Reports Sep 6, 2019 | 1:57 PMby Colin McGourty

Chess9LX, Day 4: Nakamura completes comeback

Hikaru Nakamura started the last day of Chess960 in St. Louis a point behind Levon Aronian but went on to win the match with two rounds to spare, as Levon went an incredible 14 games without a win. Elsewhere it took Wesley So just one game to wrap up victory over Veselin Topalov, while Peter Svidler did the job against Leinier Dominguez before the final four rounds. Caruana-Kasparov had been decided the day before, but was still a hugely enjoyable slugfest between two great players.

Hikaru Nakamura crushed Levon Aronian on the final three days | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

You can replay all the Champions Showdown: Chess9LX games using the selector below:

And here’s the commentary on the final day:

The final standings looked as follows, with the match winners taking home $30,000 while the losers earned $20,000:

Let’s take the matches in the order of how soon they were over as a contest:

Fabiano Caruana 19:7 Garry Kasparov

A tough match, but a lot of fun | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Fabiano Caruana’s 19 points was the highest of any player, with the match decided before the final day, but that didn’t stop the last eight blitz games being an intense and enjoyable spectacle. When Maurice Ashley suggested it was a heavyweight struggle, Fabiano countered:

I would say we were more like drunken boxers trying to land a blow, but not really managing to! It was not great today. The quality of the last few days was maybe questionable, but today was really not great, from either one of us, I think.

You could use that description for the first game, where Fabi had a healthy edge and pursued an interesting exchange sacrifice idea, but in completely the wrong manner. Kasparov may no longer be quite the monster with 1000 eyes Tony Miles once described, but he wasn’t going to miss this:

24…Nxe3! was a deadly blow, since if 25.dxe3 Rd1+ Black wins the a1-bishop, and without a bishop pair White has no compensation for the exchange. Fabiano’s 25.Rxc5 only accelerated the end after it was met by 25…Rxd2!, adding a new threat to the g2-square.

Was this finally going to be Garry’s day? Well, not exactly, as things fell apart in a good position in the second game:

30.Rb2! was the solid approach for White (even if it seems it’s not as winning as Kasparov thought), while the computer suggests 30.Nf4! Bxb3 31.Rb2 as the way to play, but in the game after 30.Ra4? Rb8! 31.Nf4 Bxb3 32.Ra7 Bc2 there was no stopping the b-pawn and Garry had to resign. 

If Levon Aronian considered himself Fabiano's second he could claim to have had a good event! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

He commented on the first two games:

I know my limitations. I fought hard, but it’s again Game 2 today just spoilt my mood. I won Game 1, I had a bad position, but then I just tricked him and won the game, and Game 2 it’s completely winning this endgame, many ways, and then all of a sudden I had another blackout and I looked at my clock and 3 seconds left! Ok, it means I still have 5 seconds, but I panicked and instead of Rb2, protecting my pawn, and it’s absolutely winning, even with 3 seconds I could deliver, Ra4, Rb8 and it’s all of a sudden over.

Kasparov said that game had “a very bad effect” on him and he was lost in 9 moves in the next game before resigning on move 13. He was fortunate to draw the 4th game, but after the break Garry at least got to have some fun in his games with White in the new starting position. Fabiano seemed to challenge himself to achieve the worst possible setups: in the first he advanced his h-pawn to h3 in AlphaZero style, but when Garry simply gobbled up the pawn it was soon utterly hopeless:

The game lasted 16 more moves, but there was no escape for Fabiano. That was nothing compared to the next game, however, where the world no. 2 admitted going for an early f5 was a mistake:

I didn’t feel like it was very good, but then I wanted to try it, because [Garry] was trying it, Peter was trying it, everyone was trying it, so I thought alright, we’ll see how this works out, and it didn’t really work out!

“If he gives me everything I can win - even I can win!” confessed Garry, although he was happy that he found the plan to prepare and play 9.d5!

9…c5? 10.Ne3! saw the computer already give White an almost 5-pawn advantage, although there’s no immediately material loss in sight. The black pieces on the queenside really are terrible, however, particularly the b8-bishop, which hadn’t even tried to move before the massacre was completed on the kingside:

That was a 4th win for Garry in the event, and if he could have made it a 5th in the final game he would at least have taken home the bragging rights of winning the final day. Instead it was to be more pain for the 13th World Champion, who once again built up a crushing position but couldn’t finish it off:

28…Nh5! was the move he regretted not playing here, since after 28…Nfg4? 29.Rxg4 Nxg4 (29…Rh5!! 30.h4 Qb1+ 31.Rg1 Rxh4+ rescues the line, but it’s a tough brilliancy to find in blitz) 30.Qxg4 f3? 31.Ndxf3 it was already White on top, with Fabiano going on to claim victory in 59 moves.

Garry commented:

It’s really a curse. Today, the final game, everything is winning. There’s so many winning moves, I totally outplayed him and I can win the day. I let him open the game, but still, I could have found Nh5 instead of the stupid Ng4, blundering the piece, Nh5 and that could be another nice game, but ok, I didn’t find it, bad luck.

The idea of a curse came from Garry’s wife:

Probably, as my wife told me, “Garry, it’s a curse”, and it’s probably a signal stop doing these things, you should stop competing with young Turks, because again it’s a big effort and why, you can see it’s getting worse and worse. It’s not that I do not understand something and they can outplay me, I don’t think that I was outplayed in any game in this match… The number of one-move blunders that shifted a position from winning to losing it’s maybe the signal from there [points up], “Garry, stop doing these stupid things!”

On the other hand, Garry didn’t want to make any excuses:

The other reason not to use that excuse was that Garry revealed he’d played, and won, a practice match against Peter Svidler before arriving in St. Louis.

Other players had other explanations for how the match had gone, with Hikaru pointing out how well Fabiano had defended:

I think that really speaks volumes about how much better modern players are as defenders, because Garry got everything you could ask for in that game and it still wasn’t enough to win. You can say he’s rusty, but I think it really shows the difference in the quality of defence of the modern players. Unfortunately for Garry, Fabiano, like many of us, is just a very, very good defender. When people don’t roll over and die, and you haven’t played competitively for so long, it’s really, really tough.

Fabiano himself felt there was something in that:

We have one thing which Garry doesn’t have, which is practical experience. We’re used to getting both good positions and bad positions, and defensive skills are one of the main things in practical chess, especially in fast chess, where you have bad positions all the time. If you won all your good positions and defended all your bad positions you’d win every blitz tournament, so that’s one of the main things.

Garry probably feels that back in the day he would still have overwhelmed "modern defence" | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Wesley So 18:8 Veselin Topalov

There are two systematic drawbacks to the Champions Showdown format. One is that you invite a chess legend like Garry but we only get to see him play against one other player. The other is that the matches have a tendency to be decided long before the end, and then there’s little interest in the remainder of the match. As we saw, that wasn’t really the case with Caruana-Kasparov, but there was nothing to rescue So-Topalov. The match ended in the first game of the day, when Veselin missed a win right at the end and Wesley picked up the draw he needed to clinch the match. The remaining games were a formality, with Veselin picking up just one win to make it two in 20 games.

We never really got to see anything from Veselin Topalov this time in St. Louis, with Wesley So dominating the match | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Wesley said the match, “lifted up my spirits” after his last-place finish in the Sinquefield Cup, so he’s hoping it’ll stand him in good stead for the World Cup next week.

Peter Svidler 15.5:10.5 Leinier Dominguez  

Peter started the day with a 4-point lead, but in a bid to keep things interesting he gave up a point in the first game of the day!

Peter would later comment:

I’m honestly quite satisfied with my play - I thought my play generally made sense. I did leave some rooks en prise, but apart from blackouts, and forgetting knights move backwards and things, I thought there was a decent amount of common sense and some nice calculation thrown in somewhere, so very happy with how it went!

A crowd watching Dominguez-Svidler | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That’s a fair summary of the day, as he hit back in the very next game to smoothly outplay Leinier with Black after a somewhat dodgy opening. Peter ensured he would at least tie the match with a nice endgame win in the next game before sealing victory by surviving some dicey moments and holding on for a 153-move Rook vs. Rook + Knight draw in the final game with the first position. 

The players traded wins in the remaining games and afterwards Peter’s thoughts were turning to the World Cup that starts on Tuesday. In Round 1 he faces Carlos Daniel Albornoz Cabrera, who he described to Yasser as “a Cuban child of some sort”:

No disrespect to my opponent, but I think he is like two years older than my children! Combined with me just being zonked out of my skull [Peter worked out the games in Khanty-Mansiysk will start at 3am, St. Louis time] it’s going to be a nice combination too.

It turns out the match with Dominguez went better than the training match with Kasparov before St. Louis! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

If Peter survives that he plays Ruslan Ponomariov, a player he met twice in World Cup semi-finals and who he describes as, “one of the original World Cup gangsters”. 2011 and almost 2015-winner Peter Svidler is of course another World Cup gangster, but he has a tough road ahead – in Round 3 he should meet a certain Hikaru Nakamura, who was displaying his best chess in St. Louis!

Hikaru Nakamura 14.5:11.5 Levon Aronian

We witnessed Garry Kasparov suffering and wearing his heart on his sleeve in St. Louis, but Levon Aronian must have been screaming inside after his collapse on the final three days. 

This is as close as we could find to Levon screaming... | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

He rode his luck to reach a score of 7.5/8 after the first game of the second day, but although he still led by a point going into the final day he had gone 7 games without a win. He would double that to 14, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Just like Garry, Levon can reflect that it could all have been so different. He would have taken a 2-point lead if he could have converted a wonderful position in the first game:

Levon found the winning idea to sacrifice a knight and trap the queen, but instead of playing 19.Nfd5!! exd5 20.Ba6! he moved the wrong knight with 19.Ned5 and was hit by 19…Ng6! when the queen can escape with 20.Ba6 Nxf4! 21.Nxf4 Qe4. Levon fought on with 20.c6!, but it was suddenly a narrow path to victory, and Hikaru soon took over and won.

Nakamura, who described his fast if not always accurate play as “Nepo-style”, felt this was the critical game:

Today I got a little bit lucky. If the first game had gone differently, which it probably should have, then it would have been very, very tight, but once I won the first game of the day I think there was really no chance for Levon to come back. A really good day yesterday, and an even better day today.

Nakamura and his training partner So | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

But that feels too much like judging from results, since with the scores only tied any win for Levon would suddenly have transformed the match. He was doing better in the second game as well, but he went astray and then fell for a wonderful trick:

37.Rxe4!! and Levon didn’t even take the rook since he realised that after 37…fxe4 38.a6 there’s no stopping the a-pawn - the white bishop is covering the h8-square. Of course 37…Kd8 couldn’t save the game.

Nevertheless, Levon could still have tied the match again if he’d taken another big chance in the third game of the day:

38.Nxb5 is decent for White, but if you see 38…Rg1! 39.Qxg1 Ne2+ you might just recoil in horror, but here Levon had the winning 38.Qf3!, threatening mate-in-2. Instead he went for 38…Qxb5?, offering an exchange of queens. A simple pawn count might support that decision, but it was a terrible misjudgement, since White’s badly placed pieces and Black’s passed f-pawn soon decided the game.

A 2-point lead really did make it look game over, with the two draws that followed providing little respite for Levon. In the second he was objectively winning the endgame until he went astray on move 72, with the game ending in a 112-move draw. He was finally put out of his misery in the third from last game of the day, when his 26.d5? was already desperation:

26…Bc5+! 27.Kf1 Rxh3! 28.Rxf6 Rh1+ 29.Ke2 Re8+ was a brutal finish:

Even with nothing more at stake Levon still managed to blunder horribly in a won position in the next game, before finally grabbing a first win in 15 games to end the match, but it was little consolation. It’s been a very odd summer in America for Levon, who won the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz only to finish last in the Sinquefield Cup. His focus will now be on defending his 2017 World Cup title, or at least getting to the final and qualifying for the Candidates. As his opponent Hikaru pointed out:

During this event I was actually doing some preparation for that event, and I suspect even Levon was doing that too, so instead of really worrying or preparing for this match you’re thinking about the next tournament!

That starts Tuesday (follow it live here), but before that World Champion Magnus Carlsen will be playing another session of Banter Blitz against chess24 Premium members. You can take part or watch at: Banter Blitz with Magnus Carlsen | Friday September 6th, 18:00 CEST

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