London Classic: Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave advance to Final

by Johannes Fischer
12/14/2018 – Hikaru Nakamura (pictured) and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave are considered two of the best rapid chess and blitz chess players in the world. In rapid Nakamura is rated number two and Vachier-Lagrave number six, while in blitz, 'MVL' is now number one — surpassing Magnus Carlsen — and Nakamura is number three. They will meet in the London Chess Classic finals after defeating Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian respectively. Here's how day 3 unfolded. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

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Rapid and blitz favours the Elo favourites

Since all four classical games in the semi-finals of the London Chess Classic ended drawn, both matches had to be decided on the basis of rapid and blitz chess. Two games of rapid and four of blitz were contested between the four Grand Chess Tour finalists in London. 

Semifinal 1:  Hikaru Nakamura vs Fabiano Caruana

Caruana is and remains the world's number two in classical chess, but going into today's play he was 13th in rapid and 16th in blitz on the world rankings, well behind Nakamura. At the start of their match in London, Nakamura arrived with a rapid Elo of 2844, 78 points ahead of Caruana, who entered with an Elo of 2766.

Even greater was the gap in blitz: Here Nakamura posted an Elo of 2889, a whopping 122 points more than Caruana's 2767. Still, one could expect that Caruana had worked on his rapid chess skills before the World Championship match against Carlsen, even if he failed to show it when it was most important.

Caruana shakes hands with Nakamura

Getting set to rumble | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

In the first of the two rapid games, it was Nakamura who, after a double-edged and complicated opening, took the initiative and increased the odds that he would be the first to score a full point. But Caruana remained cold-blooded and despite being down on the clock he defended a difficult endgame well. 

 

Here 50...Rh2 was a world-class move, reminiscent of his brilliant Ra2 move in the playoff against Wesley So that he won back in back in August to secure his berth in London. The idea is to keep White's king out of g2, where it could comfortable defend both the f2 and h3 pawns, and when the white rook grabs the pawn on a4 then Be5 threatens to exchange minor pieces. When Caruana finally ensured the draw he had only 7 seconds left on the clock. In the Grand Chess Tour, they play rapid with a 10-second delay, but no increment, so you always have 10 seconds, but never have any more additional time than your clock displays.

The second rapid game was a reversal of sorts for Caruana. In a variation of the Queen's Gambit accepted with Bf4 he was very well prepared and sped through his first 20 moves, even though the position was complicated and Nakamura had sacrificed a pawn. But at a crucial moment, Caruana seemed to have forgotten his preparation.

 

Caruana could have clearly gained an advantage with either 23.Nd4 or 23.Rc1. Instead, he quickly played 23.Rd1 and Nakamura managed to parry the white threats and push his pawns on the queenside forward. Things gradually went down hill for Caruana.

No luck in rapid for Fabiano Caruana | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour

Nakamura thus took a 4 point lead into the blitz portion of the day, and the writing was on the wall for Fabiano.

The rapid games

 

Nakamura was a clear blitz favourite, but in the first game, Caruana showed that he was going to go down swinging. An inaccuracy by Nakamura in the late middle game from a slightly worse position cost him first a pawn and then the game. Can you find Caruana's petit combinacion?

 

Try to guess Caruana's next two moves

Now 34...Bxd5 35.Rxd4 c4! won a pawn.

Now, Caruana was only two points behind in the overall competition, with still three blitz games to go. But Nakamura struck back and won the next two blitz games, thus winning the overall competition and qualifying for the final. The fourth blitz game had no sporting significance, but also went to Nakamura, who increased his blitz Elo to 2895.

The blitz games

 

Semifinal 2:  Levon Aronian vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

There was a somewhat smaller difference in ratings between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave: 16 points and 79 points in the two formats, both in the Frenchman's favour.

Levon and Maxime are good friends away from the board | Photo: Lennart Ootes

The rapid games of this semifinal mirrored the two games from the classical portion of the match: Aronian gained an advantage soon after the opening but found no way to turn his better position into a win. So the first game between Aronian and Vachier-Lagrave ended like all other five games of the semifinal in London: with a draw.

In the second rapid game, the picture changed: In a Berlin defence Aronian came under pressure soon after the opening and lost a lost a pawn shortly thereafter. He spent a lot of time looking for a good defence, but did not find one. Vachier-Lagrave gained an outside passed a-pawn and in contrast to Aronian, who was better for the first three games but could not win, Vachier-Lagrave was able to exploit his advantage, winning after 49 moves to take 4 point lead into the blitz competition.

The rapid games

 

Vachier-Lagrave's momentum continued into the first blitz game, which he won with Black putting Aronian in the unenviable position of having to win all three remaining blitz games to tie the score.

But it didn't take more than one more. In a double-edged endgame position, in which both sides had only seconds left on the clock, Aronian overlooked a knight fork and lost so the second blitz game and the match:

 

51...Nc6 is a must, but Aronian, unfortunately, placed his rook on d3: 51...Rd3 52.Ne5+ forced capitulation.

Vachier-Lagrave qualified to the finals and the remaining two games served to entertain the spectators. The players traded points, leaving the final tally in the match at 18:10 the same as the score between Nakamura and Caruana.

The blitz games

 

Vachier-Lagrave beats Aronian

Vachier-Lagrave advances | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Friday, December 14, is the one and only rest day, and on Saturday, the final matches begin, following the same format as the semifinals, with Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave battling to win the London Chess Classic, while Caruana and Aronian slug it out for third place.

Commentary webcast

At the end of the official English commentary, it was announced that a new tournament for the best women in the world would be held in February at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Modelled after the Sinquefield Cup, this new event will be called the Cairns Cup, in honour of Dr. Jeanne Sinquefield (whose maiden name is Cairns).

GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade, GM Cristian Chirila and GM Alejandro Ramirez

Cairns Cup

Mark your calendars!

Translation from German and additional reporting: Macauley Peterson

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Johannes was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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