will Face Carlsen In Final


GM Hikaru Nakamura will face the self-proclaimed “final boss of chess,” GM Magnus Carlsen, in the Final of the 2023 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship presented by Coinbase. On Wednesday, Nakamura defeated GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 16.5-11.5. 

Vachier-Lagrave started strong by winning, consecutively, the first three games of the match. From there, Nakamura fought back to even the score, and it was a close match until the bullet section. In the final, fastest segment of the match, Nakamura ran away with it. 

Mark your calendars: the match of the ages takes place on Friday, September 22, at 2:00 p.m. ET / 20:00 CEST / 11:30 p.m. IST.

Nakamura 16.5-11.5 Vachier-Lagrave | Semifinals

Vachier-Lagrave was the only player besides Nakamura to defeat Carlsen in SCC history. That was in 2020—and he went on to lose to Nakamura in the Final with a score of 18.5-12.5. This was a shot at revenge.

Nakamura is the five-time SCC champion and was certainly the favorite, but as Carlsen estimated in his post-match interview yesterday, it was going to be a fight. It certainly was, for most of the match.

SmarterChess predicted a Nakamura victory, with a one-point difference in the 5+1 and 1+1 portions. It maintained a modest forecast in the bullet segment, considering Nakamura beat Vachier-Lagrave in the bullet by three points in 2016, by four points in 2018, and by five points in 2020. Curiously, he won this year by six.

As it turned out, the players were pretty evenly matched in the first segments. Nakamura won the first by one point, while Vachier-Lagrave won the second by two. What set them apart was the bullet chess, where the American GM was simply unparalleled.

5+1: Nakamura 5-4 Vachier-Lagrave

“The key for me is how MVL starts in the 5+1 portion,” said Korley a few minutes before the match began. As we saw in Nakamura vs. GM Fabiano Caruana this year, a poor start in the first segment meant a high chance of a landslide as the time controls quickened. 

Vachier-Lagrave won the first three games, but the reigning SCC champion completely took control of the second half. The latter even managed to win the last game of the segment to take a one-point lead.

Nakamura started the match with some interesting white openings. In the first game, 1.Nc3 left him slightly worse after the opening moves. Later, in the middlegame, White’s pawn grab 18.Bxb7 (it’s hard to recommend another move anyway) allowed Vachier-Lagrave to lash back with a furious attack. The highlight was 20…Rb4!, when the queen’s rook morphed from being Black’s least active piece to the winning asset.

Game three saw Nakamura approach the Sicilian Defense with some creativity. 2.Na3!?, as Naroditsky explained, was once pioneered by GM Vadim Zvjaginsev.

It backfired though, and Vachier-Lagrave continued his winning ways, cleanly converting the endgame.

Nakamura, by this point, switched his opening strategy. Although he stuck with the Sicilian with the black pieces, with the white pieces he started to play his trusty Reti Opening (twice) and 1.e4 (once).

Nakamura won four of the six remaining games in the segment, with two draws. 

His second victory was a nice attacking game that finished with a crunchy rook sacrifice on a7.

The last game of the 5+1 portion was the wildest. Both players were winning at various points of the game, and a sharp battle in the time scramble simplified into a drawn endgame.

Just as it looked like a trivial draw, Vachier-Lagrave blundered into a lost king and pawn endgame—the key being that his opponent’s pawn promotes with check!

This was one of many turning points in the match. It was the first time Nakamura took the lead and a major chink in Vachier-Lagrave’s armor. GM Rafael Leitao breaks down our Game of the Day below.

3+1: Nakamura 3.5-5.5 Vachier-Lagrave 

The 3+1 segment was contested from start to end. Out of the nine games played in 60 minutes, just one was drawn. Neither player was able to take more than a two-point lead at any given moment, but Vachier-Lagrave emerged up by one in the end.

Game one was one of Nakamura’s nicest. Surprisingly, after some natural moves, the Frenchman’s bishop found itself utterly trapped on the opposite side of the board.

Vachier-Lagrave struck back with a roaring initiative in the second. With the exception of game four (draw), games three through seven were all wins with the white pieces as both players struggled to take the reins of the match.

Vachier-Lagrave destroyed 1…a6 in 20 moves in game seven, but even more impressive was the endgame in game eight. The French grandmaster with three names sacrificed a piece and ultimately won with a four-on-zero pawn majority.

The five-time U.S. champion “stopped the bleeding” by winning the next game, and the last one of the segment, bringing the damage down to a one-point deficit.

1+1: Nakamura 8-2 Vachier-Lagrave 

It was pretty clear from the outset that this match was turning upside down. They played 10 games in the half-hour, and Vachier-Lagrave only won the last one—after the match had been decided.

Mirroring the 5+1 portion in reverse, Nakamura won the first three games in the proverbial blink of an eye. 

Games four and five were draws, but to add insult to injury—for Vachier-Lagrave’s chances—they lasted over 100 moves each. Nakamura, with a comfortable lead, bled the match clock in these two marathons, and there were only 10 minutes left in the match by game six. Nakamura led by two.

There was still hope if Vachier-Lagrave could manage, on demand, to win two games in a row. But those hopes were snuffed by a mate-in-one blunder in game seven. 

Two games later, even the French grandmaster applauded as the world number-two found a pretty queen sacrifice to force checkmate. 

Vachier-Lagrave brought home a nice attack in the last game. It certainly earned some pride points, but the match was over. Nakamura moved on to the Final. 

Asked about the “El Classico” matchup (Korley’s term) against Carlsen, Nakamura responded: “I’ll have to play a lot better than I did today… it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.”

In addition, Nakamura enlightened fans as to why he wore a hat—sort of a good luck charm, he said—at the start of the match, which he later removed. He said that older fans might remember he wore this cap on stream in “the early days,” 2018 and 2019.

He added: “The reason I wore the cap, of course, was because Magnus wore that ridiculous-looking, was it a Puma cap or something, the other day.”

Vachier-Lagrave exited the tournament gracefully, complimenting his opponent’s play in the bullet segment.

Nakamura earns $11,919.64 for winning the match and Vachier-Lagrave makes $3,080.36 by win percentage.


All Games | Nakamura vs. Vachier-Lagrave | Semifinals

The main event of the 2023 Speed Chess Championship Presented by Coinbase takes place September 4-22. It is the strongest online speed chess contest in the world, with 16 players—12 invited and four qualifiers—vying for a share of the $150,000 prize fund along with one of the most prestigious titles in online chess. 

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