He’s proving to be the ultimate comeback kid! Hikaru Nakamura defied the odds of a lengthy layoff to turn in one of the biggest performances of his long and storied career, as the five-time US champion-turned-streamer/influencer defeated Levon Aronian 3-1 in the all-American Fide Grand Prix first leg final in Berlin on Thursday to capture the title following a tense speed tiebreaker after their two classical games were drawn.
Due to the pandemic, Nakamura hasn’t played in a classical tournament for over two years and needed a wildcard from the Fide president to play in Berlin – and the 34-year-old grabbed his golden ticket with an almost flawless and energetic performance from start to finish, as the speed maven dominated long-time rival Aronian 2-0 in the tiebreaker to become the only undefeated player in the tournament.
In victory, a jubilant Nakamura was typically blunt and to the point: “I am actually proud of the fact that I have not lost a rapid or blitz game for a very, very long time. I think my last loss was probably to Alireza in 2019. Like I said before, mainly, you just try to find good moves. I think the main difference is that I didn’t really feel any pressure. Even today, I was just playing. And I could definitely tell, for Levon, that he was more nervous than I was… In general, I think I played well, and it showed.”
This was the first of three legs of the Grand Prix, which qualifies its two top finishers into the eight-player Candidates to be held in June in Madrid, the winner of which will go forward to become Magnus Carlsen’s next world title challenger in 2023. Each player plays in two GP legs. Aronian and Nakamura will now sit out the next leg in Belgrade, starting on 28 February, but they will return for the crucial third and final leg that returns once again to Berlin, running through late March and early April.
But by winning the opening leg, it’s an upbeat Nakamura – these days more famous for entertaining huge online audiences on his popular Twitch channel – who moves into pole position in the Grand Prix standings by taking a maximum of 13-points, and now with a more than 50 percent chance of going forward to the Candidates.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Levon Aronian
FIDE Berlin Grand Prix Final Tiebreak, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Marshall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.h3 This Anti-Marshall line proved to be one of the early doors highlights of the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi World Championship Match from late last year. Indeed, Nakamura also played it against Aronian in the opening game of their Berlin Grand Prix Final that ended in a tough draw. 8…Bb7 Against Nepo, Carlsen punted the enterprising pawn sacrifice with 8…Na5!? with lots of piece-play and long-term compensation for the sacrificed material. 9.d3 d5 Aronian heads for a the even more familiar Marshall Attack-like pawn sac. 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.a4 Nd4 12.Nbd2 Nxb3 13.Nxb3 Nb4 14.Nxe5 Qd5 15.f3 The alternative was retreating with 15.Nf3 and after 15…Qd7 there’s either 16.Ne5 Qd5 and a repetition looming large, or 16.Nbd2 Rae8 with good piece-play for the pawn. 15…Bd6 While Nakamura accepts the challenge offered by Aronian’s pawn sac, those sweeping Black bishops do look very dangerous. 16.d4 Rae8 17.axb5 axb5 18.Bd2 Nc6 Another idea was retreating the bishop with 18…Bc8 with the plan of relocating it to pastures new, such as …Bf5. 19.Bf4 Kh8 20.Bh2 Forcing a series of exchanges that allows Aronian to regain the pawn and the transition into an equal-ish ending. 20…Nxe5 21.dxe5 Bxe5 22.Bxe5 Rxe5 23.Rxe5 Qxe5 24.Qd4! With the queens coming off, Nakamura has just a little something to nibble away at on the queenside with his rook making an unwelcome incursion onto the seventh rank. 24…Qg5 25.Qc5 Qxc5+ 26.Nxc5 Bd5 27.Ra7 c6 The engine tells us that better was hunkering down with 27…Rc8!? 28.Nd3 Kg8 29.Nf4 (If 29.Nb4 Be6 30.Nc6 Kf8 looking to play …Ke8-d7 etc and Black is over the worst of it.) 29…Bc6 30.b4 Kf8 31.Kf2 Be8 looking to play the freeing …c5. 32.Nd3 Ke7 and Black is only a little ‘uncomfortable’ – but not an easy position for Black as he has to defend long-term in a speed playoff game. 28.Nd3 With the threat of Nd3-b4 looking to target the backward c-pawn, a pawn that becomes a big target due to the back-rank mate first having to be defended against. 28…g6 29.Rc7 Ra8 30.Nb4 Kg7 31.Nxc6 Bxc6 32.Rxc6 Nakamura has won a pawn – but in reality, any R+P ending scenario here is going to be really tough to convert for the full point. 32…Rd8 Will Aronian’s rook getting to d2 save him? 33.g4?! This only serves to weaken Nakamura’s own kingisde pawns. Better was 33.b4! just keeping the pawns intact and offering a safe path for the White king to come more into the game via h2-g3 etc. 33…Rd2 Logistically, with Aronian’s rook very active, he should have more than enough here to hold the draw. But then again, strange things have been known to happen when the pressure is on. 34.h4 h5! Fixing White’s kingside pawns, and I fully expected the game to now peter out to a draw. 35.gxh5 gxh5 36.b4 Rd4! 37.c3 Rxh4 38.Kg2 There was no time for 38.Rc5 as after 38…Kf6 39.Rxb5 Rc4! the draw is coming with c3 set to fall. 38…Rf4 39.Kg3 Rf5 40.f4 h4+ The easy way to draw was oscillating with 40…Rd5 and …Rf5 as White can’t make any progress. 41.Kxh4 Rxf4+ 42.Kg5 Rf3 43.Kg4 Rd3 44.Rc5 Kf6 45.Kf4 Ke6 46.Ke4 Rd8?? This is the pressure of the match-situation, and puts the old adage of all R+P endings being a draw to shame. The way to draw was keeping the rook as active as possible with 46…Rh3! forcing White to defend the c3-pawn, so that now 47.Kd4 Rh4+ 48.Kd3 Rh3+ 49.Kc2 Rh2+ 50.Kb3 and with the king chased over to the queenside to shield from the checks, now 50…f5! 51.Rxb5 Rh1 52.Rb8 f4 53.Rf8 Rf1 54.Kc4 Ke7 55.Rf5 Ke6 56.Ra5 f3 and the running f-pawn forces 57.Ra2 Ke5 58.b5 Rh1 59.Rb2 Rh8 60.b6 Kd6! 61.Kd3 Rf8 62.Ke3 Kc6 63.b7 Kc7 64.b8Q+ Rxb8 65.Rxb8 Kxb8 66.Kxf3 Kb7 and Black’s king holds the opposition and the draw. 47.Rxb5 Rd1 A ready admission from Aronian that he’s messed up – and big-time. 48.Rb6+ Kd7 49.Rf6 The easy win was just pushing the passed pawns with 49.b5! Rc1 50.Rc6 Rf1 51.c4 Rb1 52.Kd5 Rd1+ 53.Kc5 and then Rf6 hitting the f-pawn and leaving the White king to shepherd home the pawns. 49…Ke7 50.Rf3 Ke6 51.Rd3 f5+ 52.Kd4 Rb1 53.Re3+ Kf6 54.Re8 f4 55.Rb8? Now the nerves are getting to Nakamura with a slip-up! Best by test in R+P endings is putting the rook behind the opponent’s passed pawn with 55.Rf8+ Kg5 56.Kc5! leaving the rook to deal with the f-pawn as the king escorts the b- and c-pawns up the board. 55…Kf5 56.b5 f3 57.Ke3? It’s hard to be critical here given the pressures the players had to be under. Nevertheless, thanks to un-beating heart of the engine showing no nerves, the winning plan was 57.Rf8+! again putting the rook firmly behind the passer – but this time there’s a subtle difference, and I think this is what may have confused Nakamura. Now after 57…Kg4 White has to find the illogical 58.Ke4! (The (half!) point is that 58.Kc5? Kg3 leads to a draw after 59.b6 f2 60.c4 f1Q 61.Rxf1 Rxf1 62.b7 Rb1 63.Kc6 Kf4 64.Kc7 Ke5 and the Black king rushes back just in time to stop the pawns with it going down ‘to the kings’.) 58…Re1+ (Now if 58…Rxb5 59.Rf4+! Kg5 60.Rxf3 the Black king is cut-off allowing White to ‘build the bridge’ to the famous winning Lucena Position) 59.Kd5 Rb1 60.c4! Kg3 61.Kc6 Rb4 62.c5 f2 63.Rxf2! Kxf2 64.Kb6!! (The subtle difference – and one only with an endgame tablebase running in the background would only pick out – is that the obvious 64.b6? Ke3 65.Kb7 Kd4 66.c6 Kc5 67.c7 Rxb6+ 68.Ka8 Rc6 69.Kb8 and a draw.) 64…Ke3 65.c6 Kd4 66.c7 Rc4 67.Kb7 and there’s no stopping the pawns. 57…Rb3 58.Kd3 Kg4 59.Kc2 f2?? Whatever was going through Aronian’s head by this stage was anyones guess, as he’s just gifted the win back to Nakamura. The way to draw was 59…Ra3! 60.Kb2 Ra5! 61.c4 f2 62.Rf8 Kg3 63.b6 Ra6 64.c5 Ra5! and one of the passed pawns will fall. 60.Rf8 Rxb5 61.Rxf2 And once again with the Black king cut-off, we reach the fabled Lucena Position. 61…Rc5 1-0