MCT Finals: Exciting chess, Nakamura in the lead

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
8/19/2020 – Hikaru Nakamura is one set victory away from winning the Magnus Carlsen Tour Finals against the man himself, world champion Magnus Carlsen. Nakamura won set 5 in Armageddon after winning the second blitz tiebreaker on demand with the black pieces. | Photo: Niki Riga

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A great defender

Back in July 2016, Hikaru Nakamura defeated Magnus Carlsen in a classical game for the first time in his career. Not only had the American never defeated Carlsen, but he also had a terrible score against the Norwegian. As stated in the ChessBase report from that game in Bilbao, “Carlsen played too aggressively and an unimpressed Nakamura countered”. Four years later, it is still Nakamura’s great defensive skills which allowed him to get ahead on the scoreboard against the world champion. Nakamura explained:

I feel that’s one thing I’ve done really well in this match — when I’ve gotten a bad position, I’ve found a way to make a lot of good moves. [...] I think that’s the main difference that has been going on in this match, that I’ve been defending and just always finding the best moves. Frankly, I’ve had a lot of experience with many, many, many bad positions against Magnus, so it’s kind of fitting in a way.

The other big factor has been time management, with Carlsen often spending a long time reflecting on critical — or sometimes not that critical — positions, while Nakamura uses what he dubbed as a ‘semi-Nepo approach’. The American said:

Nepo, when it comes to rapid games especially, he doesn’t always play the best moves, but he plays moves where he gets ahead on the clock. [...] I know with all of us, myself included, it’s very uncomfortable.

The approach has been working out for ‘Naka’, who is a set victory away from defeating the world champion in what has so far been a thrilling matchup. An eventual triumph would only add to Nakamura’s success in the last semester, as he recently got over 500k followers on Twitch, a testament to his incredible work ethic and good rapport with the fans.

Magnus Carlsen Tour Finals 2020

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Nakamura 4 : 3 Carlsen

The first set of the final to reach Armageddon was also the first one in which all four rapid games finished drawn. Nakamura started the day playing white and was in deep trouble after missing Black’s unexpected pawn push on move 40:

 

Commentators Leko and Seirawan were both as surprised as Nakamura when Carlsen played the strong 40...g5+ — White cannot capture with 41.Kxg5 due to 41...Qh6+ 42.Kf5 g6+, while after 41.hxg5 Qe4+ the king is forced to escape to g3 instead of getting counterplay by going to g5, which is now occupied (that is why 40...g5+ was strong).

As mentioned above, Nakamura continued to defend as accurately as possible under the circumstances, posing problems to his opponent at every turn until saving a half point on move 54.

The remaining three draws were quite balanced.

In the first blitz tiebreaker, Carlsen showed he wanted to get away from long theoretical battles by playing the Alekhine Defence. Nakamura faltered out of the opening, but desperately tried to drum up counterplay against the black king. On move 28, he missed a chance to equalize the position:

 

Instead of 28.Rd3, White could have gone for the forcing 28.Bxg6 fxg6 29.Qxg6 Qf7 30.Qg5, and in case of 30...exd5, White can bring the knight to the attack with 31.Nd4 (the move Nakamura missed) and get enough firepower to force a draw by creating threats against Black’s king. Once this opportunity passed by, Nakamura never got chances to stop his opponent from winning the game.

All that Carlsen needed was a draw. Nakamura, as in his younger days, played the King’s Indian Defence and managed to get an imbalanced position in a must-win situation. Carlsen was not very accurate during the middlegame and allowed his opponent to get a strong pawn centre and the initiative. The world champion’s crucial mistake came on move 50:

 

50.f4 allows the forcing 50...Rg1+ 51.Kd2 Be3+ 52.Kxe3 Rxc1 53.fxe5 Re1+ 54.Kf3 Rxe5 and Black has a winning rook endgame two pawns up. Nakamura converted and took the set to Armageddon.

In the sudden-death decider, Nakamura quickly got the upper hand, at least insofar he showed he knew exactly how to face Carlsen’s opening choice and took away all of White’s one-minute advantage on the clock. The world champion never got any winning chances and ended up losing the game in 53 moves.

 

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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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