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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The punters and pundits predicted that it would be a very tough match-up between America’s Hikaru Nakamura and top French star Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the London Chess Classic / Grand Chess Tour Final – and one that many thought would only be decided in the blitz session. And that’s exactly how the script played out, as two of the game’s leading speed mavens took it right down to the wire of the final game of the blitz session before Nakamura dramatically won the only decisive game of the match to clinch the title.

After drawing both their classical games and then followed by seven straight draws in the rapid and blitz sessions, the match looked destined to be heading for the Armageddon playoff to decide the title. But fortune favoured Nakamura, as the four-time US champion, just prior to the final blitz game, found a clever little idea in the English Opening that quickly proved to be MVL’s Waterloo.

“It was a very tough match, yesterday and today as well,” an overjoyed Nakamura said at the final press conference. “Fortunately I was able to hold and then in the last game I found this little idea before the game. It went a lot smoother than I thought it would but nonetheless it’s quite nice to win.

“(…) I was really happy the last game the way it went. I had looked at something very similar to what happened in the game and I saw the computer gave Be2 in a similar position and said White was winning and so to be able to play all these moves pretty much a tempo ahead was really nice. Considering how stressful it was, throughout the day, to just finish like that was great and I just look forward to playing against next year.”

Nakamura ended the GCT 2018 season on a high in more ways than one following his victory over MVL. He didn’t just win the GCT KO title and $120,000 first prize, but he also becomes the overall top performer in the GCT, scoring 34.5 tour points to boost his total prize money haul to $225,000. After a fourth-place start at the season-opener Your Next Move (Leuven) GCT leg, Nakamura won the Paris and Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, but then suffered a setback by finishing tied for 9th place at the Sinquefield Cup, also in St Louis, before going on to win the inaugural GCT Knockout Final, the marquee event of this year’s London Chess Classic.

MVL not only had the conciliation of $80,000 for being the defeated finalist, but the Frenchman was also second in the tour standings behind Nakamura, and his total prize money was $160,000 overall. In the playoff for the 3rd-4th place, America’s No 1 and world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, beat Levon Aronian to take his total tour winnings to $145,000, with the Armenian taking home $135,000.

Photo: Hikaru Nakamura celebrates after winning the 2018 Grand Chess Tour! | © Lennart Ootes / GCT

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
10th London Chess Classic/GCT Final, (2.8)
English Opening
1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e3 Nxc3 6.bxc3 g6 Earlier in the classical session, Nakamura got nothing by playing into MVL favoured mainline Grünfeld Exchange Variation. But here, through the English Opening, MVL’s Grünfeld set-up is not so effective as there are less counterattacking chances against White’s centre. 7.Bb5+ Bd7 8.Be2 Bg7 9.0-0 0-0 10.d4 Bc6 11.Ba3 cxd4 12.cxd4 Re8 13.Rc1!? In Game 4 of the rapid, and in Game 2 of the blitz, Nakamura played 13.Ne5 but 13…Qa5 led to equality and relatively easy draws for MVL. But just prior to this game, Nakamura – no doubt aided by his trusty second and computer guru, Kris Littlejohn – had the good fortune to find a better way to play the position, which seems to totally flummox MVL. 13…Qa5 14.Qb3 Nd7 15.Bb4 Qf5 16.Bd3 Qh5 17.e4 The position becomes more than just a little awkward for MVL: White has a secure centre, more space, and, most critical of all, the Black queen is a little short of squares now. 17…e6 18.h3 Rad8 On reflection, MVL may well have fared better immediately playing 18…a5!? as after 19.Bd2 (If 19.Bd6 a4 20.Qb4 Qa5! 21.Qxa5 Rxa5 White is better…but, with careful play, Black should have enough resources here to stay competitive.) 19…a4 20.Qb1 f5!? 21.d5 exd5 22.exf5 gxf5 23.Bxf5 Nf6 24.Ng5 Ne4!? 25.Bxh7+ Kh8 26.Bxe4 dxe4 27.Rc5 Re5 28.Rxe5 Bxe5 White may well be a pawn to the good, but there are so few pawns left on the board now, and this, combined with Black’s bishop-pair, makes trying to convert a win extremely difficult – especially more so with it being blitz! 19.Rfe1 a5 20.Bd2 a4 21.Qb1 The problem right now for MVL, is that he has no counter-attacking chances whatsoever to hit back at White’s strong central pawns, and this has allowed Nakamura to consolidate his pieces on their best squares. 21…Rc8 22.Be2! [see diagram] The little subtle retreat of the bishop highlights the fact that MVL’s queen has problems finding escape squares. 22…Bf6? White is clearly much better here – but this only helps the cause. MVL’s only slim hope of trying to stay longer in the game came with 22…Nf6 23.Ng5 Qh4 24.Bb5! (This is better than 24.g3 Qh6 25.Rcd1 looking to take down the queen again, as Black at least has good saving chances after 25…Nxe4!? 26.Nxe4 Qxh3 27.Bf3 Bxd4 and Black has three pawns for the piece, and lots of potential tricks with the bishop-pair, making it difficult for White to win this, especially given that it is blitz.) 24…Nh5 It’s ugly, but at least it’s “ugly” that saves the queen.  Now, after 25.Bxc6 bxc6 26.Qb7! Rf8 27.Nf3 White should be winning from here – but there’s still play on the board. 23.Rcd1 As all the silicon beasts’ scream out, Nakamura missed the quick kill with 23.Rxc6! bxc6 24.Nh2 Qh4 25.g3 Qxh3 26.Bg4! and the Black queen is somewhat bereft of squares. 23…Red8 24.Ng5 Qh4 25.g3 Black is totally bust now, facing a heavy loss of material with the queen trapped. 25…Qh6 26.Nxf7 Qxh3 27.Bf1 Qh5 28.Be2 Like a cat who has caught a mouse, Nakamura is playing with his quarry first before moving in for the kill. 28…Qh3 29.Bg4! 1-0 A nice move to win the title, as taking the bishop allows the fork with Nh6+ picking up the queen.

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