The countdown is over, the bells have rung worldwide and we’ve all joined hands for a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. We’re well and truly into 2018 now, but for World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the old year continues to be the gift that keeps on giving – in speed chess, at least – as the Norwegian routed his US rival, Hikaru Nakamura, as the two went head-to-head in Wednesday’s 2017 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship Final, sponsored by Masterclass.
Due to busy schedules from both players, the tournament stretched out a few days into the new year. It was also a repeat of the 2016 final, where Carlsen edged out Nakamura 14.5-10.5 to take the title – but there was no close contest this time around, as Carlsen, just four days after winning the World Blitz crown in Riyadh, easily won the 2017 contest by dominating Nakamura from start to finish in a lopsided contest, even beating the American for the first time in a bullet contest, as he won all three speed disciplines to take the title by a big winning margin.
In the marathon four-hour blitz showdown, Carlsen won the first blitz contest (5min + 2sec), beating Nakamura 6-3; in the second (3min + 2 sec), he beat Nakamura 4.5-3.5; and in the bullet (1min + 1 sec), where the American speed devil usually reigns supreme, Carlsen almost trounced Nakamura, winning 7.5-2.5 for an emphatic match victory of 18-9, in the process cashing in $17,535.11 in total winnings; with a conciliation prize of $10,493.25 for Nakamura.
One crumb of comfort for Nakamura was, as expected, winning the Chess960 mini-match, 2.5-0.5 (held between all three sessions), that will give the US #3 and unofficial Chess960 world champion some bragging rights going into next month’s Chess960 Exhibition Match in Norway against Carlsen, that will once again see the two renewing their rivalry. But for Carlsen, although he failed to win a single elite all-play-all in 2017, it was a year that saw him dominate all the top speed tournaments, notably winning the Paris and Leuven Grand Chess Tour titles, the recent World Blitz Championship title, and now retaining his Chess.com Speed Chess Championship crown.
Click here for the full official report and replay videos of the Chess.com 2017 Speed Chess Championship Final. Lady Luck certainly wasn’t on Nakamura side throughout the match, as he squandered many golden opportunities to win what were clearly winning positions against Carlsen, such as this epic between the two rivals that dramatically rounded off the first blitz session.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Chess.com Speed Chess Final (5m+2spm)
King’s Indian Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.h3 e5 7.d5 a5 Nakamura is always at his best in dynamic positions – and games don’t come much more dynamic than in the King’s Indian Defence, a long-standing favourite of the American. 8.Be3 Na6 9.g4 In the 6.h3 variation against the KID, White not only stops …Ng4 hitting the Be3 but also breaks the ground for g4 to delay Black getting in the usual KID quick counter-play with …f5. 9…Nd7 10.Nd2 Ndc5 11.Rg1 Kh8 12.a3 Bd7 13.Qc2 c6 14.0-0-0 Double-edged play is now assured with White attacking on the kingside and Black on the queenside – but which will be quicker? 14…cxd5 15.cxd5 There was a strong case for 15.Nxd5!? as White will establish a strong knight outpost that’s not easy to work around. But now, with the opening of the c-file, Nakamura has something tangible to bite on. 15…Rc8 16.Kb1 a4?! Right idea in similar KID positions, but wrong here. Strong was 16…Na4!? 17.Nc4 N6c5 and Black’s attack looks to have the better momentum. But with this little slip, Nakamura offers Carlsen a chance to get his own attack rolling. 17.h4 f5 18.h5! Both sides are now, in poker parlance, ‘pot committed’. 18…f4 19.Bxc5 Nxc5 20.hxg6 hxg6 21.g5 Rf7 A utility move. From f7, the rook is ready to double on the c-file, or perhaps going to b7 after …b5 – but more importantly, it defends g7 and h7 and makes way for a swift escape route for Black’s king via g8 and f8. 22.Bb5! Carlsen has grabbed the initiative after Nakamura’s slip. 22…Kg8 I suppose it is better to make the walk now rather than being forced into a walk of shame later. 23.Bxd7 Qxd7 24.Nc4 Carlsen’s knights now dominate, and in their wake, Nakamura has to quickly find a way to get his pieces active, especially his ‘bad bishop’ locked in behind his pawns on g7. 24…Qd8 25.Nb5 Bf8 This attempts to solve one problem, with the idea being …Be7 hitting g5 – but in doing so, it opens the game up now to an even bigger problem for Nakamura. 26.Rh1! Carlsen quickly spots that the open h-file is now an open target – and Nakamura has to now be very wary of the dangers of f3 and Qh2 coming. 26…Qd7 27.Nc3 OK, this is blitz and the players can be forgiven for missing a finesse here and there – and in the here, Carlsen missed a golden winning shot with 27.Nb6!? the idea being that after 27…Qxb5 28.Nxc8 Rc7 29.f3! Rxc8 30.Qh2 and White looks to have a clear winning attack down the h-file, with play likely continuing with 30…Bg7 31.Qh7+ Kf8 (Black can’t play 31…Kf7? as 32.Rh6 wins quickly.) 32.Qxg6 and Black’s king is left at White’s mercy. 27…Rc7 28.Nb6 Carlsen is just winning here – but such are the vagaries of blitz, we see the game ebbing and flowing frenetically between the two. 28…Qe8 29.f3 Too cautious by half. Instead, 29.Nbxa4 was simple and good, as White wins a pawn and retains the better position. 29…Nb3! Now Carlsen’s hesitation has allowed Nakamura back in the game, as his knight coming to d4 offers lots of potential and counterplay. 30.Nbxa4? Carlsen had to play 30.Qd3 allowing 30…Nd4 with unclear play and both side having to be cautious. But now, Nakamura seizes his chance to take control once again. 30…Nd4 31.Qh2 Rh7 32.Qf2 b5! It’s likely that Carlsen simply missed that this just loses him a piece. The damage has been done, and there’s no time to agonise over it, so Carlsen survival instinct kicks in by accepting he’s just lost a piece and he now has to get as much as he can for it. 33.Rxh7 Rxh7 34.Nb6 Qd8 35.Nxb5 There’s no point in over-thinking this – the piece is lost, just get the best position you can now, and hope – as it’s blitz – your opponent slips up. If this were a longer time control, Carlsen would most likely have resigned by now – but there’s always hope in blitz! 35…Nxb5 36.Nc4 Nd4 37.Qg2 Rc7 38.Rc1 Qc8 39.Qf1 Nb3 The clinical win was 39…Nxf3! 40.Qxf3 Rxc4 41.Rh1 Rc2! and White can’t get the queen to the h-file. 40.Rc3 Nd4 41.Ka2 Qa6 42.Qd3 Qa7 43.Nd2 Be7 44.Rxc7 Qxc7 45.Nb3 Qc2 This forces off the queens and should be an easy win…but killing Carlsen is like killing a vampire: it takes more than just a stake through the heart, you also need to cut-off his head, stuff his mouth with garlic and bury it at the crossroads! 46.Qxc2 Nxc2 47.Na5 Bxg5 48.Nc6 Kf7 Logical. The king comes across to the queenside to stop any danger from White’s pawns running up the board. Well, that’s how the script should go. 49.a4 Bh4 The game now takes another dramatic twist, as Nakamura begins to lose the thread of the position. All he had to do was follow the script with 49…Ke8! 50.b4 Ne1 51.b5 Kd7 52.a5 Kc7 where the passed pawns are stopped by the king, leaving the Black’s knight to capture on f3 and quickly run home the f-pawn. 50.a5 Bf2 There was still time for Black to win with 50…Ne1! – but with 50…Bf2, Nakamura now gets himself in a tangle stopping Carlsen’s pawns running up the queenside. 51.b4 Ke8 52.b5 Kd7 53.b6 Kc8 54.Kb3 Nd4+ 55.Kc4 Kb7 By not taking the f-pawn with …Ne1, Nakamura has given Carlsen a little hope of a swindle – and the Norwegian is very quick to spot the possibilities of saving the game! 56.Nd8+ Ka6 57.b7 Ka7 58.a6 g5?? [see diagram] There was high-drama on the live feed as the webcam suddenly began to show a change in the body language of both players – after playing 58…g5??, Carlsen’s eyes lit-up and then Nakamura started to grimace slightly, realising perhaps that he made a mistake. Instead, he should have played 58…Bh4 59.Ne6 Nxf3 and he was easily still winning. 59.Nf7! Remarkably, Carlsen is saving the game now. 59…Bh4?? By now, with the digital clock metaphorically ticking away and flags hanging, Nakamura was shaking his head in disbelief, perhaps not wanting to accept that he’d allowed Carlsen to escape certain death – and such was his disbelief, he makes another massive blunder that allows Carlsen not to save the game but now win it! Nakamura had to accept his fate and play 59…Be1 60.Nxd6 Ba5 61.Nc8+ Kb8 62.Kc5 g4 63.Nb6 allowing White to force a draw by repetition now with 63…Ka7 64.Nc8+ Kb8 65.Nb6 etc. 60.Nxd6 g4 It’s all too painfully slow now for Nakamura, as there’s no way to track back with his pieces, leaving Carlsen with an unrestricted knight path to d7, not only queening the pawn but also quickly mating. 61.Nc8+ Kb8 62.Nb6 1-0 What a game, and what a dramatic turnaround!