As chess rivalries go, they don’t come any better nor more of a grudge than Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura. These two have a long-standing rivalry that dates back to before they met at the board with early online clashes on the ICC that would draw record crowds; and in 2010, they also famously duked it out over 40 games in an all-night grudge match in Moscow. And certainly, for Nakamura, the rivalry intensified with him failing to beat Carlsen in a long classical over-the-board spell that lasted 30 games before he finally managed to break the hex in 2016.
They’ve mellowed their grudges with maturity, but the rivalry nevertheless remains. And it is almost as if Carlsen and Nakamura have now come full-circle from those heady ICC days of yore by once again drawing in bumper online crowds, only this time on Chess24, with the fans enthralled by their no-holds-barred showdown in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals benefiting Kiva.
It’s the dream final everyone wanted to see, and the best-of-7-set shootout got off to a quite explosive start with a series of remarkably dynamic games that kept the fans collectively on the edge of their seats with each and every move that was made; a head-to-head where, against the odds, a re-energised and re-invigorated Nakamura for once finally looked as if was getting much the better of his old Norwegian foe.
With Nakamura winning the first set, all eyes were on a big Carlsen comeback. But as the second set got underway, it came with the added drama of seeing Nakamura again outwitting Carlsen to take the opening game…and many thought Carlsen could well crash to a 2-0 deficit. However, Carlsen hit back to take the match to overtime of the blitz session, where he benefitted from a rare Nakamura blunder this tournament to win the second set to tie the match at 1-1.
But even although Carlsen has tied the match, many are seriously wondering whether a confident Nakamura could finally get his revenge by beating the world champion in the finale of his own signature tour? When he swept Dubov 3-0 to get to the Grand Tour Final, Nakamura credited his ability to play more accurately in “slow” positions, “which works against everyone except one guy, unfortunately”. That one guy, of course, being Carlsen.
Recently, Chess24 guest commentator at the Legends of Chess, ex-world champion Anatoly Karpov opined that Carlsen has almost superhuman abilities at chess, his only weakness, his ‘kryptonite’, if you will, is creating the sort of chaos on the board that he is not so good at dealing with. And this seems to be a vulnerability that Nakamura has homed in on, by finding the sort of random play that’s Carlsen’s kryptonite – and fitting, as the reigning five-time US Champion once famously played at his peak on ICC under the moniker of “Smallville”, after the Superman comic fictitious Kansas town – and successfully deploying it in the opening two sets of the Grand Final: a classic example being their opening game of the second set, a game that gripped the online fans who were totally captivated with each and every move of this epic clash.
GM Magnus Carlsen – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Kiva Grand Final, (2.1)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 This is one of the sharpest ways to respond to the Queen’s Gambit Accepted – and credit to both players for keeping the game sharp and interesting with their provocative, no-holds-barred dynamic play. 5…b5 6.e5 Nd5 7.Nxb5 Nb6 8.a4 White can also play 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 Be7 10.Qd2 0-0 11.Qf4 Rb8 12.Nc3 which is also sharp, and saw White win a sparkling game in Ding Liren-JK Duda, Batumi Olympiad 2018. 8…Qd7 9.Be2 Nc6 10.0-0 Na5 11.Ng5 h6 12.Ne4 Bb7 13.Nc5 Bxc5 14.dxc5 Nd5 15.Ra3! It’s the ‘rover principle’, as made famous by St. Louis Chess Club resident commentator IM Jennifer Shahade, who explained that when she was learning chess, the term ‘rook over’ with a rook lift, she simply just shortened it to ‘rover’, and it stuck with her. And here, the rover is heading to g3 to cover g2 and also spring the kingside attack. 15…a6 16.Nd4 Ne7 17.Qd2 Qd5 18.Rg3! Qxc5 19.b4 Also possible was 19.Qe3!? Nd5 20.Nxe6! Nxe3 21.Nxc5 Nxf1 22.Rxg7! Nb3 23.Nxb3 cxb3 24.Kxf1 Bd5 25.Rg3! intending Rc3 with an unclear position – Black has the exchange for a pawn, but White has active pieces and weak Black pawns to target. In hindsight, I think Carlsen would have preferred this against Nakamura, as the Whiteside looks easier to play than Black. 19…cxb3 20.Ba3?! Certainly helping to contribute to the coming chaos. When Carlsen played 19.b4, the expectation was we would see a quick liquidation of the position with something like 20.Nxb3 Nxb3 21.Rxb3 Qd5 22.Qxd5 Bxd5 23.Rc3 Ng6 24.f4 0-0 25.Ba3 Rfc8 26.a5! and although Black is a pawn up, White has a lot of activity and space as compensation that should easily hold for a draw. 20…Qxa3 21.Qxa5 Bd5 22.Rxg7?! The game is getting even more chaotic by the move now – but a crucial factor was that Carlsen is the one burning his time trying to fathom what was going on. The wise move seems to be 22.Qc3 Qa2 23.Bd3 Rb8 24.Qxc7 Rb7 25.Qa5 b2 26.Bb1 Qc4 27.Nc2 with genuine play with Nc2-e3 being the threat – but again, Black’s b-pawn close to queening does look mighty worrying. 22…c5! 23.Bh5 It all looks dangerous for Black, but Nakamura stays cool and has it all under control with his ballsy king walk. 23…cxd4 24.Rxf7 Kd7! 25.Bg4 Kc6 26.Bxe6 Bxe6 27.Rf6 Kd7 Carlsen has to come up with something fast, as the body count shows Nakamura being two pieces up! 28.Qb6 Bd5 29.Rd6+ Ke8 30.Rxd5 Carlsen is in full ’tilt-mode’, but this is his only chance: trying to engineer a perpetual check. 30…Nxd5 31.Qc6+ Ke7 32.Qb7+ Ke6 33.Qc6+ Ke7 34.Qb7+ Ke6 35.Qc6+ Kf5! [see diagram] Just when everyone was fully expecting 35…Ke7 36.Qb7+ and a repetition, Nakamura throws the gauntlet down to Carlsen with the brave call to make him prove the draw, albeit with his king dangerously walking up the board. Fantastic stuff! 36.Qxd5 Qe7 37.e6+? Nakamura showing his cojones with 35…Kf5 might well have been enough to discombobulate the tilting Carlsen, who perhaps thought his opponent would take the easier, no-risk draw. Admittedly, it was a very difficult position, and it is really hard to be critical of Carlsen, but the only move apparently to save the game was the subtle engine find of 37.Rc1! Raf8 a) If 37…b2 38.Qf3+ Kg5 39.Qg3+ Kh5 40.Qf3+ is a draw, and likewise; b) 37…Rac8 38.Qf3+ Kg5 (It’s very easy for Black to go astray with 38…Ke6? 39.Qxb3+ and Black’s losing.) 39.h4+ Kxh4 (Also drawing is 39…Kg6 40.Qg4+ Kf7 41.Rxc8 Rxc8 42.Qf5+ Kg7 43.Qg4+ Kh7 44.Qxc8 Qxe5 45.Qb7+ Kh8 46.Qc8+ etc.) 40.Qh3+ Kg5 41.f4+ Kg6 42.Rxc8 Rxc8 43.Qxc8 also looks to be a draw with Black’s king vulnerable to a perpetual check or White picking up one of the dangerous b- or d-pawns with a check. 37…Kg6 38.Qe4+ Kg7 39.Qxd4+ Kg8 40.Qg4+ Carlsen is now running out of checks, and with it, Nakamura emerging from the dust with a whole rook up and a big passed b-pawn to boot! 40…Qg7 41.Qc4 b2 42.f4 Rb8 43.Qe4 Rh7 44.Rb1 Qb7 45.Qe2 Rc7 0-1