Magnus Tour Final 5: Nakamura on the brink

Hikaru Nakamura can win the $140,000 Magnus Carlsen Chess
Tour top prize on Wednesday after making a sensational comeback to beat Magnus
Carlsen in Armageddon and take a 3:2 lead in the match. Day 5 started slowly
with all four rapid games drawn, but that was only the prelude to blitz and
Armageddon that Hikaru described as “out of this world”. Magnus seemed on the
verge of victory after winning the first blitz game with Black before Hikaru
won on demand and then also won the final sudden death game.

If the final match of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals
benefiting Kiva had lacked anything it was a set that went the distance, but
that’s just what we got on Day 5.

You can replay all the games using the selector below:

And here’s the live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Peter
Leko and Tania Sachdev:

Game 1: Magnus almost does his thing

It looked to all the world as though the day would get off
to a very quiet start. Magnus Carlsen played the Berlin Defence…  

…and Hikaru Nakamura chose one of the less ambitious
approaches against it. The game ended up in a queen and pawn ending where Black
was merely “symbolically” better, in the words of Peter Leko, but then suddenly
Magnus took complete control. Hikaru commented:   

It felt like we were following the storyline of almost all my
games against Magnus that I lose. The position gets pretty equal, there’s maybe
some very small imbalance, and then the game just keeps drifting on, somehow he
manoeuvres his pieces to slightly better squares, and when we’re down to five
minutes or whatever there’s always some little nuance, some little trick that’s
in the position that I miss that makes it really unpleasant.

You can watch the full interview with Hikaru below:

39.Kf3?! was the first step towards disaster, while after 39…d5
Hikaru said he had a feeling “there was something wrong in the position,”
but 40…g5! still came as a shock.

The otherwise desirable 41.Kxg5? would here lose the queen
to 41…Qh6+ 42.Kf5 g6+!, so 41.hxg5 was forced, and after 42…Qe4+ 42.Kg3 we
reached a critical moment.

42…Qxc2! is by no means simple (a position with four queens
on the board is entirely possible!), but the computer assures us it wins.
Magnus instantly played 42…Qe1+, but after 43.Qf2! sank into a 2-minute think.
Hikaru had correctly evaluated that the pawn ending after a queen exchange is a
draw, and after 43…Qxc3+ he confidently held a draw.

The US Champion credited his defence as making the difference so far in the match:

I felt one of the things I’ve done really well in this match
is that when I’ve gotten bad positions I’ve found a way to make a lot of good
moves. I haven’t saved all of them, but I’ve found a way to make good moves and
keep the game going, where Magnus has to prove it, and I think that’s the big
difference that’s been going on in this match. I’ve been defending and just
always finding the best moves at the critical moments, and 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!

Games 2-4: The quiet before the storm

For the first day during the match all the rapid games were
drawn. Game 2 saw Nakamura demonstrate the line against Carlsen’s Giuoco Piano
that he’d perhaps meant to play the day before – instead of going for a dubious
pawn sacrifice with 16…a4 and 17…a3!?, he played 16…Bg4.

He confidently held the balance and was perhaps the player
pressing before a draw was agreed on move 44.

Game 3 was another Berlin Defence, but this time Hikaru was
on top for the whole game even if the balance was never seriously disturbed.
Game 4 saw Magnus take an interesting decision in the London System.

For a moment it seemed Magnus might get real chances
with his bishop pair, but some precise decisions by Hikaru neutralised that
threat and we were heading for blitz tiebreaks.

Ian Nepomniachtchi commented after the day was over:

By that point, however, he was clearly joking!

Game 5: Alekhine breakthrough

After getting into trouble on Day 1 of the final in the
Najdorf, Magnus said he felt it made sense to switch to the solid Berlin, and
since then he’d played it 9 times in a row. It had real shock value, therefore,
when he played Alekhine’s Defence 1.e4 Nf6!? just when the stakes were highest
in the first blitz game.

Hikaru even felt it might have been a “finger-fehler”:

I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or not, because he had
a weird look on his face as soon as he played the move, so I’m not sure if that
was psychology or if that was actually a mistake. It wasn’t really clear to me,
because it didn’t look like he’d prepared it based on the webcam. Maybe he was
just doing a very good acting job, but it didn’t look like it was what he
intended to play.

That seems unlikely, since Magnus has turned to the Alekhine
in a number of top-level games this year, including three times against Alireza Firouzja
in the Banter Blitz Cup final and then against Fabiano Caruana in the Magnus
Carlsen Invitational and Levon Aronian in the Clutch Chess International (3
wins, 1 loss, 1 draw).

Hikaru admitted, “I was certainly surprised and I didn’t
react very well,” with the black knights soon dismantling the white queenside.

The US star here went for it with 24.Bf6!?, but later
regretted not throwing caution to the wind faster:

In this middlegame it got really, really messy and I thought
I should have moved quicker, because I thought I used too much time trying to
decide to go all-in versus just trying to defend on the queenside. I thought I
should have just gone total-Nepo style – just forget about the whole queenside
and just put everything, try to attack and just hope it works.

The last turning point in the game came after 24…Nc2 (24…gxf6!
was perfectly playable) 25.Bd3 Nxe1 26.Rxe1 Qd7! 27.d5! Rc3? (27…Qa4!,
intending Qg4, is strong, while 27…Rc4!! is the stylish computer choice).

Hikaru could in fact have drawn here with 28.Bxg6!, but he
didn’t play the move because after 28…fxg6 29.Qxg6 Qf7 30.Qg5 exd5 he thought
White was just busted.

Black is up an exchange and two pawns, but the drawing
manoeuvre is 31.Nd4! and 32.Nf5! next, piling the pressure on g7 after e.g. 31.Nd4
Kh7 32.Ne6! – it’s even Black who has to be careful to force the draw. Hikaru
commented, “with 20 or 30 seconds more I think I would have been able to figure
this out”.

In the game after 28.Re3 Magnus didn’t hesitate to play 28…Rxd3!
and with the attack fizzling out the rest was easy for the World Champion, even
if Yasser Seirawan may have terrified Carlsen fans for a moment at the end!

Game 6: The KID comes to Hikaru’s rescue

Hikaru Nakamura has long since transformed himself into a
phenomenal endgame player who grinds out wins from the slightest edge, but he’s
never quite shaken off his reputation from the early days of his career when he’d play the hyper-sharp King’s Indian against anyone and often triumph. He
returned to it for this must-win game for Black, with our commentators
surprised that Magnus went for the main line rather than a system with g3. We
didn’t quite get the main line, since Hikaru stopped himself in time from
playing 6…e5, when in this situation he was sure Magnus would have captured on
e5 and exchanged queens. 6…Nbd7!? 7.0-0 e5 avoided that, though at the price of
gifting Black an even better position than usual.

Things progressed normally, until move 15.

Perhaps inspired by the second blitz game the day before, Magnus
went for 15.c5?! dxc5 16.d5 (in the previous game he’d played c5 and d5 with
Black!), which Hikaru correctly assessed afterwards:

c5 was a big mistake by Magnus, I thought. Again, it’s not
that this is necessarily bad for White, but the game starts spiralling into
stuff that’s very murky and unclear. So I thought like b4, just something
calmer rather than playing c5 and d5 right away, because even if objectively it’s
good there start to be imbalances in the position, and I found my way.

10 moves later Hikaru had completely taken over, and although
he didn’t play perfectly (he noted 26…Rd4?! 27.f3! was inaccurate) he got to
play some fine moves.

29…Bh6!, offering an exchange sacrifice on d4, was powerful,
with Magnus forced to accept after 30.Rfe1 Bd2! After 31.Bxd4 cxd4 the d-pawn
became a monster, but the World Champion found an ingenious way to stop it and,
as with Hikaru in the previous game, had a chance to make a draw.

Hikaru called 50.f4?! by Magnus “the only move” and even “a
great move”, but it turns out 50.Rc6! should hold a draw, while after 50.f4
Rg1+ 51.Kd2 Be3+! 52.Kxe3 Rxc1 53.fxe5 Re1+ 54.Kf3 Rxe5 55.Rxa7
Hikaru went on
to win the rook ending.

“I was thrilled I got to the Armageddon, because after the
first blitz game I assumed that it would be over,” said Hikaru, who had once
again proven he can beat Magnus. What’s his trick? He put it down to combining
the attributes of Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana!

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, he just tries to make quick moves, and I know with most of us, myself
included, it’s very uncomfortable… Against Magnus it worked during the Lindores
Abbey tournament I noticed specifically, and so I just keep doing that here and
it seems to be going well, and I just try to play like Fabiano with White and
Black for the most part and just pick your poison and try to make a combination
of players who are competitive with Magnus, I guess!

Game 7: Armageddon!

After losing with White in a position he only needed to draw,
Magnus then picked White again for the Armageddon, giving him an extra minute
on the clock but meaning he had to win. Was Hikaru surprised by that decision?

Ordinarily if all things were equal I would say yes, however
in that second blitz game which I won against Magnus he was extremely slow on
the clock, so based on the fact he was so slow in that second blitz game I
thought it made a lot of sense for him just to have that extra minute in the
final game.

Nothing worked out for Magnus, who encountered a Hikaru
Nakamura who remembered all his lines in the 4.a3 Nimzo-Indian and blitzed them
out until the situation looked hopeless for White.

There are very often hidden resources in chess, however, and
Hikaru pointed out after the game the position after 25…Kg7.

26.Rb7+! is the move Hikaru said he noticed “a split second”
after making his move. The point is that 26…Re7? runs into 27.Qe2! and Black is
losing a piece. The world blitz no. 1 would have to find another move:

I don’t know what I’m supposed to play here. I guess I just
go 26…Kg8. It’s probably ok, but it’s getting very wild and out of control.

In fact while 26…Kh8 and 26…Kf6 are ok, 26…Kg8?! would have
given White serious winning chances due to the queen being able to give check
from d5. That didn’t matter, however, since Magnus played 26.Qb7+ and the rest
of the game went according to plan for Hikaru, who picked up a huge victory to
take the lead going into the final two days of the match.

The players have been alternating wins for five days now,
and that’s a pattern Magnus will have to continue on Wednesday or the match
will be over with a day to spare.

Hikaru has every reason to be proud of what he’s done:

It’s been a wild match and I think more than anything I’m
just glad that it’s been very competitive, for the fans especially, because I
know there are probably some people who didn’t think it would be. It’s been a
great match for everyone and I’ve had a lot of fun. I think it’s hard to top
what happened in our match today. Someone has to win, someone has to lose but
it’s been a great match and there’s not much more to be said.

One such doubter was former Russian Champion Evgeny
Tomashevsky, who said in an interview on the
eve of the match

The only thing I can say is that Nakamura deserves enormous
respect for winning his match against Carlsen in the second stage (the Lindores
Abbey Rapid Challenge), when it seemed that such a thing was in principle
impossible. But he managed it! Taking that into account, you can give him a
small chance, but it’s hard to believe that realistically you can beat Magnus
in a long series.

Well, Magnus might still come back, but whatever happens the
richest online chess match ever has been a wonderful slugfest that you can’t
take your eyes off. 

One Indian grandmaster joked:

Hikaru took up that theme:

Even if this were to go all year it’d be more fun than the
Kasparov-Karpov matches, because you’re having decisive games. It’s not 48
draws in a row – it’s a slight difference and that makes it fun for everyone.

He later added:

I think when you have these matches, these rapid and blitz
matches, where you have decisive results specifically and it’s not just draw
after draw after draw, I think it’s a lot easier for fans to get into it and
follow it. I think a lot of credit has to go to both of us for the way we’ve
played the match, that it hasn’t been like the classical World Championship
match, for example, where you had 12 draws.

For people who don’t really follow chess closely, when you
see that it’s very strange, because the only sport where you can have ties is
soccer, or football in Europe. The fact that you have so many draws is an issue,
and I think with the rapid and blitz games you’re seeing this back and forth,
both of us throwing punches, it’s just been great. The fans love it and I hope
there are more events like this!

It’s not over yet, with Magnus needing to win on demand on Wednesday to take it down to the wire on Thursday! Tune in from 15:30 CEST here on chess24.

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