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Nakamura, So Lead After Seesaw Day 1 Ultimate Blitz

Nakamura, So Lead After Seesaw Day 1 Ultimate Blitz

If the 2016 U.S. Championship was a slow-moving glacier, the first day of the Ultimate Blitz Challenge event was more like four super-GMs stabbing each other with icicles.

All four suffered gashes at some point. At the end of the nine games, GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So both scored a modest plus-one to lead. Their 5.0/9 is a half-point ahead of former world champion GM Garry Kasparov (4.5/9) and further back is current U.S. Champion GM Fabiano Caruana (3.5/9).

Graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.

The quartet will play nine more games tomorrow for the total prize fund of $50,000. The time control is G/5 with a three-second delay. The lack of increment meant time scrambles were aplenty.

The imperfect day created a buzz in the online community who followed the event, and also proved the humanness of each of the elite players. Each had their tribulations.

So lost his first two games, after which Nakamura dropped three straight. Caruana went 0-3 in the third round robin. The largest blunders of the day, however, came from Kasparov. He hung three knights, and it could have been four were it not for a gracious act by Nakamura -- more on that in round two's coverage.

GM Fabiano Caruana shortly after receiving his winner's check at the 2016 U.S. Championship.

Since the games offered so much back-and-forth action, we won't parse out which ones to include. Here are all 18 games as they unfolded, with the key moment(s) in each highlighted.

Round 1

Kasparov trotted out the Scotch against So, one of the 53-year-old's favorite tools from his world championship matches. He also went on play it today in his first meetings with Nakamura and Caruana (scoring 2.5/3 in total).

He got a "flying wing" of pawns with two chains pointed toward the center. White finally achieved a winning margin after 20...f6? when Kasparov found a cute trick.

Right from the start we saw Nakamura's speed on display against Caruana. The blitz maven wasn't necessarily faster in the opening, but in most cases where both players were reduced to only seconds, he continually picked up points in the melees. 

(To see a display of Nakamura's prowess, check out Chess.com's Facebook page for two bullet games he played with GM Eric Hansen at the U.S. Championship closing ceremony.)

GM Hikaru Nakamura displayed fantastic sportsmanship today. (Photo: Lennart Ootes.)

In the opening game, a bad blunder with 45...Qxf8+? was overcome when Caruana's dwindling time caused him to panic and go into a losing king-and-pawn ending.

Round 2

Kasparov went to the well again in the second round, unveiling another signature opening. Not only did he treat admirers to a King's Indian Defense, but Nakamura "played along" with the main line Mar del Plata variation. Kasparov tried a maneuver that he wasn't using much in the 1990s, 13...c5.

The game was one of the cleanest of the afternoon, until it became the most intriguing of the day based on a single move.

"I'm quite certain he let it go," GM Yasser Seirawan said, and multiple replays proved that was correct. Despite some initial confusion as to the rule, Seirawan spoke with chief arbiter IA Tony Rich during a break and confirmed that by rule Kasparov was not supposed to be allowed to retract his move since it had been determined.

This of course all brings to mind two famous but different incidents involving the same two players. On Kasparov's 36th move (also a knight!) against GM Judit Polgar in Linares, 1994, many say he released and retracted it from c5. There was also Nakamura's ill-fated king move at the Candidates' against GM Levon Aronian.

Nakamura said afterward that he was aware that Kasparov had originally released the knight on b4. "We all know what happened on a certain move," he said. "I had to give Garry the benefit of the doubt...It's Garry after all. Maybe I'm not taking this event as serious as he is. You hate to see a game decided by a blunder like that."

"I wasn't sure [if I released the piece]," Kasparov said about the moment it happened. "I looked at the arbiter. It's very difficult in blitz to say if you let go of the piece."

He said that when neither the arbiter or Nakamura complained, he simply continued.

"I felt that it's in the spirit of the event," Nakamura said.

With one board displaying a King's Indian Defense, the other unearthed a King's Indian Attack.

Round 3

So got on the board for the first time, derailing Nakamura with what would turn out to be his opponent's first of two errant queen sorties on the h-file. Here's the shortest game of the day, thanks to Black overlooking the strong 18th:

Kasparov's second Scotch was watered down this time. Caruana was bartending.

At the end of the first cycle, Kasparov led with 2.0/3. Caruana and Nakamura trailed at 1.5/3 and So was in last with 1.0/3.

Seirawan showed his prescience at the close of this opening round robin that portended much of the rest of the day: "I predict there will be a horrifying blunder by each and every player."

GM Garry Kasparov was all smiles a few days ago, but today his facial contortions ranged from anguished to tormented to relieved, sometimes all in one round.

Round 4

So faced Kasparov's Grünfeld, and as is common, Black went snatching pawns. All was going swimmingly for the former champion, except his clock. Down three minutes to one minute, he ran into an iceberg with a single move.

Kasparov immediately pinched the area near his tear ducts and shook So's hand. 

GM Wesley So now has what few do: A lifetime winning record against Kasparov. (Photo: Lennart Ootes.)

Caruana took out Nakamura in a well-played positional grind to get even for round one. Like his last turn with Black, Nakamura's queen went dancing without a partner.

Round 5

In an opening with curiously long protracted thinks, it was Nakamura's time to face Kasparov's Scotch. The move 17...c5 created a lasting weakness, and Kasparov's hundreds of games with Karpov showed during this round.

The loss was Nakamura's third straight, but that didn't last long. In the post-first-day interviews, he said how important it was to "stop the bleeding" when playing many rounds of blitz without much interruption (players only had one to two minutes in between most games).

Also in round five, Caruana and So drew after White found a curious fortress late in the game. So claimed a triple occurrence of position, which Rich studied and quickly upheld.

Round 6

Nakamura began his comeback at the end of the second cycle. Against So, on move number two a Trompowsky followed. Ninety-four moves later, Nakamura had outplayed another opponent in a mutual time scramble. Like Caruana in round one, So should have settled for a draw instead of pushing with the seemingly better position.

Caruana and Kasparov drew, but don't let the tame result fool you. Kasparov said afterward that the inability to win this one stung.

"I was quite upset missing a win against Caruana with the black pieces," he said. 

One of the most expressive men in chess, even after all these years. (Photo: Lennart Ootes.)

Kasparov rocked back and forth after the pleasing 29...e3! He then had an extended pause before 34...Re3+. It wasn't exactly "long think, wrong think" but he did have simpler measures.

At the end of the second rotation, Caruana and Kasparov led with 3.5/6 and Nakamura and So both had 2.5/6.

Round 7

So benefitted from another catastrophic Kasparov blunder -- another wayward knight (So was again up on the clock, so his celerity did contribute)! Counting his aborted knight move against Nakamura, the veteran hung three separate knights on the day.

Prior to the misstep, Kasparov's first knight offer was quite intentional, and brilliant:

"I don't blunder cheap!" Kasparov joked about his repeated errors.

Nakamura went all-out in the opening, but achieved little. Once again, his blitz acumen saved him in the endgame. The longer the games of the first day, the more useful his speed became.

Talk about parity -- the resulting wins by the two tail-enders meant that all four players went into the final two games tied at 3.5/7.

Round 8

Nakamura won his third straight, completely erasing the triple losses in rounds 3-5. Kasparov's Benoni by transposition created one of the wildest games of the day.

The student took a long time against his past teacher on 29. f4, a correct expansion. Then things went south as White battled the b-pawn. Several swings and then Kasparov committed the final blunder by not taking the knight on d8.

So won again, as Caruana played the King's Indian Attack for the second time against him.

The books say this is the "Pachman" System, and if that's true the black rooks were the ghosts to Caruana's wandering Pac-Man king. Blinky and Pinky had some fun:

Round 9

Kasparov abandoned his Scotch and opted to dine on a Viennoiserie. As is typical, the f-file was the place to party. Caruana nearly battled back, but Kasparov hung on to this one.

Nakamura and So, the two leaders, drew when White couldn't make enough weaknesses with his minor pieces.

At the close of day one, Nakamura and So both caught a second wind to lead with 5.0/9. Kasparov trails closely with 4.5/9 and Caruana is fourth at 3.5/9.

"It was more or less going normally until I lost three in a row," Caruana said about his shutout in the final cycle.

"I was fighting for my life," So said, adding that he doesn't have much experience playing top-level blitz events. After an 0-2 start, he admitted that "I was thinking I might finish with zero out of nine."

The youngest player, So said that playing Kasparov made him nervous. "He's still got that monstrosity in him."

"My play was not very good today," Nakamura said. "The positions I had were not very inspiring...I certainly think I can do better tomorrow."

Uh oh. He's thinking and his watch is on! Time to resign, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay.

What of Kasparov, who after retiring more than a decade ago is facing his strongest competition? He said that his post-retirement matches with Anatoly Karpov and Nigel Short didn't compare to these players. "It's nine games and each game is kind of a show," Kasparov said. He said he tired late in the day. "I'm quite pleased with what I did."

To watch day two's live commentary Friday, tune in to the official site at 1 p.m. Central Time, or watch at www.Chess.com/TV. Three more cycles (nine more games by each player) will take place on the second day.

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