In Ridley Scott’s Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, the protagonist Maximus Decimus Meridius (played by Russell Crowe) ruthlessly kills several enemies in the gladiatorial pit and then dramatically exclaims “Are you not entertained?” before the blood-baying approving audience. That memorable quote has also become something of a universally popular social media meme – and one that was used by Hikaru Nakamura on Twitter to promote the fourth set of what’s now become an epic fight to the finish with Magnus Carlsen in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Final benefitting Kiva.
The clash between Carlsen and Nakamura is turning out to be every bit of a bloody gladiatorial contest as the movie, with some amazing hard-fought games, lots of remarkable tactics and breathtaking saving resources, that has seen the large online audience similarly approve of the brand of no-holds-barred chess between these two long-time rivals and now rivalling online chess influencers (Nakamura’s channel yesterday broke 500K followers on Twitch).
With the viewing figures on Chess24 reaching new heights of tens of thousands to watch the drama unfold, and the match delicately poised at 1-1, the third set headed into the two-game blitz mini-match to decide the third set. But Carlsen, who looked earlier as if he would easily win the set, simply couldn’t contain his utter disbelief in the tension-fuelled contest as he blundered to gift Nakamura the lead, with the reigning five-time US champion going 2-1 up in the best-of-seven decider for the $140,000 winner’s purse.
But that was Sunday. Monday was a new day and a new fight, and the fourth set witnessed Carlsen storming back as only Carlsen can, as he emphatically beat Nakamura to tie the match at 2-2 – and with a statement performance from the world champion that could perhaps give him the psychological edge for the first time in this gripping contest, as the players head down the home stretch.
Speaking afterwards, Carlsen said he had been struggling in this event but is finally beginning to put some form together. “First of all, I haven’t found any semblance of rhythm whatsoever, so in general, I am very unhappy with the way I have played. Today was a lot better in the sense that he didn’t get any counter-chances, so today was an improvement. But there is still a lot to work on.”
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals, (4.3)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The Giuoco Piano – meaning ‘quiet game’ in Italian – is one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, recognised in early chess manuscripts from the 16th century. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middlegame battle. 3…Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.c3 h6 Carlsen himself preferred the other option of 6…a6 creating a little bolthole for the bishop on a7 that he successfully deployed against Ding Liren in their semi-final clash last week. 7.Re1 0-0 8.Nbd2 a5 9.Nf1 White’s strategy now resembles the Ruy Lopez, which also dates back to the 16th century. 9…Be6 10.Bb5 Ne7 11.d4 exd4 12.cxd4 Bb6 13.Ng3 d5 Fixing White’s central pawns, which, I dare say, Carlsen would have preferred to have kept fluid. 14.e5 Ne4 15.Bd3 The critical line had to be accepting the pawn sacrifice with 15.Nxe4 dxe4 16.Rxe4 Bd5 17.Re1 Nc6!? where Black seems to have more than enough counter-play with the active bishop-pair and pressure on d4. 15…Nxg3 16.hxg3 a4 17.Bc2 a3 It’s never easy giving Carlsen a pawn, but the other “punt” was 17…Bg4 might well not be enough, as 18.Bxa4 c5 19.dxc5 (Not 19.Be3?! c4! 20.Bc2 Nf5 and Black has good compensation for the pawn.) 19…Bxc5 20.Bc2! (If 20.Be3 d4! 21.Bf4 Qb6 22.Bb3 Rad8 and again Black has good play for the pawn.) 20…Qb6 21.Be3 Bxe3 22.Rxe3 Qxb2 23.Rb3 Bxf3 24.Rxb2 Bxd1 25.Bxd1! and those weak pawns on b7 and d5 could well fall. 18.bxa3 Bg4 19.a4 Gaining a little more real estate on the queenside, and allowing the Bc1 to develop – and as we’ll soon discover, unwittingly Nakamura’s downfall. 19…Qd7 20.Ba3 Rfe8 It doesn’t look all that bad for Nakamura, but Carlsen soon highlights the big weakness in his opponent’s position: his kingside! 21.Bxe7 Qxe7 22.Qd3! g6 The queen and bishop battery mating attack looks easy to defend. 23.Nh4 Qb4? A gross blunder based on a fantasy tactic that backfires on Nakamura. He had to continue 23…Bd7! (in case of any Nxg6 tricks) 24.Bb3 Qe6 25.Rec1 Bxa4 26.Rab1 and hold this position, which looks perfectly defendable – a bit passive perhaps, but nothing you would think Nakamura couldn’t handle. 24.Nxg6! It didn’t take Carlsen long to see what Nakamura had missed. 24…Qxd4 25.Ne7+ Kf8 Certainly not 25…Rxe7?? 26.Qh7+ Kf8 27.Qh8# anyway! 26.Nxd5 Qxf2+ 27.Kh2 Rad8 28.Rf1 Rxe5 A brave move…but only if it works! Nakamura by now was ‘pot-committed’, unaware that the best he had was 28…Rxd5 29.Qxd5 Be6 30.Qd1 Qe3 31.Bb3 and somehow try to struggle on with this wretched position – but it soon became clear, as Nakamura started shaking his head in disbelief, that he now began to realise he’d missed something. 29.Rxf2 Rdxd5 Admittedly we’ve all been there and done that, but any thoughts Nakamura might have harboured of whistling the theme tune to The Great Escape in his head was based on 29…Bxf2 with the pin on the queen and knight plus the additional little side issue going on of the mate with …Rh5! – but he’d overlooked the crucial intermezzo made possible by Carlsen’s earlier 19.a4, of 30.Qa3+! Kg7 31.Nf4 and, as the dust settles, White has simultaneously removed the queen from the pin on the d-file and covered the mate, and now has a big material advantage. Such is life. 30.Rxf7+! [see diagram] Carlsen now comes over the top with the killer blow of a rook sac followed by a queen sac, as you do. 30…Ke8 No better was 30…Kxf7 31.Rf1+ Ke7 (Worse is 31…Ke8? 32.Qg6+ Kd7 (And 32…Ke7 33.Rf7+ quickly mates.) 33.Qxg4+ picking up the bishop with check.) 32.Qh7+ Kd6 33.Qxh6+ Kc5 34.Bg6! and White now has the mate on h5 covered and the Black king left wandering dazed and confused in no man’s land. 31.Qxd5! The extra cherry on the cake for Carlsen, as it simplifies everything down to an easily won ending. 31…Rxd5 32.Bg6! The (full) point is that this not only covers the mate threat on h5 but also comes with a nasty discovered check that leaves Nakamura with only one option now. 32…Kd8 33.Re1! Threatening to simplify further with 34.Re8+! Kxe8 35.Rf5+ winning back the rook. 33…c6 The only half-hearted option, but Carlsen’s rooks are just too powerful now. 34.Rxb7 Bc7 35.Re8+ Kd7 36.Rh8 1-0 Nakamura throws the towel in, as 36…Rd6 37.Rg8 and there’s no stopping Rg7+ winning the …Bc7.