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. 

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.

Pelletier, Yannick vs. Gelfand, Boris
ZCC 2017 - Opening Blitz | Zurich | Round 1.1 | 12 Apr 2017 | ECO: D45 | 0-1
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Qc2 Bd6 7. b3 O-O 8. Be2 b6 9. O-O Bb7 10. Bb2 Qe7 11. Rad1 Rad8 12. Rfe1 Rfe8 13. Bf1 e5 14. cxd5 e4 15. Ne5 Nxe5 16. dxe5 Bxe5 17. dxc6 Bxh2+?! 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. Kxh2 Ng4+ 19. Kg3
19. Kg1 Qh4 20. Bb5 Qh2+ 21. Kf1 Qh1+ 22. Ke2 Qxg2 23. Nxe4! Is the point. Black has back rank problems and is losing.  )
19... Qe5+ 20. f4 Qh5 21. Rxd8?? Sadly, Pelletier overlooked the forced mate. He was still winning had he played
21. Nxe4 which frees up the f3 square for his king. The knight remains immune because the rook on e8 is tied to defending the back rank.  )
21... Qh2+ 22. Kxg4 h5+ 23. Kg5 Qg3+ 24. Kxh5 g6+ 25. Kh6 Qh4#

The difference in the competition was Nakamura’s win over Gelfand. It was an excellent game and showed the power of the two bishops.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Gelfand, Boris
ZCC 2017 - Opening Blitz | Zurich | Round 3.1 | 12 Apr 2017 | ECO: A30 | 1-0
1. c4 c5 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. e3 e6 5. d4 cxd4 6. exd4 Ne7 7. Nc3 O-O 8. d5 exd5 9. cxd5 d6 10. Nf3 Bg4 11. O-O Nd7 12. Qa4 Bxf3 13. Bxf3 Gelfand made a sound decision to trade his bishop for the White knight, but the two bishops eventually propel Nakamura to victory.
13... Nc5 14. Qd1 Rc8 15. Re1 Nf5 16. Bg4 Qf6 17. h4 Rfe8 18. Rxe8+ Rxe8 19. Bg5 Qd4 20. Bxf5 Qxd1+
20... gxf5 21. Qxd4 Bxd4 22. Nb5 Should be good for White. Black's pawn structure is clearly worse, yet Gelfand retains excellent drawing chances.  )
21. Rxd1 Bxc3
21... gxf5 Now this move would be too late. White could continue:
22. Nb5 Which is tough for Black.  )
22. Bxg6 Bxb2 23. Bf5 Kg7 24. Kf1 h6 25. Be3 b6 26. Rb1 Bf6 27. Rb4 h5 28. Bf4 Be5 29. Bd2 Bf6 30. Bh3 Re4 Nakamura 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. Bg2 Rxb4 32. Bxb4 a5 33. Bd2 Bd4 34. Bf4 Nb7
34... Be5 35. Bxe5+ dxe5 Would 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. Bh3 Be5 36. Be3 Nc5 37. g4 hxg4 38. Bxg4 Nakamura shows the power of the outside passed pawn. Gelfand has a much more difficult time pushing his pawns.
38... b5 39. h5 b4
39... Ne4 Was 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. h6+ Kh8
40... Kg6 Was 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.  )
41. Bf5 b3 42. axb3 Nxb3 43. Bc2 a4 44. Ke1 Nc5 45. Bc1 Not
45. Bxc5 dxc5 46. Bxa4 Kh7 And the game will be drawn.  )
45... Nb3 46. Ba3 Nd4
46... Kg8 47. f4! Nd4 48. fxe5 Nxc2+ 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. Bxa4 f5 48. Bc1 Kh7 49. Bd1 f4 Gelfand has established an interesting bind. Nakamura decides to get his king moving.
50. Kd2 Kxh6 51. Kd3 Nf5 52. Ke4 Kg5 53. Bd2 Ne7 54. Ba5 Ng8 55. Bd8+ Nf6+ 56. Kd3 Kf5 57. Bf3 Kg6
57... Ba1 Is a bizarre move to play, but it cements the king on e5. There's no way Nakamura can break the setup.  )
58. Kc4 Nh7
58... Kf5 59. Kb5 Bd4 was still holding.  )
59. Be4+ Kh6 60. Kb5 Ng5 61. Bf5 Nf3
61... Bd4 62. Be7 Bc5 63. Kc6 Nf7 Is tough for Black to fin, particularly with just seconds left. But it looks tough for White to win.  )
62. Be4 Nd2 63. Bd3 Bd4 64. Bc7 Now the knight is misplaced on d2 and can't get back to defend the pawns.
64... Bxf2 65. Bxd6 Be3 66. Bf8+ Kh5 67. d6 f3 68. Be7 Bf4 69. d7 Bc7 70. Kc6 Ba5 71. 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.