Magnus Carlsen Invitational: Nakamura knocks out Caruana

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
5/2/2020 – Hikaru Nakamura is the first finalist of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. The American defeated his compatriot Fabiano Caruana 4:2 after drawing in the four-game rapid section and winning both blitz tiebreakers. Nakamura will face either Carlsen or Ding Liren, who will play the other semi-final on Saturday. Round-up show by GM Yannick Pelletier. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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A thrilling confrontation

There was no better way to kick off the knockout phase of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. The all-American clash between Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana was filled with excitement, drama and intrigue — all elements that rapid-chess advocates use to make their case when confronted by those favouring classical time controls.

As Peter Svidler put it once the match was over, Nakamura's expertise on the online medium was key for his victory:

Experience prevails in the end. In terms of online chess, Hikaru is miles ahead in volume of games played.

It was not easy, though. Two draws in which both players missed some chances were followed by a win for 'Naka'. Caruana then tied the score by winning on demand in what was the most dramatic game of the day, and the tiebreaker rounds began. Unlike the round-robin phase, the knockout tiebreaks include two sets of blitz games (5'+3") before sudden-death. Nakamura won the first two blitz encounters to get his pass to the final.

Known for his quick-play skills, Nakamura confessed he feels extra pressure when participating in this kind of events:

Maybe I shouldn't say this, 'cause it helps my opponents a bit, but I feel that whenever I play these blitz or rapid events I feel this great pressure that I always have to finish first or basically play Magnus in the final match, and if I don't do that I feel that I've failed in a way.

Magnus Carlsen Invitational 2020

The rapid phase: Caruana wins on demand

Every time Caruana played white throughout the match, he employed the Italian Opening. Given the fact that Nakamura had no trouble neutralizing with black, the commentators quipped that 'Naka' speaks better Italian than his opponent, who in fact holds dual citizenship from Italy and the United States. The only draw when Caruana had white came in game one — he lost twice thereafter.

In game two, a tense position with queen, rook and bishop versus queen, rook and knight also ended peacefully, while the first one to get ahead on the scoreboard was Nakamura, who later mentioned that he was proud of his win in game three. 'Naka' thought his opponent had missed 26...Nh4:


After 26...Nh4 27.Nxh4 Qxh4 White is left with a bad knight on g3, while Black is in position to make the most of his bishop-pair advantage. Nakamura showed good technique until getting a 41-move win.

Caruana was in a must-win situation with black, and understandably played the King's Indian Defence. White got the usual space advantage and strong central control, but as Nakamura pointed out later "Black's ideas are very obvious". Caruana kept waiting for his chance to get something tactically, which came on move 33:


Black gained a pawn with 33...Nxe4, using the discovered attack on the h4-bishop. A couple of moves later, the computer shows Nakamura had managed to equalize, but playing such a position in rapid after having obtained a superior setup out of the opening is never easy. The balance tipped in Black's favour quickly and Caruana eventually got the all-important win. The match was going to tiebreaks, and Nakamura was visibly frustrated:

All games - Rapid


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Blitz tiebreaker: Ups and downs

Once again Nakamura started with black, got a comfortable position out of the opening and failed to make to most of it. Suddenly, Caruana blundered:


After having survived a very uncomfortable position in the middlegame, Caruana had managed to get the upper hand by creating threats against Black's king. At this point, he was the one in possession of the positional trumps, and could have kept his opponent tied to defence with 47.f3. 

The whole game had been extremely tense, though, which explains why the world number two blundered with 47.Rxc6 — he thought that after 47...Qxc6 he had mate with Nf6 and Qh7, forgetting about Black's knight on f8. Nakamura captured the rook and celebrated his rival's blunder, releasing the tension that had mounted in the last two encounters.

'Naka' kept things under control — by online-blitz standards — in the rematch, and eventually got another win, securing a spot in the final. World champion Magnus Carlsen was among the commentators when the match came to an end, and declared:

It's absolutely deserved. No doubt about that.

Caruana tweeted shortly after:

All games - Blitz


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Round-up show

GM Yannick Pelletier analysed the action of the day

All games - Round-robin section


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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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