He showed off his blitz skills on Monday to win his third straight Zurich Chess Challenge

Hikaru Nakamura of the United States had a co-leader every day during the Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge. At the tournament’s conclusion, he stood alone.

Monday, in the blitz competition, Nakamura, the No. 2 ranked blitz player in the world, pulled away from the rest of the field to win the tournament. He finished with 15 points, a point ahead of Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia, and 1.5 points ahead of Viswanathan Anand, the former world champion from India.

Nakamura and Nepomniachtchi had been tied at the end of the slower part of the competition, but Nakamura scored five points in seven blitz games on Monday, while Nepomniachtchi’s final-round loss to Grigoriy Oparin, one of his compatriots, prevented him from keeping pace. 

Nakamura earned his third straight title in Zurich thanks to consistent play throughout the event. He actually accomplished two distinct three-peats, as he won the opening blitz competition in this year’s event (tying with Boris Gelfand of Israel for first), shared the “new classical” title with Nepomniachtchi, and struck gold in Monday’s blitz finale.

Unlike the opening blitz tournament, which did not affect the tournament standings and had a time control of four minutes per player with two seconds increment per move, Monday’s segment was 10 minutes for all moves, with a five-second increment. This time control suited Nakamura just fine.

He kicked off the scoring with a technical win over Yannick Pelletier of the host country, who had a very rough event competing against much higher-rated opposition. As Nakamura soared, Pelletier floundered; the Swiss grandmaster finished in dead last.

Pelletier, Yannick vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
ZCC 2017 - Blitz | Zurich | Round 8.4 | 17 Apr 2017 | ECO: D37 | 0-1
Ra7 45. Nd3 Paradoxically, sacrificing material was the way to maintain equality.
45. Rxc6  )
45... Nf5 46. Nf4 Rh2+ 47. Kg1 Rh4 48. Rxc6 Nxe3 49. Rf6 Nf5 50. Ne2 Ra2 51. Rc7 Rxe2 52. Rfxf7+ Kg8 53. Rfd7 Re8 54. Rc6 Ne7 55. Re6 Rh7 56. Rxd5 Nxd5 57. Rxe8+ Kf7 58. Re5 Nc3 59. b4
59. Rc5 Was the last opportunity to hold a draw. The problem for Black is that his king and rook lack coordination.
59... Ne2+ 60. Kf2 Nxd4 61. Rc7+ Kg8 62. Rc8+ Kg7 63. Rc7+ Is unavoidable.  )
59... Rh4 60. Rc5 Ne2+ 61. Kf2 Nxd4 62. Kg3 Rh1 63. Rd5 Nf5+ 64. Kf2 Rh2+ 65. Kg1 Rg2+ A nice finesse!
66. Kh1 Rxg5 67. Kh2 Nh4 Another one! The knight is tricky, and threatens forks at every turn. Down a full piece, Pelletier resigned.

Nepomniachtchi fell half a point off pace by drawing Peter Svidler, another Russian representative in the tournament. In the second round of blitz, Nepomniachtchi defeated Vladimir Kramnik, the former World Champion from Russia, in the notorious rook-and-bishop versus rook ending, but Nakamura stayed ahead of Nepomniachtchi by demolishing Oparin.

Nepomniachtchi, Ian vs. Kramnik, Vladimir
ZCC 2017 - Blitz | Zurich | Round 9.4 | 17 Apr 2017 | ECO: D36 | 1-0
63. Bxb5 Kg5 This ending is theoretically drawn, but in blitz it is nearly impossible to hold. It's just much simpler to deliver checkmate than to prevent it.
64. Rf2 Re1 65. Be2 Ra1 66. Bf3 Kf4 67. Be4+ Kg3 68. Rf8 Ra4+ 69. Ke3 Ra3+ 70. Bd3 Kg4 71. Rg8+ Kh5 72. Ke4 Ra4+ 73. Kf5 Kh4 74. Be4 Kh3 It's hard to blame Kramnik for this mistake considering he had no time.
74... Ra6 is the only drawing move. It is hard to find with almost no remaining time. The point is to keep the rook within reach of the king.
75. Kf4 Kh5 Holds because the rook defends from the sixth rank.  )
75. Kf4 Kh2 76. Rg2+ This precise move pushes the king to h3, lest it fall victim to a discovered check. It forces Black's 77th move, which costs him a rook.
76... Kh3 77. Rg1 Ra2 The only move (besides rook takes bishop) that prevents checkmate in one.
78. Rg8 Kh2 79. Rh8+ Kramnik resigned, since his rook is lost after Rh1+ followed by Rh2+.
Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Oparin, Grigoriy
Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge | Zurich | Round 9 | 17 Apr 2017 | 1-0
1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 b5 3. Bg2 Bb7 4. Na3 a6 5. c4 b4 6. Nc2 e6 7. O-O Be7 8. d4 Be4 9. a3 bxa3 10. b3 O-O 11. Bxa3 d6 12. Ne3 c6 13. Qd2 Nbd7 14. Nd1 Qb6 15. Nc3 Qxb3 16. Ne5 dxe5 17. Bxe7 exd4 18. Nxe4 Nxe4 19. Bxe4 Rfe8 20. Bxc6 Ra7 21. Qxd4

The third round of blitz was peaceful among the leaders. The only decisive result was a win by Gelfand over Kramnik, but by then both players were out of contention. In Round 4, Kramnik suffered his third straight loss, this time at the hands of Nakamura. Nepomniachtchi could only draw with Gelfand, so Nakamura had a full point lead with three rounds to go.

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Kramnik, Vladimir
ZCC 2017 - Blitz | Zurich | Round 11.3 | 17 Apr 2017 | ECO: A07 | 1-0
39. Rd3 b5
39... Re4 Seems more logical. White's pieces are tied down, which should provide Black sufficient compensation to hold a draw. However, it is likely that this would transition to a similar ending as in the game.  )
40. axb5 Rb2 41. Rxd4 Rxb5 42. Kh2 g5 43. Rd6 f6 44. Kg3 Kg6
44... a4 Was a superior option. Black wants to keep his pawns connected, and now Kramnik's rook will support the advance of his a-pawn from either behind or beside the pawn. Nakamura would have much more difficulty winning the game.  )
45. Ne3 gxf4+ 46. Kxf4 Rb4+ 47. Kf3 a4 48. Ra6 Rd4 49. Ng2 Kg5 This is the losing move. Kramnik cannot keep his king in an advanced position.
49... Rb4 50. Nf4+ Kg5 51. Ra5+ f5 52. Ng2 Rb3+ 53. Ne3 a3 54. Rxf5+ Kh4 55. Ra5 h5 Looks extremely bizarre, but the point is that Nakamura can't defend his last pawn because of the pin on his knight. Moreover, the checkmate configuration is only possible with the current setup. Kramnik can just wait a move before capturing on h3.  )
50. Ra5+ f5 51. Ne3 Rd3 52. Rxa4 Rd6 53. Ra5 Rf6 54. Ng2 Rb6 55. h4+ Kg6 56. Nf4+ Kh7 57. Rxf5 Rb7 58. h5 Ra7 59. Rb5 Rd7 60. Ke4 Rf7 61. Re5 Ra7 62. Nd5 Ra1 63. Re7+ Kh8 64. Kf5 Rg1 65. Nf4 Kg8 66. Ra7 Rf1 67. Ra6 Kg7 68. Rg6+ Kh7 69. Rg4 Ra1 70. Nd5 Kh8 71. Kg6 Ra5 72. Rc4 Ra6+ 73. Nf6 Rc6 Amusing, but Nakamura is not about to stalemate his opponent.
74. Rd4 Rd6 75. Rd5 Rd7 76. Nxd7

In their Round 5 matchup, Nakamura and Nepomniachtchi drew after just 19 moves. It was surely a disappointing result for Nepomniachtchi, who had the White pieces and would have caught Nakamura if he had won their direct encounter. Anand played a nice game against Gelfand, but the win was too little, too late.

The sixth round saw Nepomniachtchi narrow the gap. Nakamura’s blistering start to the blitz began with wins over Pelletier and Oparin, by far the two lowest-rated players in the field. Nepomniachtchi, an elite rapid and blitz player, faced them in the final two rounds, giving him legitimate chances for a comeback. So while Nakamura was held to a draw by Gelfand, Nepomniachtchi beat Pelletier, who erred with his seconds dwindling.

Pelletier, Yannick vs. Nepomniachtchi, Ian
ZCC 2017 - Blitz | Zurich | Round 13.3 | 17 Apr 2017 | ECO: A34 | 0-1
1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nb4 6. Bb5+ Bd7 7. a3 N4c6 8. d4 cxd4 9. Nxd4 Nxd4 10. Qxd4 Nc6 11. Qe3 g6 12. O-O Bg7 13. Rd1 O-O 14. Bxc6 bxc6 15. Na4 Qc7 16. Bd2 Be5 17. g3 Bg4 18. Rdc1 Rfd8 19. Bc3 Bxc3 20. Rxc3 Rd6 21. Kg2 Qd7 22. h4 Rd8 23. Nc5 Qc8 24. Rd3 a5 25. Rc1 h5 26. Rxd6 exd6 27. Nd3 Re8 28. Qd4 Qd7 29. Nf4 Be6 30. Qc3 c5 31. Qxa5 Qb7 32. Qd2 Qxe4+ 33. f3 Qb7 34. Re1 Rb8 35. b4
35. Nxe6 Qxb2 36. Qxb2 Rxb2+ 37. Kf1 fxe6 38. Rxe6 Is equal.  )
35... Bc4 36. Qxd6 cxb4 37. axb4 Ra8
37... Qxb4?? Would have fallen for a well-known tactic:
38. Re8+ And the rook on b8 is overloaded.  )
38. Rd1 Ra3 39. Nd5
39. Qd8+ Was a necessary move to survive. It would have forced a draw or required Nepomniachtchi's king to leave its protection on f7.
39... Kh7 40. Nd5 Be2 41. Nf6+ Kg7  )
39... Ra2+ 40. Kg1 Bxd5 41. Qxd5
41. Qd8+ Was once again a useful check to include.  )
41... Qb6+ 42. Qd4 Qe6 43. Rf1? The real culprit for the loss. Pelletier freaked out in time pressure.
43. Qc3 threatened mate with Rd8+ and held the balance.  )
43... Qh3 Now Nepomniachtchi penetrates the kingside, which quickly collapses.
44. Rf2 Qxg3+ 45. Kf1 Qh3+ 46. Kg1 Ra8 47. b5 Re8 48. Qb4 Rd8 49. Qb1 Qg3+ 50. Rg2 Qxf3 51. Kh2 Qf4+ 52. Kg1 Qd4+ 53. Rf2 Qg4+ 54. Kh2 Rd1

Entering the final round, Nepomniachtchi was half a point behind. Nakamura’s quick draw with Anand put all the pressure on Nepomniachtchi: he had to win his game to tie for first. Not only could he not accomplish that, he even lost the game to an opportunistic Oparin. Greed proved good for the Russian teenager.

Nepomniachtchi, Ian vs. Oparin, Grigoriy
Kortchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge | Zurich | Round 14 | 17 Apr 2017 | 0-1
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Nb3 e6 7. g4 b5 8. a3 Bb7 9. Bg2 Nfd7 10. g5 Nc6 11. h4 Be7 12. f4 h6 13. Qg4 b4 14. Ne2 bxa3 15. bxa3 Qc7 16. Bb2 hxg5 17. hxg5 Rxh1+ 18. Bxh1 g6 19. Qh3 Na5 20. Qh8+ Nf8 21. Nxa5 Qxa5+ 22. Bc3 Qc5 23. Qh3 e5 24. Rb1 Bc6 25. Bb4 Qc4 26. Rb3 Bb5 27. Bf3 a5 28. Bd2 Bd7 29. f5 Qxc2 30. Rc3 Qb1+ 31. Rc1 Qb3 32. Nc3 Rc8 33. Qf1 Bxg5 34. Bxg5 Rxc3 35. Rxc3 Qxc3+ 36. Kf2 gxf5 37. Qb1 Ne6 38. Bf6 Nd4 39. Be2 Qc2 40. Qxc2 Nxc2 41. exf5 Bxf5 42. a4 Bd7 43. Bd1 Nb4 44. Bg5 Nd3+ 45. Kg3 Nb2 46. Be2 Nxa4 47. Bd2 Nc5 48. Bxa5 Ke7 49. Bb4 f5 50. Ba3 Kf6 51. Bc4 Be6 52. Bb5 f4+ 53. Kf3 Kg5 54. Bc6 Bg4+ 55. Kg2 e4 56. Bxc5 dxc5 57. Bxe4 Kf6 58. Kf2 Ke5 59. Bg6 Kd4

Nepomniachtchi’s loss put the seal on Nakamura’s victory. 


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.