Just when everyone was anticipating another speed showdown between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura in the Chess.com 2020 Speed Chess Championship final presented by OnJuno, Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave had to go and spoil the script by beating the world champion in their semifinal clash, defeating the Norwegian 13-11, to instead claim a spot in Saturday’s final of the annual blitz ’n’ bullet extravaganza.
Indeed, in the past, Carlsen won the first two Chess.com Speed Championship finals in 2016 and 2017 by beating old foe Nakamura – and after a two-year hiatus where Nakamura clinched the 2018 and 2019 titles, many thought the world champion’s main incentive for taking part this year was to act as a spoiler to his long-time rival and now fellow chess influencer, just to deny him a trifecta of successive crowns.
But after doing all the ‘hard work’ by defying the odds in eliminating Carlsen, could MVL go on to take the crown? It was close but no cigar, as both players produced a thriller, with the Frenchman taking a slim lead at the end of the two blitz sessions (5+1 & 3+1) – but once again yet another match only dramatically swung Nakamura’s way in his favourite bullet session (1+1), where the speed maven found the needed extra gear, going on to win 18.5-12.5 to claim his third Speed Chess title in a row, now becoming the first player to do so.
“It was a very tense and very difficult final match,” said a victorious Nakamura. “I think there were a few critical moments where both Maxime and I had a chance to maybe take a big advantage, which could have perhaps been insurmountable. But it remained very close and in the end, I was just able to keep it together and play a couple of good bullet games.”
Nakamura also added that MVL was basically an equal opponent until just a few games before the end: “It was very evenly balanced. Maxime played extremely well, so a lot of credit to him for playing a fantastic match.”
Nakamura won $10,000 for his victory plus $5,967.74 based on win percentage for a grand total of $15,967.74; MVL earning $4,032.26 on percentage. There was also a record viewership reported for the final, with over 100,000 concurrent fans tuning in across different platforms.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Chess.com 2020 Speed Ch. Final (Blitz, 5+1), (8)
Ruy Lopez, Fianchetto variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 g6 It was probably the 7th World Champion, Vasily Smyslov, who is best known for developing the theory of the Spanish fianchetto defence (with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6), which is now widely regarded as one of Black’s most solid choices. But the latest wrinkle is to play it with the interpolation of 3…a6, attempting to avoid some of the critical lines normally associated with this system, namely 4.Nc3. 5.c3 There’s also the ‘trickier’ option of 5.d4 exd4 6.c3!? dxc3 7.Nxc3 which also seems to score well for White. 5…Bg7 6.0-0 Nge7 7.d4 b5 8.Bb3 exd4 9.cxd4 d6 10.Nc3 0-0 11.Nd5 h6 12.h3 Na5 13.Nxe7+ Qxe7 14.Bc2 c5 We now have a typical ‘Lopez’ position, the main difference here being that the bishop is on g7 rather than e7. 15.Bf4 Rd8 16.d5 Nc4 17.b3 Na3 18.Rc1 f5 Somewhat ‘adventurous’ from Nakamura – when is he never adventurous? – considering the easiest and most obvious choice looked like cashing in by taking the exchange with 18…g5 19.Bd2 Bb2 20.Bd3 b4 21.Nh2 Bxc1 22.Bxc1 but probably what he feared was MVL opening the game up with a quick f4, which does seem to offer White genuine compensation for the exchange. 19.Re1? And this is where this game begins to swing in Nakamura’s favour! The move that had to be made was 19.e5! forcing Black into 19…Nxc2 (Not 19…dxe5?! 20.Nxe5 Bxe5 21.Re1 Qf7 22.Rxe5 and White is primed for the kingside attack.) 20.Rxc2 dxe5 21.Bxe5 Bb7 with dynamic play on both sides – and certainly a lot better than the self-inflicted disaster MVL now walks into in the game! 19…Nxc2 20.Qxc2 fxe4 21.Rxe4 Qf7 22.Qe2 Bb7 23.Rd1?! The last chance to attempt to stay in the game was with 23.Re7! Qxf4 24.Rd1 Ra7 25.Rxg7+! Kxg7 26.Qe7+ Qf7 27.Qxd8 Bxd5 28.Nh2 and it is not so easy for Black to unravel his position, and certainly not without dropping a pawn or two. 23…Bxd5 24.Re7 Bxf3! 25.Qe3 Qxe7! [see diagram] The queen sacrifice not only wins, but it does so with just a typical dash of élan from Nakamura, who was probably in his element here, seeing the very prosaic ways to convert his big advantage. 26.Qxe7 Bxd1 27.Qe4 Kh7 28.Qd3 Rf8 29.Be3 You know you are in a bad way when the engine’s top suggestion is retreating all the way back with 29.Bc1 allowing 29…Bd4 30.Be3 Bxe3 31.fxe3 Bh5! 32.g4 Bxg4! 33.hxg4 Rf6 and with …Re8 coming, Black’s rooks dominate. 29…d5!! 30.Qxd1 It’s all hopeless now, as the pawns come storming down the board like an invading armada. And if 30.Bxc5 Rfc8! 31.Qxd5 (31.b4 And 31…Ba4 32.Qxd5 Bc2 is much the same as the mainline.) 31…Bc2 and the bishops and rooks will soon combine for a winning attack. 30…d4 31.Bc1 c4! There’s just no stopping those pawns. 32.h4 No better is 32.bxc4 bxc4 33.Bb2 Rad8 34.h4 c3 35.Ba3 d3! 36.h5 d2 with ..c2 and queening the d-pawn to come. 32…d3 33.h5 g5 34.Qg4 Rae8 0-1 And with …c3 coming, I’m wont to remember the sage and witty advice from Aussie GM Ian Rogers here: “A piece of useful information: two passed pawns on the sixth beat almost everything, up to a royal flush…”