Nakamura won the elite tournament for the second year in a row.

Only two weeks after repeating as champion of the Gibraltar Chess Festival, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States has defended another title by winning the Zurich Chess Challenge.

The last day of the tournament turned out to be every bit as nail-biting as the tournament standings the night before suggested it might be. Viswanathan Anand of India, the former World Champion, was ahead of Nakamura and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia by half a point in the rapid part of the schedule (40 minutes per player per game, with time added after each move) with one round to play. Anand and Kramnik faced each other and drew. That kept Kramnik a half point behind Anand, but Nakamura was able to catch up with a fine victory over Levon Aronian of Armenia.

Nakamura, who was Black, chose the ultra-solid Queen’s Gambit Declined, and had reached the position above, which was slightly cramped position because he had less space. But the a file had been opened and some pieces were about to be exchanged, so unless White could change the character of the position, Back was going to draw easily. Aronian tried to shake things up with 21. b5?, looking to create a passed pawn, but this turned out to be a serious mistake as his pawns become weak.

After 21. … Rxa1! 22. Rxa1 bxc5 23. Na5 Qa8!, the c6 pawn was safe because of the pin of the knight by he queen on the rook on a1. Aronian played 24. Nb3, but, after repeating the position once, Nakamura correctly continued the game with 26. … Qb8!, keeping the extra pawn.

Aronian tried 27. dxc5 cxb5 28. Qd4? (it was better to take on c5 and suffer in a 5-pawn vs 4-pawn endgame, with some drawing chances, though this is obviously would have been a bit depressing for Aronian), but after 28. … b4! 29. Na4 Qb5! 30. Qb2 Ne4 31. f3 Nec5, Black had won a second pawn, and he cruised to victory to tie with Anand heading into the blitz portion of the tournament.

The blitz games only counted for half as many points as the rapid games, so it seemed as if only Anand and Nakamura could contend for first place as Kramnik would have to outscore both of the leaders by a full point in the blitz to catch up. He nearly did just that, winning two games right away. I particularly liked his victory over Alexei Shirov of Latvia.

Kramnik, who was White, has a pleasant position with the bishop pair and good play against the loose Black queenside. Shirov tried to muddy the waters with 15. … e4!?, but Kramnik calmly took the pawn and defended flawlessly with 16. dxe4! Ne5 17. Rc1! d3 18. Bg2!, when Black’s apparent activity turned out to just be an illusion. It took Kramnik some time to convert his advantage into a win, but his technique was very clean (certainly an impressive feat in a blitz game!) and Black was never given a chance to fight back.

Anand also beat Shirov, which put him into clear first with just two rounds left to play.

In the above position, Shirov was White. He has never been one to shy away from a fight, but this time he bit off a bit more than he could chew with 14. f4?!, which lost a pawn to 14. … exf3 15. Nxf3 Rxe3. He tried 16. Ne5 Be6 17. Qd2, trapping the rook, but after 17. … Rxe5! 18. dxe5 Bxe5, Anand had two central pawns and very active pieces for the exchange and stood a bit better. Shirov should have probably gone into damage control mode here, but he just kept throwing wood on the fire until he abruptly ran out of gas and had to resign on move 27.

Going into the final round, Anand had 10 points, Nakamura had 9.5, and Kramnik had 9. Kramnik had White against Anand, so a win would put him into a tie for first. Anand managed to hold Kramnik to a draw to clinch a share of first, but Nakamura was able to catch up again as he scored another win over Aronian.

Nakamura, who was White, had outplayed Aronian a bit leading up to the position above, but Black’s position should be defensible. Indeed, the simple 27. … Rh8! would hold the h7 pawn and White would still be facing a crisis defending his second rank. Nakamura would probably have to acquiesce to a draw with 28. Rc1 Rg8 29. Rg1 Rh8.

Instead, Aronian chose to race pawns with 27. … Rxc2, but after 28. Rxh7, White’s pawns were much faster as he simply played g4-g5-g6-g7 while Black was unable to manufacture a apssed pawn quickly enough. Nakamura easily collected a full point to tie for first with Anand.

The same two players tied for first last year and Nakamura won in an Armageddon playoff, but this year they just used a mathematical tiebreak formula and Nakamura was declared the champion.

With two consecutive victories in strong tournaments, Nakamura surely heads into the Candidates tournament in Moscow in three weeks full of confidence. For Anand, it was important to bounce back from his disastrous outing in Gibraltar, where he tied for 24th. 


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.