Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So lead Garry Kasparov by half a point after nine intense rounds of the Ultimate Blitz Challenge in St. Louis, but it’s the 13th World Champion who’s been stealing the show. Few things in chess could upstage the current World Champion losing his first classical game in 43, but Kasparov playing again — and showing brilliant dynamic play against stars of the new generation — is one of them. There were blunders and controversy, but that only added to the fun!
In case you missed out on arguably the chess event of the year so far (in fact here at chess24 we’ve only seen higher viewer numbers for the 2014 World Championship match and Olympiad!) you can rewatch the whole 3.5-hour show below:
Garry Kasparov and the Top 3 finishers in the US Championship — Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura — played the first nine of 18 rounds of 5-minute plus 3-second delay blitz. You can replay every game, with computer analysis, by clicking on a result in the selector below — note you can also hover over a player’s name to see all of his games so far:
In terms simply of results it was a topsy-turvy day in St. Louis. Garry Kasparov scored +1 in the first round of games, then 50%, then -1, going from the sole leader after three games to end the first day in third place. Fabiano Caruana also started well to keep Garry company at the mid-way stage, before losing the final three games. After Round 7 all the players were tied on 3.5 points, and by the time it was over Hikaru Nakamura (three wins from rounds 6-8) and Wesley So (two wins in his last three games) had taken the lead.
The current standings:
Enough statistics, though! The real thrill was to see Garry Kasparov back at the chessboard, and not taking on fellow veterans like Anatoly Karpov or Nigel Short, but the cream of the current crop of chess stars.
take a quick glance at some of the factors in favour and against Garry performing
well in the event:
For the current pros this event is arguably just another
exhibition tournament — a fun, if lucrative, wind-down after the main event of
the US Chess Championship, and certainly incomparably less important than the
recent Candidates Tournament. Hikaru would remark (of which more later), "Maybe I’m not treating this event as seriously as he is!"
For Garry, meanwhile, this is his biggest chess challenge since playing his final professional game against Veselin Topalov back in Linares 2005. There’s pride at stake, and motivation matters in blitz even more than in classical chess — you only need to witness Magnus Carlsen or the great champions in any sport to see how much they want it. It’s unlikely Kasparov has lost that quality.
Garry was always famous for his preparation, and if we could be certain of one thing it’s that he wouldn’t put himself through this ordeal without being confident he could be competitive. While the other players were involved in the US Championship Garry was able to prepare specifically for his likely challengers, and later revealed why he chose to play sharp openings like the King’s Indian Defence and Sicilian with Black and the Scotch with White:
Obviously I tried to avoid the Berlin, because these guys play the Berlin day and night, so I thought it wouldn’t make any sense to compete with them in things they know.
Instead he decided that, “playing something more open, creating a crisis at an earlier stage, would be challenging for them”. Of course the other preparation involved playing blitz both on the internet and offline and, again, we can be sure Kasparov is up there with the best whenever he competes.
First you work for your reputation and then your reputation works for you! It’s not every day you get to play against arguably the greatest chess player of all time — under the intense focus of chess fans around the world — so it was understandable if Kasparov’s opponents felt some nerves. Wesley So, for instance, was made to look something like a rabbit caught in headlights in the first game of the day:
Wesley later admitted to being nervous, and described his
first-hand experience of facing the Beast from Baku with a memorable phrase
which perhaps went a little further than he intended!
Wesley was in awe of the thought of meeting Kasparov back in
his prime: “it must have been a terrible feeling!”
Nakamura, though, wasn’t so impressed, perhaps since his work with Kasparov in the past had made him more familiar with the legend:
I haven’t been feeling the intensity the way I expected from him. I was expecting a bit more. I was expecting to feel a bit more of the energy, the passion, though Garry’s playing well – he’s still Garry, of course!
1. Lack of practice
It’s one thing to play on the internet, but another thing entirely to play serious games against battle-hardened opponents. Nakamura also claimed that Kasparov was lacking some experience in one area:
I don’t think he’s played in tournaments like the world blitz… One of the things about playing a lot of blitz games in a row is that you make these blunders and you have these streaks and you have to stop the bleeding. If he can do that and keep it together he’s going to have some chances.
Kasparov also touched on that point:
The gap between rounds is so short, so I couldn’t recover after this blunder with Wesley…
2. Chess theory
So far this hasn’t proven an issue, and maybe it simply won’t in blitz, but there must be areas where current elite players will be far more familiar with the latest trends than Garry Kasparov, who retired 11 years ago.
3. Age-related issues
Kasparov is now 53, so the only player not less than half his age in the tournament is Hikaru Nakamura. If there’s one person you’re not likely to accuse of lacking energy it’s Garry...
...but there are other potential issues.
For instance, Nigel Short talked about age in a recent interview:
Quite often there isn’t necessarily any difference in moves between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old in the first three hours. But after that mental fatigue starts to creep in for older players. Games of chess can be easily blundered by one move, and if the lapse of concentration is more likely to come from older players then they’re more likely to make mistakes.
The good news there for Kasparov is of course that concentration is less of an issue in individual blitz games, but over a long session accumulated fatigue is a factor. And although everyone blunders in blitz, there were a few more examples from Kasparov than we would have expected back in the day.
That brings us to the games, when there was a curious pattern. Garry’s three wins were all smooth positional victories with the white pieces — using the Scotch against So and Nakamura, and the Vienna against Caruana, and gradually outplaying his opponents. The games that were more in the tactical, rampaging style we associate with Kasparov all ended as unfinished masterpieces.
For instance, in Round 6 Kasparov launched a thrilling counterattack against Caruana, with moves like 36…Rf3+ the kind that everyone dreams of making on the chessboard:
Caruana held on in a great fight, though, with Kasparov’s facial expression afterwards seeming to perfectly capture the combined sense of a missed opportunity and satisfaction with a great game.
Things didn’t always end so well, of course. Perhaps the game of the day would have been Kasparov’s Round 7 encounter with Wesley So. Garry played an early b3 against the Sicilian and went on to achieve total positional domination. Tactics flowed from that, and 21.Nf6! ultimately saw Kasparov plant knights on d6 and e7:
He played across the whole board, turning from the kingside to convert his advantage by pushing a queenside passed pawn. Wesley wasn’t going to go down easily, though. As he later commented:
I was fighting for my life – otherwise I’d end up last. I’m playing World Champions and future Champions!
By the moment Kasparov blundered the position had already become complicated (41.Nc4! was an only move):
41.b7?? Qxd6 White resigns
That was the second gift Wesley received from Garry, who also blundered a knight in a great position in Round 4. So joked:
Tomorrow I’ve got to watch out for his bishops now he knows he’s blundering his knights!
Knights also dominated Kasparov’s games against Nakamura, with their Round 8 encounter simply a thriller where the advantage swung continually from side to side. Nakamura later noted, “I lost my mind and messed up… but Garry made the last blunder”. Kasparov had let a relatively simple win slip, and then, instead of taking the knight on d8, he played an unfortunate zwischenzug:
Nakamura’s 44.Nxf7! was the best move (44…Rxd3 45.Ne5+), but
44.Nc6 or 44.Nb7 would also work with the same idea.
There’s one remaining incident we can’t avoid. In Round 2 Kasparov played the King’s Indian, but Nakamura had him under some pressure when he played 26.fxe4:
Here Kasparov picked up his knight and put it down on b4. Nakamura could already be seen preparing to execute the winning 27.Bc5!, hitting the knight and rook, when Kasparov stopped himself before pressing the clock.
He picked up the knight again, and after much thought put it down on f4. It was such a clear incident that no slow motion or careful screenshots were required, hence Yasser Seirawan explained that it might be ok to change your move in blitz before you press the clock. Later Chief Arbiter Tony Rich confirmed that there was no such clock rule and Nakamura could have insisted that Kasparov played the original move.
Nakamura later explained why his reaction to “a certain move” was limited to a very bemused look and a smile:
It’s Garry, after all! And secondly, maybe I’m not treating this event as seriously as he is! I’m just trying to be nice and give him the benefit of the doubt. You hate to see a game decided on a blunder like that.
The irony of the person sitting opposite Kasparov being Hikaru Nakamura, who lost a vital game due to a similar incident in the Moscow Candidates Tournament, wasn’t lost on the watching audience:
No doubt most chess fans were expecting Kasparov to explain that he wasn’t sure about the clock rule, but instead he claimed not to have been sure if he’d let go of the piece:
Ashley: Tell us about this moment with Hikaru when you let go of the piece?
Kasparov: I wasn’t sure — I looked at the arbiter. It’s very difficult when you play blitz to say whether your hand was off or not.
But we have it on camera, so it’s easy… but for you, yourself, you’re saying…
No, no. I didn’t know, that’s why I looked at Hikaru, I looked at the referee — they said nothing.
If they had claimed?
Of course I would have resigned, yes. That would have been another knight! Maybe if I’d blundered that knight I would say what a (k)night! Actually I found Nf4 a very nice positional draw…
With no great damage done, the strange incident merely added to the day’s drama!
Let’s quickly sum up the event so far for the players.
The new US Chess Champion’s start couldn’t have been much worse. In what had been a won position against Nakamura he decided to simplify to a pawn ending:
That had the one flaw that the position after 59…Qxd7+?? 60.Rxd7+ Kxd7 61.Kxh4 turned out simply to be lost for Black. After that Caruana recovered to take the lead with 3.5/5 in his following games, until things went wrong in the final three games:
It was all going more or less normally until I lost three in a row. The games go pretty quickly, and it’s one game after another. It’s blitz…
Wesley’s start was slow, to put it mildly, losing with Black to both Kasparov and Caruana, but later, helped out by Garry’s blunders, he only lost one more game. He got his revenge for the poor start by scoring 3.5/4 in his following games with Garry and Fabi, including beating them both with Black.
What stands out on Hikaru’s scorecard is losing to all three opponents with Black in Rounds 3-5 and then beating them all with White in Rounds 6-8. Nakamura’s own assessment of his play seemed fair:
I think first of all my play was not very good today. I know it was up and down and I found a way to win some games, but it was not inspiring.
He added, “I think we’ll all play better tomorrow!”
“Not dominance, not a disaster” was Kasparov’s take on his performance, though he was buoyed up by the fact he’d scored 50% despite his blunders (“I don’t blunder cheap!”):
I’m quite pleased with what I did, because I had them on the ropes, but blundering three knights is too much.
So what’s going to happen on Day 2? Will Garry be even stronger, eliminate the blunders from his games and crush the field? Or will the world’s Top 10 players show why they’re currently the men to beat? If you can predict the final outcome you can win some prizes!
That’s right — if you take out a one-year Premium Membership today and manage to guess the final standings we’ll double it to two years for free. Good luck!
So don’t miss the games starting at 13:00 in St. Louis (20:00 CEST). You can warm up by watching the final round of Altibox Norway Chess from 16:00 – that was blown wide open yesterday by Aronian’s win over Carlsen!
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