He won his tenth-round game and then won a marathon playoff against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave to claim his second consecutive title.

It was not easy, but Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, the top seed and defending champion in the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, collected his second title on Thursday.

The day began with Nakamura in an eight-way tie for first. To win the title, the first thing he had to do was win his game.

He was extremely lucky in his pairing, as he faced David Anton Guijarro of Spain, the lowest-ranked player in the group of eight. He also got his second white in a row, giving him an unusual split of six whites and four blacks for the tournament. He did not let such a stroke of good fortune go to waste and won a very nice game.  

Black looks happy enough to me — he’s a little cramped by the White pawn center, but he has a solid position and the bishop pair. But his next move, 16. … Bxh4?, baffled me. Of course, White replied 17. Bxf5, after which he had a better pawn structure and a clear path to advance his central majority. In addition, the Black h pawn had become a weakness. Instead of 16. … Bh4, Black should have saved his f pawn with something like 16. … Ng7.

The game continued 17. Bxf5 Bf6 18. e4! c5 19. e5 Nc7 20. Bxd7 Rxd7 21. f4, and White was already winning. His huge center restricted Black’s pieces beautifully, the bishop pair was gone, and after 22. Nf2, the h pawn was about to fall. Guijarro resigned on the 30th move, ending his surprising run, which had taken him to sole possession of first place after Round 7 and kept him in the hunt for the title until the end.

While Nakamura was dispatching Guijarro, the other six co-leaders before Round 10 were playing each other. The match between Etienne Bacrot of France and S.P. Sethuraman of India was a pretty sedate draw. In another game, Pentala Harikrishna of India looked like he had serious winning chances against Li Chao of China, but ultimately could not break through and had to settle for a draw.

That left just one other game — between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France and his countryman, Sebastien Maze. If either player won, he would tie Nakamura for first. 

Maze, like Guijarro, had been having the tournament of his life. But like Guijarro, he finally met his match as Vachier-Lagrave won in fine style.

Maze, who was White, was under a lot of pressure in the position above, but if he had found 38. Nb2!, aiming to improve his worst placed piece by rerouting it to d3, chances would have been about equal.

Instead, with just a minute on his clock, Maze chose 38. Ra4?, but he was hit hard by 38. … Bxa4! 39. Rxa4 Bxf2! 40. Rxb4 Bg1+! 41. Kg3 axb4. The dust had cleared and time control had been reached… and Black was completely winning. His two rooks were much better than the queen, his pawn structure was healthier, the knight on d1 was a sad sight, and the White king was wide open.

Maze tried 42. Qd2 Re8 43. Qxb4, but after 43. … Rb6!, White was going to lose the b3 pawn (after Reb8) and have the same problems. White is definitely lost here, though I was still a little surprised to see Maze resign immediately.

Vachier-Lagrave’s victory put him into a tie for first with Nakamura (both with 8 points) and forced a rapid playoff for the title. It was difficult to pick a favorite.

Nakamura has always been an absolute beast at rapid and blitz chess, routinely topping the lists of the world’s best players. Every single tiebreak match I have ever seen him play, he has won — two rounds of rapid play in the Millionaire Open, a playoff in Zurich with Viswanathan Anand, tiebreak wins at the World Cup over Ian Nepomniatchi and myself, etc. He seems nearly unbeatable at faster formats. He even beat Vachier-Lagrave in a chess.com blitz deathmatch.

But, Vachier-Lagrave is a great blitz player in his own right — ranked No. 3 in the world in blitz, just behind Nakamura — so if anyone had a chance against Nakamura, it was him.

The playoff turned out to be really close. They drew the two rapid games and then the two blitz games. Vachier-Lagrave was in danger in two of those four games, but in each case he managed to save himself. 

This sent the match into an Armageddon game, in which Vachier-Lagrave had White, but also had to win. In such games, there is always a degree of randomness, but Nakamura was just a bit better throughout, taking advantage of key mistakes. 

In the position above, Black is strategically doing great if the queens are traded, so, unsurprisingly Vachier-Lagrave retreated his queen. But he chose the wrong square with 35. Qf4? (35. Qe5! was better and White can play on), and after the reply 35. … Kg7!, White is unable to prevent Qf6, forcing a queen trade after which there is no way Black should ever lose.

Vachier-Lagrave tried to mix things up with 36. g4, but this fell short after 36. … Qf6! 37. Qg3 hxg4! 38. Nxg4 Qc3! Rather than acquiesce to a queen trade, and a much worse ending, Vachier-Lagrave tried 39. Qxd6, but after 39. … Qxe1+ 40. Kg2 Qc3! 41. Ne5 Qc7!. White could not avoid a queen trade, so he resigned, giving Nakamura the title.

In long tournaments, players can get tired and make strange decisions. I was definitely perplexed by this one by David Howell of England in his Round 10 game against Federico Perez Ponsa of Argentina:

Howell, who was Black, has only two legal moves, and just 30 seconds to choose one. The correct move, of course, is 32. … Kh8! It’s impossible to assess this position without deep calculation, and when looking at it, it may seem lost, but, after 32 … Kh8, Black would survive after 33. Qxh5 Qb1+ 34. Kg2 Rfd8. Instead, Howell chose 32. … Kxh7??, which simply lost the queen after 33. Qxh5+. I can understand he might have thought 32. Kh8 loses, but still it seems strange to choose a move that definitely loses over a move that might lose.

All in all, the Gibraltar Chess Festival was a very exciting tournament full of great fighting chess. I haven’t played it myself since 2010, but seeing games like the ones I watched this year makes me want to go back.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.