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Hikaru Nakamura admitted “today Wesley was clearly the better player”, but after three tense draws Wesley So grabbed a poisoned pawn in Game 4 and was immediately put to the sword. That meant Hikaru had won the American Cup and the maximum possible $60,000, while also moving up to world no. 5 after his two wins in classical chess.
Sunday’s 3rd and final American Cup showdown between Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So only happened because Wesley managed to win their 2nd match on demand on Saturday. Hikaru, who said he was busy preparing a big announcement, described himself as “very, very upset”, and explained how he spent his Saturday night.
I didn’t do a recap, I didn’t look at chess. I went out and had some beers, played some pool, and just forgot about everything, and it seemed to work out.
The Grand Final rematch began with two games of 25+10 chess, with little to report in the first game. Hikaru played a novelty in a known line, which saw Wesley sink into a very long think.
In the end he took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to play 18…Qa6, but the time invested was no problem, since Wesley had correctly foreseen that the best Hikaru could get was a very drawish 4 vs. 3 rook endgame. The game was ultimately drawn, with another elegant stalemate in the final position.
Game 2 established the trend for most of the day’s action, however, with Wesley getting a nagging endgame advantage and attempting to grind out a win. The 4-bishop endgame on a number of occasions looked close to winning for White, even if objectively it never left the bounds of equality. Hikaru covered the intricacies in his recap.
Hikaru kept his wits about him both to avoid any traps and then to correctly claim a draw by 3-fold position, with the position identical after 49…Kg7, 51…Kg7 and finally 56…Kg7.
“I breathe a big sigh of relief!”, said Hikaru.
Game 3 was where So came closest to taking the lead, with Nakamura summing up:
I would say actually that I think today Wesley was clearly the better player. I was not very sharp. Even though maybe the games don’t look so bad, my calculation was horrible, especially in this first 10-minute game, the 3rd game we played today. I thought I was much better, and the next thing I know I’m losing.
The decisions Hikaru regretted most came after Wesley’s 24.exd5.
Here Hikaru went for 24…cxd5!?, later commenting in his recap:
Now I decide to take on d5, which is a horrible, horrible move. At this point already I felt like I’d let an advantage slip. I did not want to trade off all the rooks and make a draw.
Hikaru explained that only White can be better, with the knight jumping to f5, the d4-pawn not a weakness because of the d5-pawn, and a white rook able to come to the c-file.
In fact after 24…cxd5 25.Rxe6 Rxe6 26.Rc1 Rc6 27.Nf5 Hikaru called his decision to play 27…Kf7!? instead of trading rooks on c1 “inexplicable”.
Once again, the computer didn’t really back up the human perception that Black was lost, though it was very close. The Saint Louis commentators pointed out a moment after 31…Ke6.
Wesley went for 32.Nxb7, commenting, “I was quite happy with the way I was outplaying him”.
Instead delaying the capture with 32.Ba3! may have been even stronger, with one of the options Wesley suggested, 32…Ng6?!, seeming to lose by force. He did also point out the computer’s 32…Kd7! 33.Nxb7 Ne6!, however, when Black is on the ropes but should still be able to hold.
The knight endgame that followed was extremely tense, but Hikaru found enough good moves to hold a draw in what was already the 13th game between Nakamura and So in the 2023 American Cup.
The 14th would prove decisive, with Hikaru managing to resist the temptation to force a quick draw and take the match to blitz, where most consider him to have the edge over Wesley. He told himself:
You have the white pieces, you’ve got to take a chance. Why try to keep stretching it out longer and longer for content — you should go for the kill!
He varied from the first game of the match with 8.Rc1 and what he called “this little silly idea of 9.Na4”. Wesley’s 9…dxe3 already came as a surprise, however, and when the knight returned from the rim to c3 the game was very much in the balance.
Here Wesley went for 16…Nb4!?, while Hikaru commented, “if Wesley had played 16…Ne7 there’s a very good chance he would have won this match”.
The computer’s choice is offering a queen trade with 16…Qb8, when it prefers Black, but in the game Hikaru’s 17.Ne5 set a trap that Wesley fell for when he grabbed a pawn with 17…Qxd2?? Hikaru commented:
He looked up and looked at me, and that’s when I had a feeling he was actually going to play Qxd2. After a long day, it’s a tragedy for the match to end this way, of course, but it is what it is.
The cold shower was 18.Rfd1!, and Wesley realised what he’d done.
Black has strictly one move not to lose the queen instantly, 18…Qb2, but then an easy-to-miss “backwards” knight move ended the game, match and tournament, 19.Nc4!
The queen has nowhere to go, and Wesley resigned. He summed up:
I’m not really that sad. I think I fought hard. I was playing very decently, I had some chances here and there, but at the end of the day that’s what chess is about, and you’ve just got to keep trying. It’s unfortunate that you had to end like this with my queen getting trapped, but at that point I was already kind of tired from playing day in, day out, and I was pushing, but really today was a coin toss, anything could have happened.
Wesley “credited” Yasser Seirawan with inspiring him to grab a pawn, but also pointed out the fear of playing faster chess against Hikaru was a factor.
I didn’t want to keep playing shorter time controls, so I thought either I win or I lose, so I just took the pawn.
For Hikaru, meanwhile, it had been a near perfect event. He was apologetic at the end.
When I beat Wesley, I said sorry, because obviously for him winning this tournament would mean a lot more than it means for me. Not trying to diminish it in any way, but I do feel bad on some level, because I’m just here trying not to make a fool of myself, and then I find a way to win. It’s not going to change anything.
Hikaru had earlier explained that his fear going into the tournament was losing 10 or 15 points in classical chess, but in fact he finished unbeaten and picked up the only two classical wins of the Open section, taking him above Anish Giri into the World no. 5 spot, on 2775.
His victory in the Champions bracket had already won him a $10,000 bonus, while he added $50,000 for winning the whole event. Wesley took $35,000 for 2nd place.
The players will next be in action in the Chessable Masters, the 2nd event on the $2 million 2023 Champions Chess Tour, with Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So joined by fellow American Cup players Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian, as well as Magnus Carlsen, Liem Le, Vladimir Fedoseev and Vladislav Artemiev. That runs April 3-7 and will serve as a warm-up for the Ian Nepomniachtchi vs. Ding Liren World Championship match that kicks off two days later.
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