With a dazzling three-game winning streak in the third and final FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin, Hikaru Nakamura completed what’s now become a dramatic big comeback to the elite-scene, as the five-time US champion-turned-influencer not only got instant revenge over Levon Aronian, he went on to dominate and win Pool A and now guaranteed a place in the Candidates Tournament in Madrid this summer.
All the planets aligned favourably for Nakamura in the second-half pool stage of the final Candidates qualifier. Not only did the 34-year-old beat Aronian to avenge his opening round defeat in the all-American clash, but he also laid waste in the so-called ‘group of death’ to his Russian rivals Grigory Oparin and Andrey Esipenko respectively, to top-score on 4/6.
And with Leinier Dominguez, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri all failing to make the cut into the knockout phase, Nakamura and Hungary’s Richard Rapport now can’t be caught in the GP standings, and both have already been officially confirmed by FIDE to be the two Candidates qualifiers.
Quite a rehabilitation then for ‘Survivor Streamer’ Nakamura (who has become a big chess influencer through his popular Twitch channel), especially with the criticism being levelled at the player himself and especially FIDE, for offering him a ‘lifeline’ wildcard spot into the Grand Prix series of tournaments. And Nakamura not only defied the critics by surprisingly winning the first Berlin GP, but he’s still in contention for a possible second GP victory – and with his big rating spike in the process, he’s now just one game-win away from once again returning to the World Top-10!
You can follow Nakamura’s progress in the semi-finals as he now meets Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan in the Grand Prix semi-finals, with the second semi-final clash seeing USA’s Wesley So taking on relative unknown M. Amin Tabatabaei, the big Iranian underdog-winner of Pool D, with live coverage both on the official World Chess site or Chess24.
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Levon Aronian
FIDE Berlin Grand Prix | Pool A, (4)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Berlin
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 When in Berlin, so to speak! 4.d3 The innocuous-looking though popular anti-Berlin system, that seeks to avoid the notoriously tough Berlin Wall Endgame after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 etc. 4…Bc5 5.c3 d5 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Bc4 Qd6 8.Nbd2 0-0 9.b4 Bb6 10.0-0 Bf5 11.Qc2 Rad8 12.a4 This has to be the most natural and best move for White. 12…a5 13.b5 Ne7 14.Qa2 Ng6 15.Ba3 Bc5 16.Bxc5 Qxc5 17.d4 Qd6 18.Rfe1 exd4 19.cxd4 Nd5 20.Bxd5 Qxd5 21.Qxd5 Rxd5 22.Nc4 Bg4 23.Nxa5 b6?! Aronian singled-out this move as being wrong and losing him the game, and it is hard to see why he didn’t opt instead for something like 23…Bxf3 24.gxf3 Rb8!? and looking to follow-up with …c6. But that said, this move alone wasn’t responsible for Aronian’s demise – that comes later. 24.Nc6 Bxf3 25.gxf3 h6 26.Rac1 Kh7 27.Rc4 Rg5+ 28.Kf1 Rh5 29.Ne7 Rxh2 Many following this game thought that Aronian should have activated his other rook first with 29…Rd8, the trouble is that White seizes full control now with 30.Nxg6! Kxg6 (Obviously now that the rook has moved, 30…fxg6 is less effective, and leads to 31.Rxc7 Rxh2 32.Ree7 Rg8 33.Rc6 Rb8 34.d5! Rh4 35.Rcc7 and the d-pawn will win.) 31.Rxc7 Rxd4 32.Re4! and White will either soon win another pawn or force a set of rooks off for a very favourable R+P ending. 30.Re4! [see diagram] Nakamura finds the most accurate move, with the rook covering the d4-pawn and protecting the vulnerable f4 square from the Black knight, and making a convenient square on e2 for his king to come into the game. Several chess followers online though wanted to immediately trade knights with 30.Nxg6? in the false belief that Black would recapture with his king – but not so! After 30…fxg6! the opened f-file just activates Black’s remaining rook, where now 31.Kg1 Rh4 32.Re7 h5! 33.Rcxc7 (33.Re4 Rhf4! 34.Rxf4 Rxf4 35.Rxc7 Rxd4) 33…Rxd4! the game is heading for Drawsville. 30…Rh1+ 31.Kg2 Ra1 32.Nxg6! Now you can chop on g6, as the f3 pawn is protected and the Black rooks are not so well connected here as the above note. 32…fxg6 33.Rxc7 Rxa4? This is the stage where it all went tragically wrong for Aronian, as Nakamura now seizes what becomes a decisive advantage. More resilient was 33…Rf5! and note that if 34.Ree7 Rg5+ 35.Kh2 Ra2! which offers plenty of counterplay, and is just going to see both sides paralysed due to the double rook mating threats. 34.d5 Raa8? And when you start to see the game slipping through your fingers, the rot is set in and it can all go very wrong very quickly. Defending any rook ending begins with remaining active – and ideally looking to get behind a passed pawn! So Aronian’s retreating move just doesn’t cut it. To try and hang on, Aronian had play 34…Ra3 and take his chances here by looking to get his rook behind the b- and d-pawns. 35.Ree7 h5 36.d6! Vive la difference, as the French would say! Here, with Aronian’s rooks not being active, while Nakamura’s are rampant, this allows him to force through his passed pawn. 36…Rf5 37.Rxg7+ Kh6 38.Rh7+ Kg5 39.d7 Rd5 40.f4+! You can always hope your opponent missed the big trick and plays 40.Rc8?? allowing 40…Rxd7! snatching a draw. 40…Kh4 The (full) point is that you can’t capture now, as 40…Kxf4 41.Rc8 does work, as 41…Rxd7 42.Rc4+! wins the d7 rook. 41.Rg7 Ra4 42.Rc8 Rad4 Aronian now has his rooks behind the d-pawn – but it is too little too late now, as Nakamura has one last trick up his sleeve that forces a liquidation down to an easily-winning R+P ending. 43.Rxg6 Rxd7 44.Rc1! With his king under threat of being mated, Aronian’s reply is forced – and with it, the game hopelessly lost for Black. 44…Rd1 The only move to stop the mate on h1. 45.Rxd1 Rxd1 46.Rxb6 With Aronian’s king just too far away on the kingside, now Nakamura’s b-pawn wins the day. 46…Kg4 47.Rb8 Kxf4 48.b6 Rd7 49.Rf8+! A nice instructive piece of endgame technique from Nakamura, as he swings his rook behind his own passed pawn to seal the deal. 49…Ke4 50.Rf3 1-0 Aronian resigns with his king one square short of a potentially drawing R+P ending. If now 50…Kd4 (Just as bad was 50…Kd5 51.Rd3+! Kc6 52.Rxd7 Kxd7 53.f4! and the Black king can’t deal with two passers on opposite sides of the board.) 51.Rb3 Rb7 52.Kh3 Ke5 (If 52…Kc5 53.Kh4 Rxb6 54.Rxb6 Kxb6 55.Kxh5 Whit’s king easily gets the opposition to control the f8 queening square.) 53.Rb5+! Kd6 (If 53…Ke6 54.Rxh5! and Black can’t capture on b6 due to Rh6+ winning the rook.) 54.Kh4 Kc6 55.Rb1 picks off the h5-pawn for an easy win.