Reports Nov 13, 2017 | 3:02 PMby Colin McGourty

Champions Showdown 4: Naka, Fabi & So triumph

US stars Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So crushed Veselin Topalov, Alexander Grischuk and Leinier Dominguez in blitz to take the $60,000 winner’s prize in their matches. That theme of utter domination continued in the other match, where World Champion Magnus Carlsen opened up a 17-point lead over Chinese no. 1 Ding Liren after winning three and drawing the rest of the 20-minute games. That match continues on Monday and Tuesday.

Veselin Topalov finished with under half the points of Hikaru Nakamura, but at least he enjoyed himself! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Carlsen overpowers Ding

Though the top story of the day has to be the three matches that ended on Sunday, let’s begin with Magnus Carlsen and Ding Liren. There are two reasons: first, a couple of Magnus’ wins there are what the day will be remembered for, and second, Carlsen gave the best description of what seemed to happen in all four matches. 

Magnus Carlsen had sympathy with Ding Liren's predicament, but it wasn't going to stop him taking maximum advantage | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

He told Maurice Ashley that Ding lost his balance after an unfortunate loss in his first game with White, and described what can happen when you go behind in a match:

You lose confidence, you start to second guess your intuition. At some point you can’t do anything anymore. You can’t see the simple things. You start to miss everything. You’re trying to do too much, that’s often the problem, then you’re thinking that, “I should just settle down”, but then it’s very hard. It’s very hard once you start losing to stem the tide and your opponent always feels it when you’re down. That doesn’t help.

You can play through all the games in the Carlsen-Ding Liren match using the selector below:

Their first game on Sunday was a sharp but balanced draw, before in the second game it seemed that Ding Liren had a chance to apply a typical Carlsenesque squeeze on his opponent’s position:


Here, though, it seems Liren chose the wrong plan, playing 36.Kh4 and 37.g5 next move, when he was soon left with a weak pawn on h5 he could only defend with his bishop. Magnus gradually rounded up the pawn and went on to win with the crisp, perfectly calculated chess he’d shown in his victory the day before.

A tough day at the office | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

Ding Liren had fallen 9 points behind and looked dejected, but he still steadied the ship with a draw with Black in the next game before things completely fell apart in Game 4. The opening seemed to go badly wrong, with Magnus’ 5th move inviting his opponent into a structure his second Jon Ludvig Hammer had tried last year. That already had Liren thinking, and soon Magnus was not only on top but ready to unleash a devastating onslaught on his opponent. 22…d5! gained the f5-square for the black bishop…


…and shortly afterwards 27…Rc3! was a blockbuster final move. The threat of the discovered check from the bishop on b6 is just one of the deadly threats.

This time Ding Liren wasn’t able to recover in time for the next game and the unfortunate 27…Qc8? opened him up to a simple but brutal finish:


28.e5! dxe5 (28…Bxe5 of course allows 29.Ne7+) 29.d6! (again 29…cxd6 30.Ne7+ is the killer) 29…Ra8 30.Ne7+ Bxe7 31.dxe7 and Black resigned, since the e7-pawn is just too strong.

Magnus not only gave an exhibition of crisp and ruthless chess, but was also pragmatic and happy simply to shut down the next game for a draw in 33 moves. His lead already looks unassailable, and he explained:

I think I’ve just got to continue in the same vein, basically. I’m trying to play solidly and decent objective chess - not too many escapades in the opening or whatever.

For the final two days Ding vs. Carlsen will be the only show in town | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The only consolation for Ding Liren was that he had a lot of companions in misery after Sunday’s action.


You can play through all the other games using the selector below:

Nakamura 61.5:30.5 Topalov: Motivation!

A relaxing day by the fireside for Hikaru Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

One match in St. Louis has been absolutely no surprise to anyone. Hikaru Nakamura said he picked Veselin Topalov to experiment with dynamic chess, but he also knew he was getting an opponent he could expect to demolish at the fastest time control. Veselin’s chance came in the 20-minute games, when he arguably had winning positions in five of the six games, but again and again he spoiled them, to end up losing that section 4:2, or 16:8 when the score multiplier was taken into account. He entered the blitz trailing by 13 points and the suspense didn’t last long. Nakamura came from behind to win the first game and then won the next two as well to take the $60,000 winner’s prize with no less than 9 games to spare!


At that point he could have been forgiven for taking his foot off the gas, but Hikaru found reasons to go all out and eventually ended up with more than double Topalov’s score. He said that on Facebook “a couple of people reminded me this counts for the blitz rating”, while it also went towards the Universal Rating System (he’s currently joint second behind you-know-who) which may give him qualification for the 2018 Grand Chess Tour. For those purposes it wasn’t easy for Hikaru, and his 9 wins and 3 draws only enabled him to pick up 10 rating points on the live list. That’s of course because Topalov’s rating (currently 2694) reflects the fact he is, as he put it, “probably the worst blitz player from the top”.

If one game was needed to sum up how the day went it would be Game 8, where at one point Topalov had a tricky mate-in-9, but even up to move 76, after many adventures, he still had an extra piece:


Here Topalov threw away the win with 76…Ne5?? 77.Nxb8 before finally completing the disaster by dropping his knight at the end of the game. It goes without saying that all took place in a time scramble:

What a game! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

And Topalov’s motivation? That was an issue. As he told Maurice Ashley:

I’m a good loser (smiles), but of course I need a bit more practice. My problem is I’m not really so eager to work on chess anymore - I’m not trying to improve. I just lost motivation. My priorities are different.

That match was fun at times, but did turn out to be the mismatch everyone suspected. The other two matches, however, were anything but predictable. Alexander Grischuk and Leinier Dominguez had been tipped to get better the faster the time control, but just when they’d opened up comfortable leads they were blown away by their opponents. The live blitz top 10 makes it cleared we’d witnessed something special:


Grischuk 43:49 Caruana: Fabi can play blitz

Fabiano Caruana admitted, “I was also counting myself out at some point yesterday”, and if he hadn’t flagged Alexander Grischuk in a totally lost position in that infamous 5th 10-minute game he would have been trailing by 16 points. As it was he won the next two games as well to enter the final day a mere four points behind his opponent.

Caruana was relentless as Grischuk suffered | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Still, that lead was significant and you had to feel that with a day to recover Grischuk would be back at his formidable speed chess best for the final day. Strangely, though, he put up very little resistance. In the first game he’d survived a hyper-aggressive Sicilian attack only to go astray in what should have been a drawish position, and then in Game 3 Fabiano won a miniature to level the match. 26.e6! was just too strong:


That was when we got to witness the only glimmer of light for Grischuk:


Here Fabiano should have captured the bishop on d2, but touched his c-pawn, only to realise his mistake too late. He had no choice but to move it, but no good square to put it on, and after 9…c6 10.Nxe4 dxe4 11.Ng5 he lost a pawn and, ultimately, the game. Grischuk was back in the lead and for a moment it seemed we might get a closely fought end to the match, but Caruana took comfort from that game. His efforts to draw it almost paid off until he let his bishop get trapped at the end, and he concluded, “it still showed that I can defend some very bad positions”.

Alexander Grischuk joined Topalov and Dominguez in politely losing to the player who had invited him | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Grischuk had won his first game in eight attempts, but it was also to be his last win of the match. Fabiano was simply playing better and faster chess and kept varying his openings. A pattern developed that Fabiano would draw with White and win with Black, and by the time they reached the final two games Grischuk knew he had to win both simply to force a draw (in which case the prize money would be split). He had an advantage with Black in the penultimate game, but as Caruana noted, “The real difference today is that I didn’t make big blunders”. Only extreme precision would have given Grischuk the needed win, and when his edge slipped away his disappointment was there for all to see. He was grim-faced for the last game and once again fell to defeat.


What went wrong? Perhaps the jet lag and exhaustion after playing the European Team Championship on Crete finally caught up with Grischuk, but unfortunately we never got to hear his side of the story. Caruana, meanwhile, put it down to practice…

Before this I had a lot of training games against a strong opponent in 5-minute, no increment, and so I kind of felt acclimated to the time control. I just tried to play quickly and not let it get down to a complete time scramble.

…and living well:

I did try to do some things I haven’t done in the past in blitz tournaments – stay hydrated and get some fresh air. I think I managed at least the situation psychologically better than in the past, and better than Grischuk.

That leaves the remaining match, where much of the above again applies!

So 47.5:44.5 Dominguez: “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do”

So and Dominguez were next to Ding and Carlsen before they were moved for making too much noise! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Leinier Dominguez flagging Wesley So in a time scramble full of two-handed moves and scattered rooks will almost certainly be what’s remembered from the 2017 Champions Showdown. It seemed to have a deep psychological impact on Wesley as well, since in every interview afterwards he talked almost exclusively about flagging. His post-match talk with Maurice was a lot of fun, and included:

No increment is really a big deal - it changes everything. People will flag you if they have one single pawn. I figured just to play fast…

With 5-minute no-increment you’ve just got to play, you’ve got to play fast. Basically I’m not really a blitz player. I don’t really practice blitz unless I have to – tournaments like this one or the Grand Chess Tour. I’m more of a classical player, more of a thinking guy, but today there was simply no time to think…

You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do! I think it’s very unethical to flag people, but desperate times call for desperate measures… Nice guys finish last!

You can rewatch it below:

Wesley noted, “We were banging [the clock] so loud we got moved from next to Magnus to the very end!” and the clock even ended up covered in his blood at one point. He showed that he’d learned his lesson as he flagged the lightning fast Dominguez in the first game of the day, which was his fourth win in a row. A fifth followed, and it was symbolic of how far Wesley had come since Game 5 the day before had seen him drop 16 points behind:


Back then Wesley had blundered a rook on d1 to Nf3+, but here with 45…Nf3+! 46.Bxf3 Rxe1+! he crashed through to victory.

Things continued to go all Wesley’s way and by the fifth game of the day he’d overcome a 7.5 point deficit to take the lead. He added one more win before Dominguez finally had something to cheer about:


So has just played 24…Re6, but here resigned, since 25.h7+ Kh8 26.Qxf7 will be mate on g8 or g7. That suddenly restored intrigue to the match, but then in the next game Wesley won again after Dominguez missed a chance to force a draw, and then in Game 10 there was a comedy of errors:


Dominguez had already let a crushing advantage slip before being given another chance. Wesley must have assumed 54.Qxg4 is no option here due to the discovered check 54…e2+, but then simply 55.Qxd4+ also comes with check, and is a trivial win. Instead 54.Kf1?? followed, and then Wesley forced a draw by repetition. He could instead have played on in a winning position, with more time, and would have won the match if he managed to convert.

In the end Wesley So did what he had to do | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

It didn’t come back to haunt him, though. Dominguez now had to win the final two games to avoid defeat, but fell at the first hurdle. Wesley played solidly with White and when Leinier over-pressed So made no mistake to win the game and match. Dominguez went on to score a consolation win in the final game.


Apart from his new-found flagging skills, Wesley put his success down to changing his approach in the opening:

I think my mistake on the first two days was to keep insisting on the Berlin. That put me at a huge disadvantage, as I think Leinier prepared very well with some setups. I figured I should probably avoid the Berlin until the Candidates next year.

When quizzed further about that he explained the joke (though don’t be surprised to see the chess opening either…):

Because it’s going to be held in Berlin!

Before that we’ll get to see Wesley, Nakamura, Caruana and Carlsen in the London Chess Classic that starts at the end of this month, though of course there’s still a job to do for Magnus! The final two days of the Champions Showdown will be a lot easier to follow, since it’s now down to just Magnus and Ding Liren, who will fight it out in eight 10-minute and then finally 12 5-minute games.

Can Ding Liren copy Caruana and So and mount an unlikely comeback? | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

Watch all the action with commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24: Carlsen vs. Ding Liren

You can also follows the games in our free mobile apps:

         

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