John Henderson
By John Henderson

Early this week, the new Fide administration officially stripped Saudi Arabia from holding this year’s World Rapid and Blitz Championship, with the new Fide president, Arkady Dvorkovich announcing that the tournament, which has a total prize fund of $700,000 (with $60,000 1st prize for each title), will now be staged over the same Christmas and New Year period in the winter wonderland of St. Petersburg, Russia.

Riyadh lost the right to run the World Rapid and Blitz Championship after the Saudi government refused entry visas for Israelis to play in last year’s event. Several players – the most notable being one of the pre-tournament favourites, America’s Hikaru Nakamura – boycotted last year’s event in protest. World Champion Magnus Carlsen also let his feelings be known, by declaring that he wouldn’t play this year unless the event was freely open to all qualified players.

The late switch to St. Petersburg comes with Carlsen’s approval, announcing yesterday on his blog for sponsors Arctic Securities: “I was thrilled to hear that the Rapid & Blitz World Championship will take place this year as well, between Christmas and New Year, and I’m looking forward to travelling to St. Petersburg to fight for those titles.”

The recent World Championship clash in London also prevented Carlsen from defending another of his speed titles this year, as he missed out on the 2018 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship, a title he won after beating arch-rival Hikaru Nakamura in last year’s final (well, early January 2018, really). But with Carlsen missing from this year’s mix, the mice will play, and old foe Nakamura beat Wesley So on Sunday to take the title.

In a closely-fought match, Nakamura only edged ahead in the third and final bullet session to take the title, 15.5-12.5, after the two opening blitz sessions (5min+1 sec & 3min +1) were tied at 5-5. A key win en route to Nakamura’s victory came from his revival at elite-level of the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation – a variation that comes with a pedigree, and rarely, if ever, seen now at elite-level these days, despite it proving to be a potent weapon in the past for two famous world champions.

Over a century ago, at the great St. Petersburg tournament of 1914, one of the great psychological match-ups of its day was Emanuel Lasker versus José Raúl Capablanca. The ageing world champion Lasker, needing a win against the coming man, bemused the Cuban by adopting the seldom played Exchange variation in the Ruy Lopez with 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Bxc6. Half a century later, Bobby Fischer added a new dimension in the Exchange variation by showing White could also launch a ferocious attack on Black’s long castled king, and again it was back in vogue.

Lasker’s original contention was, if he consistently swapped pieces, White could never lose, and yet might easily win if Black went technically astray in the ending. Fast forward to the present day, and even in a closely-fought online speed match, that’s just exactly the scenario that led to Nakamura scoring what proved to be a crucial win in the first blitz segment that prevented So from establishing an early lead.

Match score: Nakamura 15.5-12.5 So

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Wesley So
Chess.com Speed Championship, (7)
Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.0-0 Qf6 This is a more modern approach from Black in the Exchange Lopez to defend e5, and at the same time put pressure on Nf3 after a …Bg4. 6.d3 Bd6 7.Nbd2 Ne7 8.Nc4 Bg4 9.h3 Bxf3 10.Qxf3 Qxf3 11.gxf3 0-0 12.f4 We have full equality here with the queen-less middlegame/endgame, and this is the best way for White to try and look for any little advantage, as he will have the bishop versus knight. 12…exf4 13.Nxd6 cxd6 14.Bxf4 Rad8 15.Rfe1 Rd7 16.Bg3 d5 17.f3 f6 Also an option was 17…c5 with the idea of following up with …Nc6. But So’s option also has its merits, as it brings the Black king quickly into the ending with …Kf7. 18.Re2 Kf7 19.Rae1 g5?! It is blitz after all, but this just doesn’t look right to my eye, as it looks a little loose and offers Nakamura hope of pressing for something in the endgame. More logical, I thought, was playing …c5 or even …d4. 20.e5 I can see what Nakamura is up to here, but he may well have been better playing 20.h4!? with the idea of trading his only weak pawn. 20…fxe5 21.Rxe5 Nakamura’s pieces are more active for sure now, but in getting this position, he also now has landed himself with the weaker pawn structure having 3 islands to 2, and has to trade more pawns off quickly. 21…h6 22.f4 This at least solves his pawn island problem – but it comes with a further trade of pieces and pawns. 22…Ng6 23.Rf5+ Kg7 24.Rxf8 Kxf8 25.fxg5 Equilibrium of the pawn structures has now been achieved – but there’s very little material left on the board to work with. That, in turn, can either be an advantage or a disadvantage, as it will only take one little slip for the position to start to go critical. 25…hxg5 26.Kg2 Rf7 27.Bd6+ Kg7 28.Kg3 Nh4 29.Kg4 Kg6? It’s a king move that looks so natural, but it is one that leads to So’s downfall. He should have taken advantage of the fact that the g5 pawn couldn’t be taken for now due to the …Nf3+ fork, and use the time to activate his rook with 29…Rf2! now after 30.Bg3 (If 30.Be7 Rg2+ 31.Kh5 Kf7! once again, g5 is taboo due to …Rxg5+! followed by again …Nf3+ winning.) 30…Rg2 31.Re5 Kf6 and from this position, with Black’s pieces (especially the rook) more actively placed, the game will soon fizzle out to a draw. 30.Re6+ Rf6 31.Rxf6+! Nakamura has correctly assessed that the minor piece ending is winning. 31…Kxf6 32.Bc7! And this was the annoying move for So that convinced Nakamura he was winning! Basically, with the g5-pawn fixed on a dark square, Nakamura will easily win the pawn – and while So will get his knight into the game to capture one of the queenside pawns, the hard reality is that White’s passed h-pawn will be the decoy key to win the game. 32…Kg6 33.Bd8 Ng2 34.Bxg5 Ne1 35.h4 Nxc2 36.h5+ Kh7 37.Bd2! Preventing the annoying …Nb4. And notice how the bishop and the h-pawn now severely restrict the activity of So’s king. 37…Nd4 It’s a tough ending to defend, but you have to try. There’s a case for 37…b6 being a good start to try and hold on, but after 38.Kf4!? it is not difficult to see that the White king quickly crosses to the queenside to target all those now vulnerable Black pawns. 38.Kf4 Ne6+ 39.Kf5 Nc5 40.d4 Ne4 41.Bf4 Nf2 42.b3 Ne4 43.Ke6 Nc3 44.a4 a5 45.Kd7 b5 46.b4! [see diagram] I suppose the simplest route to victory was with 46.Bd2 – but typically for Nakamura, he’ll always find the ‘flashy’, creative way to win an endgame. I don’t believe this is showboating in any way; it’s just how his mind works in games. 46…bxa4 All captures lose now for So. If 46…axb4 47.a5 b3 48.Bc1! Na2 49.Bb2 Nb4 50.Kd6 Kh6 51.Ba1! (White can’t be too hasty on moving in to c5 with his king to nudge the knight, as 51.Kc5? Nd3+ 52.Kxc6 Nxb2 53.a6 Na4 54.a7 b2 55.a8Q b1Q and White will have to bail out now with a queen perpetual check.) 51…Kxh5 52.Kc5! Nc2 (No easier is 52…Na6+ 53.Kb6 and no way for Black to stop the a-pawn rolling.) 53.Bb2 and now the a-pawn will pass unhindered. 47.bxa5 a3 48.Bc1 a2 49.Bb2 Na4 50.Ba1 c5 51.a6 cxd4 52.a7 d3 53.Kc6! 1-0 A nice, subtle endgame study-like solution from Nakamura: while both pawns will queen at the same time, there’s no way to stop Qh8 mate!

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