For a dozen years Prague has been the scene of a match between Czech number one David Navara and an invited foreign grandmaster. This year American number one and current world number five Hikaru Nakamura was the guest of honor at the Michna Palace on the west bank of the Vltava river. The pair played a four game classical match organized as the ČEZ Chess Trophy festival by the Prague Chess Society.
Nakamura started with two wins, and ultimately won 3.5 to 0.5. Both black games featured the King's Indian Defense with 6.h3, and both white games were contested in the Semi-Slav. We'll have a look at some highlights, plus excerpts from a video interview.
Nakamura was invited to play in Prague back in January, during the Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, long before receiving details regarding a conflicting invitation to the Norway Chess super tournament in Stavanger. Nakamura participated in Norway Chess last year, and the field featured most of the world's top ten, so his absence was conspicuous.
In general, I would have liked to play in Norway, but already I had kind of made up my mind that I was going to play in Prague, because I received the invitation two or three days before Wijk aan Zee even ended, so it was long in advance of Norway...I just thought it would be more relaxing and it would be more fun, really, because — I do like Norway — but Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe. It’s just a great city, a lot of architecture, a lot of nightlife, a lot of everything, it’s a very lively city and so I certainly prefer it to Stavanger.
Prague has a long chess history. The first world champion Wilhelm Steinitz was born there in 1836. Prague hosted the 4th Chess Olympiad in 1931, which was won by the USA. Each year since 2003, Pavel Matocha and the Prague Chess Society have organized a match between Navara and the likes of chess legends Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov, the strongest women Judit Polgar and Hou Yifan, or members of the current chess elite like Vladimir Kramnik, Peter Svidler and Vassily Ivanchuk.
The four game match with Nakamura was one of the more lopsided in the twelve
year history of this event, but the final score is a bit misleading, as Hikaru himself noted the day after the match:
On paper Nakamura out-rated Navara by 50 points, and he felt this would be a more relaxing way to spend the week leading up to the World Blitz and Rapid Championship in Dubai. The players in Stavanger had only the weekend to recover and travel on to the U.A.E., which Nakamura thought would be too taxing.
I just felt this was an opportunity to try and pick up some of the points that I lost at the start of the year. I had a very bad start to the year, I had two pretty bad tournaments — I wouldn’t say Zürich was terrible — there was one mishap — but Wijk aan Zee especially was not good, so I’d lost a lot of points.
Starting with Black, Nakamura went with his battle-hardened King’s Indian Defense, and Navara avoided a sharp struggle by responding with the more positional 6.h3 variation.
Navara’s best chance to score a point came in game three when he improved upon his first round loss to Nakamura’s King’s Indian Defense. Curiously, Nakamura's problems out of the opening came in part because of a technical hitch in his preparation, as he explained to me after the match.
IM David Martinez takes a look at Games 1 and 3:
3. ♘c3 ♗g7 4. e4 d6 5. ♘f3 0-0 6. h3 This move has been fashionable of late in various lines played by the elite, above all against the Najdorf and in this line of the King's Indian, or its "close cousin" 5. h3 - Bg5, when White leaves the knight on g1.
6... e5 7. d5 a5 8. ♗g5 ♘a6 9. ♘d2 ♕e8 10. ♗e2 This move is more flexible than the classical 10. g4, which barely anyone plays nowadays. White leaves his options open over whether to be aggressive or not on the kingside.
11... f6 which he'd employed on two previous occasions. 12. ♗h4 ♘b6 13. b3 ♗h6 14. ♖b1 Nakamura and Navara had a curious discussion in the press conference about the precise move order - 14. Rb1 or 14.0-0, although in reality the conclusion is "it's more or less the same". (14. f3 ♗e3 15. ♗f2 ♗xf2+ 16. ♔xf2 f5 17. ♖b1 ♕d8 18. h4 was Karjakin - Nakamura, Shamkir 2014, a game which ended in a draw after 40 moves.) 14... ♘c5 15. 0-0 (15. b4⁈ axb4 16. axb4 ♘ca4 is quite reasonable for Black since his knight on a4, although it seems as though it's on the verge of dropping at any moment, creates more problems for White. He has to be on the look-out for knight jumps more than he has any realistic chances of catching it. This was played in Ostenstad - Nakamura, Rhodes 2013. As a rule, b4 is stronger when Black has played f5, for two reasons: the activity of the bishop from h4 and the central tension, which in this case benefits White since the black pieces suffer more. Let's look at an example so we can compare it with other lines. 17. ♘b5 ♕e7 18. ♕c2 c6 and Black is happy since the sacrifice on d6 isn't effective. 19. ♘xd6 ♕xd6 20. c5 ♕d8 21. cxb6 cxd5 with a black advantage.) 15... f5⁈ (15... ♗d7 is the correct response, continuing to improve the pieces before playing f5.) 16. b4 axb4 17. axb4
a) 17... ♘ca4 18. ♘b5 ♕d7 (18... ♕f7 19. ♕c2 and there's neither c6 nor Bd7 in order to disturb the b5-knight.) 19. ♕c2 is very promising for White, since c5 will follow, and if 19... c6 20. ♘xd6! ♕xd6 21. c5 ♕d7 22. d6 Black faces positional humiliation.
b) 17... ♘xe4 18. ♘dxe4 fxe4 19. c5 dxc5 20. bxc5 ♘a4 21. ♘xa4 ♕xa4 and here Navara could have immediately played 22. d6 (22. ♗e7 ♖f7 23. d6 cxd6 24. cxd6 ♗e6 25. ♕xa4 ♖xa4 26. ♖xb7 ♗f8 27. ♖fb1 ♖a2 28. ♗xf8 ♔xf8 29. ♖7b2 ♖xb2 30. ♖xb2 ♖a7 31. ♔h2 ♖a4 32. ♖b5 ♖d4 33. ♖xe5 ♔f7 34. ♗g4 ♗xg4 35. ♖e7+ ♔f6 36. hxg4 ♖xd6 37. ♖xe4 ♖d5 38. f4 h5 39. ♔g3 hxg4 40. ♔xg4 ♖d2 41. g3 ♖d5 42. ♖a4 ♖b5 43. ♔h4 ♖h5+ 44. ♔g4 ♖b5 45. ♖a6+ ♔f7 46. ♖d6 ♖c5 47. ♔f3 g5 48. ♔e4 1/ 2-1/2 (48) Navara,D (2724)-Nakamura,H (2775), Game 3, Prague 2014) 22... cxd6 23. ♕d5+! (23. cxd6 ♗e6 24. ♗g4 is more normal and also very good.) 23... ♔h8 24. ♗e7 leaving Black with serious problems.
14... ♗xb5 15. cxb5 ♘c5 is what was played before, and was a little better for White who could try to press on the queenside. 16. ♕c2 fxe4 was Javakhishvili,L (2455)-Harika, D (2512) Khanty-Mansiysk 2012 where White could have played 17. ♗xc5 dxc5 18. ♘xe4 and after having destroyed the centre and dominated the board he could have uttered Hannibal's classic phrase: "I love it when a plan comes together!"
15. ♗xb6? An error of evaluation from Navara, who doesn't give sufficient importance to the black squares.
15. h4 strikes me as the most critical move, although
15. 0-0 also seems normal.
15... cxb6 16. ♘xd6 White has won an important pawn, doubled the b-pawns and the g7-bishop still appears "bad". So why, then, doesn't White have a clear advantage due to his extra pawn? There are two explanations, one philosophical and much loved by the charlatans and flirts of the Bermuda Party: "Such is the King's Indian".
The second, more instructive one, has to do with the dynamics of the position. Black is going to be able to improve his pieces easily — note how in his next three moves his minor pieces are clearly improved, while it isn't so easy for White to improve. The dynamics of the position are the dominant element, outweighing static factors and even material! This is one of the areas that has evolved most in recent years, perhaps initially thanks to the classics but really thanks to the push given by the computers.
18. b4 ♗a4 19. ♕b1 ♕xd6 20. bxc5 ♕xc5 Well, for starters there's no longer an extra pawn, plus everything is forced. Black can prepare to double on the f-file and then look for a way to break down the white position...Navara doesn't want to stand by and watch with passive moves, so he tries to activate, but his pieces aren't well-prepared.
27... ♗xc4 was already possible, but Hikaru is a dynamic player and prefers to turn the screw even more first.
I felt comfortable. I’d played [this variation] a few times before — the game against Karjakin in Azerbaijan... like anything else in chess you just have to play the best moves, and if you do good things will happen.
The opening is also covered in chess24’s newly-published 32-part series on the King’s Indian by Dutch GM Robin van Kampen.
Nakamura’s tenacity was on display in the fourth and by far the longest game of the match, as Hikaru was able to grind out a win from a position in which Navara seemed to have a holdable fortress.
Nakamura is no stranger to long last round games. In April his
final game in Shamkir against Teimour Radjabov stretched into the seventh hour.
The last few years I’ve had a lot of really long last round games for some reason.
David Martinez looks at the closing stages:
Nakamura has been in complete control, and with his last move — Qc2-e2 — is threatening to play Rc8 and win the black queen. However...
31... ♘xe4! Navara takes his chance to sacrifice his queen.
32. ♖c8 ♕xc8 33. ♗xc8 ♘xf2 34. ♖f1 ♘h3+ 35. ♔h1 ♘f2+ 36. ♖xf2 ♗xf2 Black has a rook and two pawns for the queen, and the limited material left on the board suggests he has excellent chances of setting up a fortress. Nakamura, however, slowly but surely goes about demolishing it.
41. ♗b7 ♖b2 42. ♗d5 ♖f2 43. ♗g2 ♔g7 44. ♕e7 ♖e2 45. ♔h2 ♖f2 46. ♔h3 ♖f6 47. ♗e4 ♖e6 48. ♕b7 ♖b6 49. ♕d7 ♖f6 50. ♗d5 ♖f5 51. ♕b7 ♖f2 52. ♗f3 ♖b2 53. ♕e7 ♖b6 54. ♕d8 ♖b3 55. ♕a8 ♖b2 56. ♕e4 ♖b6 57. g4 hxg4+ 58. ♕xg4 White has taken the first step, and now it's no longer so easy for Navara to do nothing since his king is in danger.
58... ♗e3 Navara tries to activate, since if he allows h5 and hxg6 then having to take with the f-pawn (after the white bishop comes to e4) would fatally weaken his king.
63... ♖b3+ 64. ♔g2 ♖g3+ 65. ♔f1 ♗e3 66. ♕a6+ ♔g5 67. ♗b5 Now Black's activity backfires since when you're trying to hold such positions material down by setting up a fortress you have to watch out for the rearguard!
Nakamura commented on his efforts in a game which had no influence on the outcome of the match:
I won’t be playing any more classical chess until the Olympiad so there’s no reason not to try and push every game to the end, and that’s I think in large part why I kept playing...there are only so many games of chess that I’ll be playing in my career, so I might as well make the most of them when I’m playing.
After the match, Nakamura spent several days more in Prague, before heading on to Dubai, where his claim to the top spot on both the rapid and blitz rating lists will be put to the test.
The Prague Chess Society's next big event will be the fourth edition of the Chess Train tournament. This year the route of this unique event is spectacular: Prague — Vienna — Budapest — Trencin — Kraków and back to Prague, from October 10-14.
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