Nakamura Dominant In Highest-Rated Death Match Ever

Nakamura Dominant In Highest-Rated Death Match Ever

In a battle of the top two Americans, GM Hikaru Nakamura's better start and superior bullet chess skills proved too much for the younger GM Wesley So, a recent transfer to the U.S. Chess Federation.

Like the previous Death Match, this 30th edition showed extreme celerity and produced 33 games, tied for the most since Death Match 14. After a spate of recent close battles, the final margin of 21.5-11.5 is tied for the third-largest margin in the contest's history. (The record holder is actually So, who won Death Match 7 by 14 points!)

"Today will be a big honor playing him," So said prior to the match. "I'm excited. I'm also kind of nervous." He said he planned to play main lines and let Nakamura play the more extravagant openings.

Nakamura, the highest-rated active blitz and bullet player on Chess.com, won the 5+1 portion convincingly. The opening five games produced 4.5 points and although So stabled himself with four draws at the end of the 75-minute segment, he nonetheless was left without a win in the slowest time control.

GM Hikaru Nakamura was born the same year Red Bull was invented -- 1987.

So's first win actually came with help from some outside forces. In game 10, the second of the 3+1, Nakamura disconnected in a better position, resulting in a loss.

The match clock was briefly paused, and when play resumed, So used the good fortune to gain some legitimate wins and finish on an equal 4.5-4.5 for the segment.

After a short burst in the bullet, Nakamura siphoned off the comeback. So got as close as -3, then Nakamura took four straight to open up an insurmountable lead.

The winner used an offbeat 1. d4 system with an early Bf4 and Nc3. After the match, Nakamura explained that this was part of his preparation from recent accelerated time control events.

GM Wesley So and his big winner's check at the first Millionaire Open (photo courtesy Billy Johnson).

"I played it recently in London (Chess Classic) in the rapids," Nakamura said. "I got the inspiration in the match with Levon (Aronian)...The system was good. It definitely worked."

He said that if it had not been as effective, he may have switched away, but he used some variation of it in his first seven games as White, only switching away after So's first (non-disconnect) win against it. The opening game was perhaps the most convincing usage.

Nakamura's repertoire as Black was nearly as static. He played the main line Berlin Wall every time So opened with 1. e4, until So briefly switched to the queen pawn an hour into the match (which was answered by the Dutch).

Nakamura said the choice of opening was made in the moment and not prior to the match.

So said he expected the Berlin but Nakamura still finished above .500 in the match using the opening. In game two, Nakamura followed up a small tactic by nearly blundering his rook, then played tight defense to hold the draw.

"I was a little bit unhappy I didn't win at the start (of round two)," he said. "I feel the match would have ended there almost."

"I didn't see a clear win," So said. "That was my plan -- to win those types of endgames."

After round four, a win in the Berlin and Nakamura's third in the first four games, commentator GM Irina Krush said, "I've seen good players before, but I've never seen someone play blitz like Hikaru...When he's playing a normal GM it's like watching an adult play a toddler."

In another frustrating game, So had better chances against Nakamura's tripled e-pawns but again Nakamura's defensive acumen was up to snuff. It could be argued that Nakamura's draws in worse endings were as impressive as his wins.

The most entertaining game of the 5-minute block came in round eight after the switch to the Dutch. Both kings landed in peril before a repetition saved So.

Hikaru stretched his lead to +5 by winning another Dutch to open the 3+1 before a disconnection cost him his first loss in game 11. He was playing the match from Naples, Italy.

So used that small momentum to win three more times in the segment, the first of which came after a fatal blunder by Nakamura on his final move.

In game 15, yet again Nakamura held a worse ending. This time his knight and lone pawn were just enough to hold off So.

For the second half of the 3-minute games, the openings varied much more: a Spanish with 3...g6, the Veresov Attack, a Dragon.

Onward to the bullet, Nakamura played exclusive Indian systems -- variations on the Modern/Pirc as Black and King's Indian Attacks (with a 1. d3 move order!) as White.

"Once we hit bullet my idea is to just avoid theory," Nakamura said.

Here's the opening bullet game, number 19 overall.

So then cut the distance behind to three games by winning the next two, including this fun contest in game 20 where he held off an armada of pawns.

Nakamura said afterward that losing two games in a row in bullet might have produced a different emotion were this not a match. He said he needed to be less visceral and "stop the bleeding."

His speed came to the forefront shortly after, in a game that Nakamura said was So's best chance to get back in the match. Instead Nakamura won game 22 with 50 seconds remaining and game 23 with an astounding 59 seconds left (thanks to the one-second increment per move). Here's that blistering pace on display:

So's final win of the match came after a pretty king walk. Interestingly, he castled in 31 out of the 33 games, whereas Nakamura castled in only 22 contests. Maybe not taking care of your king was the secret to the match!

Nakamura then won games 30-32 before a final round draw ended the match. Here an extra rook couldn't save So.

Despite winning the bullet 10.5-4.5, Nakamura's online bullet rating fell from 3070 to 3049.

You can replay all of the games from Nakamura's game history on Chess.com.

Nakamura won $750 ($500 for the overall win and $250 for winning two segments and tying one). So took home $250.

"Bullet -- I enjoy being the best at it," Nakamura said. "But it's not a measure of what counts in chess...It would be nice if there was a bullet world championship."

GM Hikaru Nakamura is the only active player above 3000 on Chess.com's bullet ratings list.

When asked how he sees tactics so fast in bullet, he said, "I think it's just the tempo of the game. The big advantage I have is that I can guess the moves my opponent is going to play, so I'm already ahead a move or two."

So agreed. "He can calculate very quickly. If he gets an advantage, it's over...I look at the time -- I have 20 seconds and he has 55. It was hard. Hikaru's a legend in online chess.

"Now I now how Ray (Robson) feels...I have to give Ray a call to make myself feel better."

GM Wesley So (right) is now 1-1 in Death Matches. He crushed former roommate GM Ray Robson (left) in Death Match 7 in 2012.

"I think I should have won the match by a bigger margin overall, but a win's a win," Nakamura added.

The two teammates (So coached the U.S. at the Olympiad last year) surprisingly had never played a blitz game either online or in person prior to yesterday's match.

What about the small disagreement the two had about food choices in St. Louis in their pre-match interviews?

So, playing from Minnesota where his family lives, began the match before noon local time and fueled with coffee and a fruit shake. Nakamura began the match at 6 p.m. in Italy and said he ate a "big lunch but it was quite a few hours ago."

Here was his New Year's Eve feast:

They have only played once previously over the board, a draw in Wijk aan Zee, but chess fans may see that number double soon. Nakamura said he planned to play in the 2015 U.S. Championship if it does not conflict with the FIDE Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia which begins May 13.

Organizers in St. Louis traditionally hold the event in May, but with the Women's World Team Championship in China in the latter half of April, they have said they may host the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship in early April to avoid all conflicts.

So said he wants to play in the U.S. Championship but is clearing up his eligibility with organizers and USCF officials.

The match also set some records for Chess.com. More than 4,000 viewers tuned in to the live broadcast at the peak (including world number two GM Fabiano Caruana) and exactly 21,500 users logged in to the Chess.com live server midway through the match (breaking the site's previous high by more than 1,000 users). The complete show will be archived soon on Chess.com.

Krush's final question to Nakamura: would he accept an invitation to play a Death Match versus GM Magnus Carlsen if the triple world champion agreed? Nakamura said yes.

Break out the boxing gloves? Nakamura said he would play Carlsen in a future Death Match.
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