Hikaru Nakamura wins 3rd Speed Chess title

Hikaru Nakamura has won the chess.com Speed Chess
Championship after blowing Maxime Vachier-Lagrave away with a 7.5/8 burst at
the end. It was the 3rd Speed Chess title in a row for Hikaru, but the first
time he’d won the event when Magnus Carlsen played. Maxime showed the same level
of play that had enabled him to knock Magnus out in the semi-final, with the final
18.5:12.5 scoreline little reflection of the fierce battle we witnessed. Maxime
even took the lead in the bullet section, but summed up that Hikaru, “deserved
to win and played more consistently”.

You can replay all the games from the final of the 2020
Speed Chess Championship using the selector below.

And here’s the commentary on the final by Peter Leko and
Tania Sachdev.

“It was a very, very tense and very difficult final match,”
said Hikaru afterwards, and the battles began immediately in the first game,
where Maxime had defended a difficult position brilliantly only to blunder a
rook at the very end.

The French no. 1 didn’t let that shake him, however, and
after two draws he came back to level the score by toppling the Berlin Wall,
just as he’d done against Magnus the day before. He followed up with a
spectacular winning attack in the next game.

32…Rd2!, taking
advantage of the pin of the e3-bishop to pile up the pressure on g2, was
the key move.

Maxime won two games in a row three times during the final,
but Hikaru always managed to stop the bleeding. Nakamura himself had longer
streaks, but kept getting frustrated by Maxime as well. He put together three
wins in a row and looked set to win a fourth and open up a 3-point lead after
the 5-minute session. That might have sealed the fate of the final, but Hikaru struggled to find a knockout blow and here had one last chance to win.

39…Rxg4! was the only move! White can’t exchange queens due
to the zwischenzug Rh4+, so 40.fxg4 is forced (40.Kxg4 Qg2# is mate!), and
after e.g. 40…Qxb2 White has too many weaknesses, with all his pawns ready to
drop and the black a-pawn ready to run.

Instead Hikaru played 39…Qxd1,
and the position was drawn, though things would soon
get worse for the US star!

Hikaru felt glad that at least such a game coming at the end
of the session gave him time to recover and avoid tilting.

I don’t know if I really kept it together. I think I was lucky,
because the biggest opportunities for me to tilt were at the end of the 5+1 and
the 3+1.

The same pattern repeated itself in the 3-minute session,
with Maxime falling two points behind after an opening disaster in the third
game of the session.

Here he grabbed the e5-pawn with 15…Nxe5?? only to run into 16.Nxe5!
Qxe5 17.Ng5!
and Black could resign. The game ended 17…Qf6 18.Bxh7+ Kh8 19.Qh5!

The rollercoaster continued, however, as MVL won the next
two games in some style to level the scores. Then he could have taken the lead if
not for playing a flawed brilliancy.

Black is winning in multiple ways, and even simply exchanging queens on e1 would have retained most of that advantage, but instead Maxime went for 34…Nxb3? 35.Qxb4 Nxa1 36.Qxa5 Rxd1+ 37.Re1 and, after some thought, simply exchanged off rooks with an advantage for White. The problem was probably that 37…Nc2 wasn’t winning, as you might have thought at a glance! 

Hikaru won that game and again was on the verge of reaching
an almost unassailable 3-point lead before the end of the session, only to
spoil a winning position and go on to lose.

Tania had been explaining early on that Nakamura was the
GOAT in bullet chess, a phrase she checked Peter understood!

Even with just a 1-point lead it seemed as though Hikaru
should be home and dry in the match, but as Maxime pointed out, he’s not so shabby
in hyper-fast chess himself.

I know that I can play well in bullet. I’ve practised that
when I was a bit younger, and I still do it occasionally, so I know I’m nowhere
near Hikaru’s level in 1+0, but at least in 1+1 I can give it a fight.

Things couldn’t have started better for Maxime, who spotted
the flaw in 21.Ne5?!

21…Qxe5 loses to 22.Nf5!, while 21…Bd6 also runs into Nf5
after first playing 22.Rxc8!. Maxime, however, needed only a couple of seconds to come up
with the refutation 21…Rxc1!! 22.Rxc1
and Black went on to win. Hikaru had been impressed:

First of all, a lot of credit has to go to Maxime, not just
in the bullet but throughout the match, because he defended extremely well.
Obviously I don’t expect Maxime to say a lot about this, but it felt like he
was defending a lot better than traditionally he has in a lot of games. It
seemed like when he got bad positions his defence was very resourceful, like
this first bullet game. It was insane when he found this Bd6 move. I calculated
this whole tactic with this Ne5 Nf5 idea and then Maxime found Rxc1 and Bd6,
which was just amazing, an incredible find in a bullet game especially, so I think
Maxime just played great throughout.

Maxime then won a completely crazy second bullet game to take
the lead, and he had good chances to make it a 2-point lead in the next game.
That might have given him a real shot at winning the whole match, especially given the psychological blow it would have inflicted on Hikaru…

…but instead
Hikaru was able to come back with a winning streak. Maxime pointed out that
going two points behind felt like the point of no return, and that game could
easily have gone the other way.

Maxime thought for 8 seconds here, a significant investment
in bullet, but didn’t go for the winning 34.Re8!, threatening mate on g8. After
the forced 34…Rxe8 35.Bxg7+ Kxg7 36.Qf7+ Kh8 White has multiple ways to win,
but in the game Maxime chose the immediate 34.Bxg7+
Rxg7 35.Nxc8
and only had a drawn position. Hikaru used all his bullet
trickery to eventually win a pawn and then the game.

Another two wins in a row ended the match as a contest, with
Maxime having a little fun near the end with a variation on the King’s Gambit.
Even the fun didn’t work out, however, and it all ended with Hikaru delivering mate
on move 91 of the final game to finish with a crushing 18.5:12.5 score.

Maxime summed up:

Overall I’m at least proud of the way I fought. Of course
the final score is much, much bigger than the match reflects, but again credit
to Hikaru, he kept it together when it mattered. He was just a deserved winner.

The next big online tournament will be the second stage of
the Champions Chess Tour, starting on December 26th here on chess24. We can expect the likes of
Nakamura, MVL, Wesley So and Magnus Carlsen to be in action in an event that
will stretch into the new year. 

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