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Reports Dec 10, 2020 | 11:34 AMby Colin McGourty

Nakamura gets birthday Speed Chess revenge on So

Hikaru Nakamura made up for losing to Wesley So in the semi-finals of the Skilling Open by defeating his US rival 13.5:12.5 to reach a Speed Chess final against either Magnus Carlsen or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Nakamura, who was celebrating his 33rd birthday, said “in many ways he was the better player in the match”, but when they reached the bullet section level on points it was hard to bet against Hikaru. The bullet master did indeed pull away into a 3-point lead, but the games were fierce battles and Wesley got to play the move of the match.

Nakamura turning around a losing position to win this game was the start of the end for So in bullet

You can replay all the Nakamura-So games, played on the server, using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

The prospect of another Nakamura vs. Carlsen show looms large!

Hikaru Nakamura went into his semi-final match against Wesley So on the day he celebrated reaching 33, the “age of Jesus”.

Wesley had crashed Magnus Carlsen’s 30th birthday party in the final of the Skilling Open, but on the way there he’d also beaten Nakamura in the semi-final, with Hikaru vowing revenge after defeating Vladimir Fedoseev in the Speed Chess quarterfinals.

But certainly it’s payback time, so I’m going to be out for blood! I will say that much.

Wesley, on the other hand, is always downplaying his success or chances, later telling Danny Rensch and Robert Hess:

I was actually very disappointed when I saw that Magnus played in this year’s Speed Chess. I was like, I won’t play Hikaru until the final maybe, maybe I’ll play Maxime in the semis, and then I saw that Magnus finally accepted. That was the first thing. Then, since I’m no. 4 seed and Hikaru is no. 1, I have to be in the same bracket as him, unfortunately.

At least I made it a match today. I’m not very disappointed actually, because coming into the match I knew I was the underdog, probably I had like a 35-40% chance to win, and to make it this close and to win the last two games, I’m very pleased. Coming back to your question, maybe we’ll have to wait for Hikaru to get a bit older!

Hikaru, meanwhile, referred back to the Champions Chess Tour and the Skilling Open:

But Wesley, you beat Magnus in the event that matters! 

5-minute section: 5:4 for Hikaru

Hikaru Nakamura had won all 8 of his 5-minute games against Vladimir Fedoseev in the quarterfinals, but it was immediately clear that this was going to be a very different match. Two hard-fought draws were followed by an impressive win with the black pieces by Wesley.

He then doubled his lead in the next game, though it wasn’t entirely smooth-sailing.

White is winning here, as Hikaru noted afterwards, with the best move perhaps simply winning a pawn with 24.Qxe5!, very much in Wesley’s style. Instead he went for 24.Bxh6!?, which was great news for the match – demonstrating that the current US Champion was in the mood to fight – but objectively only a draw after 24…gxh6 25.Qxh6 Bd8! Hikaru said afterwards he wasn’t sure if Wesley had simply missed that move.

It was still very tough to play for Black, however, and a few moves later 31…Bxf2? (31…Rxf2!) was the decisive mistake.

32.Qh7+! Kf8 (32…Qxh7 33.gxh7+ and now 33…Kh8 34.Rg8+! or 33…Kxh7 34.Rh2+!) 33.Rh3! Qg8 34.Qxb7 Qxg6 and Hikaru resigned before Wesley delivered mate-in-2.

“When I lost this game I was really annoyed,” Hikaru said afterwards, but he hit back straightaway in a game that started shakily but ended very convincingly.

Hikaru won another nice game with the white pieces to level the scores, and then took the lead in a game Wesley seemed to have saved only to blunder with 31.Rd1?

It’s not clear if it was a mouse-slip, but after 31…Rxe5 32.dxe5 Ke6! Hikaru went on to grab a crucial win. Wesley missed some chances in the final 5-minute game and later commented, “Losing the 5:1 portion was critical.”

3-minute section: 4.5:3.5 for Wesley, making the overall score 8.5:8.5

If Wesley was disappointed to find himself trailing in the match, it wasn’t for long! Hikaru made a hugely surprisingly blunder in an Anti-Berlin by exchanging queens with 13…Qxd1+?

That lost a piece to 14.Rxd1 Bxe4 15.a5!, while the correct 13…Bxe4! had most recently been played by Wesley against Ray Robson in the 2020 US Championship. It’s the kind of tricky, irrational position where such a mistake is easy to make in blitz, but the funny thing is that Hikaru had played the position as White in an important classical game against Levon Aronian from the 2019 Grand Swiss on the Isle of Man. Levon also chose 13…Bxe4 (13…Qf4 seems to be another option).

Wesley somewhat rubbed it in afterwards by commenting, “losing that piece in the well-known theoretical line was crucial”, and things escalated as Wesley then won with Black from a position where Hikaru had been on top. Wesley was threatening to take control of the match, but in the very next game, just when he seemed to have secured a draw, he fell into a fork.

Hikaru commented:

There were a couple of moments when I lost two games in a row and whenever I lost two I was somehow able not to lose that third game, and I think that was really the difference. I managed to keep it together when I had the streaks losing two in a row.

Hikaru was where he wanted to be, level with the bullet portion to come, and a sequence of three draws in the following games got him closer to the goal. It led to some bizarre chess as well, with Nakamura playing on in an opposite-coloured bishop ending until move 198 in order to run down the clock!

Our commentators felt the chess goddess had been offended by that game and punished Hikaru in the next, when Wesley suddenly whipped up an overwhelming attack.

It looked as though the US Champion would take a lead into the bullet section, but he went on to lose a great position in the final game of the session.

Leko was right that it had hurt, with So later commenting:

Losing that game, the last one in the 3+1 portion, was a big blow, because coming into the match I knew for sure I was going to lose the bullet, so I needed that +1 or +2, +2 is necessary to have a chance, but it didn’t happen, and that was the turning point of the match.

1-minute section: 5:4 for Hikaru, with the final score 13.5:12.5

Wesley went into more detail about what he considered the chasm in bullet ability between himself and Hikaru:

I was practising a lot of bullet games generally before my Speed Chess matches, but against Hikaru I don’t think it would matter that much, because his rating is 3500, around 3450, while mine goes around 3000-3100. I feel even if I practised for two weeks straight I don’t think it would make much of a difference, because not only Hikaru is very fast but he’s also very good in the endgames, and he finds accurate moves and he finds the wins. There are bullet players who just play fast, and there are bullet players who play fast and play good chess, and that’s very difficult to deal with.

You could say their match proved that, with Hikaru racing to an all-but-unassailable 3-point lead within the first five bullet games, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Wesley missed wins in the first three games, and the one that he lost was particularly painful.

Hikaru was defending resourcefully with White, but e.g. 35…Rxb3!, threatening to follow up with 36…Rbb1, should have finished off the game. Instead 35…Ba8? 36.f5!? Ne5 had already let the advantage slip, before 37.Ng5 Rxb3? was just too late for the tactical blow, since White was crashing through. In the final position the black queen on f4 is going to be lost to the knight fork Ne6+.

Hikaru managed to win a drawn rook ending in the 4th bullet game, but the most painful game followed.

Wesley had done everything right in Game 5, but after playing 19.Rh1 he failed to follow up a move later.

Here Wesley delayed with 20.b3!?, while Peter Leko was explaining that 20.h4! simply had to be played, whether it was good or bad. It was a bonus that it was the best move in the position, but his point was that Wesley not only needed to win, but to win fast, to have a chance in the match. Instead the slow approach maintained a winning position, but Hikaru ultimately managed to get an impenetrable fortress, and then even to win! 63.f3? was a mistake (63.Kf3! is the only move).

Suddenly the c-pawn began to run: 63…c4! 64.Kf2 c3! 65.Bd3 c2! 66.Be3 Ra1!

The problem is that 67.Bxc2 runs into 67…Ra2, winning the bishop and the game.

It seemed all over, but you have to give Wesley credit for coming back from that to win a fine game with the black pieces (even if Peter was wrong in this case – the 41…Re2+ "finesse" could have cost the win!).

Hikaru took advantage of a blunder in a rook ending in the next game and it really was match-over, but that didn’t stop Wesley providing arguably the moment of the match. He first got some help from his opponent.

Hikaru is winning with the white pieces, but decided to do it with a flourish! 24.Ne4 Bxe1 25.Nf6+ Kg7 26.Nxe8+ Rxe8 27.Qxe8 Qd2! (the exclamation mark is for Wesley setting up an exquisite finish instead of playing the key move immediately and winning prosaically) 28.Bc5.

White is a bishop up and threatening mate-in-1, but Black has one move that not only saves the day but forces mate-in-4! 28…Bf2+!! is a blow that's sure to feature in tactics material in future. The only reply to stop mate on e1 is 29.Bxf2, but then after 29…Qc1+! White can do nothing but sacrifice his bishops before Black delivers mate from e1.

Wesley also rounded off by delivering mate in the final game, but Hikaru slow-played it to make absolutely sure there was no time for another game that Wesley might have used to tie the scores and force a playoff.

Hikaru summed up:

I’m very happy to win the match, but in all seriousness a lot of credit goes to Wesley. He played a very good match and I think in many ways he was the better player.

Thoughts are already turning to the final, where Hikaru will take on either Magnus Carlsen or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – though it has to be said that in the post-game interviews neither player was entertaining the possibility that MVL might win. Hikaru simply said:

Certainly playing Magnus again will be fun, looking forward to it, but I’ll have to play a lot better than I did today, because today was not very good!

Maxime is one of those players who’ve managed to inflict damage on Magnus in blitz in the past, however, so you don’t want to miss their semi-final on Friday. It’s the same time, 18:00 CET (12:00 ET) and Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev will be back!

The final will then take place at 18:00 CET on Saturday. 

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