Caruana Beats Hou Yifan In Strong Speed Champs Showing
In a later episode of "Seinfeld," wacky neighbor Cosmo Kramer is lost in downtown Manhattan at the intersection of "first" and "first."
The "nexus of the universe" nearly repeated itself Thursday at Chess.com's Speed Chess Championship, as one of the most famous streaks in chess almost recurred courtesy of its eponymous namesake. GM Fabiano Caruana, indelibly linked forever to his seven wins in a row at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup, used a similar streak overcome GM Hou Yifan. "Fabi" almost did a "Fabi."
Fittingly, Caruana played from Manhattan, but he surely wasn't lost.
Alas, Caruana "only" made it to six games in a row, but it was good enough to open up an insurmountable margin. The sixth-seeded Caruana beat the 11th-seeded Hou by the final score 19-8, at one point winning 9.5/10.
Before Caruana almost repeated himself, the three-hour match remained very close in the opening five-minute section.
GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Hou Yifan (left side table) had to sit, metaphorically, across from each other for this one. You know, not counting the 6,800 miles between them!
The pair both opened with d3 systems against the Berlin, but Caruana won the opening game as White and then made it 2-0 a few minutes later when Hou walked into a late mate.
Caruana dipped lower on time in game three, allowing Hou to get her first win in an opposite-sides castling position. Maybe she just needed the first two games to get going with faster moves. After all, she actually played the match Friday morning; it began for her at 6 a.m. in Beijing.
As commentator WGM Jen Shahade put it, this was the "good morning and good night" match -- Caruana played on the East Coast of the United States from 6pm-9pm. He also wasn't without issues, as he had to play through dinner, but Caruana explained that the watermelon he ate late in the match helped cure his dizziness.
Caruana then won another pair, making it 4-1, and it seemed like a rout might be taking shape.
That's when Hou made her most significant run of the event, winning three straight to equalize.
Game six catalyzed the comeback. Caruana intentionally doubled his pawns early, gained traction in the center, and achieved the two bishops. But the pawns became immobile and after some loose play, Hou began picking them off.
Still, the world number-five nearly escaped via a late zugzwang, despite being down two pawns.
Hou won again the next game. After a beautiful tactic (showing that she could hold her own in creativity), Caruana had to decide what kind of deficit to endure. Would he accept being down a pawn, or offer an exchange, or a full piece? None of the above! As was a theme in the preview report, pitching the queen is no big deal for either of these players, although this one was more out of necessity or desperation.
Caruana then just hung a rook in the Chess960 game that closed the session, so heading into the three-minute chess, the duo had played to a 4-4 tie.
Just like the previous day's Nepomniachtchi-Aronian match, the pivotal moment came in the beginning of the second segment. Unlike Wednesday, the comeback ground to a halt. Whereas GM Ian Nepomniachtchi erased his deficit and began to overtake GM Levon Aronian, Caruana put an end to the underdog's bite.
First, in game nine, Caruana did the mirror opposite of GM Bobby Fischer. Whereas the late American once played the immortal ...Nh5 in the world championship, allowing his pawns to be double in front of his own king, another American would-be champ did the same on the a-file.
Will Caruana's 11. Na4 inspire t-shirts? Probably not. Although, you just never know what will inspire the Chessbrahs...
Just like Fischer, the fractured pawns didn't endanger his own king (except at one key moment!). By the time 20. g6 hit, Black's king generally needed more attention than White's. Hou did miss one win, and Caruana then missed a mate in five, but "at the end of the day it's about winning" as Kasparov kept reminding in his MasterClass trailer.
Fans of fighting chess were getting their figurative money's worth (or maybe literally their money's worth -- it was a free show). Through nine games, there had still yet to be a draw. Game 10 was poised to become the first, until Caruana's late tactic doubled his lead.
The Rubinstein French, one of several variations of the opening played Thursday, produced an equal rook ending. Hou then simply moved her king the wrong way, and Caruana forced through a passed pawn, and the win.
"Somehow I threw away those two rook endgames," Hou said after the match about this couplet of games. "I was quite upset," she added, despite being statuesque on the live camera for nearly the whole match.
Hou got one back in game 11. Then in the next game, a novelty -- after 72 moves, the first draw. The pair would only end up playing four draws out of 27 games, not quite eclipsing the record-low draws in last year's Carlsen-Petrosian matchup (only two draws in 25 games).
Triskaidekaphobics beware: Game 13 was also not for those who fear dark-square weaknesses. In what looked like it could have stemmed from a Chess960 game, Caruana nearly mated with bishop and knight on move 15.
The game proved to be a singular rout, and the beginning of a more protracted one. Caruana went on to win 5.0/5, for a total of six in a row, before a draw ended the streak. It seems the "Full Caruana" really was a one-time occurrence for him (but not for others -- GM Sergey Karjakin did win seven straight last week in St. Louis's blitz event).
In the middle of Caruana's streak, game 16 was especially brutal and one-sided.
The bullet section was all Caruana. He won 7.5-2.5.
In the first 1+1 game, Hou had a clean extra pawn, but got her queen trapped in the middle of the board.
Caruana must have been inspired after the match was out of reach. He offered a piece for speculative play in game 21, but in bullet, it proved a sage play.
The attack didn't end with that rook invasion. Caruana continued the aggression into game 22. His rooks again delivered the fatal blow:
We close with one of the rare draws. Why? In the penultimate game, Hou sacrificed her queen in very similar fashion to her majestic win over IM Borya Ider earlier this year.
"[I wanted to] just try something more interesting," Hou said after the match about some of her late choices.
Readers with deep historical knowledge may also appreciate the similarities to Nezhmetdinov-Chernikov, 1962.
First Hou's version:
Now Nezhmetdinov's version:
Despite his domination in the bullet, Caruana said it wasn't due to practice.
"I used to play a lot more [one-minute] in the past," he said. "I haven't played a lot with the one-second increment, which changes a lot, because you have to play real chess."
He also said he didn't feel well prepared; nor does he feel as confident as he does in over-the-board blitz and bullet.
Despite those misgivings, the dominating result may help assuage his last-place performance in the blitz portion of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.
Next up for Caruana: GM Hikaru Nakamura in the quarterfinals. "I think the main difficulty for me will be the one-minute portion," Caruana said. "He's head and shoulders above the rest."
All three seeded Americans survived into the second round. These two will have to play in the quarterfinals.
Before that happens in October or November, there are still two more opening-round matches. GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave vs. GM Jeffery Xiong on August 30 at 9 a.m. Pacific, and GM Magnus Carlsen vs. GM Gadir Guseinov on October 5 at 10 a.m. Pacific.
You can catch all of the action live at Chess.com/TV.