Hikaru Nakamura has followed up victory in Paris by winning the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz and almost guaranteeing himself a place in the Grand Chess Tour final in London. He did it with victory in the penultimate round over Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, after the two players engaged in another neck-and-neck chase. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave remained the blitz top dog, beating both Mamedyarov and Nakamura, but had to settle for 2nd place both in St. Louis and on the live rating list, where he finished just 2.2 points behind Magnus Carlsen.
You can replay all the games from the 2018 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz using the selector below:
And you can also replay the live commentary, in English…
…and also in Russian. If you don’t speak Russian you might still be interested in Peter Svidler’s English interviews with Nakamura and MVL at the end. Unsurprisingly it also turns out Svidler would be a wonderful interpreter!
For the first half of the final day the race for the title in St. Louis developed almost exactly as it had a day earlier. Mamedyarov again took a half-point lead after the opening round as Nakamura lost a second game in a row to Sergey Karjakin, this time getting ground down in the Berlin endgame. Then in the very next round the players were again level, after playing an early g4 (with the black pieces!) for once backfired on Mamedyarov, who went down in flames against Leinier Dominguez. Meanwhile Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was already closing the gap with a 1.5/2 start. Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian would briefly threaten to join the hunt, but it was soon clear it would be a 3-horse race.
If anyone seemed destined to win the tournament it was Mamedyarov, who pulled off a swindle Levon Aronian would have been proud of, against Aronian himself!
Mamedyarov has White and is a pawn up, but here played 32.Nd5?? and dropped the bishop on b2 for no compensation. Perhaps he forgot that, with the bishop gone, after 33.g4 Black could simply play 33...Rc1+ and get out of the potential fork on e7. That should have been game over, but Shak fought on and - though it's not easy to see how even in slow motion – he managed to go on not only to save the game to but to beat Levon.
The hypothesis that the gods were firmly on his side received more validation a round later, when Fabiano Caruana was a pawn up and pressing for a win, but found a clever way to lose:
43.Nb5! is even more painful for Black than it looks at
first sight, since the unstoppable Nd6+ fork is accompanied by the threat of
Qxh6 (if the king tries to escape) and mate. Fabi had no choice but to resign.
After Nakamura had won the tournament Peter Svidler and Evgeny Miroshnichenko spent some time trying to work out where things had swung in the US star's favour, with the (not entirely serious) conclusion eventually coming down to, “it’s all Grischuk’s fault”. The fifth round of the day certainly looks like a reasonable place to start, and it was remarkable how suddenly a solid Berlin that was better for Black fell apart after 44…Qc3?:
The way the game was going at this stage a repetition with 45.Rc4 Qf6 46.Rf4 Qc3 would have looked completely normal, but Hikaru spotted something much better – 45.d4! Suddenly the black queen is cut off from the defence (45…Nxd4 of course runs into 46.Qe5+) and after 45…Kg8 46.Qe5 there was nothing Black could do about a crude attack on his king. Grischuk resigned 5 moves later.
In the same round MVL beat Mamedyarov, so that Nakamura again leap-frogged his way into a half-point lead. He later agreed with Svidler about the importance of the game:
I think that game sort of changed everything. I started playing better after that.
On the other hand, the lead again evaporated a round later, as Hikaru drew quickly against Dominguez and Mamedyarov won in dazzling style against Karjakin. There’s not much of a contest for move of the day when you see Shak’s response to Sergey attacking his queen:
22.Nh6+!! is a glorious zwischenzug, with the point getting demonstrated in the game: 22…gxh6? 23.gxh6 and the g3-bishop is pinned to the king along the g-file. After 23…f6 24.Bxf5 exf5 25.Rxg3+ White was a pawn up with a mating attack. 22…Kh8! would have prolonged the game, but at the expense of allowing White the beautiful follow-up 23.Bxg7+! Kxg7 24.Nxf5+ exf5 25.Qxg3. Again, White is material up with a dangerous attack, though the computer claims 25…f4! would have made the rest of the game a contest.
You might note that Karjakin had done everything in his power for Mamedyarov’s cause by beating Nakamura twice in blitz (and drawing in rapid) and losing all three games to Shak - the only mini-match of the whole event to finish 4:0!
In pure numerical terms the big change came in the seventh round, when for the first time in the blitz one of the players opened up a full-point lead. Aronian’s 25…Bf5? against Nakamura was “too clever”, and though Hikaru missed one chance to play the refutation he didn’t miss the second:
The game continued 27…Be6 (27…Bxc2 just sees Black mated even sooner after 28.exf6+ Kxf6 29.fxg5+) 28.exf6+ Kxf6 29.fxg5+ Kg7 30.g6! and the besieged black king didn’t last much longer.
At the same time Nakamura’s countryman Wesley So smoothly won a pawn and eventually the game against Mamedyarov. One moment early on there is perhaps worth mentioning, though, simply because it’s a nice trick!
11…Nb4!! would have brought an abrupt halt to the normal development of the game! It’s hard to even imagine such a move, but if you do it’s simple to see that the knight can’t be taken due to Bc2, trapping the queen. The threat of a knight fork on c2 means play might continue with the awkward 12.Rf1 Bc2 13.Qe1 Nd3 14.Bxd3 Bxd3 and although it turns out White can avoid losing an exchange with 15.Qe5 we’d reach a technical ending where Black had the advantage.
As it was, everything came down to the penultimate round clash between Mamedyarov and Nakamura, an epic struggle that deserves a section of its own.
Mamedyarov and Nakamura’s game on the first day of blitz had already been a thriller that looked set to give Shak a 1.5-point lead until he blundered a rook in one move. Their second game, however, was even better. As Nakamura commented afterwards:
Those games against Shak were a lot of fun. I think out of everyone that I’ve played over the years somehow blitz games against Shak are always the most interesting… and usually the most enjoyable, regardless of the result, because they tend to be very exciting!
Mamedyarov was trailing by a point and while he didn’t absolutely need to win (especially as Nakamura was facing MVL in the final round), hyper-aggressive play had served him well all event and he wasn’t going to stop now when he had the white pieces against the tournament leader. There was an air of inevitability about the way he went about generating chaos on the board:
Capturing on g4 is inadvisable, if not unplayable, and the game continued 8…Bb7 9.g5 Nfd7 10.h4:
Shak had achieved his favourite pawn structure… but now it was Nakamura who added fuel to the flames with 10…Ne5!? 11.Nxe5 Bxh1 12.Qa4+ (the computer finds brilliant lines with 12.Qh5! and later sacrificing a piece on f7 only to win it back by trapping the h1-bishop) 12…Nd7 13.f3 b5 14.Nxb5 Nxe5:
Another fork in the road, as here the double check 15.Nc7+! was strong. Nakamura wondered what White had after 15…Kf8 16.Bxe5 Rc8, only to be shown the computer’s 17.Qc6! After 15.Bxe5 immediately Black was taking over, but Hikaru would later comment that he “relaxed too much”.
He got a cold shower on move 22:
22.Nd5! (22...Qxc6 would now of course lose a piece to 23.Nxe7+), and it was advantage White again! Nakamura had to refocus, which he did, though the ending could still have held some venom if Shak had continued to play boldly:
White could have played d4 earlier with a solid and promising position, but even at this stage White can still keep an advantage. 42.Be5! would ask Black a lot of questions, since the a-pawn isn’t as vulnerable as it looks – if the b6-rook leaves the 6th rank Bd6+ will win the pawn on c5, while 42…Rb3? would allow White to show off with a winning move like 43.Rxg7! Instead Mamedyarov allowed the bishop to be bullied off the long diagonal with 42.Bc1?! and shortly afterwards a misstep with his king meant the bishop would die in that cage.
The final stages, when Shak knew there was nothing he could do, were painful:
It was a great moment for Hikaru, however, who had secured first place with a round to spare, winning his second Grand Chess Tour event in a row:
He told Maurice Ashley:
I thought today for the most part, with the exception of one very bad move in the first game, that I played quite well. I was pretty pleased, unlike yesterday, where I felt that I did not play very well and I was actually quite lucky to score a few points.
The victory almost confirms Hikaru Nakamura will play in the 4-player Grand Chess Tour final in London later this year (more on the standing soon), and he explained what that meant to him before the upcoming Sinquefield Cup:
I’ve played in London every year they’ve held the event, so I think it’s 8 or 9 years in a row. I’ve celebrated my last 9 birthdays there, so I think more than pressure it’s more kind of just wanting to have the familiarity of going back there again in December. It’s quite nice. I do enjoy going to London, and I think if I had to put up a big score in the classical I think it would add a lot of pressure. It doesn’t change much overall, but it is really quite nice to just be able to play the classical as a standard stand-alone tournament.
There was still some business left to complete in the final round of the tournament.
Hikaru Nakamura still had to play one more game of chess, and unfortunately for him it was against a player who had totally dominated the blitz – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Sure enough, Maxime went on to grind out one more win, taking his score for the day to 6.5/9, just short of the 7/9 he’d posted on the first day.
It was enough to take him up into second place above Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, but left him one point short of Nakamura. It also left him just a couple of points behind Magnus Carlsen on the live blitz rating list:
Maxime wasn’t getting carried away, telling Maurice, “I don’t think I’ve caught up with Magnus in terms of blitz strength, despite what the ratings show”. His explanation for success in the blitz after ruining his rapid score with three losses in a row?
In the blitz two things could happen - I could just burn after this rapid, or I could play free from any pressure, and this is also what helped me close the gap on the leaders.
He was less happy with the second day’s play, noting, “the result was good, but my play was less convincing”. He made hard work of some of his five wins, and also lost a game, to Levon Aronian:
23…Bxa2+? was a fine, thematic sacrifice with the one drawback that in this concrete position it doesn’t work. After 24.Kxa2 b3+ 25.Kb1 a3 26.cxb3 MVL sank into a long think as he realised he had no attack. That meant he was just lost, and Levon smoothly wrapped things up.
Aronian deserves a special mention at this point for going the whole day without a single draw. He scored 4 wins and 5 losses, but it’s been a revelation to see him playing 1.e4 and the sharpest lines in this event – will he also make it his weapon of choice in the classical tournament to follow?
There’s another theory for why Maxime fell just short on the second day, however:
One hesitates to use the word obsession, but Peter certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to question Maxime about not wearing the Pickle Rick T-Shirt when he got to interview the French no. 1 after the event:
Svidler: I have to start with the question that everybody badly needs to know – was there any point today where you regretted not wearing the same shirt?
MVL: Not really. I mean I kind of wish I would have, but at the same time it went pretty well without.
Svidler: It didn’t go badly, but when they showed us the first shots from the hall and I saw you actually wore something sensible I have to say a little bit of me died at that moment, and I will forever blame you for it.
Perhaps Maxime can go some way to putting right that wrong in the Ultimate Moves or Sinquefield Cup to follow!
It’s time to get down to business. First, the full breakdown of the results from the 2018 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz:
We’ve already covered who succeeded and failed in previous reports, and little changed on the final day. Some players had nothing to cheer about, and it was a shame that Vishy couldn’t at least have ended on a high in his final round game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov:
40.Re1!!, offering a whole rook with check, would have been a nice finish. Instead that game ended in a draw.
In any case, even a win wouldn’t have changed the allocation of Grand Chess Tour points or prize money, which was as follows:
And that produced the following Grand Chess Tour standings before the Sinquefield Cup starts on Saturday:
The shocker here is that the leader before the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz, Wesley So, is suddenly facing a fight to qualify for the Grand Chess Tour final in London, after picking up just two points. Only the top four players make it, and in contrast to the 13 points for clear first in the rapid and blitz events there are 20 available in the classical Sinquefield Cup. The one player who can rest easy is Hikaru Nakamura, though even in his case it seems it’s not a mathematical certainty. For instance, if he finished last in the Sinquefield Cup with Aronian, So, Karjakin and MVL in clear 1st-4th he would, based on some quick back-of-an-envelope maths, need a playoff to qualify.
That’s very unlikely to happen, though, if only because a rested Magnus Carlsen will also be vying for prize money and points (not that he needs them) in the Sinquefield Cup! Before that Magnus will also be in attendance for the Ultimate Moves show that’s taking place at 13:00 local time (20:00 CEST) on Thursday. Once again Rex and Randy Sinquefield will lead teams of grandmasters who take turns making moves. Nakamura feels the absence of Garry Kasparov this year will make things more relaxed:
Every year Garry’s there inevitably someone on either team makes some kind of insane blunder and Garry just has a typical Garry freak-out. Without Garry we might actually see Rex and Randy play significantly better chess.
The emphasis, however, will of course be on the trash talk. You can watch all the action live here on chess24!
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