A huge report on how Nakamura won the St. Louis Rapid And Blitz 2018!
After a lot of dramatic and exciting chess it was Hikaru Nakamura who came out at the top by winning his first Grand Chess Tour event on home soil. On the last day of the event Nakamura started steadily and scored 5.5/9 winning the 2018 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. He was under pressure by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who has been in great form recently and the MVL, who is famed for his rapid and blitz chess. But in the end Hikaru was just too strong as he strolled to the finish line with some power packed chess. V. Saravanan, who is present at the venue in Saint Louis sends you a detailed picture of what took place in the 3rd,4th and 5th Day. T his one of our longest reports!
The Rapid section of the Saint Louis leg of Grand Chess Tour was won by two players who stayed true their character and went for the title with aggression in their own way! One just wants to have fun at all costs, and the other believes in giving his fullest over the board.
After his loss to Caruana in an Open Spanish and a draw with Aronian in a Caro-Kann, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov chose to consistently ignore opening theory and strived for original positions in all the remaining 5 games, and he finished with a fantastic 4/5! Was it a conscious strategy on his part? Chatting up with ChessBase after the games, Mamedyarov was all dismissive about any such particular plans, “Nothing is important – just to have fun on the board is important, and that is what I did! For the Blitz part too, I do not have anything particular in mind. Once again, to have fun is the aim”. Great words?
What about Nakamura? How did he achieve this remarkable comeback after losing the very first game? “The most important thing is to tell yourself there are 8 more games left to play, a long way to go. And then not to rush into anything, and play simple, with balance. That’s what I did against Wesley So, and once I won that game, I felt fine”. Though his general demeanor is cool and relaxed, he transforms into this energetic, emotional and aggressive self over the board, almost not hiding his intentions. Is this natural for him? “Well, I am a professional, and I feel that over the board I should give my complete effort. Okay, someone like Fabiano can be emotionless and look the same in any kind of position, but I believe in giving my fullest, and for me that means to be aggressive and letting myself go completely”.
And when I remind him that Blitz is his forte and he is one of the best players in the world – he gently corrects me that there is another guy to whom ‘best in the world’ tag should go! – does he consider himself the favourite to win this event now? “Well, I do not want to assume anything, but if I play my normal game, and if everything starts well tomorrow, I shall be able to do well”. Very positive indeed!
Peter Svidler in his Russian commentary for the event – a pity for the English speaking world - is heard to have come up with the memorable lines on Mamedyarov: "If Mamedyarov didn't exist you'd have to invent him... without him the tournament would be much duller!" Looking at Shakh’s games of the day, we couldn’t agree more.
The most delightful game of the day was played by Mamedyarov, at the beginning of the day itself:
Round 7: Mamedyarov – Karjakin
8.Ng5 (a new move in the position?) h6 9.h4!? Of course, Shakh remains himself! This ability to play for initiative whenever he has the chance, is what has stood him in good stead in this event. From this point onwards, if you analyse the position using a chess an engine, black is supposed to have a clear advantage. The fact is, it doesn’t matter! A wise man once said that in faster time controls, safety of the king is extremely important, and Mamedyarov is living proof of exploiting this theory!
Shakh’s play paid dividends when Karjakin couldn’t withstand the pressure and erred with 15…d5?
16.Bg6! Again, played with great imagination! 16…hxg5 (forced) 17.hxg5 Ng8 18.Bh7 (missing the prettier 18.Nxd5! which doesn’t have much of a defence - idea is to play 19.Bxg7! Kxg7 20.Rxh7) 18…Nf6 (better was 18…d4 19.Bxg8 Bxg5 20.Bxf7 dxc3 21.Bxc3 and white’s attack is lethal) 19.gxf6 and white went on to win.
Nakamura too gave an early warning of his intentions, and his play against Vachier in the 7th round was a case of perfect harmony on the chess board:
Round 7: Nakamura – Vachier-Lagrave
29.Nh1! Beautiful! The knight’s on its way to f5. Hikaru can be proud of this move in any format of the game, leave alone producing it in rapid chess. In the words of the first world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, this can be termed as ‘coiled spring strategy’, retreating a piece to the first rank before unleashing it on the world. Or in ancient Tamil wisdom, ‘a Tiger crouches first, always to jump on its pray next’! (In this particular case, it was the horse instead of a tiger). He went on to convert his advantage quite easily after this.
Round 9: Nakamura – Dominguez
Once again, in a harmless looking position, Hikaru’s admirable nuance now: 22.Qa3! a5 23.Re7 Rb8 24.Rae1 and slowly he turned the screws on the Cuban, based on this control of the e-file.
Being close behind the leader Caruana after day 2, Vachier suffered his 2nd loss of the day to Aronian, who performed the most impressive swindle of the day in the 8th round. Vachier seemed to be showing character bouncing back and steadily built up a winning position:
Aronian - Vachier-lagrave, 8th round
In a position ripe for tactics, Vachier-lagrave came up with 28…Rc4! and for the apparently spectacular 29.Nc5, he had the retort ready 29…Rh2! And he certainly looked to be on top.
One of the erstwhile articles written about the Armenian sang his praise with the headline, “Levon Aronian and the art of slowmotion swindling”, and he showed just that. Just when everything seemed to have turned against him, he came up with a devilish trap:
Mere mortals may scramble to play the best moves with 30.Nxa4 Rxe2 31.Rxc4 bxc4 32.Rh1 and hope to salvage a draw from a difficult position. But Aronian came up with a devilish threat with 30.Qd3?! The point is that, Black has to make atleast two ‘only moves’ to net the point, and that is in the last stages of a rapid chess game low on time! Vachier did get it right with 30…dxc5 31.d6 Bxd6 32.Qd5?!+ (Here comes Aronian’s moment!)
Classic old school swindling! Here, 32..Kh8 was the only move to win, the point being that, there are no real tactics anymore: 33.Qxd6 is easily met with 33…Qc2+ 34.Ka1 Rxg4 with too much material. But Vachier blundered with 32…Kh7?? allowing 33.g6+ (This would not have been possible if the black king had been on h8) 33…Nxg6 34.Rg5 (Suddenly white is threatening a mate in one!) Qc2 35.Ka1 Kh6?? (35…Nf4 and the game goes on, though black is probably not winning anymore) 36.Rg2+ and Black had to part with his queen, and the game ultimately.
What had happened to the leader after the day-2, Fabiano Caruana?
7th Round: Caruana – Dominguez
Caruana was admirably aggressive so far – keeping the king in the centre and pursuing an all-out assault on the black king. And he got even bolder with 20.d5!? exd5 21.exd5 Nxd5 22.Qe6+ Kh8 23.Nh4 Nf4 24.Qe7 Qc3? 25.Qxb7 and white was on top.
Everything was going relatively fine, till the inexplicable happened:
54.Re7?? Qxe7 OUCH!! 0-1
Caruana went on to finish the tournament with two sedate draws against Anand and So.
After the resurrection of Mamedyarov and Nakamura in the final stages of the Rapid, it was Maxime Vachier-lagrave who came back with a vengeance in the first day of the Blitz leg at Saint Louis. In 9 games, Vachier scored an effortless 5 wins and 4 draws, a full 1.5 points ahead of Grischuk, and 2 points ahead of Mamedyarov & Nakamura, who were leading the combined standings jointly, overtaking Caruana.
What was behind Vachier’s such strong showing in Blitz? “Well, it depends on the day. My chess felt consistent from the start, almost till the end. And I used the momentum”, the modest Frenchman said, talking to ChessBase. But what did you do after yesterday, do gain this consistency? “I just tried to forget about yesterday. Thanks for reminding me about yesterday!”
Do you go to the board with the same attitude for Blitz, just like Rapid? “Oh, it’s very different. Rapid chess is probably closer to classical chess. Very traitorous I would say – there is enough time to think, but not like the classical games”.
He never seems to be emotional on the board even today through all the Blitz battles, just like classical or rapid – very controlled, he is the same! “I keep emotions inside, probably. I am definitely emotional during chess games. Just that I don’t have any reasons to show my opponents how I feel during the game!” And he turned up in a very casual T-shirt for the day which he considers as ‘cool’, in synergy with his mood…
Watching all his games while on play, one couldn’t help being impressed with his endgame technique. Consider the following positions:
Round 1: Anand – Vachier
Vachier’s conversion started briskly with 36…h4! and he went on to win the game after 37.gxh4 Kh6 38.Rc6 Kh5 39.c4? Ra4 -+
Round 5: Mamedyarov – MVL
Vachier achieved a beautiful zugzwang with 42…d4 43.Nf2 b6! 44.a3 a6! 45.a4 a5! 46.Kg7 Nxh5 -+
But just I was expecting such endgame prowess in every game, came the following middlegame precision:
Round 7: Vachier - Karjakin
30.Rg3! Nxc4 31.f6! (A nice intermezzo) Qe5 32.Rxg7 Kh8 33.bxc4 +-
Only in the final round of the day, did Vachier escaped thanks to the opponent’s blunder:
Round 9: Vachier – Nakamura
Black is probably winning, after 39…Ne8 40.Bd4 Kf8 and black’s a2-pawn is lethal. But Nakamura came up with 39…Nxd5?? 40.Rxd5 and the game was agreed drawn shortly.
Nakamura was involved in the most dramatic moment of the tournament, in his game against Mamedyarov:
Round 8: Nakamura - Mamedyarov
Black is completely winning, after the simple 37…Qg5 or 37…Rxa3. With seconds in his clock, Mamedyarov came up with the horrendous 37…e4?? 38.Qxd3 dropping the whole rook. A shocked Shakh lost all his control and banged on the table, realized his mistake, apologized immediately, and resigned. Blitz chess at its painful worst!
A considerable portion of the drama has been captured in the following video:
Mamedyarov must have been quite disappointed with this loss, as this proved to be costly in the final analysis, costing him the top finish in both blitz section of the day as well as the combined standings. He was especially happy to receive supporters from his native Azerbaijan, complete flags and scarves!
Another dramatic moment happened too, but only it came after the game! Wesley had a very rough day, and he finally won his first game in the 9th round, when Karjakin overstepped the time. The gesture of triumph from So had to be seen to be believed!
But it was quite difficult to imagine the plights of those who had a tough time in the tournament…
But we can say with certainty about someone who had an average tournament but who took it very cool all through!
Undoubtedly, Mamedyarov played with his characteristic sharpness, producing some of the most interesting ideas of the blitz section, just as in the Rapids:
7th round: Mamedyarov – So
18.dxc5!? Bxb2 19.Rxd8 Bxa1 20.Bh7 Kxh7 21.Rxf8 and Shakh won the game by confidently applying pressure in the resulting imbalanced position.
He reserved his best in the last round against Anand:
9th Round: Mamedyarov - Anand
15.Nd7!? Bxd7 16.Bxd6 Re8 17.Qf3 Nf5? 18.Be5 Ne4? (It was just not Vishy’s day!) 19.Bxd7 Qxd7 20.Nxd5 1-0 and it was the shortest win of the tournament.
Hikaru Nakamura triumphed at the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz leg of the Grand Chess Tour with a round to spare, and also landed at the top spot in the overall standings of the tour too, with 33 points. Maxime Vachime-Lagrave scored 6.5 from the final 9 blitz games of the tournament to top the section, just outwitted Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at the finishing line, to place himself 2nd in the tour with 25 points. His score of 13.5 out of 18 in Blitz was a whopping 3 points more than Nakamura who finished second on 10.5.
Nakamura’s play in the Blitz was steady, if not spectacular, scoring 5.5 out of 9 on the last day. However, what was important was that no one could overtake him the combined standings of Rapid and Blitz. The crowning glory of the tournament was his crucial win against Mamedyarov in the 17th round:
17th Round: Mamedyarov – Nakamura
Mamedyarov held the upper hand for most of the game, but Nakamura was rewarded for his fighting spirit when 45.Kd3?? Rb1 46.Rg1 Rb3 47.Ke4 and the white bishop got trapped.
To theory or not theory? It is an eternal double-edged sword in Blitz. On one hand, you are confident that your play is fundamentally sound, but you might be exposing yourself to an overzealous opponent who has an improvement, even in your own pet line. Or simply, he might find a glitch in your own favourite position, which might cost you dearly. And this is what happened to Aronian against Caruana:
11th Round: Aronian – Caruana
In a theoretical position which is definitely familiar to his opponent who plays the Petroff frequently, Aronian played 13.Qd5 (A new move) h6 14.Ne4 Be5 15.Bd3? (An uncharacteristic immediate error) Be6 16.Qb5 f5! and black is on top
But Aronian was able to turn the tables against Vachier in the 13th round, in the Frenchman’s pet Najdorf:
13th Round: Aronian – Vachier-lagrave
But Continuing from yesterday, Vachier continued to be precise in conversions in the end game. Samples:
11th Round: Grischuk – Vachier-lagrave
Black has an extra pawn, but White has two bishops against two knights. Who could take a guess how the game would go? Vachier won, of course.
Round 12: Vachier-Lagrave – Dominguez
Now came the breakthrough 29.e6! fxe6 30.Nfxe6 Nxe6 31.Rxd8 Kxd8 32.Nxe6+ Kd7 and White has achieved a considerable advantage, though the pawns are equal. This is a classical Berlin Defence going wrong for black – effectively, his pawn majority on the queenside is ineffective due to doubled pawns while white can create a passed pawn on the kingside. But watch Vachier’s precision here:
33.Nxg7! (Precision play!) Rg6 34.Nxh5 Bxf3 35.Nf4 Rg4 and now:
36.g3! (Fantastic! It is impossible to go into this whole variation unless you have seen this move, when you play 33.Nxg7! To calculate to such precision in Blitz, earns our whole praise and respect for the Frenchman) Rg8 (36…Rxg3 37.Kf2 ins the white bishop) 37.Kf2 with a winning position
Round 14: Vachier-Lagrave – Mamedyarov
White started with a good advantage in the rook endgame…
…expanded it considerably…
…and finally won with a nice little trick: 67.Rf8! 1-0
But even otherwise, Mamedyarov hadn’t started the day too well, and fell for the following beauty:
Round 11: Dominguez – Mamedyarov
Here came 38.Rxd5 cxd5 39.Bxd7 Kb8 40.Qd6 1-0
True to Blitz chess, there were countless instances of chaos. Some samples:
Round 12: So – Anand
White is a healthy exchange up, when the ‘wily old pro’ in Anand decided to make it difficult for White with 37…Bd3 38.Ree1 Qb6 39.Rd2? b4?! (39…Rd8) 40.Be4?? Rd8 and White loses material.
Round 12: Karjakin – Grischuk
One can trust Grischuk to cook up wild tactics, and that’s what he did here: 17…Bxg2?! (The simpler 17…Nf4 was good enough for a large advantage) 18.Bxg6!? Nf4 19.Bxf7+ Rxf7 and black went on to win.
But probably the most dramatic twin turnaround of the day was the following game:
Round 12: Mamedyarov - Aronian
White is a healthy pawn up, and doing well. In a moment of rare blindness, Mamedyarov went 32.Nd5?? Bxb2 33.g4 Rc1 and black was winning.
But Aronian soon returned the compliments in the course of the game:
41…Kg6?? 42.Rd6 and the pinned bishop ultimately got lost.
50…Ne4?? 51.Ra8 Kg7 52.Nh5 Kh7 53.Re8! and the pin is fatal. Black went on to win.
Mamedyarov again benefitted from a big oversight in the following position too:
Round 13: Mamedyarov – Caruana
In a perfectly level position, an ambitious Caruana came up with 42…Ke8?? 43.Nb5 1-0
About the Author:
Saravanan Venkatachalam is an International Master and has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, and has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s. He turned complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second and a trainer to a handful of Indian players. He reports on chess tournaments, occasionally being a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels. Apart from chess, he is also interested in Tamil and English literature, music and photography.
Firstpost and ChessBase India have tied up to bring you high quality chess news coverage. You can follow the Firstpost website for daily articles published by Saravanan on the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz and also Sinquefield Cup 2018.