Karjakin vs Nakamura: The Ultimate Coin Flip
Hey, didn't these two guys just play? | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Karjakin vs Nakamura: The Ultimate Coin Flip

| 32 | Chess Players

Never in Speed Chess Championship history, or really in any of's head-to-head matches, have two GMs approached their face-off so soon after an over-the-board meeting.

A scant five days after playing a classical game against each other in the final round of the 2017 London Chess Classic, top GMs Sergey Karjakin and Hikaru Nakamura will face off in the second Speed Chess Championship semifinal match this Saturday, December 16. The Russian is seeded number two, the American three, and the winner plays number one, GM Magnus Carlsen, in the finals.

Log on to or this Saturday, December 16 at 9 a.m. Pacific (GMT-8), noon Eastern, 6 p.m. Central Europe to catch all the action live

That calendar quirk isn't the most interesting angle to the match. The parity of the two players is astounding. If Nakamura is a resourceful attacker and Karjakin really is the "Minister of Defense," then the thought experiment of "irresistible force vs immovable object" yields us this in statistical terms:


That's right -- it's a dead heat.'s computer models predict a small plus for Karjakin in the 5+2, an insignificant edge for Nakamura in the three-minute, then a smaller-than-usual pull for the American in the bullet.

It all adds up to an exact 50-50 split in expected win percentage. In short, don't go betting your life savings on a coin flip. Did Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore's ultimate gamble on the roulette wheel teach us nothing in Indecent Proposal? Or maybe you focused on the later coin flips and dice rolls? (Nevermind that Robert Redford's coin is revealed later to be two-headed;'s cheat-detection staff will monitor that.)

On second thought -- maybe craps is a good metaphor for this match. "Seven" also represents the number of classical wins and rapid/blitz wins that Nakamura has over Karjakin in his career.


A screenshot of the most recent comment in the Speed Chess Championship news article. This member really wants some action!

These two are a lot closer than when Nakamura beat Karjakin 4.5-1.5 in a match in Mexico in 2004. However, if you insist on gambling away your savings and your morality and falling down that same Vegas-induced rabbit hole, you should at least be armed with some facts and figures!

Arguments for Karjakin:

  • Higher seeds have only lost one match in the history of the Speed Chess Championship/Blitz Battle series.
  • Current world blitz champion.
  • Recently smoked the competition and went +7=2-0 in day one of St. Louis Rapid and Blitz and eventually won that portion of the event.
  • Higher blitz rating (2983 versus 2939 at time of publication), albeit in many fewer games (*note these number change regularly as Nakamura is very active).
  • Nominally higher in live world blitz ratings (number four at 2854 compared to fifth-place Nakamura at 2853).
  • Showed in 2016's world championship match that he is unflappable on the world's biggest stage.
  • GM Alexander Grischuk said that his countryman is not an underdog

Here's one of Karjakin's most recent wins in blitz against the American:


GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Sergey Karjakin played a final-round draw in London just this Monday. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Arguments in favor of Nakamura:

  • Has much more experience with the format, having won six head-to-head matches on (Speed Chess Championship/Blitz Battle and Death Matches).
  • Number one in's bullet ratings (3120), with more than 7500 wins and even higher rating than Carlsen and about 200 points higher than Karjakin. 
  • Better head-to-head record against Karjakin in over-the-board classical (7-5 in decisive games) and over-the-board blitz and rapid (7-4).
  • Went 3-1 against Karjakin in this year's Grand Chess Tour's blitz events; also beat Karjakin in last year's World Blitz Championship despite Karjakin winning first place.
  • Peak rating of 3138 just two months ago.
  • Picked to win by GM Magnus Carlsen.

Here's one of Nakamura's most powerful wins against Karjakin in blitz:


They've already played five over-the-board blitz games in 2017 and two more rapid games, but on Saturday, they'll play about 30 more. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

So will the bouncing ball end up on Karjakin or Nakamura's color? Barring Robert Redford's surprise appearance, there's not a million dollars at stake, but $6,000 is still a nice Hanukkah gift.

Log on to or this Saturday, December 16 at 9 a.m. Pacific (GMT-8), noon Eastern, 6 p.m. Central Europe to catch all the action live. Commentators IM Danny Rensch and GM Robert Hess will call the match.


FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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