A final day that few could have predicted saw Fabiano Caruana dominate blitz world no. 1 Hikaru Nakamura in the Showdown in St. Louis to claim the $60,000 winner’s purse with two games to spare. Hou Yifan was in even more of a rush, wrapping up her match against Parimarjan Negi with no less than four games still remaining. Nakamura said afterwards that nothing matters but the upcoming Candidates, while Hou Yifan’s thoughts are on her rating not winning another World Championship title.
We can’t take all the credit… but Fabiano Caruana started his day in St. Louis by playing warmup blitz against Jan Gustafsson and Pepe Cuenca – where else could he turn for willing cannon fodder but to two grandmasters who had been playing Banter Blitz non-stop for 71 hours! Watch how the games unfolded, with Caruana’s manager Lawrence Trent also playing the intrepid Banter Blitzers:
The whole tone for the eight blitz games was set by the very first encounter of the day. Nakamura squandered almost a minute on his clock on an unfortunate sequence of moves. Here’s the position after 12.fxe4:
Caruana quickly spotted 12…Bg4! and was suddenly winning, since 13.Qxg4 Bxd4+! loses the a1-rook. Nakamura pointed to that moment:
I just didn’t see tactics. Today, for example, I used like 30 seconds on this f3-e4 idea in the first blitz game and then there was this 12…Bg4 tactic, which I saw as soon as I played it.
I don’t think he was in the best form. Especially in the first couple of games he was missing a lot of things.
Fabiano did admit that he lost control towards the end, though, with the fast 3+2 time control taking its toll – “I was ready to take a draw in the first game until I saw 66…Be4! at the last moment”:
You can replay all the blitz games using the selector below:
That finishing touch meant that Fabiano had increased his lead to two points. Although that didn't necessarily mean much with seven games still remaining, Caruana went on to dominate the next two games as well. He was unfortunate to let a win slip in the second, but fortune smiled on him again in the third:
Hikaru has just taken a bishop on g3 with 59.fxg3?, when he should have exchanged rooks on e7 first. Why? Because after 59…Rf6+! (opening up a path to d7) 60.Ke2 Rxd7 White has lost a rook and the game.
Nakamura’s match situation was looking grim, but he composed himself to win a nice fourth game by trapping a white knight on a8. The fifth could have transformed the whole course of the match, though not because Nakamura was close to a win in purely chess terms.
Caruana had an advantage with the black pieces, but when he went to queen his c-pawn he was puzzled:
It all happened very fast. I knew that you have to put the queen on the board before pressing the clock, but somehow it got pressed.
He’d actually brushed the clock with his hand when he went to pick up a new queen. Chief Arbiter Tony Rich intervened and could have forfeited Caruana on the spot, but after a brief discussion common sense prevailed and it was decided that the accidental pressing of the clock shouldn’t be punished – or at least not by more than the five seconds added to Nakamura’s clock.
Hikaru did well to hold a draw, but desperately needing a win he instead got crushed in Game 6.
The position where Nakamura resigned the game and match is actually mate-in-5:
That meant the two remaining games were a mere formality, though Nakamura’s fighting spirit came to the fore. Game 7 lasted a whopping 152 moves as Nakamura tried everything he could to win an ending with a bare rook against a bishop. Caruana held firm.
The final game looked likely to end in a tame draw when it started with the 5.Re1 variation of the Berlin, but Nakamura felt he was doing what he should have done all along – playing into an opening position where his opponent might be unwilling to reveal his preparation in a blitz game. Eventually Caruana blundered and Nakamura had narrowed the margin of defeat to two points:
Afterwards Caruana explained why he’d been confident ahead of the blitz segment of the match, despite trailing his opponent by over 200 rating points on the blitz list:
I think I’m a pretty good blitz player. I thought it would be pretty close, but actually it wasn’t very close, which surprised me.
He gave a modest but no doubt accurate explanation for his success (Carlsen has often given the same recipe for blitz and rapid success): “I didn’t make outrageous blunders”.
Rex Sinquefield had told us earlier that Nakamura had a heavy cold in St. Louis, and the man himself confirmed he’d been, “pretty much sick for the entire match”, although he didn’t want to use that as an excuse. The US no. 1 was relieved that such a debacle hadn’t occurred at the 2016 Candidates Tournament and admitted he might struggle to focus on the upcoming London Chess Classic. He now understood a former World Champion:
It’s strange. I’m going to try and play well, but it’s going to be difficult from a mental standpoint. I was thinking back a little bit to like 2008-9, and even 2010, when I think Vishy Anand prior to his World Championship match was losing games left and right, losing a lot of rating points and just struggling in general. At the time I kind of thought, what’s with him? It should be no different than just any tournament that you’re competing in, but as I’m finding out that’s not the case, obviously. As far as London goes I’ll try and play well, but it’s going to be interesting for everyone, because almost all the players there have qualified to play the Candidates and we’re going to see some different openings and chess than you would normally see in a tournament so strong.
Nakamura explained that in chess it’s only for the World Championship that you can win millions of dollars, so:
Obviously everyone’s going to do what’s best for them from a financial standpoint rather than showing all their secrets and ruining their chances of possibly playing for the World Championship.
He then returned to the theme once more when asked about events in 2016:
It’s all dependent on what happens in March. It’s all about March, March, March and pretty much everything else just doesn’t matter.
When Maurice Ashley paraphrased that opinion about the London Chess Classic as “irrelevant” to Caruana, the US no. 2 shot back:
I don’t think it’s irrelevant. If it’s irrelevant you might as well not play.
Caruana wants to focus on events before the Candidates, although of course he’s also in that to win it:
To win it would be amazing - it’ll also be very difficult, but I think I have my chances.
If Negi wanted to overhaul Hou Yifan’s 3-point lead going into the final day he was going to have to play brilliantly, but that never looked on the cards.
A loss in the second game meant he was living on the edge and then, not for the first time in St. Louis, he suffered a minor chess tragedy in a game where it looked like he might be on course to win. He later admitted that doubts kept creeping in whenever he had a better position, and on this occasion he first let the advantage slip and then actually managed to lose on time in a clearly drawn position while playing 51...Kd8:
The win for Hou Yifan gave her match victory, and the half-embarrassed smile shared by the players was one we’d grown familiar with. From then on the match petered out, with three draws and one win for Negi in the final four games.
Afterwards Hou Yifan explained that her upcoming World Championship match with Mariya Muzychuk didn’t fixate her as the Candidates did Nakamura:
For me now the more important thing is trying to improve my rating and be more compatible for the top fields. That’s my main goal in future, instead of just regaining my Championship title for how many times – that’s not really important!
You can replay the full show, from where all the player quotes and the screenshots are taken, below: