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John Henderson
By John Henderson

It wasn’t so much a case of dodging a bullet for Hikaru Nakamura as relying on one, as he just edged out US champion Wesley So in one of the closest matches ever in annals of the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship, with the defending champion narrowly winning through in their semifinal clash to now go forward to Saturday’s final of the 2020 Speed Chess Championship presented by Onjuno.

In front of a record audience of 40,000, both US rivals duked it out toe to toe, matching each other blow for blow. So took the early lead but Nakamura soon fought his way back into what turned out to be an enthralling match for the fans. And tied at 8.5-8.5 after the two blitz sections (5+1 & 3+1), it all came down to the final bullet contest (1+1), as the match swung Nakamura’s way in his favourite discipline, where, with a lucky break with his pet-line of the Leningrad Dutch, he established an ominous 3-0 lead.

And despite So staging a late rally by winning the final two games, the damage had already been done, and as the fates would have it, on his 33rd birthday, speed maven Nakamura, the two-time defending champion, had an added celebration to his big day by squeezing through 13.5-12.5 to set-up a potential clash in the final with his fellow chess influencer and long-time rival, Magnus Carlsen.

“I am very happy to win the match but in all seriousness, a lot of credit goes to Wesley. He played a very good match,” said a magnanimous Nakamura in victory. “I think in many ways, he was the better player of the match. It’s just that at the end of the day, there were a couple of missed opportunities for him in the 5+1 and 3+1, and then in the bullet, I was just a little bit better. But I thought he played great.”

Standing in Carlsen’s way of another clash in the final with Nakamura is the French world #5, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who takes on the world champion in the second semi-final of the Chess.com 2020 Speed Chess Championship today, Friday, at 9 a.m. Pacific / 18:00 Central Europe. All the chess action will be broadcast for free live on chess.com/tv!

The format is 90 minutes of 5/1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3/1 blitz and 30 minutes of 1/1 bullet.

 

GM Wesley So – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Chess.com 2020 Speed Ch., (24)
Leningrad Dutch
1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3 f5 The Leningrad Dutch, a sort of hybrid between the Dutch and the King’s Indian Defence, is an old Nakamura pet-line – and a good provocative choice for Black, if he’s looking to complicate matters and needing to win. 5.g3 Nf6 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.d5 e5 9.dxe6 Bxe6 10.b3 Re8 11.Bb2 Na6 I’ve lost count over the many years following Nakamura how many times I’ve seen him with this position, from teenage prodigy to now elder statesman. 12.Qc2 Nc5 13.Rad1 Qe7 14.Nd4 Bf7 15.e3 Ng4 16.Nde2 a5 17.Rd2 a4 18.Rfd1 axb3 19.axb3 Rad8 20.h3 Nf6 The simplest and best choice – although some of the online fans were crying out for blood with the spectacular 20…Nxe3 21.fxe3 Bh6!? but after 22.Nf4 Qxe3+ 23.Kh2 Bxf4 24.gxf4 Qxf4+ 25.Kg1 despite the three pawns for the piece, it will all backfire on Black, as White will wreak havoc with his dark-square advantage, especially down the long a1-h8 diagonal. 21.b4 Nce4 This should really all fizzle out to a draw now with a mass trade of pieces. 22.Nxe4 Nxe4 23.Bxe4 Qxe4 24.Bxg7 Not the best continuation. More testing for Black was 24.Qxe4! Rxe4 25.Bxg7 Kxg7 26.c5! forcing 26…Rxb4 (Not 26…d5?! 27.Nd4 and the knight with its wonderful outpost on d4 dominates the bishop.) 27.Rxd6 Re8 28.Rd7 Kf8! and with …Re7 coming, Black will soon have complete equality. 24…Qxc2 25.Rxc2 Kxg7 26.b5 c5 27.Nf4 Kf6 There’s nothing in the position, and I dare say if this were a classical game, the players would be thinking about shaking hands anytime soon – but this isn’t classical, and So desperately needed to win to stay in touch with Nakamura, so the game goes on. 28.Nd5+ Bxd5 29.Rxd5 Re5 30.Rd1 Re4 31.Rd5?! This and the next move was a sure sign that So was behind on the clock. 31…Ke6 32.Kg2?? Rxc4! Nakamura is alert to the tactics – and this comes as a sucker punch for So, as losing this game and going 3-0 behind would mean there would no way back into the match for him. 33.Rxd6+ Rxd6 34.Rxc4 Kd5 35.Rh4 Rd7 36.Kf3 b6 37.Ke2 Ra7! It’s amazing how, at this level, with not much time left on his own clock, that Nakamura finds all the correct moves to set-up what should really have been a textbook R+P endgame win. 38.g4 fxg4 39.Rxg4 Ra2+ 40.Kf3 Rb2 A tad quicker may well have been 40…c4 but Nakamura has a clear vision of how he is going to win by this stage…or so at least that’s what I thought! 41.h4 Rxb5 42.h5 gxh5 43.Rg5+ Kc6 44.Rxh5 c4 45.Rh6+ Kc5 46.Rxh7 It should be gone by this stage for So, but he could have made a little more of a fist of the fight with 46.Ke4 and quickly pushing the f-pawn up the board – but Black’s b- and c-pawns are just too strong. 46…Rb1 47.Rc7+ Kd5?? [see diagram] Dramatically snatching a draw from the jaws of victory!  Such are the vagaries of bullet, where games can swing wildly from wins to draws or even losing by every move. However, by this stage it was a mad-dash by both players with their digital clock flags metaphorically hanging, so mistakes can and invariably do happen, but the clinical kill for Nakamura was 47…Kb4! and there’s no stopping the c-pawn. 48.e4+ Kd4 49.Rd7+ Kc3 It’s all a bit of a mutual blind panic, as Nakamura basically gifts So two vital tempi in the time scramble to throw his e-pawn up the board – and with it, an unlikely save. 50.e5?? It’s the old adage that all R+P endings are drawn, but I spoke too soon, as it is just so hard to find the finesses needed in such a technical R+P ending in bullet with seconds on your clock, but after 50.Ke2! stopping a possible …Re1+ picking off the running e-pawn, White can hold the draw, with a likely scenario now of 50…Rb2+ 51.Ke3 b5 52.e5 b4 53.e6 Rb1 54.Ke2! Rb2+ and Black has to take the repetition. 50…Re1! The rook can now deal with the problem e-pawn, whilst Nakamura marches his queenside pawns home to victory. 51.Kf4 b5 52.Kf5 b4 53.e6 b3 54.Kf6 b2 55.Rb7 b1Q 0-1 And So resigns, as although 56.Rxb1 Rxb1 57.e7 Re1 58.Kf7 Kd3 59.e8Q Rxe8 60.Kxe8 wins back the rook, the c-pawn quickly queens.

 

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