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Karjakin Fiddles As Nepo Is Burned In Speed Chess Quarterfinals
GM Sergey Karjakin easily beat GM Ian Nepomniachtchi 20-10.

Karjakin Fiddles As Nepo Is Burned In Speed Chess Quarterfinals

When you type "Nepo" into the Chess.com live chat, the spell-check insists you meant "Nero." In the sense of going down in flames, the machine is right.

Instead of being the year 64, it was on the 64 squares that GM Sergey Karjakin set alight GM Ian Nepomniachtchi in the second quarterfinal of the 2017 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship. Karjakin, the reigning world blitz champion, played the best opening 10 games in the event's history and went on to win 20-10.

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While a lot of players admit to not preparing much, Karjakin trained more intensely than most (this documentary about him would have you expecting nothing less).

"The last few days I trained some blitz," he said, adding that he followed his opponent's previous match against GM Levon Aronian "very deeply."

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While the final match score left out a lot of drama, the two countrymen did offer a lot to the audience. Unlike other matches this year, there was no effort to "prove" one side of an opening. Indeed, there were essentially no repeated beginning sequences in the entire five-minute portion.

Each player would eventually dazzle with his own queen sacrifice, with Karjakin's particularly impressing the commentators. There were almost no overt blunders until a few crept in during the bullet portion.

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Particularly notable though was the near-classical chess quality of play by the vice-world champion (his CAPS score eclipsed 96). He got to show his "Minister of Defense" honorific while running out to a 9-1 lead in the first 10 games. That breaks GM Magnus Carlsen's mark of 8.5-1.5 against GM Gadir Guisenov from earlier this year, and also bests Karjakin's own run of 8.0/9 in the 2017 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.

Nepomniachtchi only broke through for his first win at the 90-minute mark, in the first Chess960 game.

Game one showed the patent difference in styles at a critical middlegame moment:


After Nepomniachtchi held game two, Karjakin extended the lead further in his next turn as White. The fun only just began when the queens left. A crazy middlegame with pieces dangling everywhere got even more chaotic when Karjakin temporarily jettisoned his conservatism. The Russian's king walk to f4 was rewarded with a mate of his own.

The next round, Nepomniachtchi tried to imitate by walking his queenside-castled-king from b1 all the way over to h2. Ultimately, he didn't fare as well as his national teammate.

Speaking of which, since two Russians were squaring off, we can only imagine all of Russia was enthralled. The Chess.com Red Square webcam went down, so instead we can only confirm that two high-profile countrymen were in the chat watching the events keenly.

GM Peter Svidler dropped a few comments in the Twitch chat, while GM Alexander Grischuk, fresh off his own quarterfinal win yesterday, was playing (and winning!) the "guess-the-move" feature in Chess.com's live server. He correctly predicted 33/45 moves in game five.

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GM Sergey Karjakin's headphones created a small Photoshop contest online. His doppleganger? Princess Leia.

Karjakin's blasters began to get going after that. He won rounds 6-10 to take that commanding 9-1 lead.

"At some point I got desperate," Nepomniachtchi said after the match. "You suffer such strange losses one by one."

In game eight he might have thought that he finally caught his friend in his sights. Turns out, Karjakin brought his Kevlar as the game instead turned into a "Minister of Defense" classic.

Karjakin's play went from laudable to sublime a game later. Commentator IM Aman Hambleton called it "one of the nicest zugzwangs" he'd ever seen.

After Nepomniachtchi miscalculated a tactic a few minutes later, history had been made. Karjakin's start of eight wins and two draws in the opening 10 games was the best in Speed Chess Championship history.

The improbable run came despite both players admitting after the match that they considered Nepomniachtchi to have the slightly better chances.

"It's hard to sum up when the score difference is about 10 points," Nepomniachtchi said afterward. "I considered myself a small favorite. It was more or less over after that five-minute [segment]."

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He did counterpunch in the first Chess960 game to register his first win of the match, which was now about halfway over in terms of clock time. 

Nepomniachtchi had a tendency to resign early in lost positions. Consequently, the duo tied the Speed Chess Championship record for most five-minute games (11). The other match to have that many was GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave against GM Jeffery Xiong. The major difference of course was that those players ended the opening block tied 5.5-5.5.

Score: 5|2 Time Control

Fed Player 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Score
Sergey Karjakin 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 0 9
Ian Nepomniachtchi 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 1 2

Heading into the three-minute segment, Nepomiachtchi needed a fire truck, but instead settled for a small bucket of water. He netted a win and two draws to open the frame.

Game 13 was his most complete single effort of the match. As in his opening-round match against GM Levon Aronian, Nepomniachtchi got to play his favored Pirc Defense.

When he tried it again in his next turn as Black, Karjakin turned the game into some sort of amorphous Bayonet Attack in the King's Indian Defense (with a wayward bishop on h2). But that little wrinkle proved to be a salient difference when White uncorked 29. Rxg7!

Fast-forwarding to the winner's next iteration with White, we find the true gem of the afternoon. Sure, Karjakin plays a sparkling combination early on, but he then must play most of the rest of the game with a serious time deficit.

At one point down 0:30-2:30 on the clock, he finished by playing the final 10 moves in only eight seconds.

"That whole game might have been one of my favorite moments from the Speed Chess Championship this year," Hambleton said.

"How awesome was that? Am I the only one that’s like a giddy schoolgirl here?" Commentator IM Danny Rensch said. "This is such an ideal example of the knight guarding the king when the queen is so close."

How demoralizing is a loss like this? Instead of resigning in the final position, Nepomniachtchi used his time advantage for the only thing it was useful. In what is sometimes referred to as "rage quitting," he got up from the board and left the room temporarily, allowing the final 60 seconds to expire on his clock.

When he returned it wasn't much better, as Karjakin took 2.5/3 to end the three-minute portion.

Score: 3|2 Time Control

Fed Player 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Score
Sergey Karjakin ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 6
Ian Nepomniachtchi ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 0 3

The scoreboard now read 15-5, and since most bullet segments (30 minutes) comprise about 10 games, Nepomniachtchi would essentially have to run the table.

That unlikely comeback was derailed after the first game. Nepomniachtchi switched to the Dutch Defense, but Karjakin took the opener nonetheless.

Then the Dota and Hearthstone streamer really let loose with the rare "Center Game." The opening is beguiling in its simplicity: 1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. Qxd4. But fellow countryman GM Alexander Morozevich sometimes played it, and on this day it actually went 2-0 for Nepomniachtchi!

Here's the second of those games, where the queen-sac-carousel came back around to hurt Karjakin.

Just one game prior to that, Karjakin played his only serious blunder of the match. In a completely winning ending, he hung a knight. Then his opponent convincingly engineered a known winning ending. Despite the "wrong bishop," White has the "excess pawn."

Despite the small flurry of two losses in a row, Karjakin steadied himself and closed out the bullet in a split score to maintain his 10-point win.

The crushing margin is not actually a record for second-round matches. While the opening round of the Speed Chess Championship does sometimes feature mismatches, even in last year's second round GM Hikaru Nakamura took out Vachier-Lagrave by 11 points (21.5-10.5).

Score: 1|1 Time Control

Fed Player 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Score
Sergey Karjakin 1 0 1 1 0 0 ½ 1 ½ 0 5
Ian Nepomniachtchi 0 1 0 0 1 1 ½ 0 ½ 1 5

Karjakin summarized the afternoon plainly: "I think I played well in the five-minute match. Then I played not so good in the three-minute, then I played badly in the one-minute.

"I’m very happy I came to this match in a good form."

The third of four quarterfinal matches takes place early next month. It's worth the wait:

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