GM Blitz Battle 2: Harikrishna No Match For Nakamura's Bullet Train
The second of Chess.com's GM Blitz Battle quarterfinals on Wednesday produced the expected overall and ratings result, but after the first 2.5 hours, not much was certain. For the 31,000+ unique viewers watching across six language broadcasts, things were just getting started.
After only being up one game after the five- and three-minute portions, GM Hikaru Nakamura completely outpaced GM Pentala Harikrishna in the one minute to win 16-9 overall. It was vintage Nakamura.
While Harikrishna was playing with enough speed to hang with most, Nakamura's mouse finger fluttered about with the Midas touch.
How does that final margin compare to past and future expectations? The eight-game gap split the results between his two wins in the similarly-structured Death Matches. Previously, Nakamura produced a six-game margin over GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and a double-digit spread over GM Wesley So.
Commentators GM Robert Hess and IM Danny Rensch had predicted 15-7 and 16.5-5.5 scores, respectively. Instead, the match went 25 games and saw plus-seven for the American. When using their FIDE blitz ratings (Nakamura, 2883; Harikrishna, 2759) the expectation is +7.75 for the favorite in 25 games, so the end result was spot on as the math goes.
The opening Chess960 game was drawn, as were most endgames in the "slow" 5+2 portion. This, despite Nakamura being a two-time winner of the Mainz Chess960 unofficial world title (he also won the last one in 2009, so it could be said he's been reigning champ for seven years and counting!).
In games decided by earlier measures, Nakamura came out on top. He won the only two decisive games of the segment, the first being game two via a patented piece offering. As one Chess.com member chatted, you could hear the knight on h4 cry. Or, as GM Sam Palatnik would put it, White's "sick buffalo" contaminated the entire herd.
Analysis by Tagalog commentators GM Julio Sadorra and IM Oliver "Dimarks" Dimakiling:
The next game, we got a glimpse into classic Nakamura facial expressions -- the players were on camera the entire match. Unlike the statuesque Harikrishna ("did his webcam freeze?"), Nakamura could be seen holding his brow and looking at the ceiling while analyzing. So it's not just over-the-board where inspiration is found overhead.
The players threw down 150 moves before agreeing to cease. Nakamura had originally offered a few draws, but then explained mid-match that he played on intentionally to drain the match clock. The goal was to play fewer games in longer time controls to maximize his advantage in the bullet. As it turned out, it worked.
A bland game and the third drawn rook ending followed. The commentators admitted that the match had stagnated and was nowhere near the "one million scovilles" of heat that were advertised.
That assessment changed in round five. After another Queen's Indian, Harikrishna excitedly pushed his passed pawn. The fatal mistake allowed Nakamura's placid knight to go from zero to hero in two moves flat.
Things could have gotten out of hand late in the five-minute portion, but Harikrishna quelled the damage by holding an exciting ending (for once, not with rooks). Some viewers compared the opening to the famous Fischer-Spassky game six (heavily lauded in the climactic scenes of "Pawn Sacrifice").
Instead of clapping à la Spassky, Black held an ending after some missed chances by Nakamura. This was despite facing down connected passers and a one-minute deficit on the clock.
Harikrishna's Italian Game didn't get anywhere in the five minute, and Hess thought he should go for more as White. Still, he remained close at minus-two, and actually played above his blitz rating (2783 performance) going into the three minute.
Nakamura showed his Chess960 skills after the short break. With 1. g4 and two moves later 3. a4, we had a Grob-Ware combo. Fittingly, one portmanteau could be "gare" and garish it was indeed.
"I think he's just playing around right now!" Hess said. Not so, the players had the positions in advance and Nakamura went on to convert the win with a discovered attack that netted a piece. Harikrishna got it back, but with his clock ticking low he could not parry the three open files all being salivated over by White's heavies.
Through nine games, broadcasters were beginning to search the record book to see who had the longest record of futility in either a Death Match or Blitz Battle (GM Le Quang Liem once went 18 games without a win). Just as that fact was being uncovered, Harikrishna bowdlerized his name from any mention of similar ignominy. Not only did he carve his name in the win column, he did it with style.
If you only thought Anastasia's Mate existed as ChessKid.com article fodder, think again. Although Harikrishna lost the afternoon, he played the move of the match.
"That was ridiculous," Hess said. Rensch: "That was a sick mate!"
Analysis by Tagalog commentators GM Julio Sadorra and IM Oliver "Dimarks" Dimakiling:
Hess suspected Harikrishna would gain confidence from netting his first win, and his results did improve. He could have done more damage were it not for some Nakamura resiliency.
Two draws followed, but one included a Nakamura mouse slip that left him down a pawn and worse. "Against most players in the world, that's just an easy 1-0 on the spot," Rensch said about 14...Ne7. Nakamura likely meant to pre-move 14...Nxe5 but didn't panic and found a clever queen sac to get back the balance.
Harikrishna took his second game in matchup 13. Nakamura inexplicably blundered his bishop in a pawn-up ending, then found himself in nearly the exact same ending as So-Caruana in round five of the Ultimate Blitz. In fact the resemblance was uncanny: White with King, f- and g-pawns; Black with King, bishop and f-pawn. Unlike the Ultimate Blitz, everything was up one more rank, making any fortress impossible this time.
Nakamura took game 14 but Harikrishna got that one back in the final game of the middle leg. Nakamura lost a pawn, and when counting the bishop blunder and mouse slip, the broadcast team seemed flabbergasted.
"He doesn't blunder like this," Hess said. "I can't make any sense of it."
The two went to the bullet with the score 8-7 for Nakamura. Recall that he had a slow start at the Ultimate Blitz before turning on the jets in the final three-quarters of the match (you could extrapolate further that both the Candidates' and U.S. Championship followed roughly that way too).
The bullet was no contest. Nakamura won the opening Chess960 game on time, with more than 30 seconds remaining himself. When the match got out of hand later, Rensch wondered if anyone had ever won a game in the 1+1 time control with more time remaining that he began with. In the second-to-last game, Nakamura did just that, winning with a flat 1:00 showing (but presumably some "hidden" fractional second existed).
Nakamura used his pet bullet opening systems to built up large banks of reserve time, but in many instances, he didn't need the surplus.
Harikrishna won only two of the 10 games (none was drawn). Both victories had him below three seconds for many of the closing moves. Check out this effort, where Nakamura nearly landed a brilliant stalemate.
In game 21, Nakamura used a recent U.S. Championship lesson to pick up a game. He used the same system against the French that GM Wesley So used to crush GM Varuzhan Akobian in what might have been the game of the tournament.
Nakamura won the next one too by showing that he is an equally capable defender. No sane person would have played 27...Qxb3 instantly, but Nakamura needed to stop Bc4 somehow!
"You never leave a Hikaru bullet bashing feeling good about what just happened," Rensch said, comparing the viewing of the slaughter to watching a horror film.
Harikrishna's final win was another fun one. First, a potential Frankenstein-Dracula opening, then a king walk to g6. After Qxh7+, when she was attacked twice and defended zero, the game resembled Crazyhouse -- now available on Chess.com's live server in the new Chess.com!
Nakamura then won the final two, including that "no time off the clock" game. Even Mike Tyson needed 91 seconds to beat Michael Spinks!
"You can't win every game when your opponent defends very well," Nakamura said about the closeness of the match in the first two time controls. He said he didn't get nervous at the close score.
"It's not because of preparation he played better today," Harikrishna said. Lag is usually an online player's worst enemy, but he could have used a little more after playing in Norway. "I probably could have practiced some more but I don't think that would help."
Coming up next on May 10 at 10 a.m. Pacific is GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the 3-seed, against GM Fabiano Caruana, the 6-seed.
"I'd prefer to play Fabiano," Nakamura said. "But I expect Maxime to win."
How to recover after a long day at the office? Nakamura went right back to "work," playing 25 games of bullet for fun. Or was it fun?
Despite winning the bullet 8-2, Harikrishna's provisional rating was low enough to cost Nakamura his prized 3200 bullet rating. After the Blitz Battle, he went 25-0, gaining one point per game and ending right at 3200.
Here's a more complete schedule for the Blitz Battles, including the just-announced date for GM Magnus Carlsen's first match!
- Vachier-Lagrave vs Caruana — May 10
- Qualifying tournament — May 31
- Carlsen vs qualifier — June 23