Reports Nov 11, 2017 | 1:36 PMby Colin McGourty

Champions Showdown 2: The fastest hand wins

The three speed specialists lead their matches in St. Louis, with Hikaru Nakamura and Leinier Dominguez opening commanding 13-point leads over Veselin Topalov and Wesley So, while Alexander Grischuk has a narrow 4-point advantage over Fabiano Caruana. A time scramble caused by the lack of an increment or delay again dominated proceedings, with Dominguez moving with two hands and both players failing to put pieces on the intended squares as the chaotic 5th So-Dominguez game was eventually called in the Cuban’s favour.

Dominguez couldn't stop his king toppling over, but when the dust settled he had an extra rook and had won on time | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

On Day 2 of the Champions Showdown there were six games with 20 minutes per player in each of the three matches, with 4 points on offer for a win and 2 for a draw. You can replay all the action with computer analysis using the selector below:

Dominguez dominates So

Where can we start but with the match that ultimately generated the most emotion on the second day? At first it was a continuation of the day before, as the Anti-Berlin was played for the 5th time in five games, and for the 4th time in the match the game was drawn. At the end Leinier Dominguez was clearly better with the black pieces, but five minutes down on the clock he decided not to play on. Norwegian Grandmaster Jon-Ludvig Hammer broached a topic we’ll return to:

Wesley So seemed to decide the moment had come to change something and switched from the Berlin to the French Defence, but it didn’t work out. He ended up in a slightly worse ending and was then brilliantly outplayed by Dominguez, who combined speed and accuracy in a manner we’d become very familiar with as the day wore on.

Dominguez said his pre-match aim was to maintain his focus at all times | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The next game was the most brutal of the match so far (in a pure chess sense), as Dominguez marshalled all his pieces to attack the white king:

41…Nf4+! 42.Kg3 Ne2+! was all she wrote.

Having fallen 13 points behind Wesley So needed a win fast, and to his credit he got one, switching again, this time to the Petroff, and grinding out a victory in 59 moves. The lasting memory of the game, though, was perhaps the phenomenal resistance Dominguez put up in a position where he was in deep trouble on the board and far behind on the clock.

That set up the game of the day, which was exhibit no. 1 in the case for and against playing chess without increments or delays. Another Anti-Berlin was going well for Dominguez until he missed So’s 30.Qg3!, which forced off queens and left White with a favourable ending. As Dominguez put it:

He got a better endgame and I had much less time, so it wasn’t a good situation.

It became a question of whether or not Wesley would be able to squeeze out a win… or rather, that would have been the case if it was a normal game with an increment. 

This was before things got really crazy! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Without increments it was a different matter, and in hindsight it might have been wise for Wesley to offer a draw despite being up material, trailing in the match and having a healthy advantage on the clock. It’s time, for one final occasion, to quote Alexander Grischuk from an old interview with Vlad Tkachiev where he talked about Dominguez having the fastest hand of any player he ever saw. 

Unless he just happened to pass by Vlad Tkachiev seems to be in St. Louis as Alexander Grischuk's second - they got in some outdoors preparation | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

Grischuk is referring to the 2008 World Blitz Championship where Dominguez scored 8 wins and 7 draws to win gold half a point ahead of Vassily Ivanchuk and 1.5 points clear of Peter Svidler and Grischuk himself:

When he became World Blitz Champion in Almaty, without an increment, I could give perpetual check in my game against him, and I had 20 seconds until the end while he had 10. We both started to blitz out moves but my flag fell while he still had 5 seconds left, so in that phase he’d taken 5 seconds to my 20.

What followed in the game was a blur, but one it was hard to stop replaying and a lot of fun to debate!

You can watch the final stages of that game from the live show, and then the post-mortem that went long into the next games, on the live coverage:

As you can see, at some point Wesley was simply moving his king, as Caruana had done the day before against Grischuk, allowing Dominguez to pick up the rook. There was no happy ending for So, however, since his time had run out first in a position where he was dead lost.

Dominguez wasn’t sure of the result:

At some point I looked and I had five seconds and he also had five seconds and I realised it was just about moving fast and that’s what I tried to do… I thought it was a draw and I asked (the arbiter) and it shows a flag on the clock that lost… so he said it was a win for Black.

He commented:

We all knew it was going to happen, some situation like this… It’s basically the one who moves his hand faster will win – it’s not really about chess anymore.

A shell-shocked Wesley So commented, “I was in time for the most part, but at the end he just played like a machine”. He added:

I’m not really used to all this flagging technique with a few seconds. I don’t play online blitz that much… Maybe tomorrow I’ll use two hands!

The final joke was a reference to the fact that Dominguez had used two hands when capturing the white rook at the very end of the game, with the commentators adamant that the game should have been declared a draw. 

Blink and you missed it - Dominguez captures a free rook using both his hands as Wesley stands to try and speed up his play

Perhaps it would have been, if Wesley had challenged, but he pointed out he had no time to watch his opponent in the mayhem. There was also the fact that both players had been making illegal moves, with Wesley putting his rook completely outside the board at one point:

Note Leinier’s rook is also perfectly placed at the midpoint of four squares. The DGT board had of course given up at this point, so the action could only be watched live on the video.

Alexander Grischuk’s pre-tournament prediction had come to pass:

It’s a very strange format they chose. All games are without increment, so they want really dirty stuff… Online you can play without increment, but live it just becomes a dirty game.

The controversy remains, though for this observer it seemed wrong for the commentary team to be going over the final stages of that game in slow motion and complaining about the players' actions when we'd simply witnessed the inevitable outcome of the decision not to use increments or delays. Either you have to be careful what you wish for, or just sit back and enjoy the fun and not worry too much about the result! What's a $20,000 difference in prizes between friends   

With faster games to come we can expect much more of the same, and there's still room for it to get more dramatic. Almost the only remaining non-increment games nowadays are Armageddon ones, and one of the most famous of those took place in the 2008 US Women’s Championship, the year before they moved to St. Louis:

As mentioned, the final games of the matches were half-ignored amid the controversy, but in the case of So-Dominguez that was justified, with a quiet Petroff ending in a draw in 37 moves. 

Leinier's results have taken him to no. 3 on the live rapid rating list:

Wesley So has a mountain to climb in the match, with Dominguez if anything likely to be stronger as the pace increases on the final two days.

Topalov lets Nakamura off the hook

Hikaru Nakamura has also opened up a 13-point lead over Veselin Topalov to make him a huge favourite to win their match, but in their case the outcome of the second day’s play could have been completely different. Topalov had a winning or close-to-winning advantage at some stage of five of the six games, but kept missing his chances.

Another miss for Veselin Topalov | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

In the first game Nakamura won only after Topalov offered an exchange of queens that transformed a position with strong attacking pressure into a seriously worse ending. In Game 2 he let an advantage with Black slip and then in Game 3 Veselin found a killer blow:

19.Nxd5! exd5 20.b4! wasn’t winning material, but it did blow open the centre with all White’s pieces prepped to demolish the black position. There are too many positions to choose from to illustrate where Topalov then went wrong, but this one after 27…Nb3 is perhaps the clearest:

28.Qxg7! not only wins a pawn but deprives the white king of any chance of evacuating the centre. For a player of Topalov’s dynamic strength…

…the rest should have been child’s play. Instead, though, he played 28.Rfb1?!, allowing 28…0-0! White still had excellent chances, but it was Hikaru who ultimately missed a chance in the play that followed.

Topalov-Nakamura has certainly lived up to the expectations of enjoyable, dynamic chess | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The same story continued as Topalov missed some chances as Game 4 ended in a draw, while Game 5 was their first and only quiet game of the day. Then, yet again, Topalov failed to exploit an advantage in the last game and may even have forgotten that he was still a piece up at the end:

Nakamura had seized the initiative with the white pieces, but if Topalov had given up his extra piece for the pawn with 56…Bxe6! Nakamura would still have work to do. Instead Veselin resigned.

Caruana falls at the last

By far the most closely fought match of the Champions Showdown has been between Fabiano Caruana and Alexander Grischuk, with the players level before a blunder in the final game of Day 2. The match was thematic, with a 4.d3 Anti-Berlin in every 20-minute game where Caruana had White and the same line of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted whenever it was Grischuk’s turn to start.

Fabiano Caruana is very much at home in St. Louis | photo: Spectrum Studios, official website

After two tight opening games Grischuk missed a good opportunity to sac the exchange in the third and eventually had to sac a piece instead. He gained insufficient compensation and Caruana took the lead. Grischuk finally hit back in Game 5, with an impressively smooth attack that only gave Fabiano one chance for a great escape:

28.Bxc5!! Nc3+ 29.Rxc3 Rxd3  30.Rxd3 Bxc5 31.Rd8+ Bf8 32.Nd4! and e.g. 32...Qe7 33.Ne6! and taking on f8 next move would have been brilliant in a rapid game. 

After Caruana’s 28.Be3, though, there was no salvation and 28…Nc3+ 29.Rxc3 Rxd3 30.Rxd3 saw Grischuk win in 46 moves.

No-one said it was going to be easy | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The last game of the day seems to have been one game too far for the players, with Grischuk letting an advantage slip and then playing 46.Rc6!?

46…Qxa4! may be winning, but instead Fabiano missed a minor detail with 46…Rxg3?? and had to resign after 47.Qxb4 removed his queen from the board.

A late surge on Day 2 swung the match in Grischuk's favour 

So Grischuk took a somewhat fortuitous lead that may prove significant as the players go into faster games where his advantage is likely to grow.

This is the state of play after two days in the three matches involving the US stars

On Saturday a certain Magnus Carlsen joins the action as he takes on Ding Liren in glacially slow 30-minute games while the rest of the players will be battling it out in 10-minute clashes.

Watch all the action with commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24: US stars | Carlsen vs. Ding Liren. You can also follows the games in our free mobile apps:


See also:

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