Over the board the players consider themselves equals, but online Hikaru Nakamura is still too strong for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The American GM won yesterday’s Speed Chess match with an eight-point margin.
It was the last quarterfinal of this year’s Speed Chess championship, but wouldn’t have looked bad as a final. The fight was between the world number two (Vachier-Lagrave) vs the world number three (Nakamura) on the current FIDE blitz ratings list.
Online speed chess is a different ballgame though, especially taking into account that the Chess.com matches also include bullet games. Nakamura was still the pre-match favorite, also because he had beaten MVL in two previous matches on Chess.com: their 2015 Death Match (17.5-10.5) and their 2016 Blitz Battle (21.5-10.5). In fact, Nakamura hadn’t lost a single segment there.
The SmarterChess prediction was the same as the 2015 match score between the players.
It was an exciting match, and it was a long match. No less than 35 games were played in total, with only 11 ending in draws. Nakamura ended up winning in all time controls, with the first being the closest.
Playing from Sunrise, Florida and listening to some classic rock music (“mainly Springsteen and Bon Jovi, a little Creedence Clearwater Revival and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit”), at the start Nakamura was sporting a pair of orange, sports-style sunglasses, as if he was “about to climb behind a starfighter and go battle the Death Star,” as commentator Danny Rensch put it.
MVL (who listened to a wide variety of music but mostly rock) is far from being a Darth Vader, although in some inner circles he is known as an excellent Mordred in the card and role play game Avalon, often played by top grandmasters during their free time at top tournaments.
Nakamura actually only wore these glasses in the very first game, where it was MVL who wasn’t seeing clearly enough yet. In a Grünfeld where Nakamura’s 7.Bg5 was rare, that bishop ended up playing a decisive role in a simple combination missed by Black.
Nakamura would continue using this 7.Bg5 line successfully throughout the match, up till the point when Vachier-Lagrave even said goodbye to his trusted Grünfeld for a few games in the bullet segment.
Vachier-Lagrave levelled the score with a knightmare of a game. Both sides played with two knights and two rooks in an endgame, where forks were looming all the time. The game was decided by two forks: one spotted by Nakamura, and one not.
MVL won the next as well, in what would be his quickest win in the match. (Nakamura would win two games even faster.) It was the only moment in the match that the French grandmaster could enjoy a lead.
Nakamura took over with two wins in a row, which included a much better setup in that 7.Bg5 Grünfeld where he developed his pieces and castled first. He would repeat this several times in the match. Here’s game nine, which includes some of the other Grünfelds from this part of the match:
After 11 games the score was still level, but Nakamura ended up winning game 12 to take the five-minute portion. MVL’s Giuoco Pianissimo went completely wrong somehow, even though this opening had been played several times already. Also with Vachier-Lagrave as White and Nakamura as Black, the players were playing a theoretical battle!
5+1 segment | Score
Nakamura also won the first three-minute game. Then, for five more games and until about halfway of the match, Vachier-Lagrave kept things really tight. He won two games to level the score after 18 games, the best halfway-score he had ever reached against this opponent.
That first three-minute was another 7.Bg5 Grünfeld (after this match, a book can be written about it!) with again MVL losing quickly:
Game 16 was epic, with Nakamura ending up with two bishops and a pawn versus MVL’s lone queen. That was a (tablebase) draw from the very start, but the ending was incredibly complicated and food for thought for endgame study composers. Just when the game seemed to end in a draw by perpetual, Nakamura suddenly blundered—only noticed by MVL in the second instance.
The deadlock after 18 games was both surprising and very welcome for the neutral fan, but it was also where the fun ended for Vachier-Lagrave. As if he switched to another gear, Nakamura suddenly won four games in a row to take a commanding lead.
Besides taking two more 7.Bg5 Grünfeld convincingly, Nakamura won two of the Italian games as well, one of them in a rook endgame where White missed a nice defensive idea.
3+1 segment | Score
As the three-minute segment ended with two draws, Vachier-Lagrave went into the bullet being four points down. Not ideal, to say the least, against someone who has “some” experience in bullet.
Nakamura did end up winning the bullet segment as well, with the highest margin of all three segments—despite MVL scoring a convincing win in the first game.
Getting little against Nakamura’s solid Italian game, and then bumping into his Berlin Wall, MVL decided to try something completely different with white for game 28, when he was still four points behind. It backfired completely and led to the shortest game of the match—which was basically over, by then.
You could see Vachier-Lagrave being pretty groggy by the end of the match, when he tried 1.b3 (a specialty of his opponent), didn’t take a healthy central pawn, got a winning position anyway but then blundered heavily again.
1+1 segment | Score
Vachier-Lagrave commented on the match being very close up till game 18: “Probably I was putting too much energy in at the start, and by that point I was already fighting to keep in shape, whereas Hikaru actually played better. That was a turning point. There was no question who should win the match in the end.”
Nakamura: “I think at the start we were both making a lot of mistakes. I think I got some good positions but I was blundering, and I think Maxime also got some good positions. It was just very back and forth.
“But once I figured out what I was doing in this whole Grünfeld line, and I was basically able to get to move 20 very easily—it took at least six or seven games before I got there—it got much easier because I didn’t have to spend so much energy because I felt the position was very good. I think that was the turning point. But it was still very close.”
Nakamura admitted that he had prepared the 7.Bg5 line (and also that he double checked it during one of the breaks!). “I knew that this whole Nc6 line was supposed to be bad for Black, so that was kind of the reason I kept playing it. If felt that if there is a position where I don’t really believe in it for my opponent and they keep playing it then I might as well keep going into it.”
Nakamura won $2,485.68 and advances to next round. Vachier-Lagrave earned $642.82. The Twitch community donated $128.50 that was added to the original $3,000 prize pool.
The semifinals will be Hikaru Nakamura vs Levon Aronian and Wesley So vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda. These matches, and the final, will be played in the Speed Chess Championship weekend of November 30-December 2.