Songs may come and go through my ever-revolving door of favourites but “London Calling” by The Clash came in and never went out the other side. Recorded during 1979’s hothouse summer, it proved to be three minutes and twenty seconds of defining perfection from Joe Strummer, right from the unbridled thrill of the pulsating opening guitar riffs through to the moment it just all breaks down at the end.
The iconic punk anthem asked us just who had lost, and who had won. The reason I mention all this is that I easily found myself humming the tune as I watched “the clash” in London, the other clash that is, the all-American Grand Chess Tour semifinal clash between Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura at the London Chess Classic. Tied at the end of the two classical games, and as it moved into the speed legs of Rapid and Blitz, somehow I knew in my mind who would lose and who would win, and ultimately, when it came to the blitz, invariably it would all end in five minutes and three seconds of defining agony for Caruana.
And sure enough, after the recent harsh experience of one London heartbreaker being decided by a speed playoff, Caruana was to suffer a second bitter disappointment in London in as many months, as Nakamura, one of the world’s foremost speed mavens, after riding his luck and surviving a few scares, easily went on to win the match 18-10 to book a place in the final of the $300,000 event.
The only conciliation to end 2018 on a high note now for Caruana comes with the tall order of winning his two classical games in the third-place playoff that will see him replacing Magnus Carlsen as the new world No.1. And while all the recent speculation and chatter has been about Caruana’s Norwegian conquerer potentially losing his coveted world No.1 spot, right under our very noses in London, Carlsen did indeed lose his numero uno ranking – though not classical, but blitz, and not to his American rival, but rather to a Frenchman!
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who more commonly goes by his initials-inspired nickname of ‘MVL’, will be Nakamura’s opponent in the GCT Final after he beat Armenia’s Levon Aronian, similarly by a score of 18-10, in the other semi-final match-up. But by beating Aronian 3-1 in the blitz leg, he gained 11 rating points to overtake Carlsen to become the new blitz world No.1 on the unofficial live rating list – but it may only be a temporary affair.
MVL’s live blitz rating is now 2948, with Carlsen close behind on 2939, and Nakamura a little off the pace in third place on 2895. But Carlsen has a good chance for revenge before the end of the year, as he’s playing in the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia, between Christmas and New Year – and the stage is set for the Norwegian to end 2018 with the ‘triple crown’ of all three world titles, and still be top dog as world No.1 on the three official FIDE rating lists that will be published on 1 January 2019.
The final between Nakamura and MVL, two of the world’s most dynamic players and equally recognised speed merchants, could prove to be quite a tussle. Play gets underway on Saturday (with a local starting time in London of 2 pm), with the first of the two weekend classical games, and then moving onto the Rapid and Blitz legs on Monday that will ultimately determine the 2018 GCT title, with $120,000 going to the winner, and $80,000 to the loser. You can watch live at the official website(s) at: www.londonchessclassic.com | grandchesstour.org
GCT semifinal scores:
Nakamura 18-10 Caruana
Vachier-Lagrave 18-10 Aronian
Photo: Chess in Schools and Communities CEO & London Chess Classic Tournament Director, Malcolm Pein, makes it a very special day for Martha from Park End School, Middlesbrough, as she’s brought on to the stage to make the ceremonial first move in the all-deciding Rapid and Blitz all-American clash between Caruana and Nakamura | © Lennart Ootes / GCT
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Hikaru Nakamura
10th London Chess Classic/GCT Final, (8)
King’s Indian Defence, Makagonov System
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.h3 The Makagonov System, named after the Soviet-era five-time Azerbaijan champion, Vladimir Makagonov (1904-93), little known outside of his homeland, but better known as a chess coach, working alongside Vassily Smyslov in his 1957 title match with Botvinnik, and, later, one of young Garry Kasparov’s first teachers. 5…0-0 6.Be3 This quiet system is as good a line as any to avoid all the mayhem of the critical mainlines in the King’s Indian Defence. With the early 5.h3, White prevents …Ng4 and can now play Be3 and leisurely prepare Qd2. Another idea is to prevent Black from playing …f5 by playing g2-g4 constricting Black. 6…e5 7.d5 a5 8.g4 Na6 9.Nge2 Another advantage with this system is White keeps open his option whether to develop the knight on f3 or, as here, after g4, playing Nge2-g3 and going for a speedy kingside attack. 9…Nd7 10.Qd2 Ndc5 11.Ng3 c6 12.Be2 cxd5 13.cxd5 a4 14.h4 A clear statement of intent from Fabi – Caveman-style, he’s just going to open the h-file and attempt to force home a brutal mating attack. 14…Bd7 15.h5 Rc8 Better looked the more typical King’s Indian Defence move of 15…Qb6 with the idea of …Qb4. But the looming threat of carnage down the h-file does concentrate the mind somewhat. 16.Kf1 A nice, simple solution for Caruana, who looks to slip his king to safety on g2, which will connect his rooks for the coming attack. 16…a3 17.b3 Qa5 18.Rc1 f6 19.Kg2 Nb4 20.hxg6 hxg6 21.Bh6 Caruana’s attack more or less plays itself: trade the bishops on g7, and looked to force a mate down the h-file. Chess is easy when you have a free rein to attack, isn’t it? 21…Rf7 22.Rh2 Bxh6 23.Qxh6 Rg7 24.Rch1 Rf8 [see diagram] The danger signs are all there, as attempting to run with the king falls quickly to 24…Kf7 25.Qxg7+! Kxg7 26.Rh7+ Kf8 27.Rh8+ Kf7 28.R1h7#. But Nakamura instinctively looks to bring his rook into shoring up his defence, safe in the knowledge that his king has an escape route on f7 and then e8 to avoid all of this – but unwittingly, he’s set the scene for a dramatic sacrificial tactic! 25.Qc1? Well, that comes as a shock! With the ‘heavy furniture’ of queen and rooks on the open h-file, your gut instincts tell you that there has to be a forced win somewhere here – but if you can’t find the key move, instincts and the reality of the clock ticking away in a blitz game become two different things. And here, the key move and square that Caruana couldn’t see, turns out to be f5. The stunning win was indeed there, and naturally, the cold, un-beating heart of the ever-crunching engine’s quickly screams out for 25.g5! f5 (There’s no other option. If 25…fxg5 26.Nf5!! gxf5 27.Bh5! fxe4 28.Qh8+!! Kxh8 29.Bf7+ Rh7 30.Rxh7#) 26.Nxf5!! Bxf5 (If 26…gxf5 27.g6 quickly mates down the h-file.) 27.exf5 and Black is lost: if 27…Rxf5 (Again, if 27…gxf5 28.g6 will soon be mate.) 28.Qh8+ Kf7 29.Rh7 Rxg5+ 30.Kf1 and Black can’t stop the mate coming with the queen and rook. 25…Nbd3 26.Qd2 Actually, I have come to the conclusion that Caruana may have been angry with himself that he couldn’t find a forced win, and in frustration, he retreated his queen too far, as d2 was the more logical square for the queen, and not c1. 26…Nf4+ Chess is amazing! In the space of just a couple of moves, Nakamura has gone from dead in the water to clearly winning. With the knight firmly posted on f4, Caruana’s queen is cut off from re-entering the attack. 27.Kg1 Kf7 28.Rh7 Rc8! Now Caruana is in deep trouble, the big threat being the immediate …Nxb3 with the hit on c3. 29.Bc4 b5 Poor Caruana: It never rains but it pours for him in speed games! 30.Nge2 g5 It’s important to keep the queen from returning to the fray with a possible game-saver excursion to h6. 31.Nxf4 gxf4 32.g5 Rcg8 33.Be2 Kf8 More clinical was 33…b4! 34.Na4 Nxe4 35.Qc2 Nxg5 easily winning – but I guess by now, all roads were clearly leading to Rome for Hikaru. 34.Kf1 fxg5 35.f3 b4 36.Nd1 Nxb3! Yes, it goes without saying that the a-pawn will be very fast if Fabi takes the knight! 37.Qc2 Nd4 38.Qc1 b3 39.axb3 a2 0-1