It’s said that whenever America produced a world-class player it also groomed a rival. But now, for the first time, there’s not two but three equally outstanding world-class US players who are rivals and in the top 10, namely Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura – and two of those, Caruana and So, will go forward to next year’s Berlin Candidates tournament that will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.
But this first real three-way elite-level rivalry has thrown up yet another dynamic in the US Chess scene, making any match-up between the trio to be all the more riveting – and this week, we witnessed yet another quarterfinal match-up in the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship that had the added interest from the home fans with an online showdown between long-time rivals Caruana and Nakamura.
Databases indicate their first game was during a 2004 event at Manhattan’s Marshall Chess Club. Since then, they’ve met over-the-board more than 30 times, with Nakamura having the better record at all three standard time limits. But as we all know, Nakamura is the speed king and his forte is blitz chess, and he dominated a misfiring Caruana from start to finish, running out the big 17-10 winner to book his spot in the semifinals, where he will now face the defeated world title challenger, Sergey Karjakin.
The fourth and final quarterfinal chess.com Speed Chess Championship match-up, will see World Champion Carlsen and So – the other part of the US triumvirate rivalry – taking place on Saturday, 18 November, at 10 am Pacific, 1 pm Eastern, with live coverage at www.Chess.com/TV.
Despite the Caruana-Nakamura match proving to be a little one-sided, the high-level of play by both players in our featured game today simply had to be applauded: first, Nakamura came very near to turning it into a “Blitz Brilliancy”, only to miss the brilliancy moment that allowed Caruana to escape by finding a timely perpetual – a deserved result for the enterprising play shown by both players in this game.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Chess.com Speed Chess Ch., (5)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 Chess at the elite level can sometimes be all about nuances. We started off with a Bogo-Indian Defence, but this retreat with the loss of tempo may surprise many novices, but by enticing White’s bishop to d2, the bishop is now placed a little awkward there, and White will also have to lose a tempo soon, having to do something about this. 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 Nbd7 8.Qc2 c6 9.Rd1 Ne4 10.Bf4 Now both sides have ‘wasted’ a move, and we have transposed into a typical Catalan Opening with both sides having an extra move being played. 10…g5 An aggressive line from Nakamura, and one that he faced with the White pieces himself against Wesley So in the 2017 US Championship. If anything, it fits in with Nakamura’s style of play – and even more so in blitz! 11.Bc1 Previously, 11.Be3 was being played – but on e3, the bishop also comes under additional pressure after …f5 – so now the thinking is simply to directly retreat the bishop all the way back to where it came from, the idea being to play b3 followed by Bb2. 11…f5 12.Nc3 Bf6 13.e3 Rf7 14.b3 b6 15.Bb2 Bb7 16.Rac1 Qe8 17.Ne2 Rc8 18.Ne5 It’s now a sort-of Dutch Stonewall, and the battle is for control over the e5 square. 18…Rg7 19.a4 Nd6 20.Qd2 Nf7 21.Nd3 h5 22.a5 h4 23.axb6 axb6 24.Ra1! With the a-file opening, this has to be right. Caruana is hoping Nakamura will contest the a-file with 24…Ra8, as after 25.Rxa8 Qxa8 26.Ra1 Qb8, eventually White will gain the upper-hand with Bc3 and Qa2-a7. But rather than suffer going into this sort of endgame scenario, Nakamura ignores Caruana’s rook coming to the seventh and throws his lot in with an all-out attack. 24…g4 25.Nef4 Ng5 26.Ra7 Rb8 27.Ne5 h3 28.Bh1 Caruana is forced into this retreat, to keep his eyes on a potentially awkward …Nf3+. 28…Bxe5 29.dxe5 Nc5 30.Qb4 dxc4 31.Qxc4 Nce4 32.Bxe4 fxe4 Nakamura keeps his options open for that potentially awkward …Nf3+ – a move that becomes even all the more awkward with the vagaries of a blitz game! 33.Rd6 Re7 34.Qb4 Bc8 35.Rxe7 Qxe7 36.Nh5 Caruana clearly also has similar visions of Nf6+ being awkward to deal with! 36…Kf7 Nakamura could have played here 36…Ba6!? but White can defend with 37.f4 gxf3 38.Qd2 Bb5 39.Nf6+ Kh8 etc – and both sides have to defend potential issues with their king. 37.Nf6 Ra8 Ahead on time, Nakamura decides he’s going ‘all-in’ to look for a spectacular mating attack. 38.Nxe4? Caruana should really have been alert to the potential dangers by creating a little breathing space for his king with 38.f4!? 38…Nf3+ 39.Kh1 Ra2 A little too hasty – better first was the strong idea of 39…c5! to open up a second front with his bishop along the b7-h1 diagonal to the White king. 40.Qc3 Ba6! Nakamura has designs on the ‘blitz brilliancy’ with the threat now hanging in the air of Bf1 and Bg2 checkmate! 41.Rd1 Be2 42.Nd6+ Kg7 43.Nf5+! Amazing! In a very complicated position in a blitz showdown, Caruana senses the dangers and finds a move that could well keep Nakamura’s brilliant attack at bay. 43…exf5 44.Rd7? [see diagram] The correct way to go was with 44.e6+ first. And now, after 44…Kg6 45.Rd8!! Qxd8 46.Qg7+ Kh5 47.Qf7+ it’s a perpetual. 44…Bf1? Despite Nakamura going on to score a big match victory over his rival, I’m sure he will have been kicking himself for missing that ‘blitz brilliancy’ with 44…Qxd7! 45.e6+ Qd4!! Oooch! 46.exd4 Rxb2! 47.Qc1 (If 47.Qxb2 we return to the spectacular mating theme with 47…Bf1 and 48…Bg2 mate!) 47…Bd3 48.e7 Rxf2 Now the problem for White is …Rxh2 mate! 49.Qg1 Rf1 which just in time forces our bishop and knight mate after 50.Qxf1 Bxf1 51.e8Q Bg2#. 45.Rxe7+ Kf8 46.Re8+! Now it is just a draw, as Caruana finds the saving perpetual – but nevertheless, a truly wonderful blitz battle between the two long-time US rivals! 46…Kxe8 47.Qxc6+ Kd8 48.Qxb6+ Kc8 49.Qc6+ Kb8 50.Qb6+ Kc8 51.Qc6+ Kb8 52.Qb6+ Kc8 53.Qc6+ ½-½