Reports May 23, 2020 | 7:51 PMby Colin McGourty

Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge QFs Day 1: Nakamura battles back to beat Aronian

Hikaru Nakamura beat Levon Aronian in Armageddon in the first mini-match of their best-of-3 Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge quarterfinal, but admitted afterwards, “I don’t know if I deserved to win this match”. Levon had taken the lead by winning the Rook + Bishop vs. Rook ending in Game 1 but was pegged back in Game 4. The other match also went to Armageddon, after four draws, with Ding Liren devastated to lose on time in a won position when his opponent was down to just 2.8 seconds.

Hikaru Nakamura and Yu Yangyi won in Armageddon on Day 1 of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge Quarterfinals:

You can replay all the games using the selector below (click on a result to open the game with computer analysis):

And here’s the day’s full live commentary from Peter Leko, Tania Sachdev and Jan Gustafsson:

For a recap of the day’s action check out Pascal Charbonneau’s Aftershow:

Yu Yangyi edges close battle

China would have had three players in the current Candidates Tournament if Yu Yangyi had beaten Ding Liren in the 2019 World Cup final, since Ding could safely have lost that match and made it to the Candidates by virtue of having the highest average rating for the year. Conspiracy theorists thought there would be pressure on the players to make that happen, but instead Ding Liren went on to win and Yu Yangyi missed out.

We saw more evidence of the fighting spirit of the Chinese players in the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, but this time they cancelled each other out. Yu Yangyi built up a seemingly huge positional advantage in the first game with White, but ultimately it fizzled out into a draw. After two more close games it was Ding Liren who got a dangerous advantage in the fourth game, but again it petered out and we had Armageddon. Ding had Black, and after his opponent went astray on move 20 it seemed everything was going his way:

e3 threatens to win material due to the pin down the d-file, so that Yu Yangyi’s 22.Qe1 was a tough decision born of desperation. After 22…e3 23.Bc1 Bxf4 Ding was completely on top, and by move 29 he’d already wiped out the 1-minute time deficit he started with to get up on the clock. 

All he needed was a draw to win the mini-match, but his online blitz skills ultimately let him down. He had a won position at the end but ran out of time while Yu still had 2.8 seconds on the clock.

A tough loss to take, but at least it’s not all over yet. Ding can still reach the semi-finals if he wins both of the upcoming mini-matches.

Nakamura survives rough start to win in Armageddon  

Hikaru Nakamura would later sum up how things had gone:

I don’t know if I deserved to win this match but I found a way to at least get it to an Armageddon, and then all the cards were on the table.

It’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that we got more interesting chess content in the first game of Nakamura-Aronian alone than in the whole of the all-Chinese match-up. Hikaru again went with Black and played the Queen’s Gambit Declined setup he’s been using almost religiously in his recent online clashes:

This time he ran into a very nice idea from Levon, who played 29.Bc7 Bd8?! 30.Ba5!

This is based on the trick that 30…Bxa5? 31.Qxa4! would win a piece due to the pin down the a-file. Hikaru of course didn’t give up a piece, but there was no stopping the same idea winning a pawn. Hikaru commented:

Basically I wasn’t awake enough for the first game and Levon was just playing good moves. I literally missed everything… I just thought I’d go 29…Bd8 and I’m completely fine, and after 30.Ba5 it was really unpleasant, but somehow Levon let me off the hook completely and then I think I was just completely fine in the game.

37.Ng6!? was one of the main culprits when it came to letting Hikaru off the hook:

It looked like Black might take over, but despite the game slipping from his grasp Levon stayed alert. 46…Rf7 looked grim for White:

It seems the only way to save the bishop and keep defending the f4-knight is to play 47.Bb8, but then 47…Be3! poses serious problems, even if 48.Rg4 Nf6 isn’t yet winning, as Hikaru had thought. Instead, though, Levon played 47.Ke2!, relying on the little trick that 47…Rxc7 runs into 48.Ne6!, picking up the bishop on d4.

Around this point Hikaru let his guard down, later admitting:

I thought that there was no way that I could lose the game, I thought it was risk-free the rest of the way, but I was very wrong about that.

Instead he found himself “bailing out” into a Rook vs. Rook + Bishop ending, but while he seemed to go for it confidently Peter Leko cautioned that confidence doesn’t necessarily help:

In practical terms the side with more material very often wins, and Hikaru felt he was already in trouble when he allowed his king to get cut off. He was close to surviving, however. One advantage of defending the position online is that you don’t need to count – if 50 moves are made the system will automatically declare a draw, and when Hikaru made the first objective mistake there were only 13 moves to go:

113…Ka3 is still a draw, while after 113…Ka1 the tablebases declare it’s mate-in-23. With perfect defence it might still have been touch-and-go if White could have won material before the 50-move rule kicked in, but as it was Hikaru resigned 5 moves later, since he was going to have to give up a rook to stop mate.

So Hikaru was playing catch-up, and he had some chances in Game 2, which he described as “probably the calmest” and “the only well-played game”. It was still far from without incident, however, with Levon playing what potentially was a brilliancy, a positional exchange sacrifice in the tradition of Tigran Petrosian:

Or was it a blunder? Hikaru later commented:

I’m pretty sure that he blundered, but he bluffed perfectly. He kept a straight face and he kept playing.

The issue was after 19.Nxe4 fxe4 20.Qd2 Qa5 21.Kb1:

Hikaru guessed that Levon’s plan was 21…d4, threatening Qxa2+ and mate, but that he’d missed that 22.b3! actually just leaves White an exchange up. The d-pawn can’t take on e3 because the d6-bishop is hanging.

Levon went for 21…h5 instead and in hindsight Nakamura admitted he shouldn't have played 22.f5!?, even though that opening up of the position for his bishop looked dangerous at the time. Levon managed to defend and went into Game 3 with a chance to end the match if he could win with the pieces.

Once again Hikaru went for his QGD setup, and this time Levon seemed ready with a new idea, 11.Qb1!? Perhaps it was serious home preparation, and it sent Hikaru into a 4-minute think, but just four moves later the Armenian no. 1 blitzed out a move that certainly couldn’t have been cooked up at home – 15.Qb2?

Again Hikaru went into a long think, though he would later describe it as “ridiculous” that he went on to play 15…b5? If he’d looked at the position afresh, ignoring Levon’s confidence and some similarities to a move Fabiano Caruana had played against him before, he would have spotted that after the simple 15…axb4! 16.axb4 Rxa1+ 17.Qxa1 Qb3! White’s position is falling apart.

Instead, shortly afterwards, Levon got to play the manoeuvre of the day!

The bishop should probably have stayed on a2 and Levon might have been able to pose more problems, but perhaps he couldn’t resist the little joke of later going on to shuffle even further in the other direction with: Bb1-c2-d1-e2-f1-g2! Hikaru later revealed that he hadn’t been too worried in that game, since the best-of-three mini-matches system meant that losing wouldn’t have ended his hopes of reaching the semi-finals.

I think from that standpoint perhaps it lets you be a little bit freer if you’re behind in the match, knowing that you have the opportunity again. In general I think it shouldn’t objectively play a big role, but it will favour the player who plays the best moves, that much is very clear.

Levon didn’t need to over-push in Game 3 since the draw meant he went into the final rapid game only needing another draw to win the mini-match, but this would be Hikaru’s game. The US star said, “I kind of tricked Levon with this move order” as he went for 12.h5.

Levon responded 12…Bg4 and here Hikaru felt he had nothing to lose playing 13.Rde1, even though it felt like a bluff to him. Afterwards he revealed he thought 13…Bxh5 was possible for Black:

It isn’t, because of 14.Bxh7! Kxh7 15.g4! - Hikaru was shocked:

I didn’t even see this – it’s just not my day then!

Instead after 13…Qd7 14.h6 Nakamura felt his position was not only good but much easier to play, even if Levon had chances to hold on after Hikaru grabbed a pawn. Instead he went for a bishop manoeuvre that only helped White and by the time 29.c4! landed on the board the writing was on the wall:

We were headed to Armageddon, and one reward Hikaru got for finishing top in the preliminary section was that he could choose the colour. He went for Black, getting one minute less on the clock but draw odds, explaining:

Generally if I have the chance I will pick Black against most people, unless I’m in a lot of trouble in the games with the black pieces

He also felt it particularly applied to Levon, who wasn’t as regular a player of internet blitz. He added:

He’s a bit slower - which is a good thing, because it means he’s trying to find the best moves! I think against Levon I really liked picking Black, just because it felt like he doesn’t like to make the instinctive moves in 1-2 seconds, he really likes to think a little bit more, and I think in a situation like this that certainly cost him, because at the end of the game I think I was even up on the clock.

There was one really shaky moment for Hikaru, when he played 29…g6, which he called “just a blunder”. He’d expected only 30.Bd3, but instead was “hit” by 30.Bb5. The moment of panic that he’d blundered away the game was very short, however, since he almost instantly saw that 30…Qe6! rescues the situation:

After that Aronian had an edge, but it was never clear, and when he allowed the black d-pawn to run freely the chances of a happy outcome for the Armenian were slim. The game instead ended abruptly on move 60, when 60.Rc4? Re6+! was game over:

The rook is coming to e1 and the d-pawn queens.

So it was a tough loss for Levon, but the silver lining is that he’s still alive in the tournament, since all the knockout encounters are best-of-3:

His immediate task now is to win on demand on Monday, in which case it’ll be winner-takes-all in the 3rd match on Wednesday (if Hikaru wins on Monday he reaches the semi-finals and gets an extra rest day). Here’s the full quarterfinal schedule:

The winner of Nakamura-Aronian will play the winner of Carlsen-So in the semi-final, and that match starts on Sunday, when we’ll also see the beginning of the all-Russian Dubov-Karjakin pairing. Don’t miss all the action right here on chess24 from 16:00 CEST (with the pre-show beginning at 15:30 CEST).

See also:

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