With a brace of classical draws against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in their semi-final clash at the FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin, Hikaru Nakamura has completed an astonishing comeback to the elite circle, as the wildcard contestant not only surprised everyone by gaining a Candidates spot, he’s also now been confirmed as the Grand Prix winner by edging out clubhouse leader Richard Rapport from the top-spot in the overall standings.
But despite Nakamura’s amazing rehabilitation following his two-year hiatus from classical chess, there was still some unfinished business for the five-time US Champion. Having won the opening leg in Berlin, Nakamura went on to emphatically beat the Azeri 2-0 in the tiebreak-decider to reach yet another Grand Prix final in the German capital – and now the speed maven/Twitch chess influencer gets to add the top-dog tag of FIDE world No 1 rapid player to his world No 1 blitz rating, both at the expense of Magnus Carlsen, his long-time rival and nemesis.
And it was nothing but more good news for US chess fans, because Wesley So also went on to beat Iranian underdog Amin Tabatabaei in a tiebreak-decider to set-up an intriguing all-American showdown with Nakamura in the final. You can follow the all-American Grand Prix final on Saturday/Sunday (and Monday also, in the event of a tiebreak-decider), with live coverage both on the official World Chess site or Chess24.
There’s now also a ‘mad dash’ by China’s world No 2, Ding Liren, to grab the final qualifying Candidates spot in Madrid this summer, as Sergey Karjakin was banned for six-months by the FIDE Ethics Committee following a social media outburst by the Crimean-born Russian No 2 as the invasion of Ukraine got underway just over a month ago.
The sudden vacancy (pending a possible appeal by Karjakin or the Russian Chess Federation on his behalf) means the unexpected spot now goes to the highest-rated player not already qualified by the end of April, with the proviso of having played and completed 30 rateable games. To meet the deadline, a series of hastily arranged events are underway in China – and some with a brutal schedule of having double rounds, just to complete the 24 April cut-off date for FIDE’s May rating list.
This week Ding is playing at Hangzhou in a four-player GM quadruple round-robin, followed by a six-game match against China’s No 2, Wei Yi, and then there’s a ten-game training tournament. Despite the daunting marathon ahead, Ding got off to a flying start in Hangzhou as he stormed to 6.5/7 – admittedly, against much weaker opposition – to regain his world No 2 spot from the already Candidates-bound prodigy Alireza Firouzja.
GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – GM Hikaru Nakamura
FIDE Berlin Grand Prix Final | Tiebreak, (2)
English Opening, Keres Variation
1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 e5 3.Bg2 c6 Popular at club-level, this line against the Bremen is rightly named after the Estonian, then Soviet, perennial World Championship Candidate Paul Keres. The idea behind it is not dissimilar to the Alapin Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.c3). If not disturbed, Black will play …d7-d5 and answer Nf3 with …e5-e4. 4.d4 Very logical and very direct – White’s best move to try to take the initiative against this simply Black set-up. 4…exd4 5.Qxd4 Na6 More popular is the direct 5…d5 – but Nakamura wants to first see his pieces fully developed and then come back for …d6-d5, looking to recapture on d5 with a piece rather than having the isolated d-pawn. 6.Nc3 Bc5 7.Qd1 0-0 8.Nf3 d6 9.0-0 Be6 10.b3 d5 11.cxd5 Nxd5 12.Ne4 Be7 13.Bb2 Nf6!? This is first and foremost a match-situation decision by Nakamura, pushing the envelope as Mamedyarov is in a must-win scenario here having lost the first tiebreak game. 14.Neg5 Slightly better was 14.Qxd8! Raxd8 15.Nxf6+ Bxf6 16.Bxf6 gxf6 17.Rfd1 and slightly the better endgame prospects thanks to Black’s crippled kingside pawns – but at this level of the game, and with Nakamura’s prowess in speed games, Mamedyarov probably felt there was not enough here for him to grind out the much-needed win. but this is the big risk the Azeri takes after going behind in the tiebreaker. 14…Qxd1 15.Raxd1 Bc8 16.Nd4 I thought the better option for Mamedyarov was 16.Ne5!? Ng4 17.Ne4 Nxe5 18.Bxe5 Bg4 19.f3 Be6 and White’s pieces are slightly better placed – but once again, there’s nothing much for Mamedyarov to ‘bite on’ here, given the match situation. 16…Re8 17.Nxc6 It looks spectacular admittedly, but the reality is that Mamedyarov was fast running out of constructive things to do, so opts for this material imbalance – but it risks giving your opponents minor pieces to work with, more so when your opponent here happens to be Hikaru Nakamura! 17…bxc6 18.Bxc6 Bf5 19.e4 Bg6 20.f3 The best chance to try to win for White was with 20.e5! Ng4 21.Bxa8 Rxa8 22.Nh3 Bf5 23.Nf4! and the advantage – but having the advantage and converting for a win here is two different things. 20…Ng4! Nakamura is not one to overlook the niceties of a fine tactical point! 21.Bc1 Bc5+ Even better was 21…Ne5! 22.Bxe8 Rxe8 23.Nh3 Nb4 and Black’s pieces are coming alive. 22.Kg2 Ne3+ 23.Bxe3 Bxe3 24.Nh3 Nb4 25.Bxe8 Rxe8 26.Nf4 Mamedyarov’s only hope now. It is difficult to try and hang on to the pawns, given that Black’s pieces are so active. After 26.a3 Nc2 27.Rd3 Bb6 28.Rc1 f5! bursting open the game to Black’s advantage. 26…Nxa2 27.Nd5 Bc5 28.Ra1 Better was 28.Rd2 Nb4 29.Rc1! Bf8 30.Nf4 and White does have a little “something” to grind on with. 28…Nb4 29.Nxb4 This is also wrong, as it just gives Nakamura a little edge in the resulting ending. The last, last try for Mamedyarov was 29.Rfc1 Bd6 30.Nxb4 Bxb4 31.Rxa7 f5 32.exf5 Bxf5 33.g4 Bd3 34.Rcc7 Bf8 35.h4 Re2+ 36.Kg1 Re8 but even trying to win this is wishful thinking for White. 29…Bxb4 30.Rxa7 f5! [see diagram] And with that, Nakamura dramatically bursts the game open for his bishop-pair and rook to wreck havoc. 31.exf5 Re2+ 32.Kh1 Bxf5 33.Rb7? Mamedyarov needs to win but had no hope now, so it is understandable that he goes down in flames with a blunder. 33…Bh3! 34.Rc1 Bc5!! 0-1 With the bishop taboo due to the …Re1 back-rank mate, Mamedyarov resigns with no answer to the second threat of …Bg2 mate, as 35.Rb8+ Kf7 36.Rb7+ Ke6 leaves White with no more checks.