Hikaru Nakamura beat Magnus Carlsen 2.5:1.5 in the first set of the final to continue his perfect run at the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals benefiting Kiva. Nakamura felt Carlsen’s decision to play sharp and aggressive chess with both colours played into his hands, and he broke through to take the lead in the 2nd game of the day. Hikaru was close to clinching the match in three games, but Magnus survived to force a must-win fourth game. The World Champion fell just short, but he has six more sets in which to mount a comeback.
Day 1 of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour final suggests that we’re in for a fantastic fight over the coming week, with Magnus, as in the semi-final, needing to come back from an opening day defeat.
You can replay the games using the selector below:
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev:
Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura both got into the spirit of the final showdown before it began:
If one person summed up the day’s action, however, it was former NFL player and current MIT Mathematics PhD student John Urschel (read more about John):
I would say that somehow my experiences with math have really shaped my experiences in chess. Early on the thing that first drew me to chess was trying to analyse simple endgames and come to a definite conclusion about a position, something that’s very much a mathematical type pursuit. One thing that chess has given me is that over time I’ve come to really appreciate uncertainty and trying to make sense of things that are quite complicated and quite non-intuitive. Chess is such a simple game in many ways, there’s not too many pieces, the rules aren’t too complicated, but somehow you get this great complexity out of it, which is quite beautiful.
All four games were fantastically complicated, with Magnus starting Game 1 by playing the Najdorf Sicilian he’d used against Ding Liren in the semi-finals. The players castled on opposite sides of the board and although Magnus forced queens off the position remained razor-sharp, with 22…e4! a well-timed break in the centre by Black.
After 23.fxe4 Magnus prioritised activity with 23…Ne5, but both players were focusing on the dynamics of the position. The action continued 24.Bb6!? Ra6 25.Bd4 Nf3 26.c5 dxc5 27.Be3 Raf6 28.Rh1 Bg2.
Nakamura’s rook is trapped, but his central pawns and bishops are so powerful that he has a number of good options, including what he played – 29.exf5 Bxh1 30.Rxh1 a3! 31.b3 Nd4 32.Rf1.
The big question here is whether Black has some way to hold onto his extra exchange and fight for a win, and Magnus got down to under 10 seconds before deciding, most likely correctly, that it was better to play it safe. The game continued 32…Nxf5!? 33.Bg5 Nd6 34.Bxf6 Rxf6 35.Rxf6 Bxf6 36.Ne4 and, after the knights were exchanged, we got an opposite-coloured bishops endgame that was destined to end in a draw.
A draw with the black pieces was objectively speaking a decent start for Black, but Magnus looked rattled and Hikaru had demonstrated both that he was willing to go for the sharpest positions and was in excellent form. After the day was over Hikaru commented:
I think Magnus was trying to play the way he’s played throughout the last two events, which is he’s tried to play very sharp and aggressive with both colours, and I think the positions are slightly more suited to me, is what I would say. In terms of the troubles he had, especially with Black, in both the Najdorf games while I think the position was fine for Black, the moves weren’t simple, it wasn’t intuitive and it wasn’t natural, and I think that showed based on Magnus’ time usage, so probably I would say the openings were the biggest issue for Magnus today.
Watch the full interview with Hikaru below:
Game 2 was more of the same, with Hikaru saying he had two inspirations for the line with 5…b5 and 7…Nb6 that he chose. The first was Ding Liren’s play in the semi-final, while the second was world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana, who had played the opening against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the 2018 Sinquefield Cup.
When in doubt play like Fabiano, plain and simple. Fabiano’s the one who came up with this, I believe, this whole b5 idea, when he played in Saint Louis a couple of years back, so just play like Fabiano, play good openings!
Not so long after that game Magnus played a World Championship match against Fabiano, so it’s possible his 8.a3 novelty here was prepared back then, though the two minutes it cost him at least suggested this wasn’t something Magnus was expecting.
Hikaru was happy with how things went:
I think the second game was very messy, of course, but I was quite pleased that I got to play this variation against Magnus, because I wanted something very sharp and very messy and when I got that in the second game specifically, and then I was able to just keep finding reasonable moves, that really gave me a lot of confidence.
Dutch GM Ivan Sokolov was another player to praise the opening choice:
The moment at which it was clearest White wouldn’t get to dominate without taking some risks was after 18…Nb3.
Here Magnus went for 19.Rxg7!? Nxc1 20.Qxc1, when after 20…c3! it was clear both sides had their trumps. Nevertheless, White might easily have come out on top.
Peter Leko pointed out here that Carlsen’s 26.Kf2 was the kind of move a top grandmaster simply plays automatically when down to under two minutes in such a position, but 26.d5! would have been very powerful. 26…exd5? 27.e6! looks simply to be winning for White, with 27…f6 for instance running into 28.Rg7!! Kxg7 29.Qxe7+ Kh6 30.Nd4! and White wins. Instead it seems Black would need to force queens off the board with Qb6 or Qb7, but in that case Magnus would get his pawn to d6 and would be playing for only two results.
After 26.Kf2 Qb7 the chance had gone, and it looked as though the game was destined to end in a draw, with White’s two extra pawns ample compensation for the exchange. After 35.Re4!?, however, Magnus was down to under 30 seconds on the clock and Hikaru, with a minute more, didn’t stop looking for resources.
35…Rg8! hinted at Kg7, Ra8-a2 and attacking the white position from the side, while after 36.Rf4 Kg7 37.g5 hxg5 38.Nxg5 (not yet a mistake, but 38.hxg5 would have avoided what followed) 38…Bxg5 39.hxg5? (39.Rg4! was the last chance) Black was ready to pounce.
39…Rh8! suddenly left Magnus unable to defend against the threat of Rh2+, with 40.Kf3 Rh3+ 41.Kg4 Rxe3 essentially game-over, as Hikaru went on to prove. The American commented:
Before I got Rh8 I thought maybe it was just equal, but then as soon as I saw that Magnus played Nxg5 it was oh, I can trade, go Rh8 and then everything I think falls apart for White.
Resignation came on move 56.
“When I won the second game I figured at the very least I’d get to tiebreaks,” said Hikaru, and in fact he’d come very close to sealing victory in three games.
Magnus again played the Najdorf in Game 3, but this time it only brought him trouble, as Hikaru had soon established control across the whole board.
Everything was going White’s way, until he played 30.Bb6?
Nakamura, who felt he’d otherwise played well, called this “really, really stupid”, since he’d overlooked that Magnus could suddenly free himself with 30…Bxg5! 31.Bf5 Bg6!
It was a sign of how good White’s position had been that he was still doing well after 32.Bxh3 Bxd3 33.Bxc8 Rxc8 34.Be3!, but by this stage Hikaru had been shaken and in the end it was White who was just in time to hold a draw a pawn down.
Hikaru summed up:
I think the result seems smooth, but the way the third game went kind of messed up the whole rhythm. I think I was probably close to winning at a couple of points in that game and when I didn’t win that game that was sort of a big swing of the emotions, because I went I think from clearly winning, to just a little better and maybe possibly losing for a move or two, and then back to a draw, so I think the swings were pretty big in that third game, but for the most part I thought I played well.
That meant Magnus now needed to win on demand with the white pieces to take the match to blitz, and despite an unassuming opening he got some real chances when Hikaru missed a surprising trick.
19.Qb3+! was possible as 19…Rxb3 20.Rxe5 leads to a good, but far from obviously winning, endgame for White. “I was pretty upset because I’d missed 19.Qb3 and then as soon as he played 17.e4 I saw it,” said Hikaru, but he played 19...Qd5 and then when Magnus exchanged off the last pair of rooks he felt confident that he could hold the queen and bishop ending a pawn down. So it proved, with Hikaru eventually steering the game to a theoretically drawn opposite-coloured bishops ending:
67…Bf5 68.g7+ Kg8 and Magnus conceded a draw and match defeat with 69.f7+ Kxf7 70.g8=Q+ Kxg8 71.Bh8 Kxh8.
That meant Magnus had again lost the first set, but as we saw against Ding Liren, he’s very capable of coming storming back to win the match, especially as there are up to seven sets this time. “I don’t think it really matters,” said Hikaru of his winning start.
So there’s not yet any need for desperate measures…
…but it’s clear we have a very exciting match on our hands!
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