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Reports May 1, 2020 | 11:08 PMby Colin McGourty

MCI Semis: Nakamura beats Caruana in thriller

Hikaru Nakamura is through to the Magnus Carlsen Invitational final against either Magnus Carlsen or Ding Liren after winning an incredible battle against his US compatriot Fabiano Caruana. The day started slowly but suddenly became epic in the 4th game when Fabi managed to win on demand to force playoffs. Hikaru was distraught and admitted, “everything was starting to spiral out of control”, but a Caruana blunder in the first blitz game was the boost he needed. The final blitz game was nervy but it’s Nakamura who plays for $70,000 on Sunday.

No-one said it was going to be easy!

You can replay all the Magnus Carlsen Invitational knockout games below:

Relive the whole day’s action with our live commentary from Tania Sachdev, Lawrence Trent, Peter Svidler, Alexander Grischuk, Jan Gustafsson, Anish Giri and Magnus Carlsen:

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

A slow-burner

This was when the Magnus Carlsen Invitational got real. The semi-final winner would be guaranteed $45,000, rising to $70,000 for winning the event, while the loser would take home $30,000. There was no margin for error, and it was perhaps no surprise that the first games were cautiously played. Hikaru Nakamura later said that he’s used to being tested with the black pieces against Fabiano Caruana, but not today: “it felt to me that in this match he wasn’t putting pressure on me with White, and because of that I felt much more comfortable than I usually do against him”.

In the first game Fabiano got nothing with White, and in fact it was Hikaru who could dream of more before the game fizzled out into a draw. The second game was also quiet, but our commentators felt that Nakamura got an almost dream version of the Exchange Slav. It was all about White, and the weak b5-pawn, until Hikaru finally grabbed it with 51.Qxb5?, seemingly overlooking the simple fork 51…Na3:

This was the first real glimpse we got of how much the match meant to Hikaru:

If he had been rocked he managed to gather himself again and after 52.Qb3 Nxb1 it turned out that the zwischenzug 53.exf5! (53.Qxb1? h4! and Black wins) gave White just enough counterplay against the black king to go on to force a draw by perpetual check.

Hikaru strikes first

The third game was another Giuoco Piano, but it ended up being anything but quiet. Magnus later explained that although computers always give White some kind of edge, “these are the kinds of position which aren’t easy to play for White”. The critical moment came after Nakamura played 25…Bg8:

If Fabiano had played 26.Be6 we might have got a quick draw by repetition. Alexander Grischuk turned out to have a surprisingly good knowledge of English sayings: “Discretion is the better part of valour – sometimes you need to accept a draw”. Hikaru revealed afterwards that he might not have taken the draw (“I was going to repeat once - people who follow me on Twitch know the term, I’m going to 'tickle' him”), but if Hikaru had played on Black would have been no better.

In the game after 26.Qc2 Nh4! (the move Nakamura assumed his opponent missed) Black was suddenly much better, and in a few moves White was dead lost. “It's inexplicable... he just didn't sense the moment,” Magnus commented, as Fabi found himself a point down before having the black pieces in the 4th game.

Grischuk had half-joked earlier about how Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri are the last members of the Soviet School of Chess, but he put Hikaru in the computer chess school – that wasn’t necessarily, as Magnus pointed out, a bad thing!

Fabiano strikes back

The fourth rapid game, a must-win encounter for Caruana, turned into an epic. Peter Svidler described it as “unbelievably tense” and Magnus Carlsen ultimately summed up, “that was amazing!” Fabiano Caruana played a version of the King’s Indian that was a feared weapon of choice for the young Nakamura, and the position he got was the kind Hikaru used to relish:

Hikaru would later say:

I thought I played three good games and then my nerves failed me... In Game 4 I did everything wrong. First of all… the line that we played in this King’s Indian is probably just winning, I’m sure the computer says it’s +2 or something, but considering that Fabiano has nothing to lose it’s just not really what I wanted in general with the position, because basically I have to be very aggressive and just blow him off the board. But I’m already up one point, so there was this indecision, and then it all kind of just went very wrong in the middle here.

Black began to punch holes in the white position, though it was too close to call until Caruana finally began to demolish the white kingside:

48…Bxh4! 49.gxh4 was the brute force required, but what really impressed were the “quiet” follow-up moves: 49…Qf6! 50.Kg1 Qxh4 51.Qd2 Kg6! and soon things were just falling apart for Nakamura. It’s very rare that we get to see a chess player’s emotions expressed so openly:

Why did it mean so much? Hikaru commented afterwards:

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, because it probably helps my opponents a bit, but I feel like whenever I play these blitz or rapid events I feel this great pressure that I either have to finish first or play Magnus in the final match, and if I don’t do that I feel like I’ve failed in a way. So I think because of that, when I messed up Game 4, I was very, very upset, because normally when I have the white pieces, especially in a game where I just need a draw, I very rarely even let the game get interesting. I was just very, very upset with myself, and maybe I felt more pressure because I really, really wanted to make the final of this event, especially for all the fans on Twitch.

You can watch the full interview below:

Blitz playoffs

That meant that for the first time in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational we were going to get blitz playoffs, since up to two pairs of 5+3 blitz games would be played before Armageddon. The players had little time to cool down, and Hikaru admitted he hadn’t got his nerves under control. He nevertheless seized control again with Black, but he lamented that 33…d4? 34.Bd2! (the move he’d missed) spoilt his position. The climax of the whole match came when Fabiano was down to under 30 seconds on his clock:

Our commentators, and Hikaru, here spotted the option of 46.Nf6+, which Hikaru thought was simply winning. In fact after 46…Nxf6 47.Rh8+ Kxh8 48.Qxg6 there’s no need whatsoever to resign. Instead Fabi played 46.Rc8, a move that may objectively be stronger, but it seems he missed the point of 46…Nf8:

47.Rxc6?? was just a blunder, since after 47…Qxc6 there’s no mate with 48.Nf6+ because the f8-knight is covering the h7-square. Fabi played 48.Ng5+ but resigned shortly afterwards.

After the despair of the 4th game we got the joy of realising you’re about to win in the 5th!

That meant Caruana needed to win on demand again with the black pieces, and at some point it looked as though he might. “Even though it’s fine objectively… it’s just so stupid”, said Hikaru of his 16.Bc6!?, but although the game was tense Fabiano never really got any control, and when he tried to force something in a drawn ending it led only to defeat. The world no. 2 summed up afterwards:

Hikaru Nakamura now goes through to Sunday’s final, where he’ll play the winner of Ding Liren vs. Magnus Carlsen:

Who would he prefer to play?

I think the way that I would put it is this: from a mathematical standpoint Magnus, if he’s playing his absolute best, is better than anyone else in the world, there’s no doubt about that, so because of that in general you would prefer to play somebody else, just because the odds are that he could play at that level.

Having said that, it’s weird because with Ding Liren I feel like really up until probably this tournament that I played in India in the Grand Chess Tour last year it felt like in blitz and rapid I pretty much just was in cruise control, and there was one game in particular, the game that I played in the blitz portion against Ding Liren. It was a Nimzo-Indian where I was White, and he actually defended extremely well and was able to turn the game, and it ended up as a draw because I was able to swindle him at the end, but I felt like he’s significantly improved, and even when I played him in this event as well I feel like he’s playing rapid and blitz at a much higher level than he was in the past.

So obviously from a general standpoint you just assume that Magnus is capable of playing at his absolute best, so probably I’d prefer Ding, but again I wouldn’t say that I have a strong preference either way, I’m just really excited to be playing in the final.

The reminder of Kolkata is apt, since Ding Liren inflicted the only losses on Magnus there, beating him in both blitz games:

Ding of course beat Magnus three times in their match on Thursday as well, and at the end of his Banter Blitz session on Friday the World Champion commented on his upcoming semi-final:

It’s going to be really, really tough. I would say probably I haven’t felt like less of a favourite in a match probably in about 10 years, but I think if I’m on my game I can still do it. So I’m pretty optimistic still, but it’s a huge challenge and I hope you guys will have a lot of enjoyment on Saturday and Sunday as well.

The second semi-final begins at the same time of 16:00 CEST on Saturday here on chess24. 

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