Nakamura Beats Karjakin; Will Play Carlsen In Speed Chess Final
Hikaru Nakamura qualified for the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship final on January 3, where he will meet Magnus Carlsen. On Saturday, Nakamura defeated Sergey Karjakin in a tight match with lots of draws.
It's not for nothing that Carlsen and Nakamura are known to be the two best speed chess players on the planet. For the second year in a row, the two stars qualified for Chess.com's final—in the 2016 GM Blitz Battle, and now in the 2017 Speed Chess Championship.
The final will be on January 3 at 10 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. New York, 7 p.m. Central Europe.
The last two Russian participants were eliminated in the semifinals: Carlsen knocked out Alexander Grischuk last month, and yesterday Nakamura defeated Karjakin. The score was 16.5-13.5 after a close match that saw the highest drawing percentage in Speed Chess history: 63.3 percent (11 out of 30 games were decisive).
It was Karjakin, the slight favorite in the 5|2 portion according to Chess.com metrics, who started with a win. A look in the database revealed that the players actually repeated the opening they had on the board in the 2017 Norway Chess tournament.
Karjakin outplayed his opponent and played a fairly good game, although at the end it showed that both players needed to warm up a bit. (They were also low on time there.)
Not surprisingly, Nakamura opened 1.b3 in his first white game. He would do so for all his white games throughout the match, except one. There he played 1.Nf3 and 2.b3.
"I basically was gonna start with that, and if it didn't really work, then I would probably switch to something else," Nakamura said. Since he kept his lead for almost the entire match, he "didn't see the point" changing it.
The American player immediately leveled the score. "I'm just gonna outplay my opponent," said the commentator Robert Hess on Nakamura's strategy.
Nakamura combined his pressure along the f-file with a very active rook on the b-file, which Karjakin had invited to the party himself:
When the third game saw another London System, Hess remarked: "Haven't they spent enough time in London?"
The commentator IM Danny Rensch shared with the audience that Nakamura had decided to stay a bit longer in the UK capital after the London Chess Classic, and played from a hotel room there.
This game ended in a draw, and then Nakamura won the next game to take the lead. Karjakin's intuition failed him for a moment when he put his rook on d7, losing critical coordination:
A streak of eight consecutive draws followed, including the Chess960 game that ended the 5|2 segment and the first 3|2 game. Your author didn't check all Death Matches, GM Blitz Battles and Speed Chess matches, but wouldn't be surprised if this were the longest streak without decisive games so far.
Results 5|2 games
In the second 3|2 game, Nakamura increased his lead to two points. From an Isolated Queen's Pawn position he somehow gained the initiative as Black, and eventually reached a rather common rook endgame with an extra (passed) pawn on the queenside.
The win was rather instructive as it seemed a draw from the start ("If he had a classical time control he was holding that game," said Hess about Karjakin) but maybe it was winning all the time?
Karjakin kept it close by winning the next, his first win in a long time. After the very first game the match, he hadn't won for 12 games in a row. It was the result of the type of blunder that you don't often see in Nakamura's games at this time control.
But Nakamura didn't let his opponent come back into the match completely. After holding the draw in his next black game, he won as White to make the lead two points again.
This one must have been a small psychological blow for Karjakin, who shouldn't have lost this endgame. The commentators were already calling it a draw when Karjakin weakened his kingside, and Nakamura suddenly spotted that the knight endgame was very promising.
After he won, Nakamura briefly peeked at the camera. Hess: "He is doing it for the fans, clearly."
The 3|2 segment ended with four draws. In the third (game 19, if you're keeping track!) Karjakin missed a golden chance to come back to a one-point deficit:
Results 3|2 games
The bullet (1|1) segment started with two draws, but then Karjakin won two games in a row. Suddenly the score was equal again! Was Nakamura's bullet prowess overrated?
Did Karjakin suddenly have a shot at the final?
Not really. Nakamura quickly got his act together and duly won two straight games and, after a draw, even a third. By dragging the time a bit in some of the remaining games (playing on in some very drawish positions, a tactic that has become rather common in the Speed Chess matches), he avoided a theoretical comeback for his opponent as the match clock simply wouldn't allow it.
Here's games 28, where Karjakin was fighting for his very last chance. After blundering a pawn, he knew he would never win this game, or the match:
Afterward Nakamura said: "I felt I played pretty fast throughout the bullet, but I didn't really convert a lot of positions that I should have. But obviously I was ahead; that always helps."
Results 1|1 games
Nakamura said he is looking forward to playing Magnus ("It's always fun to play Magnus!") and thinks he can improve a bit over last year: "If I used more time in certain situations or dragged a few games out longer the score and the margin probably wouldn't have been as wide. If I was losing or winning a game I tried to end the game as fast as possible and I think that cost me."
Mark your calendars for the final between Carlsen and Nakamura on January 3 at 10 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. New York, 7 p.m. Central Europe!