Hikaru Nakamura and Leinier Dominguez took the lead in their matches against Veselin Topalov and Wesley So, but the match of the first day of the Champions Showdown in St. Louis was Caruana-Grischuk. They traded wins but also played the day’s most memorable game, when a fascinating struggle came down to wild time scramble in which Fabiano Caruana gave up all his pieces but flagged his opponent for a draw. And this was in the first four 30-minute games, with 26 faster encounters ahead!
Let’s briefly start with a FAQ section that has one question:
The most-anticipated match of the Champions Showdown in St. Louis is World Champion Magnus Carlsen taking on Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren, but that didn’t start with the other matches. Their match begins on Saturday and also lasts two days longer, so on Monday and Tuesday all the attention will be focused on that encounter.
The reason for the strange scheduling is that Magnus had engagements on Thursday in Hamburg, Germany. First he was interviewed by Die Zeit journalist Ulrich Stock, where he talked about computers and human intuition. He noted, for instance, that Garry Kasparov was still “vastly stronger” than Deep Blue at the time he lost his infamous second match:
Magnus also commented on the current TCEC computer tournament:
Frankly most of the games they're playing are rubbish... but some of the games have brilliant, deep ideas that I tried to learn from.
In the evening he then went on to play a 13-board simultaneous display against users of his Play Magnus app, with IM Lawrence Trent providing live commentary. You can play through all the games with computer analysis, and replay the video, here on chess24. Magnus was limited to 30 minutes to play all of the games, but that wasn’t enough to stop him:
Then the real chess began…
Magnus will now be on his way to St. Louis, so let’s catch up on the Champions Showdown action. You can replay all the games using the selector below:
The most anticipated of the three matches
that did begin on Thursday was Grischuk-Caruana, and it didn’t disappoint:
The most interesting twist to this year’s Champions Showdown is that there’s no increment or delay, with Alexander Grischuk mincing no words in advance when he summed up the motivation behind that as “they want really dirty stuff”. Of course the clock is often an issue when time trouble addict Grischuk is at the board, and in the first games in St. Louis he struggled. It was tempting to put it down to jetlag (Grischuk had come straight from the European Team Championship on Crete), but he explained he’d been surprised in the opening and, “when you play against preparation it’s hard to play quickly”.
The first game was a 6.Be2 Najdorf where Grischuk missed his chance to go for the break Black is always aiming for:
After 26…d5! 27.exd5 Bc5+! Black has good compensation for the pawn, while after 26…h5? 27.Rc3! Qe8 28.Rc7! Black was objectively lost. Grischuk was also behind on time and so, with no flagging chances, he resigned when he found himself in an ending two pawns down.
After that game Caruana was asked about the time control without an increment:
I think it puts a lot of psychological pressure on the players from an early stage… Generally a game shouldn't end with one side losing on time in a completely won position, but it's ok for one tournament.
Those words almost proved prophetic in the next game. A Queen’s Gambit Accepted developed into a sharp strategic struggle that Grischuk later called, “a very nice game overall, until the very end”. It could have featured a real brilliancy, since Caruana had the chance to play 41…g3! with the point that 42.Qxb6, which seems to solve all White’s problems, has a huge drawback:
42…Qh3!! wins on the spot, either to the beautiful pawn mate 43.gxh3 g2# or to 43.Qf2 Qxh2+! 44.Bxh2 gxf2 and the pawn queens.
In the game after 41…Ne2 there was soon a position where Caruana should probably have forced a draw by repetition, but instead he played on until he admitted at some point it was only about the clock. He started moving just his king as that was fastest and didn’t notice that he put his queen en-prise. It all ended somewhat farcically here:
Theoretically it is possible for Black to give checkmate if White cooperates, so it seems if Grischuk had lost on time here he would have lost the game, despite his overwhelming army. Instead, though, Fabiano went for 80…Bc5? (he said he "wasn't thinking clearly", but did his subconscious self want to avoid flagging Grischuk?) allowing 81.Qxc5 and this time definitely a draw. Although… it should be noted that a replay showed Grischuk’s time actually ran out before he took the bishop!
The arbiter, meanwhile, was as confused as the rest of us and initially thought Caruana had the white pieces…
Grischuk felt we hadn’t seen anything yet:
In this game it was not that bad. We were not dropping pieces until the very last move.
The video below should start at the moment Fabiano Caruana is going back over the last moments of the game with Alejandro Ramirez. Of course you can also watch the whole day's action:
Grischuk levelled the match in the next game after Caruana played the Anti-Berlin and then, in a tricky position, sacrificed a piece for no compensation. Alexander was ruthless, with the final move 40…Ng3+! a fitting end to the encounter:
The final 30-minute game saw a repeat of the Game 2 line, but this time Grischuk was the one with decent winning chances until it eventually fizzled out into an opposite-coloured bishop ending. The players are tied at 10:10 (there are 5 points for a win in the 30-minute games, then 4 for a win in the 20-minute games and so on).
This match-up has puzzled observers, since it seems on paper Hikaru Nakamura should be a heavy favourite against Veselin Topalov in fast time controls. When quizzed about why he chose Topalov, Hikaru noted:
I’m trying to experiment a bit and play a little sharper, so I think Veselin is a good opponent to play against.
He wanted to “broaden his horizons”. Veselin, meanwhile, had assumed he was picked more or less at random, noting, “I didn’t even know he was allowed to choose!”
In any case, it hasn’t proven a mismatch so far. The first game was a tight Caro-Kann that was drawn in 33 moves, before the second game saw Hikaru sacrifice a pawn for powerful compensation. At some point he lost his way, though, and the US star admitted he was ready to take a draw before his Bulgarian opponent defended a little too actively. It was still balanced, though, until Topalov cracked in time trouble with 59…f5?
60.Rh8+! forced resignation, since after 60…Ke7 61.Rxd8 Kxd8 62.g7 the pawn queens. 59…Rd7 was the way to avoid that disaster.
Magnus Carlsen earlier in the day had talked about how he felt it was “stupid” how many of his colleagues rely so heavily on computer preparation and then mix things up when they’re not thinking at the board. Game 3 of the Nakamura-Topalov match was a case in point, with Hikaru describing it as “so stupid” that he played 11…Bg6!? instead of 11…Bg7 (a move played by Giri against Anand), and then tried to follow up with a plan that would have worked in the other position but not the one on the board. Topalov noted the moment Nakamura was in big trouble as 15…0-0?!:
He castled to the kingside and then all my pieces were there!
A few moves later after 19…Rh8 the game could have been over very quickly:
20.Ng5+! Kg8 (20…Kg6 21.Bh5#) 21.Nxe6! is devastating, but Topalov’s 20.Nh5 also got the job done slowly but surely.
An upset start to the match was on the cards, but Hikaru’s speed skills again came to the fore in the final game of the day, when Black’s pieces became hopelessly tied up. This is the final position after 76.Ra7:
Any way in which Black tries to defend the b7-knight runs into the 77.Nd5+ knight fork.
Unfortunately Hikaru is one player we won't get to see demonstrating his skills in a World Rapid and Blitz Championship this year, since it seems a $2 million prize fund and an all expenses paid trip won't tempt him to play in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from 26-30 December this year:
Our prediction for this match read:
Too close to call – expect more draws than in the other matches, with both players likely to play solidly unless the score is badly against them.
For once that hasn’t been so far off the mark, with all four of the games between Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez starting with the Berlin Defence and the first three of them ending in draws. To be fair, the 4.d3 Anti-Berlin was played in each game, though to be less fair you might note that the first pawn capture in Game 2 took place on move 37!
There wasn’t too much to write home about until the final game, in which Leinier Dominguez had White and built up a big advantage. He let it slip, though, until the game entered another phase:
I was barely thinking about the position anymore… We had less than 30 seconds and then it was not chess.
Dominguez eventually took the lead when Wesley made a move in a split second and missed a killer knight fork:
We can expect more of the same on Friday, when the time control speeds up to 20 minutes per player, with six games. After that they’ll play eight 10-minute games on Saturday and 12 5-minute games on Sunday. There’s a lot of chess ahead!
Watch the games live with commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24. You can also follows the games in our free mobile apps: