John Henderson
By John Henderson

The next big event on the horizon is the London Chess Classic that gets underway next Tuesday at the offices of DeepMind within Google’s London HQ – only this year, the traditional year-ending super-tournament has an added twist, with it being the four-player knockout final of the Grand Chess Tour, with Fabiano Caruana making a return to the UK capital after his recent title clash, this time to take on compatriot Hikaru Nakamura, while Levon Aronian does battle with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

The semi-finals take place over three days, 11-13 December, and with a challenging format that will encompass all the speed disciplines covered across all of the GCT events throughout the year. A Classical game is played on the first two days, the third being given over to two Rapid and four Blitz games. Classical games are worth six points for a win, Rapid four and Blitz just two, meaning that a minimum of 15 points will win a match.

After a rest day on Friday, the final of the GCT, as well as a third-place play-off, will take place from Saturday-Monday, 15-17 December, at the traditional LCC venue of the Olympia Conference Centre. At stake for the ‘fantastic four’ will be the GCT prize fund of $300,000, the overall winner taking the top prize of $120,000, with $80,000 going to the runner-up.

While losing to Magnus Carlsen after a tight title-clash was a setback for Caruana, the speedy return to London could offer the world No.2 a big consolation prize, as a good performance will offer him a golden chance to topple Carlsen from his much-vaunted and coveted No.1 spot, with only three Elo points separating the two. The Norwegian has held onto the top spot unbroken now since 2011, and a period of 101 months at No.1 – and now just one month shy of replacing Anatoly Karpov, in second place, with 102 months on the all-time list, well behind the ultimate numero uno record holder, Garry Kasparov, with 255 months.

Carlsen being knocked off the top spot all hinge on Caruana’s four London classical games – the defeated world title challenger can even afford to lose the semi-final, but there is still a route to the top spot, with two classical games against Nakamura, and a further two either in the final or a 3rd/4th place playoff. If he takes a plus score in those classical games, he will likely replace Carlsen on the live list as No.1 and start 2019 as the new FIDE world No.1.

Nakamura also took part in another all-USA clash last weekend, beating Wesley So in a close match-up in the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship final. Both the first two blitz sessions (5+1 and 3+1) were tied at 5-5, with the match only swinging Nakamura’s way by winning his favourite speed discipline of bullet, 5.5-2.5, to take the title.

Photo: It’s Nakamura v Caruana and Aronian v MVL in the big year-ending GCT final!

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Wesley So
Chess.com Speed Championship (Blitz 3+1), (15)
King’s Indian Attack
1.d3 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Nf6 5.0-0 h6 6.Nbd2 Be7 In effect, we basically have a Reversed Pirc Defence – and So adopting the Classical Variation, once the big favourite of Anatoly Karpov, when the Russian former world champion was in his pomp through the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, Karpov would ruthlessly grind out the win by torturing his opponents – but Nakamura, with White, has the advantage of the extra move and should have no such issues here. 7.e4 0-0 8.Re1 dxe4 9.dxe4 a5 10.a4 b6 Played with the idea of cutting across Nakamura’s game-plan of c3, Qe2 and Nc4. 11.c3 Nakamura wants to avoid the early trade of queens after 11.Nc4 Qxd1 12.Rxd1 Bg4 13.c3 Rad8 as Black stands a little better. There are other ways to untangle, and Nakamura opts for the other way, even if it means Black stands a little better for now. 11…Ba6 12.Bf1 Bxf1 13.Kxf1 Nd7 I thought a more logical plan was 13…Qd7 (threatening …Qh3+, …Bc5 and ….Ng4) 14.Kg2 Rad8 15.Qe2 Rfe8 and Black is fully developed with his rooks in the centre. It looks right, but what So plans is getting his knight to over-protect c5 as his bishop heads there, and may well be challenged by Be3. 14.Nc4 Bc5 15.Kg2 Re8 16.Bd2 Qe7 17.Qe2 Qe6 18.Rab1! Nakamura’s slow-burn set-up has great potential, as he now threatens to expand on the queenside with b4 and, if the pawns are traded on b4, pushing on with a5 for a potentially game-winning passed a-pawn. 18…Be7 There’s no holding the inevitable queenside push. If 18…Rad8 19.b4 Bf8 20.bxa5 bxa5 21.Be3 and Black is beginning to look very vulnerable on the queenside, with targets on a5 and c7 to work on. 19.Be3 White can’t be too hasty to push on, as there was a good reason for the strategic retreat with …Be7. If 19.b4? axb4 20.cxb4 Rxa4! 19…Bc5 20.Red1 Red8 21.Rd5!? It’s the first aggressive move of the game from Nakamura, who now tempts So to turn the game wild. 21…Bxe3 So blinks, not wishing to open the game with what was the critical riposte of 21…f5!? 22.Nfd2!? fxe4 23.Rxd7! Qxd7 24.Bxc5 bxc5 25.Nxe4 with a double-edged position, as the commanding white knights and the weak pawns on a5, c5 and e5 offer White excellent compensation for the exchange. 22.Nxe3 Nf6 23.Rxd8+ Rxd8 24.Qc2 g6 25.h3 Ne7 26.b3 Qc6 27.Ng4!? True to form, Nakamura finds the most creative way to continue the struggle, as trading knights on g4 will leave So with a problem of how to gets his …Ne7 back into the game. 27…Nxg4 28.hxg4 f6 29.Re1 Qd7 30.b4! The easy continuation now was 30.Nh2 – but Nakamura doesn’t do ‘easy’, and he continues to push the envelope against So, who seems caught out by his opponent’s adventurous play. 30…Qxg4?! Subtle moves can easily be missed in the frantic pace of blitz, and here, best would have been the more than useful prophylactic move 30…Kg7! that importantly gets out of the way of what proves to be a very annoying check. 31.Qb3+ Kf8 32.bxa5 bxa5 33.Qb5 g5 Hindsight is always 20/20, and Black could have held onto the pawn with 33…Ra8 – but it comes at the price of passivity, which in blitz commands a high premium! After 34.Nd2 h5 35.f3 Qe6 36.Nc4 Qc6 37.Rb1 it’s all getting a little awkward for Black, as there’s no long-term plan that will successfully hold onto the a5- and c7-pawns – but this would have been preferable to what now happens in the game. 34.Qxa5 Ng6? There’s no attack on the White king that can save the game now, and what was needed was consolidating with 34…Qd7 and following up with …Qc6 and …Ra8 and Black should be OK. 35.Nh2 The simple knight retreat removes any of So’s tricks. 35…Qd7 36.Qc5+ Qd6 37.Qc4 h5 Faced with the looming push of the a-pawn that’s going to be a major headache for So, he decides to lash out on the kingside to try and create some possible saving complications – but only to discover he is opening up huge holes in his own position. 38.a5 h4 39.Ng4! [see diagram] The threat is Ne3-f5 (or d5). 39…hxg3 40.fxg3 Kg7 41.Ne3 Ne7? With his digital clock metaphorically ticking down while being outplayed during this stage of the game, and his position getting ever-harder to defend, So blunders in a difficult position that was lost anyway. The best he could hope for was 41…Qd2+ 42.Re2 Qd7 43.Nf5+ Kh8 44.a6 and a slower death. 42.Rd1 1-0

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