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Nakamura Wins Convincingly In Speed Champs Opener

Nakamura Wins Convincingly In Speed Champs Opener

No one signed up to play GM Hikaru Nakamura, but somebody had to.

In the opening match of the 2017 Speed Chess Championship (rebranded from Blitz Battle Championship last year), Nakamura easily defeated qualifier GM Sergey Grigoriants 20.5-7.5. The American, who made it to the finals last year, won all three time controls. He punctuated the afternoon with a seven-in-a-row streak to close the match.

Including last year only (discounting the earliest predecessor, the "Death Matches"), the margin was the second-largest in the event's history. It seems all the qualifiers sensed this could happen.

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For this year's 16-player event, 12 grandmasters were invited by Chess.com and four won seats through open qualification in April. The quartet of qualifiers then secretly "bid" on who they preferred to face off against for their first match, with the higher-rated players getting preference. Chess.com vice president IM Danny Rensch said no one picked Nakamura or World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen as his first choice, but the matrix of responses landed Grigoriants with Nakamura.

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Somebody had to play GM Hikaru Nakamura, just like somebody got "stuck" with GM Magnus Carlsen. That would be GM Gadir Guseinov.

Their shared history on Chess.com's live chess server didn't bode well, with Nakamura enjoying a 49-12 lead in decisive games (plus-one over the board win in their lone face-to-face encounter). Early on, however, the Russian held his own.

The matched opened with two draws in the 5+2 portion, but then it surely seemed the one-time 2800 would break through in round three. Despite being up an exchange and the clock reading 2:45 to a mere 11 seconds, the underdog held another one.

After the match, Nakamura admitted to not being as "sharp" against lower-rated opposition, since every half-point didn't matter quite as much.

"I found a way to totally butcher it," he said of the ending.

The defensive resources could only last so long, as Nakamura won the next two games to take a lead that he would never relinquish. As he often does in these three-hour matches, he relied heavily on various iterations of the King's Indian Attack structure (later in the match he would even play 1. d3 and 2. Nd2 to enter the same).

For game four, Nakamura's energy could be quantified. It's not clear if Red Bull gives you chess wings, but it does give you a streak of 13 consecutive moves that make a threat, check, or capture:

Now with the lead, Nakamura won again a few minutes later with the help of a clever interference tactic. It's too bad that the video for ChessKid King Level 59 has already been recorded.

"Once I got the two-game lead, I never really felt in danger," Nakamura said.

Grigoriants then played to three more draws in the classical chess portion of the 5+2, which you could look at as stabilizing the match, or instead as his continued inability to win a game. Indeed, it was hard to find any position where he was clearly better in the opening.

Nakamura then won the Chess960 that closes out each section to make the score 6.0-3.0 going into the 3+2. Besides bullet, the Chess960 games are becoming a Nakamura specialty, too -- today he went 3-0, and even against Carlsen in the finals last year he won 2.5/3.

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With matching beards and matching expressions, the two players were best differentiated by the scoreboard.

The two traded blows in the three-minute segment. Grigoriants notched his first few wins, but since White won each of the first five games, the contender didn't cut into the lead at all.

Here's his first full point, which came after Nakamura mistakenly entered a worse king-and-pawn ending.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ending was born from the Berlin Defense. Before today, three of those dozen wins Grigoriants had against Nakamura on Chess.com came from the same.

"It would be kind of boring if we would just play Berlin," the sporting Grigoriants said afterward. They played only three today, where Grigoriants scored one win and two draws.

Just after his first loss, Nakamura got the point back with a practical idea: offering a piece for two connected passers.

Then in game 15, another Berlin. It seemed the trading of wins as White would continue for a sixth game in a row, but Nakamura got all the farmers off the board and held the pawnless ending.

With Nakamura enjoying a 12.0-6.0 lead going into the bullet (1+1), many GM observers left the chat. Grigoriants almost made them look silly as he won the first game and then was up a pawn in the second. That's when a missed zwischenzug turned the game around and Nakamura ended any heroics.

The tactic was almost the inverse of GM Viswanathan Anand's missed opportunity in game six of his rematch with Carlsen in 2014. Nakamura didn't let history repeat itself.

What's even more notable about the game? Thanks to the one-second increment, Nakamura finished with 1:06 on his clock. That means 42 moves in 36 seconds.

The only other time that Chess.com staffers could recall a player in this series winning a game with more time that he started with was also courtesy of Nakamura.

Fans found out afterward he was jamming. Nakamura's head was bobbing in the bullet not just from him piling on wins, but also from the Arkells. No, the 2008 English Champion was not allowed to assist, but the Canadian rock band from Ontario was. He played them from his phone.

The Arkells "11:11" would be a dream score for nearly anyone facing GM Hikaru Nakamura. Unfortunately for GM Sergey Grigoriants, the final today was 20.5-7.5.

The remainder of the match essentially only counted for coin. Prize money is split based on final score, and Nakamura added to his war chest with every button click. 

By using Larsen's Opening as White and the Alekhine as Black, he won the final seven games, six on time, to make the final margin two games larger than his semifinals win over GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave last year.

"It is clear that Hikaru is just faster and another kind of processor," Grigoriants said.

Nakamura thus took home $1732.14 and Grigoriants $267.86 (Grigoriants had already won $500 for his Titled Tuesday qualification win last month).

"I didn't play really well until the bullet or the end of the three-minute," Nakamura said.

The next Speed Chess Championship first-round match will be May 24 with Sergey Karjakin vs. Georg Meier at 10 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central Europe.

The full schedule, rules, prizes, and more can be found at the link below:

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