Hikaru Nakamura reached the final of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour with two days to spare after scoring a 3:0 clean sweep over Daniil Dubov. Hikaru credited his ability to play more accurately in “slow” positions, “which works against everyone except one guy, unfortunately”. “He-who-must-not-be-named” is Magnus Carlsen, who is now just one set away from the final after beating Ding Liren in three games for a second day in a row.
Just as on Monday, Tuesday’s action saw Magnus win in three games while Hikaru won in four.
You can replay all the games using the selector below:
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.
Let’s start with Hikaru sealing his place in the final.
In hindsight the outcome of this semi-final revolved around Day 1, when Daniil Dubov was a move or two away from taking a 2:0 lead that would almost certainly have meant he took a one-set lead in the match. Hikaru could still have come back, of course, but it would have been a very different encounter.
Instead Hikaru won the first two sets, leaving Daniil with no margin for error on Day 3. That was reflected in two tense games to start the day, with Dubov marginally better in Game 1 and Hikaru perhaps missing some good chances in Game 2. Just as a day earlier, it was Game 3 that would prove crucial.
Up to a point it was all about Daniil, with Hikaru later commenting:
Since the match is over I will say a couple of other things, which is I very strongly felt that in the match we played in the final of the Lindores Abbey event I sort of beat myself. I felt there were many positions where I was a little bit better pressing, and then when the advantage slipped away from me I would keep trying to win and I would turn it into a loss. So I felt in many ways that was the reason the match got away from me. I felt in this match it was quite the opposite, where Daniil had a slight advantage he did the same thing, he’d take a slight advantage and when it was gone he would try still to keep the game going instead of making a draw.
Watch the full interview with Hikaru:
Here’s the position after Nakamura’s 30…h6:
Daniil has an extra pawn and with a move such as 31.Qc4 could have kept things under control. Instead he played 31.b5?!, which Hikaru called “a big mistake”, since after 31…Rb3! the b-pawn is doomed. Hikaru pointed out 32.Qc4 runs into 32…Rb4, but that may have been White’s best option. Instead we saw 32.Rc6 Qf7 33.Nc3 Nb4 34.Qc4 Qxc4 35.Rxc4
35…Nxd3! was the tactical detail that meant Black is better, with Magnus Carlsen giving the verdict shortly afterwards that White was in “serious trouble”. Nevertheless, Daniil was later a move away from survival.
If he’d played 51.Rd8 here Hikaru revealed that with 30 seconds on his clock he’d just have taken a draw by repetition with Ke7, Rg8, Kf7, Rd8 and so on. Instead he said Daniil got “too creative” with 51.Rc8?! when Hikaru was able to play 51…hxg4+! 52.Nxg4 Nd7! and after 53.Rd8 Ke7 the US Champion pointed out that White can’t win with 54.Rxd7+ Kxd7 55.Ne5+ Kd6 56.Nxc6 Kxc6 57.f6 gxf6 58.h4.
“I’m in the box - the h-pawn can be stopped,” explained Nakamura, with any of the three moves by which the black king can enter that box enough to win, since the king will reach the h-pawn in time to capture it when it queens. Proof that some top GMs do use the “rule of the square”!
Hikaru had gained the time he needed to consolidate and he went on to win two pawns and the game.
That left Dubov needing to win Game 4 on demand for the second day in a row, this time with the black pieces, and once again he didn’t come close. The only difference was that instead of picking up another win Hikaru instead forced a draw by repetition, sealing a place in the final and at least $80,000 in prize money – with $140,000 if he can win the title.
Nakamura felt afterwards that he’d found how to handle Dubov.
One thing I noticed, especially yesterday I really picked up on it, is that Daniil really likes to play dynamic positions that are creative, so starting with this first Sveshnikov game yesterday I decided to try and make it as boring as possible, I tried to make the positions dry… that you have to play normal looking moves and there’s very little room for creativity. So that was one thing that I very much strived for, was to play things that were very solid and very dry where you can’t be super-creative.
If that came as a revelation to Hikaru it was old news to Dubov himself, who had commented during the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge final:
He basically decided to limit my options and I was not allowed to play these fancy games as often as I normally do.
He basically thought I will be down to seconds and then I’ll blunder something, and that’s his general strategy. He basically plays fast and he never blunders and then he just waits, and he knows that normally one time in a match of four games his opponent will probably blunder and then it’s enough, pretty much. It actually makes a lot of sense - it’s his great skill to play fast and avoid blunders.
Hikaru’s own description of how he’s so successful in such events was similar.
I think in general it’s just that I tend to be very solid. I play a much different style than I used to when I was younger, but for the most part I’ve felt that if I don’t lose games the opportunities will come to me. So in general terms when I don’t lose games I figure sooner or later I’ll be more accurate and more precise than my opponents and I’ll get opportunities. And I would say with the exception of maybe one player that tends to work very well. The problem is there’s one player who is capable of not losing even more so than me and being slightly more precise, so that is a slight issue that I have to face, but overall I feel that I tend to be more accurate and if I don’t lose games I’ll get opportunities and it seems to have worked out on this tour.
It was a theme Hikaru would return to again…
I feel for the most part I’m more accurate than most players. I defend extremely well, and the reason I have the issues with Magnus, or I’ve had the issues with Magnus in these online events very specifically, is because Magnus is slightly better at defending, slightly better at pressing endgames, there’s this very slight margin. When you’re playing against someone who does all these little things slightly better that’s when you have to start mixing up the style and playing differently.
One thing I’ve learnt to do is play certain very slow endgames and outplay my opponents, which is great, it’s very good to play like that, but as I said before there’s only one problem, there’s somebody who does that better than me, so it’s worked against most people obviously and I’ve worked really hard on it, and I think it shows in a lot of these rapid games where players get low on time and that’s why I’ve been so successful, that I get into a lot of these slow middlegames, slow endgames, drier types of positions, and I’m very good at converting, which works against everyone except one guy, unfortunately.
So let’s get to that guy!
When Magnus first hit the very top and achieved the highest rating in history his game was all about endgames, and specifically grinding out wins in positions where most other players would long since have agreed to a draw. Looking back now – as Magnus did in a free lesson that you can watch on Chessable – the World Champion himself was impressed!
But if Hikaru has transitioned from being an all-out attacker to an endgame specialist, Magnus has taken the opposite route. He got some early tips when he worked with Garry Kasparov in 2009, as he explained to Tania Sachdev.
I think those sessions helped me understand the dynamics of chess a lot better. Sometimes I’ve been able to use that knowledge and sometimes not, but I would say that’s the main takeaway. That’s what he could do a lot better than me even back then, and it’s still one of the most difficult things in chess.
Magnus has come a long way, and for the 2018 World Championship match prepared the Sveshnikov Sicilian as his main weapon with Black. Since then he’s shown himself to be an expert playing double-edged Sicilian positions with both colours, and, after a relatively quiet first game of the day, it was two razor-sharp Najdorfs that would see him take the lead in his semi-final against Ding Liren. Of course it takes two to tango.
We both decided to go for open Sicilians today and that sets the tone, right? Then it’s inevitably going to be pretty fighting, but I guess both games could have gone either way. I’m happy to prevail, and seeing as I was better most of the first game, I think it’s fair enough.
In that first Najdorf, Magnus felt his opponent badly misplayed the opening, and he could have ended the game in style after 26…Qc7:
Here Magnus used up a minute of his remaining four looking at what was in fact the killer blow, 27.Rxf7+!!, but after 27…Kxf7 28.Qe6+ Kg7 his main line had been 29.Qe7+ Kg8 30.Nxe5 when he correctly felt 30…dxe5 31.Bb3 was good for him, but also correctly suspected 30…Rh7! might be good for Black (the computer says White has nothing better than a draw there). The winning line was 29.Ne7! when Magnus said afterwards he wasn’t sure about the continuation after 29…Rh7.
30.Bd3 is winning there, as is 30.Rf1, the move Magnus guessed was the solution. In fact it’s mate-in-5! Another nice line is 29.Ne7 Qxc4 30.Qxg6 Kf8 when the only win is 31.Nf5!
Magnus chose 27.Rf3 instead, commenting:
That’s what I spent my time looking at [Rxf7+], but I just felt that my position was so good that there was no reason to go for it unless I was sure that it was winning.
That reasoning looked sound, but Magnus lost control in the play that followed, admitting that 36…Bg5 had come as a surprise to him. He reacted badly with 37.Rcc3.
37…Ne6! was resourceful from Ding, but after 38.Qc2 Qxc2 39.Rxc2 he might have been better playing the knight to c5 instead of putting it on d4, where it was exchanged off. The Chinese no. 1 had survived the middlegame, but Magnus’ endgame prowess has gone nowhere, and more ill-judged exchanges allowed the World Champion to demonstrate that skill:
45.Rf2 Be3 46.Bf1!
I think what I did there on move 45, Rf2 and Bf1, that was really important, and that sort of kills it, because otherwise he would have had serious counterplay with d3, but here I’m just in time to consolidate and then my pawns just run.
Resignation came on move 55.
The second game was another hyper-sharp Sicilian that, as Magnus
explained, “just turned on one move”. Magnus called his 19…Qb7? a “really, really big mistake”.
“Immediately after I made the move I realised he has 20.Nb3! and I think I’m just lost,” said Magnus, but instead, after thinking for a minute, Ding invited disaster with 20.c3?, allowing 20…Bxa3!
There was no way back after that for Ding, with Magnus explaining that while he would have been more worried against a Najdorf expert like MVL he was backing himself to do well here with both players down to two minutes on their clock.
I find them [sharp Sicilian positions] so fascinating but I also know that when I play them I’m going to make a bunch of mistakes, because they’re so difficult to play, and it’s really an ambivalent feeling, but fortunately for me my opponent is probably going to make mistakes as well.
The game, and set, were decided when 29.Nxb3? allowed 29…Rb4! and b3 can’t be defended.
That means that after losing the first set Magnus is now leading the semi-final 2:1, but he still has work to do if he’s going to join Nakamura in what promises to be an epic final.
Magnus can clinch the match on Wednesday, or Ding Liren can take it to a decider on Thursday. The live show starts at 15:30 CEST here on chess24. Don’t miss it!
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