Fittingly, in the 50th anniversary of Bobby Fischer’s historic world championship win in Reykjavik, Hikaru Nakamura followed in the footsteps of his nation’s iconic chess hero with a near flawless performance to also beat a Russian in the Icelandic capital to finally be crowned World Champion…albeit of Fischer Random Chess, the revolutionary variant of the game with 959 possible starting positions that was re-invented by the 11th World Champion himself.
Nakamura’s play overall in Fischer Random World Championship could be said to be almost Fischeresque, as he went on to be the deserving winner of the title and $100,000 first prize by beating Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi in what proved to be a nail-biting Armageddon game, after the two finalists ended their best-of-four game match tied at 2-2 with one win apiece.
En route to victory, Nakamura surprised commentators, pundits and fans alike with an emphatic 3-0 semifinal route of the rapidly rising Uzbek teenage star Nodirbek Abdusattorov to reach the final. And such was his dominance throughout, he only lost one game in the tournament (which included a four-player group stage plus two 4-game KO matches), to Nepomniachtchi, in the final.
Even more of surprise was Nepomniachtchi’s path to the final, as the Russian – playing under the neutral flag of FIDE – overpowered favourite Magnus Carlsen by 3-1 in their semifinal match-up, to exorcise the demons following his humiliating 2019 title challenge. It was scant conciliation for Carlsen, but he beat Abdusattorov 3-1 to take bronze.
In recent years, Nakamura has adopted a more laid-back, “I don’t care” approach to the professional circuit by playing less elite-level super-tournaments in order to concentrate on his new career as a leading chess influencer, regularly entertaining and instructing hundreds and thousands of fans via his popular online channels on Twitch and YouTube.
And freed up by the constraints of neither being interested in the prize money nor titles anymore, we’re seeing a more relaxed Nakamura who simply says he just wants to play chess for the fun of it – and ironically, with no pressures now, it was a more relaxed and free-flowing Nakamura who finally won an official world championship title!
The 2nd Fischer Random World Championship was hosted in the Icelandic capital to commemorate the half-century anniversary of the so-called “Match of the Century” in 1972 in Reykjavik where Bobby Fischer wrested the title from Boris Spassky to become the first American to win the crown, thus ending the Soviet post-war hegemony of the world championship crown.
The deciding Armageddon game was played at a quicker pace with the twist of a bidding process for time and colour before the position was unveiled, so the players could not factor it in. The strategy was one Carlsen indicated he would have used, namely bidding high because time was more important with the lower degree of control in Fischer Random.
Nepomniachtchi won the right to play black and have the draw odds, having bid 13 minutes, with Nakamura choosing 14 – but needing to win on demand, he duly did!
Photo: Hikaru Nakamura’s form proved almost to be as hot as the specially-commissioned Icelandic volcanic lava sculpted trophy once was! | © Lennart Ootes/ Fischer Random World Championship
GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Fischer Random World Championship Final, (Armageddon)
(See staring position in diagram above)
1.b3 Fischer Random or traditional Chess, there’s not much that changes in the opening repertoire for Nakamura, who not for the first time in this tournament, adopts his favourite Nimzo-Larsen Attack set-up – and all the more reason to here, when you consider that his bishop is already on the a1-h8 diagonal. 1…b6 2.e4 e5 3.g3 g6 4.f4 f5 5.fxe5 Bxe5 6.exf5 Bxh1 7.Bxe5 gxf5 8.Bc3 Bc6 9.Ne3 Qh5 10.Qf2 Nh6 11.Ne2 Ne6 12.Rf1 Kb7 13.d4 Ng4 And now we reach an interesting struggle ahead in this Armageddon clash – but Nepomniachtchi is the one with the upper-hand here, as Nakamura lost the bidding process and simply has to win with White! 14.Qxf5? A tactical miscue that could have cost Nakamura the game and the title. 14…Qxf5? The randomness of Fischer Random has added an extra dimension to this nerve-wracking deciding game, as Mr Engine is quick to point out the awkward pin with 14… Qh6! leaves White struggling to hold the line as 15.Qxg4 Rg8! and White is set to lose material. 15.Nxf5 Nxh2 Despite missing the likely game-winning tactic, Nepomniachtchi can’t be too unhappy with his position here – but crucially, he now starts to lose the thread of the game as Nakamura takes charge. 16.Re1 Rf8 17.Ne3 Be4 18.d5 Ng5 19.Nf4 Rbe8 20.Kb2 Bf3 21.d6! Nakamura finds a way to drive a wedge in Black’s position. 21…c6 Dangerous was 21…cxd6 22.Bb4 with Nc4 to come. 22.Nc4 Ne4 23.Ne5 Nxc3?! The position is just inexorably slipping ever-more through Nepo’s fingers. Better was 23… Rf5. 24.Kxc3 Bg4 25.Re3 h5? A further weakening move the ultimately seals Nepo’s fate. He simply had to stabilise his position now with 25… Bf5! with equality – and remember, Black only needs to draw to win the title! 26.Rbe1 Rxe5 Nakamura threatened 27.Rh1 so Nepo makes the call to sacrifice the exchange, hoping he can hold the endgame. But to his credit, Nakamura squeezes every possible weakness in Black’s position that soon leaves Nepo floundering. 27.Rxe5 Nf3 28.Re8 Rf6 29.Rh1 Rxd6 30.Rg8 Rd2 31.Nxh5 Bf5 32.Rc1 Rh2 33.Ng7 Be4 34.Ne8! Nakamura finds the key to collapsing his opponent’s position, as Nepo can’t keep bishop on the board. 34…Rh6 Desperately trying to find a way to keep his bishop on the board – but Nakamura has it all worked out now, as he eases to victory. 35.Rf8 d5 36.Rf6 Rh3 37.Nd6+ Kc7 38.Nxe4 dxe4 The bishop was critical to holding Black’s position together – and without it, Nakamura’s rooks now run rampage. 39.Rg6 Rh2 40.Re6 Re2 41.Rh1 b5 42.a3 Setting up a nice mating net for Nepo’s hapless king. 42…Re3+ 43.Kb2 Nd4 44.Rh7+ Kb6 45.Ree7 Kc5 46.Rd7 Nf3 47.b4+ Kc4 48.Rh5 1-0 And Nepo resigns with his king caught in a mating net.