Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz: Nakamura does it again

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/16/2018 – Hikaru Nakamura triumphed at the Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz leg of the Grand Chess Tour with a round to spare and landed at the top spot in the overall standings of the tour with 33 points. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave scored 6½ from the final nine blitz games of the tournament to top the section, just outpacing Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at the finishing line to place himself second in the tour with 25 points. His score of 13½/18 in the Blitz was a whopping three points more than Nakamura, who finished second on 10½. V. SARAVANAN's report includes a full pictorial look at the final day. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

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Nakamura’s play in the blitz was steady, if not spectacular, scoring 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:


Mamedyarov held the upper hand for most of the game, but Nakamura was rewarded for his fighting spirit. After 45.Kd3?? Rb1 46.Rg1 Rb3 47.Ke4 the white bishop got trapped.

Nakamura’s game against Mamedyarov, which gave him the overall title with a round to spare — needless to say, it was intently watched | Photo: V. Saravanan

The final moments of the deciding game:

To theory or not to 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:


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-Lagrave in the 13th round, in the Frenchman's pet Najdorf:


Play the moves on the live diagram!

Vachier-Lagrave has boldly gone for a theoretical melee, where black has to be careful with his kingside while pursuing the white king himself. This is a known position played in earlier games though not in the top level, and 15.Be2 is the best move here, as played before and also as suggested by engines. And it is precisely such positions that one doesn’t enter unless you know your openings inside out.

Here, Aronian uncorked 19.Qxf4!? Qc7 20.0-0-0 Rfc8. A few moves later:


Suddenly Vachier came up with 23…Bxa2?! (Looks nice optically, but nothing comes out of it) 24.Kxa2 b3 25.Kb1 a3 26.cxb3 Qa5? (Better was 26…axb2 but after 27.Qd2 it isn’t clear what Black has) 27.Qd2! and White was already winning, prompting an excited Maurice Ashley to shout in the live commentary, “This is unreal! … Vachier’s head is in his hands! … I have my doubts about this!” A clear case of a game lost without much of a fight, against an unexpected new move on the board, even in a position which is a player’s own speciality. 


However, continuing from yesterday, Vachier-Lagrave continued to be precise in his conversions in the endgame. Samples:


Black has an extra pawn, but White has two bishops against two knights. Who could take a guess how the game would go? The Frenchman won, of course.


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 — his pawn majority on the queenside is ineffective due to the doubled pawns, while White can create a passed pawn on the kingside. Watch Maxime's precision here:


33.Nxg7! (A precise move!) 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 played 33.Nxg7! To calculate with such precision in blitz earns our whole praise and respect for the Frenchman) Rg8 (36…Rxg3 37.Kf2 wins the white bishop) 37.Kf2 with a winning position.

Vachier-Lagrave in his characteristic pose, even during Blitz. The Frenchman showed amazing consistency to score 6½ on the final day | Photo: V. Saravanan


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 did not start the day too well and fell for the following beauty:


Here came 38.Rxd5 cxd5 39.Bxd7 Kb8 40.Qd6 1-0

True to blitz chess, there were countless instances of chaos. Some samples:


White is a healthy exchange up, when the 'wily old pro' in Anand decided to make it difficult for his rival with 37…Bd3 38.Ree1 Qb6 39.Rd2? b4?! (39…Rd8) 40.Be4?? Rd8 and White loses material.

Anand had his second, Polish GM Grzegorz Gajewski, joining him from Wednesday| Photo: V. Saravanan


One can trust Grischuk to cook up wild tactics, and that is precisely 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.

Grischuk has the most striking board presence of all the players here. And worse, he sometimes flexes his muscles too! | Photo: V. Saravanan

But probably the most dramatic twin turnaround of the day was the following game:


White is a healthy pawn up and doing well. In a moment of rare blindness, Mamedyarov played 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. White went on to win.

Being such an intense event of nine games at a stretch in a single afternoon, the players tend to relax and enjoy each other's company – Vachier-Lagrave, Gajewski, Anand and Karjakin while waiting for the next game to start | Photo: V. Saravanan

Mamedyarov again benefitted from a big oversight in the following position:


In a perfectly level position, an ambitious Caruana came up with 42…Ke8?? 43.Nb5 1-0

Caruana is another guy with perfectly controlled emotions on the board | Photo: V.Saravanan

…and Leinier Dominguez | Photo: V. Saravanan


Even the champion cannot contain emotions most of the time | Photo: V.Saravanan

Anand looks perfectly balanced on the board, till you notice his hands towards the end of the blitz games | Photo: V.Saravanan

Talking of hands, So has a strange Albatross hold on the board once in a while! | Photo: V. Saravanan

And continuing in the counter-to-Red Bull stories, So held Nakamura to a draw with a perfect counter strategy on Wednesday! | Photo: V. Saravanan

Closing ceremony

Final combined standings

Final blitz standings


Games and commentary - Day 5


Commentary by Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Jennifer Shahade

All rapid games and commentary

Scroll through the complete list of games, or select any video from the playlist below.


Commentary by Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Jennifer Shahade


Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.


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