It was an epic, never-to-be-forgotten match-up between two long-standing rivals who gave it their all through seven-days and a demanding 38-game thriller watched over by a captivated online audience of tens of thousands on Chess24.com, but in the end, there had to be a winner, and Magnus Carlsen came back from the brink to edge Hikaru Nakamura by four sets to three to be crowned ‘King of Lockdown’ by winning his own $1m signature tour.
Carlsen had do dig deep as perhaps he has never had to before, having to come from behind three times against a determined Nakamura, before he finally managed to topple the reigning five-time US champion in a nerve-wracking, title-deciding tiebreaker, as the match went the distance of a final Armageddon game.
But tied 3-3 at the start of the seventh and final set, the omens looked good for Carlsen as he got off to a good start by winning the opening game of the set. But Nakamura, playing arguably the best chess of his career, didn’t give up the fight. He heroically fought back to win game 3 to once again square this rollercoaster-ride of a match. And as it went into overtime of blitz, Nakamura was poised for a sensational victory by winning the first game, only to see Carlsen win the second to take the match to the all-deciding Armageddon tiebreaker.
Fortune invariably favours whoever has Black in the Armageddon, and Carlsen lucked out with the choice. It meant Carlsen had a minute less on his clock, but only needed to hold for a draw to win the match – and even that game went to the wire of the final minute and material imbalance on the board, but one where Carlsen finally found his faith in fortresses to achieve the draw!
Paying tribute to his opponent in his post-victory interview (see video below), Carlsen said: “He’s just very, very resilient and I just found the whole match very difficult and unpleasant to play. At some points, I felt that I was outplaying him and then he started turning it around. I never felt I had the energy and never felt at any moment cruising so it was just a never-ending struggle. That’s why it became so close.’
But in the end, the winner takes it all – and Carlsen took the first prize purse of $140,000 (Nakamura $80,000 as runner-up), allowing the Norwegian to bank a total of $349,500 in total from winnings on his own pandemic-inspired signature tour, much to the annoyance of his Fortnite and Call of Duty competitive e-sport counterparts, as he now becomes the world’s top-earning ‘gamer’.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals, (7.1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 Vladimir Kramnik memorably rehabilitated the Berlin Defence en route to capturing the world crown from Garry Kasparov in 2000 in London, and Magnus has also kept faith with it throughout his own reign. 4.d3 Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 0-0 7.h3 Nd7 8.Nc4 a5 9.Be3 This turns out to be too slow and plays right into Carlsen’s hands. And after losing this game, and facing a must-win scenario in game 3, Nakamura found the better, more aggressive plan of 9.g4 Re8 10.Rg1!? and went on to beat Carlsen to take the final match of the final into overtime (a game we’ll see in next week’s column). 9…f6 10.0-0 b5 And this is the problem Nakamura faced, as Carlsen is already off to the races on the queenside to take a firm grip on that wing of the board before his opponent could coordinate a plan of action for a kingside attack. 11.Ncd2 Bxe3 12.fxe3 a4 13.Nh4 c5 It’s amazing how, as Black, Carlsen can make so many pawn moves in the opening, and yet he emerges with the advantage. 14.Nf5 Nb6 15.Qe2 After the obvious 15.Qg4 Magnus intended 15…Bxf5 16.exf5 c4! 17.Ne4 Qe7! and White will have long-term problems of how best to defend his queenside – Black will be following up with aggressive plans such as doubling rooks on the d-file, …Qb4 and/or …c5 & …b4 etc. 15…Be6 16.Nf3 Qd7 17.N3h4 Nakamura’s knights look threatening – but the crux of his problem is that although they look good, there is no kingside attack, so Carlsen ploughs on regardless by building up his queenside initiative. 17…Rad8 18.Rfd1 And for now, due to …Bxa2, Nakamura has to keep his rook on a1. 18…Kh8 19.d4 This looks risky, but I think at this stage Nakamura was taking the calculated gamble that he had to ‘shake things up’ somehow, otherwise, Carlsen will slowly squeeze him to death on the queenside. So as match strategy goes, a good call from Nakamura. 19…cxd4 20.exd4 exd4 21.Rxd4?! This is where it all starts to go horribly, horribly wrong from Nakamura. He’s taken the brave decision to shake things up by releasing the tension, but now he falters by not taking the chance to recapture with the better 21.Nxd4! that forces some favourable trades that offers genuine relief on the queenside. Now, after 21…Qe8 22.Nxe6 Qxe6 23.Rxd8 Rxd8 24.Rd1! it’s going to be tough for Black to exploit the queenside when he has his own back-rank issues to deal with. Certainly, a big missed moment for Nakamura to stay in the game. 21…Qc6! Carlsen is just so good on these positions of finding the correct moves to build up the pressure on his opponent’s position. 22.Rad1 Qc5 Another useful plan is the not-so-obvious 22…Rde8, the idea is to drop the bishop back to f7 and pressure on e4. 23.Qf2? A blunder that only compounds Nakamura’s problems, and with it, he now folds like a sheet of A4 at an origami contest! His position is set to collapse on the queenside, but he just simply had to find the engine-save with 23.b4! that in one stroke solves all his queenside problems. Now after 23…axb3 24.axb3 we have total equality on the board. 23…Rxd4 24.Nxd4 Bxa2 There’s no Fischer-Spassky 1972 flashbacks here with this pawn snatch, as that bishop isn’t going to be trapped. And now a pawn to the good and Nakamura’s queenside crumbling, Carlsen turns up the pressure. 25.b3 Rd8! [see diagram] There are too many pins to trap the bishop. 26.Nhf5 axb3 27.cxb3 Bxb3 Now it’s two pawns, and all Nakamura can do is play a big bluff on the kingside. 28.Nxg7 Rxd4! So many ways to win, but Carlsen selects the one that offers the least swindling chances for Nakamura. 29.Rxd4 Kxg7 The big problem for Nakamura, is that he can’t even generate any sort of threats right now due to the big skewer down the c5-g1 diagonal – it takes too much time to unravel from it, and Carlsen easily consolidates his position to safeguard his king from the checks and to start pushing his queenside pawns. 30.Qg3+ Kf8 31.Qe3 Nd7 32.Kh1 Ke8 33.Qd2 Be6 34.e5 It just loses another pawn, but Nakamura was in dire straits anyway, so just blowing open more lines and praying for a ‘Hail Mary’ save was his only hope. 34…Qxe5 35.Rh4 Nf8 36.Qb4 Kf7 37.Re4 c5! Bam! And with it, Carlsen removes any slim hopes Nakamura might have had for a miracle save. 38.Qb1 You know it’s bad when the engine is telling you that White’s best chance here was to trade queens with 38.Rxe5 – but Nakamura has never been a quitter in his life, and like any other human assessing this terrible position, he knows – despite how awful his position is – he has to keep the queens on the board. 38…Qd5 39.Rf4 b4 The game is effectively over with the pawns now running – but in his death throes, Nakamura continues the agony of playing on for a few more moves. 40.Qa1 Nd7 41.Qb1 Kg7 42.Qe1 b3 43.Qg3+ Qg5 0-1 Nakamura finally resigns, as 44.Qf2 b2! and to stop the pawn White will lose his rook.