Fierce rivalries have produced many high-quality matches, and there is a no better sight in any sporting competition than two rivals slugging it out in a thrilling, no holds barred contest, such as the recently concluded Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Final, staged on Chess24.com between old foes Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, in what proved to be the most-watched online chess event ever.
It was also the fitting finale to an epic online contest that was borne out of all the global worry and uncertainty of a pandemic lockdown – and a final that also gave back by serving to benefit Kiva in their efforts to raise at least $50 million for entrepreneurs and small businesses impacted by COVID‑19, with the chess community contributing in excess of $50k to the cause.
In the end, it came down to two rivals battling over a 38-game marathon match-up that enthralled commentators, professional players, media and fans alike. But someone had to win, even although the final game wasn’t. But after seven-days and tied at 3-3, the roller-coaster final set went to the wire of an Armageddon game, where a draw on the board counts as a win for Black on the scoreboard.
And with it, Carlsen finally got to believe in the existence of a fortress – the world champion once famously quipped: ‘I don’t believe in fortresses.’ – as he built an impenetrable defence of rook, bishop and pawn which Nakamura couldn’t penetrate with his king and queen, achieve in his own signature tour a title-winning draw and banking $140,000 (and a tour-total of $315,000).
But it takes two to tango, as the idiom expression goes, and never was this better demonstrated than after the determined and confident performance that the reigning five-time US champion showed as he dragged an exhausted Carlsen all the way to the finishing line – and with it, despite being the runner-up, Nakamura also became a winner, as he emerged as an unlikely rival also to the Norwegian’s growing online empire.
The Tour, the rivalry, and this thrilling match only served to enhance Nakamura’s growing fame on another platform, as along the way he successfully built up his popular Twitch channel to over half a million followers.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Final, (7.3)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 0-0 7.h3 Nd7 8.Nc4 a5 9.g4 In a must-win scenario, Nakamura opts for a better and more aggressive plan rather than repeating 9.Be3 f6 10.0-0 b5 11.Ncd2 Bxe3 12.fxe3 that played right into Magnus’ hands in game one (which we saw in Friday’s column, The Winner Takes It All). 9…Re8 10.Rg1 a4 11.Ne3 Bxe3 12.Bxe3 Nf8 13.h4 At least this time, Nakamura has his attack rolling! Another key factor is that his bishop gives him a total bind on the dark squares. 13…Qd6 14.Qd2 c5 Also worth a whirl was 14…a3 with the idea of 15.b3 c5 and following up with …Ne6 and equality. The trouble for Magnus is unlike game one, Nakamura has his attack rolling that more than easily counters Black’s queenside play. 15.h5 b5 16.Nh4 Qc6 17.Nf5 c4?! Far too premature this time from Carlsen and his position implodes with it. Black had to consolidate his position first with 17…Ne6! 18.Qc3 (If 18.h6 g6 19.Ng7 Nxg7 20.hxg7 Black has the nice intermezzo 20…c4! undermining e4, forcing 21.f3 cxd3 22.cxd3 Qf6! with a nice position: f3 has to be defended first, and then Black can follow up with …Rd8 to hit the d3 pawn.) 18…f6 19.a3 Bd7 where …b4 from Black is now a genuine threat, and with it brings dynamic equality to the position, with both sides having to be careful of each other’s attack. Certainly, this would have been preferable than the bad plan Carlsen comes up with. 18.Qb4! Not only threatening Ne7+ but also hammering home White’s dark-square advantage. 18…a3 19.b3 White can’t be too hasty to cash in on his big advantage. After 19.Ne7+?? Rxe7 20.Qxe7 axb2 21.Rb1 cxd3 Black has a winning position. 19…cxd3 20.cxd3 Qc2 21.h6!! [see diagram] I think it is safe to say Carlsen must have under-estimated this move – and with it, Nakamura cashes in on the chronic dark-square weakness in the Black camp. 21…g6 There’s no time for 21…Qb2 22.Rd1! Qxa2 (If 22…g6 23.Ne7+ Kh8 24.Bg5! and the chronic dark-square weakness in the Black camp has now become terminal.) 23.Nxg7 Rd8 24.Qe7 Rd7 25.Qxe5 and White easily wins. 25…f6 26.Qc3! (Black will have “chances” after 26.Qxf6 Ra6! 27.Qc3 Bb7 28.Nh5 Qb2 which is not so clear for White as the main line.) 26…Qb2 27.Qxb2 axb2 28.Kd2 and White will easily pick-off the b2-pawn for a comfortable endgame win. 22.Rc1! Qxd3 Carlsen is in dire straits, and not in a good way either with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar killing the riffs! As pointed out in the note above, the dark-squares are killing Black too. After 22…Qxa2 23.Ne7+ Kh8 24.Bg5! Nd7 25.Qc5!! f6 (If 25…Nxc5 26.Bf6#) 26.Qd5 quickly kills it, with a8 attacked, the d7 knight hanging to a possible Nxc8, and more telling, there’s the little matter of Qf7 from White forcing home a mate! 23.Rd1? The tension in the match probably contributed to Nakamura’s hesitation at the critical moment, as the clean kill was 23.Ne7+! Kh8 24.Bg5! We’ve seen this movie a few times now in the notes! 24…Ra6 25.Rg3! The rook lift is the final nail in Black’s coffin here. 25…Qd7 26.Nd5 Ne6 27.Bf6+ Kg8 28.Ne7+ Rxe7 29.Qxe7 Qxe7 30.Bxe7 and there’s no coming back from here – Black can resign. 23…Qc2 24.Ng7 Bb7? The wrong bishop move in a difficult position – and 24…Bd7! fights on after 25.Nxe8 Rxe8 with a2 under attack, so Black is not completely dead, and still sort of in the game. The best White has now is 26.f3 Qxa2 27.Rd2 Qb1+ 28.Kf2 a2 29.Qa3 Be6 30.Rxa2 Qxb3 31.Rga1 Qxa3 32.Rxa3 and White’s probably still winning, but it is far from cut and dried. 25.Nxe8 Rxe8 26.f3 Qxa2 27.Rd2 Qb1+ 28.Kf2 a2 29.Qc3 Threatening Qb2 – and the main difference here with the above note is that Black managed to capture the b3-pawn. Also, it comes with an x-ray mating attack on g7, and with it, Carlsen himself opts to end the agony early rather than prolonging it. 29…Ra8 30.Rxb1! There’s no answer to the looming mate on g7. 30…axb1Q 31.Qxe5 1-0