Hikaru Nakamura scored an unbeaten +3 on the first day of blitz to move to what looks like an unassailable 2.5-point lead over 2nd place Fabiano Caruana, who bounced back to score 50% after suffering three losses. Hikaru’s real challenge is to stay top of the blitz live rating list, as he’s now tied on 2892 with Magnus Carlsen. The day’s other top performer was Liem Quang Le, who won five games as he matched Nakamura’s 6/9 to climb out of the last place in which he finished the rapid.
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Hikaru Nakamura went into the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz with a 1-point lead, and when the day was over he’d grown it to a gaping 2.5 points. None of the “chasing pack” applied any pressure, so that Hikaru could play solidly and seize his chances.
His approach to the day was clear in the first round when he repeated exactly his draw with Richard Rapport from the rapid section. Hikaru explained:
I feel like the first game against Richard today was a good example of this, where the game was a draw, it was the same draw that we played in the rapid portion, and Richard basically said after the game, I was sure you wouldn’t play this line again! He thought that I would try to be aggressive and try to beat him with Black in the first game, and I think that there are a couple of ways of looking at it. You can play very aggressively and hope things work out — of course if they don’t you look very stupid — you can also just be solid. In the process, if I’m solid, I think there was a good chance I’ll win this tournament, but there’s also a good chance that I might draw too many games and lose that no. 1 ranking in blitz, so there are many ways of looking at it, but I think for me I’m just trying to play good chess. I’m not really worrying about anything.
Although Hikaru didn’t quite say it, he’d clearly chosen solidity, but on the other hand, the no. 1 blitz rating was on his mind. When asked if he cared about that, he denied it.
Nah, it doesn’t matter at all! To be blunt, if I was worried about that no. 1 ranking it would kind of be like playing online, where I wouldn’t play this event, because I think when I look at the ratings of the players here I had to score something insane. There are some players like Sam, for example, who I think he’s underrated, definitely in rapid but I think also in blitz. In rapid I played Sam, I drew the game, and he had this ridiculous 2609 rating, which of course is 100 points below where he should be at least, so if I was really worried about the rating then I just wouldn’t play the event.
The no. 1 spot on the live rating list is balanced on a knife-edge, with Hikaru’s lead over Magnus now gone, though he’d still remain no. 1 if it stayed this way, since he’s the most active player (Magnus played two blitz games against Esipenko in the World Cup).
Incidentally, Sam’s blitz rating is a very respectable 2704, but his 2.5/9 was the worst score on the first day of blitz, leaving him in last place.
Hikaru beat Sam and also Jeffery Xiong with some sharp calculation, while the most interesting clash of the day in fact came in the final round, when Hikaru took on Liem Quang Le, who started the day with a blistering 4.5/5.
The 2013 World Blitz Champion talked about his day and his approach.
I’m very happy about today. I think today I scored six points, so that’s equal to the previous three days combined! Relatively speaking, I should be happy with my performance today, but I feel like I could have done a little bit better, especially the last game against Hikaru, but in general I think I played much better today and at least I think I avoided last place now, so that’s my goal for today.
In blitz it’s a lot about playing fast and trying to avoid blunders. You don’t have to play brilliant chess, you just have to play decent chess and avoid blunders and try and be a little bit faster than your opponents, so it takes a lot more practice to be good at rapid and classical than at blitz, I would say, because in blitz it’s more like your natural ability, you just push the pieces and see how they go.
Liem’s speed in fact won him two of the games on time, and, as he mentioned, he had a good chance for more in the final game against Hikaru, which he came into with 6 points out of 8 compared to Hikaru’s 5.
30…Kh7 or 30…Nc5 would have retained a big advantage for Liem, but 30…Re8 allowed Hikaru to pounce with 31.e7+ Kh7 and now the key move.
32.Ne4!! Liem couldn’t reply 32…Qxe4? due to 33.Qf7+!, when White can win the rook on e8, though in fact going for a mating attack is even stronger. Liem took the chance to eliminate the dangerous passed pawn with 32…Rxe7 but the knight continued marauding with 33.Nxg5+!. 33…Qxg5 and the d3-knight would fall with check, so Le played 33…Kh6. The position was roughly equal, but much easier to play for White, and Hikaru went on to claim victory.
Hikaru used that as an example of his tenacity:
I was able to just find moves that weren’t pure blunders, even when I was much worse, I just kept the game going, and it was also a little bit fortunate that Le Quang missed this Ne4 move, which fortunately I saw when I played e7. I was really happy when I found it, because I knew that if I could untangle, with the time situation, there was no way he could defend, so it was a good finish and I feel very good with the result.
In second place, just as after the rapid, is Fabiano Caruana, though that hadn’t seemed likely after the world no. 2 lost three of his first five blitz games.
Fabi summed up:
It was a wild day. I started badly, I wasn’t playing well, I was blundering. There were two back-to-back games against Jeffery, losing a dead-drawn rook endgame, and then against Shakhriyar was a horrible game, so I wasn’t feeling too good, and then against Sam was also a very bad game, but somehow I won that one and after that things improved. The last game was of course also wild and ridiculous, but because I started badly my feeling now is more kind of happy with today. If it was the other way around I would have been upset.
That key game against Sam turned fast.
After 35…Qc5 (or Qc6 or Qc7!), defending the c8-rook and targeting c3, Black has an overwhelming advantage, but instead after Sam’s 35…Ne7? Fabi was able to infiltrate with 36.Qd7! and after 36…Rd8? 37.Qxb5 Qc7? (too late) 38.Rc4! it was White who was dominating and went on to win.
Richard Rapport had gone into the day in joint 2nd place, but scored just 3.5/9. He did, however, pull off a great escape against Fabi.
Richard had mated Caruana with his rooks a day earlier, and Fabi admitted he was dreaming of getting revenge:
I thought it would be poetic justice, but my rooks aren’t as good as his!
Here there’s no quick mate, but e.g. 60.Raf1+ was completely winning for Black. Instead after 60…Rgb1? 61.Qxf6! there was suddenly nothing better for Black than to force a draw by perpetual check.
Barring a huge collapse by Hikaru, or heroics from Fabi, it looks as though the battle for 2nd place — and Hikaru’s attempt to retain the world no. 1 spot — will be the only real sporting interest on the final day of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.
You can watch the games from 15:00 in Saint Louis, which is 22:00 CEST, right here on chess24.