Carlsen Beats Nakamura To Win GM Blitz Battle Championship
In what is likely the world champion's final public appearance before his title defense, he didn't just sign autographs and pose for pictures. Instead, he popped up from his intensive studying to win another championship.
Today GM Magnus Carlsen became the first winner of the Chess.com Grandmaster Blitz Battle Championship. By virtue of winning the first two segments convincingly, he defeated GM Hikaru Nakamura in the finals by an overall score of 14.5-10.5.
The full broadcast replay can be viewed on Twitch here.
The match broke all records on the website for viewership and sign-ins. Carlsen won $6,320 for the three-hour match, while Nakamura took home $3,680. There is still a $1,000 prize for best game, to be decided later by Chess.com staff.
The final bracket for Chess.com's year-long odyssey to find the best online player worldwide.
On the whole, Carlsen played faster early and his consistent time advantage helped him open with a 5.5-3.5 win in the five-minute portion. The world champion then extended his lead to five games by taking the three-minute by the larger margin of 5.0-2.0.
Nakamura attempted a comeback in the bullet, but the lead proved insurmountable. He mostly traded wins in the one-minute, winning the segment by a single game, 5.0-4.0.
More than 28,000 Chess.com members joined the live chess server, nearly 3,000 more than any previous moment. More than 183,000 unique visitors watched the main live broadcast, more than double Carlsen's semifinal against GM Alexander Grischuk.
Why were they there? To watch what many consider the best two blitz and bullet players in the world. They were rewarded with fighting play and staunch defense. Only three of the first 23 games ended in draws before two late draws ended the fighting.
"As a player it is definitely very interesting to play [this format]," Carlsen said. "For the viewers it's wonderful."
He played in front of two oversized sand dollars, and later revealed that he was somewhere in the Caribbean (he will leave for next month's world championship match with many more real dollars after today).
The combatants were both on camera for the match, and showed much more emotion than any over-the-board event. Grimaces and sighs were as common as captures, and Nakamura said the lack of time to regroup after a blunder was a factor.
"In a normal match you have more time to adjust," he said.
He did not need any self-reflection after the opening game. Nakamura won easily in Chess960. Just like the quarterfinals and the semifinals, all three time disciplines opened with a Chess960 game, but for the finals, a twist. The players did not get advance notice of the starting positions.
Nakamura would go on to take 2.5/3 in the three iterations of Chess960, one of the few bright spots for him on the day.
Carlsen wasted no time evening the score. He didn't do it with magic; instead just typical Norwegian persistence. Where many would click the "draw" button, he kept pressing, just as in his classical games. Karjakin, were you watching?
Now playing Black in "normal chess" for the first time, Carlsen showed he was a two-trick pony. He used the Queen's Indian and Nimzo-Indian interchangeably, and for good reason. The former was particularly useful, as he won the first three games he played with it (he also used it in 2011 to beat Nakamura in a classical game).
As White he didn't show much creativity, or let on much about any world-championship preparation. Instead, the King's Indian Attack and its close cousins was pretty much all he needed.
"We planned on preparing some openings [for the Blitz Battle] but never got around to it," Carlsen said.
A win in game three gave Carlsen his first lead and one that he would never give back. The next game was one of the few draws, but also resulted in one of the first emotional moments for Nakamura. After allowing a repetition, commentators GM Robert Hess and IM Danny Rensch oscillated between describing the American as "dejected" and "quizzical."
Likely many "guess-the-move" participants were left with the same two emotions after Carlsen's 24th move:
Chess fans with decent memories know much of the history between the two. Before this year's win in Bilbao, Nakamura had never defeated Carlsen in a classical game, but that win could have come much sooner. In Zurich 2014, Nakamura was up a gigantic sum by computer evaluations before blundering.
Why is that salient for this match? Carlsen actually beat Nakamura twice that year as Black using the Nimzo, and the Norwegian trotted it out again today, with similar effect. He won games five and seven with it.
In between was game six, when Nakamura staved off a disastrous start by offering his queen just to survive. In what would become a theme for the match, players parting with the lady (either by design or out of desperation) went 3-0 on the day!
Turnabout is fair play and Carlsen offered his queen moments later to get the point back. This Nimzo he should know well -- it resembled the famous win in game nine that all-but-clinched his world championship title in 2013.
Nakamura said this game was the early turning point of the match. He wished he was not so quick to go after the queen.
"It is hard to win games when your opponent is resisting well," Carlsen said of his unparalleled ability to defend bad positions. "I try to keep calm to the extent that I can."
Hikaru shows he can outplay the world's best player, but Magnus has an uncanny ability to salvage positions. #BlitzBattle— Jon Ludvig Hammer ( @gmjlh) October 27, 2016
"You've got to give him credit for not emotionally beating himself up after [game six]," Rensch said.
@MagnusCarlsen simply defended better, and no matter how small that may seem, it makes a difference over a long set of games. (1/1)— Hikaru Nakamura ( @GMHikaru) October 27, 2016
Not until game eight did Nakamura obtain a clear time advantage. Prior to that, he often found himself down 90 seconds or more.
In our pre-match interview, he lamented sometimes spending "25-30 seconds" for particular moves in some blitz games, something he never used to do earlier in his career. Several times in the opening segment this tendency returned.
Two final games were split to close the five-minute block, but the damage was done. Carlsen led by two.
Nakamura's creativity allowed him to do well in the three Chess960 games.
"It was in the five-minute where it really got away from me," Nakamura said.
Hess claimed Nakamura also had great defensive prowess, and this was on display in the three-minute's opening Chess960 game.
Going against what was predicted in the last episode of ChessCenter, one of the players then went on a winning streak. Carlsen ripped off three wins in a row, starting in game 11 where Nakamura was "really outplaying Magnus," according to Rensch before Carlsen again found hidden resources.
"This is ridiculous," Rensch said. "His ability to flip the endgames around."
Nakamura appeared to mumble the word "terrible" under his breath after hanging his queen.
After the losses mounted and became three in a row in games 12 and 13, Nakamura shook his head and put his earbuds in. He then stabilized with a draw and then kept the comeback door ajar in game 15.
A reaction that typified the match: Nakamura isn't laughing. He was pained to see that ...Nf8-d7 hung on for a little longer, but White did win (with mate!) a few moves later.
Since it was Carlsen, nothing came easy, so even after the nice shot 35. d4 (which caused Carlsen to jerk his head violently) and eventual infiltration of Nakamura's remaining army, Carlsen still nearly hung on.
Carlsen then got the game back, closing out the brutal segment 5-2 in his favor and going into Nakamura's bullet breadbasket with a comfortable five-game buffer.
Nakamura couldn't watch his screen after realizing that the rook ending that closed the three-minute segment was lost.
Prior to the match, this reporter asked Nakamura if he was offered a one-game deficit going into the bullet, would he take it? Nakamura didn't have any numbers and preferred to be riding the hot hand no matter the score, but as it turned out, one game was all he could make up to mitigate the final margin.
The 1+1 segment saw the players trading wins for the first seven games, which was just fine for the leader. It seemed initially like Nakamura could have been headed for more.
He won a pawn very early in the Chess960 game, then earned the full point when Carlsen inexplicably hung his queen due to a miscalculation.
But just when the American looked to begin his first winning streak, he returned the favor by leaving his rook loose the next round, effectively ending any chance at a comeback.
Nakamura was the most mad at himself after letting this game get away. Instead of being -3, he dropped to -5, and with only about 20 minutes remaining, his prospects were almost nil.
The trading of wins continued, but Carlsen didn't seem to take advantage of his lead. He said afterward that he was always aware of the score, but instead of playing until mate in losing positions to dwindle the match clock, twice he resigned.
"I think he's being respectful," Hess guessed.
In the final game, we had our answer. In a king-and-pawn ending where the pawns were locked in such a way that neither king could invade, Carlsen made random king moves, advanced a pawn to avoid the 50-move rule, then made more random king moves. After 106 total moves, the final game concluded.
"I'm sorry about that," Magnus said afterward, explaining that he didn't know the remaining time. "I thought it was just good match strategy."
Three of the four people were "in" on the joke, but if you look at Carlsen, he was still unaware he'd won the championship!
In actuality, the match clock had expired some 50 moves prior, causing commentators to laugh at what they thought was Carlsen being jocular.
Carlsen said he appreciated the warm-up prior to next month's world championship against GM Sergey Karjakin, which begins November 11 in New York City.
"Training games always help so in that sense this is double the money's worth."
You can download all of the games of the finals from Carlsen's Chess.com account here.
The full match broadcast is available for replay in Chess.com's Twitch archive.