Reports Mar 25, 2023 | 12:24 PMby Colin McGourty

Nakamura survives American Cup thriller against So

Hikaru Nakamura was close to winning then briefly lost against Wesley So after what he described as a “very, very, very, very strange game”. The first classical game in the Women’s American Cup final was just as combative, but Alice Lee’s aggressive opening ultimately backfired as Irina Krush took the lead and now needs only a draw to retain her title.

"It started getting wildly out of control!" - Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes

Both games in Saint Louis began with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3, but while Wesley So opted for 3…Nc6, Alice Lee came prepared to gambit a pawn with 3…e4!?

“She definitely came up with something different today,” said Irina Krush of her 13-year-old opponent’s approach.

The idea was connected to a fast advance of Black’s h-pawn, but 10.Bb5+!? (the computer suggests 10.Ne2) seemed to catch Alice off-guard, and after 10…Nc6 11.Ne2 she looked to be on her own, although the position had occurred before.

Sam Sevian’s 11…h3!? would have been a logical follow-up, while 11…Bd6!? was more of a general purpose move.

So far Alice Lee can't find a chink in Irina Krush's armour | photo: Lennart Ootes

All the way up to move 23, however, Black still had compensation.

The computer here suggests moves such as 23…Kb8 or 23…gxh2 for Black, but Alice finally wanted to push her h-pawn further, while not allowing Nxg3 in response, so went for 23…Bxe2?! 24.Bxe2 h3. After 25.Bf3!, however, it seems Irina had everything under control.

In fact the black king was soon in more trouble, while by the end it was just a question of wrapping up the game.

After taking a rook on c1 Black seems only to be down a pawn, but Irina was ready with 38.Qg8+ Kxc7 39.Qc4+ Kd7 40.Qxc1 and, a piece up, simply had to make a few careful moves to consolidate and claim victory.

Meanwhile in the open section the pre-game predictions were for another solid classical draw between Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, and, up to a point, that seemed the likely outcome.

If any game needed a post-mortem... | photo: Lenart Ootes

Wesley decided against gambitting away any pawns and improved on a game Hikaru had won against Sam Sevian in the 2019 US Championship with 9…Bxf3. Even Hikaru giving up his queen didn’t at first appear to unsettle the game.

26.Qxe8+ Rxe8 27.Rxe8+ Kf7 28.Re7+ Kg6 29.Kh6 was a case of dynamic equality, but, as Hikaru commented, “it started getting wildly out of control!”

Hikaru laid the blame for some of what followed on the 12 minutes he spent on 30.Ba1, leaving him short of time after he played a brilliancy with 30…Ne3 31.h4!

The point is that 31…Nxf1? runs into 32.Rg5! Qf7 33.Bg7+ and, after pieces are exchanged on g7, the white d-pawn runs.

Wesley found the best reply 31…Qd3! however, and, in hindsight, Hikaru felt it would have been wiser to play for a draw, given his time situation. Instead he continued 32.Rxf4! Qd1+ and made the first wrong step of the game with his king.

He went for 33.Kf2, while 33.Kh2! was the best move. Hikaru explained that he’d missed a key move after 33…Qxd6 (31…Qxa1! is best for Black) 34.Rf7 Nd5 35.Bg7+ Kg6 36.h5+ Kxh5.

Here White is in fact winning with 37.Be5! Qxe5 (other moves don’t help) 38.Rf5+, but Hikaru had only looked at 37.Rf5+ Kg6 38.Be5 when, after e.g. 38…Qe6, it’s Black who wins. Hikaru commented:

If I have 20 minutes maybe I can find this… Alright, I’m not Stockfish, this is really asking for a lot!

There were more big moments to come, however. Hikaru described his 34.Rg5!? as, “a huge miscalculation — not being objective enough, feeling I could still win”, and it led to a key position after 37…Qd6.

Here initially Hikaru thought he was simply winning with the well-known tactic 38.Re6+ Qxe6 39.d8=Q, only to realise the line continues 39…Qe1+! 40.Kh2 Qxh4+ 41.Kg1 Qxg5, and it’s Black who wins.

Hikaru had 38.d8=Q, however, and no real harm was done.

It turns out the only objectively losing move he made all game was 40.Kh2? (this time 40.Kf2! was the move and, as Hikaru noted, “Black is in zugzwang”).

More than one move wins for Black, but the main idea was 40…Qc7+! and then 41…Qf7 next, dismantling the coordination between the white pieces.

Wesley commented, “I saw the winning move on move 40 — I had 10 minutes and I totally saw it”.

He explained, however, that he missed that 41.Kg1 is best met by 41…Qf4, but also that after 41.g3 Qf7 42.Rge5 Kg7! 43.Re7 he has a winning move.

43…Ng4+! and after 44.Kh3 Nxe5 45.Rxf7+ Black simply recaptures with an extra piece and a won position.

Perhaps the real reason Wesley didn’t spot some of those ideas, however, was that he thought the move he played in the game, 40…Qd4?, was winning as well.

“Praise the Lord, he plays Qd4+, a huge blunder!” said Hikaru in his recap.

During the game there was no elation from Hikaru, however, since as he explained:

I’m shaking my head a lot, because after Qd4 my initial idea was to play 41.g3?, but this loses after 41…Qb2+ 42.Kh3 Qa1, guarding the knight and threatening to create checkmate on h1.

Fortunately with about 30 seconds left on my clock, I gathered my wits about me and I played this move 41.Kg3!, simply because there are no other moves.

It turns out after 41…Qd3+ White can continue 42.Kf4! (“I just forgot his king can advance all the way to f4” – Wesley), and after 42…Qf1+, he has 43.Ke5!, when Black has to work to draw. Wesley was effectively in zugzwang, and after 41…b6 42.Rxc6 both players realised it was time to make a draw.

There was still time for a last flourish to finish off a remarkable game.

48…Qxh4+! (48…Qf2+! was an alternative) 49.Kxh4 and, suddenly, Black is in stalemate and the game is drawn!

“I guess we both actually played pretty well,” said Hikaru, while Wesley was impressed by his opponent:

I’m surprised he’s doing so well even though he spends 24/7 streaming!

That means there’s still everything to play for in the return game where Wesley So will have the white pieces. If it’s drawn the players will then switch to rapid chess. Hikaru can win the title on Saturday, while if Wesley wins, the players come back Sunday for an absolutely final final!

The American Cup continues from 19:30 CET (2:30pm ET, 0:00 IST). Replay all the American Cup games here on chess24:

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