It’s mostly all over bar the shouting. After three days, ten players and 60 hectic rapid games, four of the five matches of the Champions Showdown:The Kings at the US chess Mecca of Rex & Jeanne Sinquefield’s Saint Louis Chess Club looks to be heading for blowout territory, because with the rapid counting double for scoring purposes, several could well be done and dusted even before the end of the first day of the 24-game blitz session.
Fabiano Caruana, making his first appearance of the year, looked even meaner and leaner after his well-deserved rest following his hectic 2018, and his powerhouse performance to overwhelm India’s Pentala Harikrishna, 18-6, proved to be standout pick of the matches, as the magnitude of the US #1’s victory saw him gaining 47 rapid rating points for a seismic leap up to world #3 on the live ratings, just a few points behind Hikaru Nakamura, though both still some distance from numero uno Magnus Carlsen.
Another runaway victory for the home crowd to cheers was Wesley So. The 2017 US Champion easily had the better of David Navara of the Czech Rep. throughout, and now takes a 16-8 lead into the blitz session. Not so lucky though was reigning US champion Sam Shankland, who was trounced 18-6 by a rampant Richard Rapport of Hungary, while Leinier Dominguez also faces a daunting task to overcome his 9-15 deficit at the hands of Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria.
The one close match-up is the intriguing battle of wills at the board between arguably the two most creative players in the field, Nakamura and Jan-Krzysztof Duda of Poland. It could well have gone either way or perhaps even tied, but Nakamura – after a resounding win in the final 12th game below – has the comfort zone of carrying forward a 14-10 lead going into the blitz, one of his favourite speed disciplines – but that, too, could well be a close call, as Duda was the runner-up to Carlsen late last year in the World Blitz Championship.
Rapid final scores:
Nakamura 14-10 Duda
Caruana 18-6 Harikrishna
So 16-8 Navara
Dominguez 9-15 Topalov
Shankland 6-18 Rapport
Photo: Amidst the blowouts, Nakamura still has a job to do in his intriguing battle with Duda | © Spectrum Studios / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Champions Showdown Rapid, (12)
English Opening, Flohr-Mikenas Attack
1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.e4 The über-aggressive Flohr-Mikenas Attack – which, from my own experience, usually comes as a great surprise to club players, making it an ideal weapon. 3…d5 4.e5 d4 5.exf6 dxc3 6.bxc3 Qxf6 7.Nf3 b6 8.d4 Bb7 9.Bd3 Bxf3 10.Qxf3 Qxf3 11.gxf3 This is all standard fare in the Flohr-Mikenas Attack – when the dust settles, White has the bishop-pair to attack with, but he also has the damaged pawn structure to defend. 11…Nc6 12.Be3 Na5 13.Rb1 Be7 14.Ke2 f5 15.c5 g5 16.f4 g4?! A risky move, as Nakamura quickly breaks down the pawn chain. And with the hindsight of what now comes, Duda would have been better trying to defend with the less committal 16…h6!? 17.Rhg1 Kf7 18.fxg5 hxg5 19.Bxg5 Bxg5 20.Rxg5 Nc6! (There’s no time for 20…Rxh2? 21.Rbg1! Rh7 22.d5 and White has a very strong attack.) 21.d5 Ne7! and Black seems to be holding everything together. 17.h3 Opening the game up quickly for the bishop-pair is the key for White. 17…gxh3 18.Rxh3 h5 19.d5!? Nakamura has the mind of a Vegas gambler, and he’s gambling that the ensuing complications as the game opens up, will make his active bishops and rooks too difficult for Duda to handle. 19…exd5 20.Bxf5 More accurate was first 20.Bd4! Rh6 21.Bg7 Rc6 22.Rxh5 0-0-0 23.Ba6+ Kb8 24.cxb6 Re6+ 25.Kf1 axb6 where White holds the advantage with his bishops and rooks – but with accurate defence and the limited number of pawns now on the board, nothing that Black can’t handle. 20…h4?! Black had to avoid complications by liquidating the ending down further with 20…bxc5! 21.Rxh5 Rxh5 22.Bg6+ Kd7 23.Bxh5 Kc6 24.Rg1 Rf8 and Black should be able to stop the f-pawn advancing up the board, and here, the game will likely fizzle out to a draw. 21.Be6! c6 22.Bd4 Suddenly Nakamura’s bishops have sprung to life – and the f-pawn is going to add to Duda’s misery. 22…Rf8 23.f5 Nb7 Welcome to Awkwardsville, population: Jan-Krzysztof Duda! 24.cxb6 axb6 25.Rxb6 Nakamura has a dream position as his rooks and bishops now run riot. 25…Rxa2+?! It’s a complicated position, and Duda had to grasp that his only chance for survival was to ignore for now the low hanging fruit of the easy rook check by first playing 25…Nd8!, the subtle difference being that now 26.Re3 Bg5! and the rook is forced off the e-file and no danger for the Black king. 26.Kf1 [see diagram] If Duda hadn’t realised what he’d allowed, then Nakamura certainly did if his body language on the live coverage was anything to go by! 26…Nd8 27.Re3 h3 Self-inflicted, no sympathy. If 27…Bg5? 28.Re1! and all the White pieces are primed and ready to strike on the Black king. 28.Rxh3 Nakamura is not just a pawn up, he’s also a position up! 28…c5 29.Be3 Nxe6 30.Rxe6 d4 There’s no way to stop the pin on the e-file, as 30…Kd7 will also lose to 31.Rh7 and the bishop again is lost. 31.Bg5 Rxf5 32.Rxe7+ Kf8 33.Rh8# 1-0