Nakamura the wildcard

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

Hikaru Nakamura justified his wildcard invitation by taking first place at the Fide Grand Prix in Berlin this month. The American grandmaster has become the world’s most popular chess streamer, and had not played a slow game in more than two years. But he looked fresh and relaxed, and evidently the steady practice of elite online speed events have kept his skills sharp.

Facing a rising Russian star, I suspect Nakamura’s eye was quickly drawn to 29 Qb4, hoping to deflect Black’s queen or win the Bb5. But after 29…Qxb4 30 Rxd8+ Qf8! 31 Rxf8+ Kxf8 the endgame is likely to end in a draw. So you keep the idea, shake things up a bit, and see what drops out:

Hikaru Nakamura-Andrey Esipenko
Fide Grand Prix, Berlin 2022
(See left diagram)

29 Bxf6! gxf6 30 Qg4+ This check cracks the defence. Now after 30…Kh8 31 Qb4! the tactic works: 31…Qxb4 32 Rxf8+ and Black can’t block on f8. No better is 30…Kf7 31 Rxd8 Qxd8 32 Qh5+. Kf8 31 Rxd8+ Qxd8 32 Qb4+ Qe7 33 Qxb5 Qxa3 34 Kf2 Qc5 34…Qd6 defends the pawn, but White can turn the screws with Qb5-f5, h4-h5, Kg2 and g3-g4. Sooner or later, Black will have to seek counterplay and abandon the d3-pawn anyway, so Esipenko bites the bullet right away. 35 Qxd3 b5 36 Qc3 Black will lose any pawn endgame, so the queen must back down from any confrontation. Qe7 37 Ke2 Kg7 38 Qd4 Qf7 39 Qg4+ Kh8 40 Qb4 Qe8 41 Qd6 Qf7 42 Qc5 Qe8 43 g4 Kg7 44 h4 Qd7 45 h5 Kg8 46 h6 Black has almost run out of moves altogether, e.g. 46…Kf7 47 Qf5 wins, so Black resigns.

A few rounds later, Nakamura stood well against Grischuk, but he needed a more subtle approach to press his advantage. The bishop looks well placed on f4, but Nakamura spotted an even better spot behind the queen on the long diagonal.

Hikaru Nakamura-Alexander Grischuk
Fide Grand Prix, Berlin 2022
(See right diagram)

30 Bc1! Qd8 31 Bb2 Qf8 32 Kg2 Calmly does it. Any capture on g5 spells disaster with Qh8 mate. Bd8 33 Qf3 Instead 33 gxf6 Qxh6 would be too hasty. Nakamura doesn’t fear the capture on g5, as the queen can always return to c3. Bc8 34 Qe3 Rxb3 35 axb3 fxg5 A desperate attempt at escape, but waiting doesn’t look better. For example, 35…a5 36 Ba1 Bd7 37 Kg3 Bc8 38 gxf6 Bxf6 39 Rxf6! Rxf6 40 Qc3 is crushing. 36 Qc3 Rxf1 37 Qh8+ Kf7 38 Qxh7+ Ke8 39 Qxg6+ Not 39 Bxf1 Bh3+ and Black wins. Ke7 40 Qxg5+ Rf6 Instead 40…Kd7 41 Qg7+ Rf7 42 Qxf8 Rxf8 43 Bg4+ Kc7 44 Bxc8 Kxc8 45 h7, would be a straightforward technical win for Nakamura. 41 h7 Kd7 42 Qg8 42…Rf2+ 43 Kg1 brings no relief so White will soon have an extra queen. Black resigns.

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