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In one of the most dramatic and exciting finishes yet to a Grand Chess Tour speed event, Hikaru Nakamura managed to throw off the determined challenge of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – not to mention a resurgent Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – going down the home stretch, as he snatched the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz title. And with it, the American speed maven not only took the first prize of $37,500, he also took maximum points to top the tour standings and all but virtually punch his ticket for the GCT Final in December at the London Chess Classic.

Nakamura was tied at the top with Mamedyarov at the end of the Rapid event – and over two days of thrills ’n’ spills of blitz, the tournament lead continually changed between the two frontrunners. The outcome was only decided in the big penultimate round clash between the two leaders – and it was ultimately decided in a game that ebbed and flowed much like their tournament lead, with Nakamura emerging as the winner.

With speed wins in Paris and now St. Louis, Nakamura leads the tour standings – and with it, he was immediately dubbed the “Champagne and Budweiser” champion by former World Champion and GCT co-creator Garry Kasparov, with the two cities being synonymous with those alcoholic beverages. And certainly, Nakamura has much to “cheer” about, because now, going into the final leg of the regular GCT season, he’s all but guaranteed one of the four final spots in London that will determine the 2018 tour winner.

And that final event that will determine the four players heading to London gets underway on Saturday, with the Sinquefield Cup, also at the Saint Louis Chess Club, that also sees wildcard Magnus Carlsen enter the fray, with the intriguing added subplot of it being the World Champion’s final meeting with his US challenger Fabiano Caruana, ahead of their November world-title clash in London.

St. Louis Rapid & Blitz (combined final standings):
1. H. Nakamura (USA) 22.5/36; 2. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 21.5; 3. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 21; 4. F. Caruana (USA) 20; 5. L. Aronian (Armenia) 18; 6. S. Karjakin (Russia) 17; 7. L. Dominguez (Cuba) 16; 8. A. Grischuk (Russia) 15.5; 9. W. So (USA) 15; 10. V. Anand (India) 13.5.

Grand Chess Tour Standings & Prize Money:
1. H. Nakamura, 33 points ($90,000); 2. M. Vachier-Lagrave, 25 points ($60,000); 3. S. Karjakin, 24 points ($57,500); 4. W. So, 23 points ($65,000); 5. L. Aronian, 19 points ($40,000); 6. S. Mamedyarov, 15 points ($35,000); 7. A. Grischuk, 12 points ($25,000); 8. F. Caruana, 11 points ($30,000); 9. V. Anand, 9 points ($25,000)

Photo: Hikaru Nakamura wins the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz to become the tour leader | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Saint Louis Blitz, (17)
English Opening
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.e3 d5 4.b3 Be7 5.Bb2 dxc4 6.bxc4 c5 7.Nc3 b6 8.g4 Right from the off, Shakh is going for the ‘shock and awe’ approach. The Azeri played many games during this tournament with this sort of aggressive approach with good results – but here, Nakamura proves to be more than a match for his tricky opponent. 8…Bb7 9.g5 Nfd7 10.h4 Ne5 Nakamura could have castled first – but after 10…0-0 11.Rh3!? with the idea of Rg3 and Bd3, I would imagine Shakh would be the happier with this sort of attacking mess. So rather than that, Nakamura opts for the simpler, liquidating line to try to take the sting out of White’s attacking forces. 11.Nxe5 Bxh1 12.Qa4+ Nd7?! A really good alternative was the simple 12…Kf8! as now White can’t play 13.f3 because, after the logical 13…Bd6!, White is struggling to stay in the game. So that means White would have to try 13.Be2 Bb7 14.Bh5 g6 15.Bg4 f6! and Black is much better. 13.f3 If Shakh traps the bishop, he has a big advantage. 13…b5 14.Nxb5 Nxe5 15.Bxe5? I wonder what spooked Shakh? The obvious – and best – move was to immediately exploit the discovered double check with 15.Nc7+! Kf8 16.Bxe5 Bxf3 17.Nxa8 and White has the better prospects here. 15…0-0 16.Be2 f6! If Shakh thinks he’s trapping Nakamura’s bishop, then he has badly miscalculated in the blitz mayhem, as this very accurate move resolves everything for Nakamura, as it threatens to blow the game wide-open to his advantage. 17.0-0-0 Forced, as 17.gxf6? Bxf6 18.Bxf6 Qxf6 19.0-0-0 Bxf3 looked all but hopeless for White. 17…Bg2 18.Rg1 Bh3 19.Ba1 After missing 15.Nc7+, it is now desperate measures for Shakh, who tries to keep his pieces on the board for some slim hope of finding tricks. 19…e5 Better was 19…Bf5! – but in the blitz, with little or no time to carefully plan ahead, Nakamura opts to simply snuff out any possible trouble from Shakh’s bishop down the long a1-h8 diagonal. 20.Nc3 Be6?! The vagaries of blitz again, as Nakamura unwittingly lets Shakh back into the game. Better was 20…fxg5!? 21.hxg5 Bf5 22.Nd5 Bd6 and Black has consolidated the position. 21.Qc6 Qc8 There are no easy answers now. If 21…Bf7 22.gxf6 Bxf6 23.Ne4 Kh8 24.Nxf6 gxf6 25.f4! suddenly, life is getting very difficult for Black. 22.Nd5! A timely resource with a deadly knight fork on e7 attached to it, that swings the advantage right back to Shakh! 22…Bd8 23.Qxc8 Rxc8 24.gxf6 Bxf6 25.Nxf6+ Rxf6 26.Bxe5 Rf7 27.f4 Shakh is clearly better with his bishops having free range over the board, and if those central pawns start to push up the board, there’s nothing Nakamura can do about it. 27…Rc6 28.Kb2 Now was the time for 28.d3! to start mobilising those pawns. 28…Rd7 29.Bc3 It’s possible that in the blitz mayhem, Shakh might have thought that 29.d3 was bad because of 29…Bxc4 30.dxc4 Rd2+ 31.Kc3 Rxe2 etc. – but the rook needed to stay on d7 to protect against 32.Rxg7+ Kf8 33.Kd3 Rxa2 34.Rxh7 and White will have the simple plan of Kd3-e4-d5 with a clear winning position. 29…Bf5! This stops d3 and the White pawns running up the board – and, crucially, it cuts off the vital escape square of c2 for White’s king. 30.h5 Rb6+ 31.Ka1 Damn that …Bf5! With the digital clock metaphorically ticking down now, Nakamura is in his element, as Shakh has to deal with tricky back-rank mating threats now. 31…Kf8 32.Bg4 Bxg4 33.Rxg4 Shakh still holds the advantage – but the lack of time and those back-rank mating threats just prove too much for to deal with. 33…h6 34.a3 Better was 34.a4! with the idea of pushing on to a5 – and there was less to fear now with rooks teaming up, as after 34…Rb3 35.Ka2! the king and bishop prevent this. 34…Rdb7 35.Rg1 Re6 36.Be5 Rd7 37.Rg2?! Shakh really had to start rolling those pawns now with 37.d4! But alas, with the White rook stepping away from defending the back-rank, Nakamura seizes his big chance. 37…Rb7! 38.Ka2 Rd7 39.Kb3 You can just imagine the panic in the blitz time scramble! Shakh, worrying about his king being caught in a mating net, so he decides to seek some freedom – but he his king walks right into another trap. Again, better was simply mobilising those pawns with 39.d4! and it is hard to see what Nakamura could do here. 39…Rb7+ 40.Kc2 Ra6 Well, you can’t say that Nakamura hasn’t done his best to bamboozle his opponent with some crafty rook play! 41.Bb2 Rab6 42.Bc1 Rb1 43.Rg6? It’s simply getting too complicated at the time when you really don’t want it to be, when time is of the essence. 43…Ra1! [see diagram] Got to give kudos to Nakamura for making life difficult for his opponent with some inventive rook play that has extended the game, and thus run down Shakh’s clock . The threat is simply …Ra2+ and …Rb1 leaving White in a fix about how to defend the Bc1. 44.d4 Too late now – the rooks have become too much of a force. 44…Ra2+ 45.Kd3?? Shakh had to play 45.Kc3 Ra1 46.Kc2 Ra2+ and likely repetition of moves for a draw. But this costly final slip of putting the king on the wrong square, only allows Nakamura to win the bishop. 45…Rb1 46.Rg1 The reason Shakh had to play 45.Kc3 was that it allowed the bishop to escape with 46.Bd2 – but with the king on d3, here it allows 46…Rb3+ winning the bishop. That’s blitz for you. 46…Rb3+ 47.Ke4 With Shakh’s king pushed further up the board and away from the bishop, Nakamura simply wins it. 47…Rc2 48.dxc5 Rb1 49.Kd5 Rbxc1 0-1

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