Inspired perhaps by Hikaru Nakamura’s remarkable semi-final comeback victory over World champion Magnus Carlsen, Daniil Dubov defied the odds of losing the first set of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge Final - the second leg of the pandemic lockdown-inspired $1m ‘Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour’ hosted on chess24.com - by staging his own comeback in a pulsating match, to dramatically snatch the $45,000 first prize.
After a disastrous performance in the opening set, the exciting young Russian hot-shot – with standout victories over Sergey Karjakin and Ding Liren in the knockout stages – showed his mettle by striking back immediately in the second set, as he outplayed odds-on favourite Nakamura in the first game (see below), and then held onto his lead to take the match into a winner-take-all final third set.
The third and final set between Dubov and Nakamura proved to be a roller-coaster affair that gripped the fans who were following all the live-action on Chess24.com. With the opening game fizzling out to a draw, Dubov jumped into a surprise lead for the first time in the match after Nakamura made a costly endgame error, but despite the mounting pressure, the reigning five-time US champion hit back with his own win in Game 3.
And as Game 4 ended in a draw, the tension mounted for both players as they faced a title-deciding “Armageddon” playoff, with Nakamura having the “draw advantage” with the Black pieces – but the American made a series of what can only be described as inexplicable mistakes in the venerable Vienna Opening, and deadly Dubov easily converted his big advantage to claim victory.
“First of all it’s a relief, obviously, and secondly it’s some small disappointment,” was Dubov’s instant reaction to his comeback victory. “It has been a wonderful journey, actually. I don’t mind having one or two rest days, but in general, I would be ready to play more games. But yeah, today’s a good day, of course!”
Not only was it standout result for Dubov, but it was also one of the biggest tournament wins of his career – right up there alongside his unexpected World Rapid crown victory in 2018 – and he not only takes the $45,000 first prize but he also has another big pay-day on the horizon, as he now joins Magnus Carlsen as the first two qualifiers into the 4-player $300,000 Ground Tour Final in August.
But all is not lost for Nakamura, who takes $27,000 as runner-up.
If he doesn’t get into the Grand Tour Final with his own tour victory, then should Carlsen or Dubov win one or both of the remaining two legs, then, as a defeated finalist in the first two legs, Nakamura will now be ideally placed at the top of the points standings to be rewarded with a spot into the Grand Tour Final by virtue of being the highest-placed non-tour winner.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Daniil Dubov
Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge Final, (2.1)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 By a little transposition, we reach the legacy left to us by the Russian master Semyon Alapin (1856-1923). The Alapin – usually reached via 2.c3 – is not an opening you would normally see in top grandmaster praxis, but at club and tournament level, this is still a very popular and methodical way to meet the Sicilian. 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.Bc4 Nb6 6.Bb3 c4 7.Bc2 d5 8.exd6 Qxd6 9.0-0 Bg4 Black’s strategy is all based around trying to exploit the hole on d3 and the backward d-pawn; for White, it is trying to prevent this by undermining the c4-pawn. 10.Qe2 0-0-0 11.Na3 Qe6 The “safe” option was trading the queens, but also possible was 11…Qf6!? 12.Nxc4 Nxc4 13.Qxc4 Bxf3 14.gxf3 e6 15.Be4 Kb8! and both sides have attacking chances. 12.Qxe6+ Bxe6 13.b3! White has to undermine the c4-pawn as quickly as possible. 13…Bd5 14.bxc4 Nxc4 15.Nxc4 Bxc4 16.Re1 Bd3 17.Bxd3 Rxd3 18.Re3 Dubov has achieved his objective by occupying the d3 hole with his rook, and understandably Nakamura wants to challenge the rook. 18…Rd7 19.Ba3 It all just starts to get a little difficult for Nakamura after this misstep. I think I would have opted immediately for 19.d4 that at least stops Black’s next move. 19…e5! And by stopping d4, now long-term Nakamura is going to have a difficult job defending the backward d-pawn. 20.Bxf8 Rxf8 21.h4 f6 Black has the better pawn structure and will now pile on the pressure on the d-pawn with …Rfd8. It’s not winning per se, but it just means Black will have the more “enjoyable” time of it by ratcheting up the pressure, and Nakamura will struggle to try to co-ordinate his badly-placed pieces. 22.h5 Rfd8 23.Kf1 b6 24.g3 Perhaps better was 24.Rb1 with the idea of a4 – but it is clear by the next few moves that Nakamura can’t come up with a clear plan of action to solve the problem of his backward d-pawn. 24…Kb7 25.Kg2 Ne7 26.Re4 As the engine is quick to point out if 26.d4 Nf5 27.Re4 exd4 28.g4 Nd6 29.Rxd4 Nb5 30.Rxd7+ Rxd7 31.c4 Nc3 32.a3 Ka6! and White has problems defending both his a- and c-pawns. But then again, White’s not completely dead in the water here, and given what happens in the game, this would have been more preferable for Nakamura – I’ve seen him successfully defend much worse than this! 26…Rd3 27.a4 Nc6 28.Re2?! It’s just an awkward position for any player, never mind Nakamura, to have in front of them on the board. The engine, though, cuts through a lot of the potential problems and wants to go for 28.Rae1 with the idea of R1e3, and if the Black rook retreats, then back again with Re1 and put the onus firmly on Black about how to make a breakthrough. 28…Na5 Heading for c4 and the big backward target on d2 – if that falls, White’s position will also collapse with it. 29.Ra2 This is awkward, very awkward – not the sort of move anybody would like to play. But then, no better was 29.Re3 where the engine comes up with the ingenious plan of 29…Ka6! with the idea of …Nc4 and …Ka5 and White’s position set to implode with the pressure on the weak a- and d-pawns. 29…Nc4 After being comprehensively outplayed the day before and behind in the match, and with everyone expecting Nakamura to romp to victory, Dubov probably couldn’t believe his luck in getting such a dominating position as Black in the opening game of the second set! And it’s the winning of this crucial game that allows the young Russian to take the match into a deciding third-set, where he went on to capture the title! 30.g4 R8d5 31.Nh4 This position just had to be nothing but pure agony for Nakamura to have to endure – and it came as no surprise when I saw him lashing out with this move, in a desperate attempt to at least try to generate some activity, even at the risk of losing some pawns. 31…Rxd2 32.Nf5 Rxa2 33.Rxa2 g6 34.hxg6 hxg6 35.Ne7 Rd7! [see diagram] A nice strategic retreat from Dubov, as now Nakamura’s wandering knight finds itself short of good squares. 36.Ng8 It’s a desperate attempt to try and stay in the game, as the obvious 36.Nxg6 falls to 36…Rg7 37.Nh4 Rxg4+ 38.Kh3 Rg1 39.Nf5 Kc6 and apart from Black’s pieces all being active, White’s pawns are all weak and vulnerable. But nevertheless 36.Ng8 is a gamble, as the knight could well get trapped on the kingside – but that’s the least of Nakamura’s problems right now. 36…f5 37.gxf5 gxf5 38.Nh6 Rg7+ 39.Kf3 Rg5 40.Nf7 Rh5 Effectively keeping Nakamura’s knight out of the game for now. 41.Kg3? The alternative of 41.Re2 may well have lasted longer but after 41…e4+ 42.Kf4 Kc6 43.Ng5 Nd6 White is just waiting for Black to come in for the kill. 41…Rh7 42.Ng5 Rd7 The game is over as a contest right here and right now, but Nakamura was never been one known to resign lightly, and being Nakamura, he drags the game on for as long as he possibly can before even he accepts the inevitable. 43.Kh4 Rd3 44.Kh5 Rxc3 45.Kh6 Kc6 46.Kg6 f4 47.Ne4 Ra3 48.Rc2 Rxa4 49.Kf5 b5 50.Rc1 Ra3 51.Rd1 b4 The b-pawn is going to be hard to stop. 52.Rd8 Nb6 The clinical kill was 52…Kc7! 53.Rd5 Kb6 and then push the b-pawn – but Dubov just opts for the easy way home by sacrificing his e-pawn. 53.Kxe5 b3 54.Rd6+ Kb5 55.Rd1 Kb4 56.Kd4 Ra5 0-1 Nakamura finally throws in the towel, faced with 57.Nc3 Rc5 58.Rc1 Rxc3! 59.Rxc3 b2 and the b-pawn can’t be stopped.