Nakamura Positions Himself to Defend Title in Zurich
ByRobert HessApr 13 — 9:00 AM
Image by David Llada / Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge
He won the blitz tournament to award seedings in the Kortchnoi Zurich Classic
Hikaru Nakamura is giving himself every opportunity to win the Zurich Chess Challenge yet again.
Nakamura, the two-time defending champion from the United States, won the opening blitz competition on Wednesday that is used to determine the seedings in the tournament. That will give him four Whites vs. three Blacks in the main event. The tournament, which has been rechristened the Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge, after the legendary grandmaster who died last year, gets underway Thursday.
Nakamura won the blitz competition by edging out Boris Gelfand of Israel on tiebreaks. Nakamura and Gelfand, who was a late replacement for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, scored 4.5 points apiece in the seven-round competition. Vladimir Kramnik of Russia finished in clear third with 4 points, while his compatriot Ian Nepomniachtchi rounded out the top four with 3.5 points.
Viswanathan Anand of India also scored 3.5 points but had to settle for fifth place. Grigoriy Oparin, a Russian teenager rated just 2604, who qualified based on his result at the Nutcracker battle of the generations last December, impressed with 3 points. Yannick Pelletier, the top local Swiss player, who rebounded well after starting with three straight losses, and Peter Svidler, a seven-time champion of Russia, rounded out the field with 2.5 points each.
Nakamura has long been considered one of the world’s top few blitz players and surely is happy to have finished ahead of such a talent-laden field. The time control of 4 minutes per player with a 2-second increment suited him well.
David Llada / Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge
Boris Gelfand during the 2016 Zurich Chess Challenge
Gelfand was good friends with Korchnoi and he indirectly paid homage to him with several crushing victories on Wednesday, including the following one over Pelletier.
1. d4d52. c4c63. Nf3Nf64. Nc3e65. e3Nbd76. Qc2Bd67. b3O-O8. Be2b69. O-OBb710. Bb2Qe711. Rad1Rad812. Rfe1Rfe813. Bf1e514. cxd5e415. Ne5Nxe516. dxe5Bxe517. dxc6Bxh2+?!In a blitz game, a sacrifice like this is perfectly reasonable. There are complications that are hard to calculate with mere minutes on the clock. Yet White is simply winning with proper play. 18. Kxh2Ng4+19. Kg3
( 19. Kg1Qh420. Bb5Qh2+21. Kf1Qh1+22. Ke2Qxg223. Nxe4!Is the point. Black has back rank problems and is losing. )
19... Qe5+20. f4Qh521. Rxd8??Sadly, Pelletier overlooked the forced mate. He was still winning had he played
( 21. Nxe4which frees up the f3 square for his king. The knight remains immune because the rook on e8 is tied to defending the back rank. )
1. c4c52. g3g63. Bg2Bg74. e3e65. d4cxd46. exd4Ne77. Nc3O-O8. d5exd59. cxd5d610. Nf3Bg411. O-ONd712. Qa4Bxf313. Bxf3Gelfand made a sound decision to trade his bishop for the White knight, but the two bishops eventually propel Nakamura to victory. 13... Nc514. Qd1Rc815. Re1Nf516. Bg4Qf617. h4Rfe818. Rxe8+Rxe819. Bg5Qd420. Bxf5Qxd1+
( 20... gxf521. Qxd4Bxd422. Nb5Should be good for White. Black's pawn structure is clearly worse, yet Gelfand retains excellent drawing chances. )
( 21... gxf5Now this move would be too late. White could continue: 22. Nb5Which is tough for Black. )
22. Bxg6Bxb223. Bf5Kg724. Kf1h625. Be3b626. Rb1Bf627. Rb4h528. Bf4Be529. Bd2Bf630. Bh3Re4Nakamura has an advantage with rooks on the board, but trading them gives his king more access. Black hopes that he can hold his position together, but in blitz this is very difficult to do. 31. Bg2Rxb432. Bxb4a533. Bd2Bd434. Bf4Nb7
( 34... Be535. Bxe5+dxe5Would have been great for Nakamura, as the passed d-pawn
coupled with the weak h-pawn give him a huge advantage. Bishops are much
better than knights in endings like these, because their scope is much greater. )
35. Bh3Be536. Be3Nc537. g4hxg438. Bxg4Nakamura shows the power of the outside passed pawn. Gelfand has a much more difficult time pushing his pawns. 38... b539. h5b4
( 39... Ne4Was probably necessary. Black would have the possibility of both Nc3 and Nf6, and it does not appear possible for White to maintain the status quo. Gelfand would have been able to draw. )
( 40... Kg6Was a better option. The game continuation allowed Nakamura to cut off Gelfand's king, whereas this variation is simple: Black intends to play Ne4 and f5. )
( 45. Bxc5dxc546. Bxa4Kh7And the game will be drawn. )
45... Nb346. Ba3Nd4
( 46... Kg847. f4!Nd448. fxe5Nxc2+Would have been an impossible variation for Gelfand to calculate in time trouble. If Black is hanging on, it's by a thread. The separated passed pawns are hard to stop. )
47. Bxa4f548. Bc1Kh749. Bd1f4Gelfand has established an interesting bind. Nakamura decides to get his king moving. 50. Kd2Kxh651. Kd3Nf552. Ke4Kg553. Bd2Ne754. Ba5Ng855. Bd8+Nf6+56. Kd3Kf557. Bf3Kg6
( 57... Ba1Is a bizarre move to play, but it cements the king on e5. There's no way Nakamura can break the setup. )
( 58... Kf559. Kb5Bd4was still holding. )
59. Be4+Kh660. Kb5Ng561. Bf5Nf3
( 61... Bd462. Be7Bc563. Kc6Nf7Is tough for Black to fin, particularly with just seconds left. But it looks tough for White to win. )
62. Be4Nd263. Bd3Bd464. Bc7Now the knight
is misplaced on d2 and can't get back to defend the pawns. 64... Bxf265. Bxd6Be366. Bf8+Kh567. d6f368. Be7Bf469. d7Bc770. Kc6Ba571. Bb4!Nakamura wins the knight, so Gelfand tipped his king. The game was a long struggle in which the two bishops showed their might over the Black knight.
The Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge is seven rounds from April Thursday through Sunday with a time control of 45 minutes per player with 30 second increment after every move. In this segment, players receive two points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss. On April Monday, April 17, the competitors will then play another blitz event, this time with 10 minutes and 5 second increment, with each victory counting as one point and each draw as a half point.
Robert Hess is a former United States Junior Champion, recipient of the 2010 Samford Award (the most prestigious in the United States for young players) and was runner-up in the 2009 United States Championships. A 2015 graduate of Yale University, he is the chief operating officer of The Sports Quotient, a statistically-based sports site that he co-founded. He can be found on Twitter at @GM_Hess.