Eat Your Hats, Sirs!
Dramatic battles in Berlin by Hikaru Nakamura and his A group fellow players under Dmitry Kryakvin's microscope
It so happened that the most seemingly exciting part of the 2022 FIDE Grand Prix series, i.e the closing knockout stage in Berlin, has reduced to a purely commercial value. There have been determined two Candidates Tournament participants, them being Hikaru Nakamura (USA) and Richard Rapport (Hungary). The future Candidates Tournament gladiators have shown their exceptional will power and determination qualities. Suffice it to recall Rapport and Dmitry Andreikin's tie-break in Belgrade! Meanwhile, Nakamura has twice qualified from his group literally miraculously, both times thanks to surprisingly dramatic games against Andrei Esipenko, who's inclusion into the Grand Prix series is a thrilling narrative in itself.
I should apologize to other chess players who played in Germany under the FIDE flag and not included in this review – Alexandr Predke demonstrated a brilliant preparation and a real elite performance; as always, Nikita Vitiugov shined with a bright performance to claim an overall victory in the group; Daniil Dubov would not give up no matter the challenging tournament situation. But it is the fights, the ups and downs of Nakamura in group A that will haunt the minds of chess fans for a long time to come. There is one more nuance to keep in mind.
Let me remind you that going into the series, Hikaru had not practiced chess for a long time, but had rather focused on streaming and quickly turned into one of this activity's highest paid representative, the so-called “golden button of YouTube”. FIDE's admission of the dormant GM into the Grand Prix series has loosened a storm of heated discussions. Someone voted in absolute favor, remembering this superstar and fast play genius' merits, others yet were absolutely against it, pointing out to Hikaru's not having participated in the World Cup and Grand Swiss and his missing from the rating list at that.
I am not perfect either as I was also among those expressing negative attitude, and here I am now devoting an entire article to this qualification cycle winner. Meanwhile, passions are still brewing about this subjectx via one of the nowadays banned social networks FIDE General Director Emil Sutovsky, with elegance and warm sentiments that we know him for, called on all the ill-wishers of the American and critics of the International Federation to eat their hats!
So, what was going on in Berlin, after all? Thus, group A included one of the top contenders for the final victory, Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura himself, Andrey Esipenko and Grigoriy Oparin. Andrey again got into the Grand Prix due to Dmitry Andreikin's failure to come — initially the Ryazan grandmaster had passed a positive test for Covid, afterwards he displayed a superb performance in Belgrade. When Dmitry himself got the right to participate thanks to a replacement, he did not come to Berlin and instead was seen crushing the strongest "Title Tuesdays" on chess.com again and again. His not showing up is a pity — it means that he was in excellent shape...
Round one was marked by a bitter defeat of Hikaru from Levon Aronian – Nakamura opted for the Dominguez's miraculous gambit in the Queen's Gambit only to walk into a powerful preparation.
Aronian — Nakamura
Queen's Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e4 b5 4.a4 c6 5.ab cb 6.Nc3 Qb6 7.Nd5 Qb7 8.Bf4 e5 9.Bxe5 Nd7 10.Bf4 Ngf6 11.Nc7+ Кd8 12.Nxa8 Qxe4+ 13.Ne2 Qxa8
This is a novelty compared to the previously seen 14.f3 Nd5 15.Bg5+ f6 16.Bd2 Bd6 17.Ng3 Qb8 18.Кf2 Re8.
The analysis shows 18...Bc7! 19.Ne4 (19.Be2 Bb6) 19...Re8 20.Nc3 Ne7! to be a stronger continuation that allows Black to coordinate his pieces.
19.Be2 Bc7 20.Re1 Bb6? (20...a6) 21.Кg1, and White tucked his king into safety and enjoys clear advantage, as in Aronian – Dominguez, Berlin 2022 (stage 1).
This queen move has a lot more rationale behind it as White wants to complete development without any fireworks.
14...Nd5 15.Nc3 Bb4 16.Be2 Re8
Down the exchange and with his king in the center, Black has nothing better than stepping up the activity of his pieces as much as possible because everything else gives White immediate advantage, e.g.: 16...Nxf4 17.Qxf4 Qxg2 18.0–0–0.
The engine proposes the alternative 17.Кf1 N7f6 18.Bg5 (18.Bf3 Ne4) 18...h6, but it is in any human player to take care of your king safety.
17...N7f6 18.0–0 Ne4 19.Qc2
While Aronian played very quickly, Nakamura was burning much clock. 19...Ndxc3 20.bc Bxc3 21.Rab1 Qd5 22.Bf3 b4 23.Be5 f5 leads to mind-boggling complications and you are free to guess the depth of further home preparation by the Armenian GM flying the USA flag. It felt scary to grab the c3-pawn, but it was an absolute must as otherwise White was geared up to launch the attack along the a-file following some necessary preparation.
19…Bf5?! 20.Bh4+! f6 21.Bf3 Bxc3
Black needs to be on the permanent alert so as not to drop his advanced e4-piece by any chancex 21...Ndxc3? 22.bc Bxc3 23.Bxe4.
22.bxc3 g5 23.Rfe1
The engine insists on 23.Qb2!, but Aronian's move looks no less logical. It was Nakamura's last chance to delve into immense complications with 23...Ndxc3 24.Bg3 b4 25.Qb2 Qb7. After all, he has a chain of most dangerous passed pawns, while his attempt to launch a counterattack against the white king led him to an ultimate failure.
The engine has no doubts about 24.Ra6! and gives +7 at deep calculation level: White is winning after 24…gh 25.Qa2 Nh3+ 26.gxh3 Rg8+ 27.Кh1 Ng3+ 28.fxg3 Qxf3+ 29.Qg2. On the other hand, we will probably live to see the times when after some inaccurate move in the opening the machine will promise a mate in 57 moves, just that learning all the ways of execution by heart will defy a human being.
Levon acts in a more straightforward manner – he wants to infiltrate through the a-file, exchange the rook on e8 and capture on e4.
24...gh 25.Qa5+! Кc8 (25...Кe7 26.Qc7+) 26.Qxb5 loses the game immediately.
25.Qa5+! is tougher, but the text move is sufficient as well.
25...Qxa7 26.Rxa7 Re6
Black's rook needs to abandon the home rank: 26...gh 27.Ra8+.
27.Bxe4 Rxe4 28.f3 Re2 29.Bf2
White is up an exchange and its conversion does not promise any difficulties along the way, but it is at this moment that Nakamura starts to demonstrate his devilish trickery.
In the case of 29...Rc2 30.d5! Nxd5 31.h4 the white pieces will not take long to get to the black king.
30.cb c3 31.Rxe2 Nxe2+ 32.Кh1
32.Кf1 c2 33.Be3 c1Q+ 34.Bxc1 Nxc1 35.Rf7 is winning, but the king in the corner is less vulnerable to a check or a fork. Black is going to queen his pawn and it will cost White the bishop, but he will be down much material anyway.
32...c2 33.Be3 c1R+ 34.Bxc1 Nxc1 35.b5, and despite Black's stubborn defence the rook and pawns proved superior to the black pieces.
Meanwhile, Esipenko and Oparin drew their game, and the next day the GM from Novocherkassk tried to finish off the wounded Hikaru to take revenge on him for the first Berlin derby. Indeed, in his trademark choking style Andrey rather easily outplayed his formidable opponent, but…
Your author, as usually, was looking for something to listen to, and happened to come across a very awesome couple of commentators. A young man wearing headphones cracked very witty jokes and showed encyclopedic chess knowledge, and a girl with a sweet smile constantly demonstrated such a cold and sober assessment of the position that at some point she needed to put on a fur coat! A few moments branded on my memory.
Nakamura — Esipenko
The girl wearing a fur coat claimed that the bishop's transfer to d3 should lead to a complete collapse of White's position: 29...Bb7! 30.Nd2 Ba6. Indeed, Black should have enjoyed a huge advantage (for example, the b1-square will be under control, which means there is no way to oppose the black rooks), and the computer evaluation with each next move becomes less and less appealing for White. Meanwhile, Esipenko committed his bishop to d5, where it looks nice but has no bearing on White's position.
30.Nd2 Rb2 31.Rb1 Reb8 32.Rxb2 Rxb2 33.Rb1 Qb6?!
Black should have kept the rooks on the board via 33...Rc2 or 33...Ra2, even though after 34.Qf1 Qb4 35.Rxb2 Qxb2 36.Qb1 Qa3 37.Кf2 h6 38.Qb5 Qa8 39.f5 Be7 40.g3 Bf6 41.h4 the engine is still happy about Black's position and insists on bringing the bishop to d3. However, if does not feel like Black can squeeze anything from this position. Despite Esipenko's many efforts the game ended in a draw, and the same result happened in another game. As a result, Levon maintained his lead.
In round three Hikaru was one step away from defeat. Grigoriy Oparin played out his trademark variation "modern-Averbakh" and made all the moves known in theory, while Nakamura either forgot something or tried to creatively address the problems that arose.
Oparin — Nakamura
King’s Indian Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Be2 0–0 6.h4 c5
One of the most combative and trendy rejoinders against the Alpha Zero pawn move is to strike in the center.
7.d5 e6 8.h5 exd5 9.exd5 Re8
After 10.hxg6 fxg6! there is no continuation to White's attack, whereas the h6-pawn creates a mating net for the black king, which is a lot more dangerous than it might seem at first glance.
10...Bh8 11.Bg5 Qb6 12.b3
12.Qd2?! Ne4 13.Nxe4 Rxe4 is less efficient, while the а1-rook is in full safety as the black bishop can never take it.
12...Ne4 13.Nxe4 Rxe4 14.Кf1!
The g2-square is an ideal place for the white king. The diagram has occurred in several games already. This is why Hikaru's further actions are subject to wonder.
Correct is 14...Re8! 15.Rh4!? (in Bacrot — Jones, Malmö, 2021, Black got a good position after 15.Rc1 Nd7 because Etienne failed to come up with the classical move 16.g3) – this is an interesting correspondence game, in which Black keeps his ground after 15...a5! 16.Nf3 a4 17.Rb1 Nd7 18.Bd3 ab 19.Rxb3 Qa5 20.a3 Ne5 21.Nxe5 Rxe5 22.Bf4 Qd8 23.g3 Re8 24.Bd2 Bf6 25.Re4 Rxe4 26.Bxe4 b6 27.Qb1 Rb8 28.Bf4 Bd7 29.Qc1 (29.Bxd6? Bh3+) 29...Ra8 30.Кg2, as in Zordik – Girken, email 2016, and the side playing the King's Indian Defence managed to engineer a fortress.
Knowing Oparin's analytical skills, I have no doubt that even here he would have put up the American to pass some kind of test. However, the knight's jump to b4 proved a bluff, and Black's position started deteriorating rapidly.
15...Rd4 16.Qe2 Bg4 17.f3 is a transposition, while 15...Re8 16.a3! Bxa1?? 17.Qxa1 is a complete disaster.
16.f3 Rd4 17.Qe2 Bd7
Black has effectively landed his rook on d4, but there is no lending further support to his paratrooper: 17...Nb4 18.Re1 Be5 19.Be4, and the black forces are in for some bad times ahead.
After 18...Be5 19.Be3 Bg3 20.Bf2 Bxf2 21.Кxf2 Rf8 22.Qb2! f6 23.Re3 Nb4 24.Bb1 the black position is not a walk in the part as the knight is about to land on e2, but the text is an ultimate failure, which Oparin did not fail to point to.
All lines look nice: 19...hxg6 20.h7+ Кg7 21.Qe7 or 19...fxg6 20.Qe7 Rd8 (20...Rxd5 21.Re6; 20...Bf5 21.Bf6) 21.Re6! – the deadly rook jump is in the air with an irresistible threat to take on g6 and deliver a checkmate.
This is when Caissa seemed to have taken mercy on Hikaru. Well, one could understand Esipenko's not winning with the passer on e7 and with all the heavy pieces still on the board in the last Berlin game. As opposed to that, almost any bishop move is winning in this positionx 20.Bh5, 20.Bb1, 20.Bc2, 20.Bd3, 20.Be4, and the most precise is 20.Bf5! Bxf5 (20...Qc7 21.Bxd7 Qxd7 22.cd and White is up a piece) 21.Qe8+. When commenting, the young man and the girl spent a long time figuring out how White would play, and it nearly came to betting on money. Meanwhile, Oparin took a deep think and obviously decided to dispatch his opponent with a loud bang.
20...Кxh7 21.Qc2+ f5 22.cd Be5 23.Ne2
Hikaru immediately grabs at the slightest chance and played in a very collected manner, while White now needs to come up with some non-trivial actions like 23.f4! Bb5+ 24.Ne2 Bd3 25.Qc1 Bh8 26.Кg1, preparing yet another onslaught against the black king.
23...Qa6 24.Кf2 Qd3 25.Qxd3?
White should have retained the queens via 25.Qc1 to be able to deliver a checkmate. Now Black is well compensated by a bishop pair for his small material deficit.
25...Rxd3 26.Rd1 Rxd1 27.Rxd1 a5 28.Rd3 a4
29.f4 Bb2 30.Re3 left some chances for success, not allowing Black to carry out the rook invasion. However, pressed for time, Oparin allowed his opponent to immediately seal a draw.
29...axb3 30.axb3 Ra2 31.Кg1 Ra1+ 32.Кf2 Ra2 33.Кg1 Draw.
The outcome of round one kept the unsteady status quo, where Levon was half a step ahead of the group, and Hikaru trailed a little behind, but the situation changed as soon as the second round began. Oparin besieged and won Esipenko's isolani pawn first and then the entire game, while Nakamura bounced back against Aronian.
Nakamura — Aronian
Black is down a pawn but should compromise his opponent's kingside structure. In the case of 23...Bxf3 24.gf c6! 25.Reb1 (25.Nxb7 cb 26.a5 Ra8 is no better) 25...cb 26.Rxb5 Rxb5 27.axb5 Ra8 28.Кf1 Кf8 29.Nb3 Rxa1+ 30.Nxa1 Кe7 White will not convert his material edge for presence of multiple weaknesses. Aronian wanted to consolidate with a couple of robust moves to launch a counterattack afterwards, but his plan is not without a flaw.
23...b6?! 24.Nc6 Bxf3 25.gf h6?!
In the endgame, the king should rather go the center: 25...f6.
26.Rac1 Кh7 27.Rc4 Rg5+ 28.Кf1 Rh5
That's what Black is after — one of White's pawns is about to fall prey to the rook. However, while the rook is busy hunting, Whites achieves its goals thanks to the most powerful centralization of his pieces.
Better is 29...Nf4.
The rook takes control of the f4-square at once!
30...Rh1+ 31.Кg2 Ra1 32.Nxg6?
32.Nf5! Ra2 33.Rxc7 Rxa4 34.Rb7 looks like an immediate winner since Black is completely tied down on the kingside, and White is about to push his passed pawns forward. Rook endings are notoriously drawish for a reason, and after the text Aronian gets excellent chances to bail out.
33...Rf5!! 34.Ree7 Rg5+ 35.Кh2 Ra2 36.Rxg7+ Кh8 was a forced draw, and if White refuses to deliver a perpetual check, it will be delivered by Black!
This move is beyond understanding. Why did not Levon fight for a draw with 34...Ra3 35.Ree7 Rg8 36.Rb7 Rd3? It seems that he was tired – and in the last round the former tournament leader could no longer stand the tension.
35...Rg8 fails to 36.d6 – White is dominating on the refreshment stall rank and due to the powerful passed pawn.
36.d6 Rf5 37.Rxg7+ Кh6 38.Rh7+ Кg5 39.d7 Rd5 40.f4+
Bypassing the last trap: 40.Rc8? Rxd7
Black, in turn, sidesteps the mini-trap: 40...Кxf4 41.Rc8 Rxd7 42.Rc4+. However, it no longer influences the game outcome.
42.Rc8! Rad4 43.Rxg6 Rxd744.Rc1 Rd1 45.Rxd1 Rxd1 46.Rxb6 Кg4
Black is out of the mating net, but there is no stopping the white passed pawn: 46...Rb1 47.Rb8 Кg4 48.b6 h4 49.b7.
47.Rb8 Кxf4 48.b6 Rd7 49.Rf8+
This was perhaps the last trap in the game: 49.b7? Rf7, but Hikaru skilfully places the rook behind the pawn, which is an immediate game over.
49...Кe4 50.Rf3 Black resigns.
The inspired Hikaru "was in his element" and managed to outplay the unpredicted leader, who, strictly speaking, played better than anyone else in this group and deserved to qualify into the semi-finals.
Nakamura – Oparin
White's king position is subject to worries, which was best highlighted by 26...Кh7! 27.Qh4 (27.Qxe5? Rc5 28.Qe3 Bg2; 27.Qxf7? Rf6) 27...Qg1, with serious threats. However, Oparin allowed his opponent to gradually exchange off all rooks.
26...Rf6?! 27.Rd8+ Rxd8 28.Qxd8+ Кh7 29.f3 Be4?!
29...Bxf3? 30.ef Rxf3 fails to 31.Кd2! Rxf1? 32.Qd3+, winning the entire rook. On the other hand, 29...Bc6! 30.Rd6 Qg1 looked good, and White needs to come up with some precise play yet: 31.Rxf6 Qxg3+ 32.Кd1 gxf6 33.Qxb6 (33.Qxf6 Qg6) 33...Bd5 34.Qxf6 Qf2, with a rough equality.
30.Rd6! Rxd6 31.Qxd6 Qg1
31...Bf5 32.Qxb6 Bh3 33.Qf2 gives nothing, and Nakamura end up grabbing a pawn. True, Black's drawing chances remain significant, and at deep analytical level the engine even shows an evaluation of 0.00.
32...Bb1!? 33.g4 Ba2 looks a tricky way to stop the pawns, but Oparin's plan to create a passed pawn also looks quite reasonable.
33.g4 f6 34.Qf4 Qc5 35.Qd2 f5! 36.gxf5 Bxf5 37.e3 Qe5 38.f4 Qe7 39.Bg2
I think that keeping in mind of the decisive game against Esipenko from round one, Nakamura would have opted for a transposition into the queen endgame right away via 39...Be4. It is easier to deliver checks against the white king and the h-pawn is even more dangerous with the bishops off the board.
40...h4 should have been preferred. Now with the black queen in his camp, Hikaru will look for ways to trade the queens.
41.Кf1 Qg4 42.Qd2 h4 43.Qe2 g5?
Black should have retreated with 43...Qg6, no matter how unpleasant it looked. The bishop ending is dangerous for black because White may find himself fighting back from a position known as pants.
44.Qxg4 Bxg4 45.Bc6
White should have started with 45.a4!
45...Кg6 46.b4 gf 47.ef Кf6
It's unpleasant to defend such an endgame as Black, but he should have preferred 47...Bc8, asking his opponent to demonstrate the way to win. The text allows Nakamura to queen one of his pawns without any problems.
48.a4 Кe7 49.Be4 Кd6 50.f5 Bd1 51.a5 ba 52.ba Кc5
52...Кe5 fails to 53.a6.
53.f6 Bb3 54.Bd3 Кd6 55.a6 Bd5 56.a7 Кc7
In the case of 56...Кe6 57.Кg1 Кxf6 the fate of the game is sealed by the typical 58.Bf1 Кe5 59.Bg2.
57.a8R Black resigns.
Hikaru was already in the share of first with Aronian, but the last round revived the intrigue! Esipenko, who got the order of the rounds wrong and did not really prepare for Levon, was eager to show Nakamura his preparation, and Oparin, who had risen like a Phoenix bird, knocked out Aronian! Had Esipenko brought his game to victory, Oparin would have landed directly in the semi-finals; in case of a draw there would have been a tie-break between Nakamura and Oparin. However, there happened neither of the above...
Esipenko – Nakamura
White has sacrificed a pawn and drummed up a fierce attack, but is there a winning continuation after all? Let us check the following line: 27.Nf6 Ne8! 28.Nxh7 Кxh7 29.Rh3 Кg6! 30.Rf5 Qa1+ 31.Кg2 (31.Rf1 Qe5 leads to a draw) 31...Bxf5 32.gf+ Кf6 33.e5+ Кe7 34.Qxg5+ f6 35.Ng8+ Кd7 36.e6+ Кc8 – White is seriously down in material, and the black king has escaped!
Where White has gone wrong? The white rook advance to f5 is met by the black queen delivering a check from a1. This is why the engine votes for 27.c3!! and claims that Black's position is resignable. Hopeless is 27...a5 28.Nf6 Ne8 29.Nxh7 Кxh7 30.Rh3 Qc5+ (30...Кg6 31.Rf5) 31.Кh1 f6 32.Nf7+ with an ultimate defeat, whereas 27…cd 28.ed f5 (28...Bd7 29.Rxf7; 28...Bxd5 29.cd f5 30.Qxg5 Qxd5 31.gxf5) 29.de Qxe6 (29...Nxe6 30.Rxf5) 30.Qxg5 is no better than that as White is up an exchange and keeps his fierce attack going.
Esipenko made the move that begged to be played, but Nakamura managed to get rid of his weak f7-pawn by tactical means.
27...f5! 28.gf Bxd5 29.ed Nh5! 30.Re1
In search of a missed victory, White creates problems for himself. 30.Ng4 is an easier way to maintain equality.
30...Qg7 31.Ng4 Nf4 32.f6 Qd7
It is not so easy to calculate such lines as 33.h3 h5 (33...Nxh3+ 34.Rxh3 Qxg4+ 35.Rg3 Qf4 36.Re6) 34.Rxf4 gf 35.Re7 Qf5 36.Qh4, and the exchange sac does not spoil anything.
33...gf 34.Qxf4 Rde8
35.Rxe8 Qxe8 (35...Rxe8? 36.f7) 36.Qxd6 Rg8 37.h3 h5 38.Qe6 was a nice draw, forcing transition to an equal pawn ending via: 38…cd 39.cd hg 40.f7 Qxe6 41.de gh+ 42.Кh2 Кg7 43.fgQ+ Кxg8 44.Кxh3 Кg7 45.Кg4 Кf6 46.Кf4 Кxe6 47.Кe4. Now the white passed pawn is in danger.
35...Qf7! 36.Кh1 Qg6 37.Rg1?
Simply ditching the f6-pawn. 37.c5!? looks like the last practical chance.
37...h5 38.Ne3 Rxf6 White resigns.
If only Andrey had won at least one of his winning positions from Hikaru, and who knows who would be eating his hat now? Undoubtedly, the young chess player's time of best performance is yet to come. I wonder, how many of these three winning opportunities would be converted by Alireza Firouzja, Esipenko's age peer?
In the end, having deeply analyzed the games, I would like to share my feeling that those elite fighters in the forefront of the Candidates Tournament in Spain will be looking forward to playing Nakamura, and with great pleasure at that. However, be as it may, the participation of a popular streamer and, in fact, the poster image of the largest portal chess.com will definitely ignite the event, even more so that Hikaru's games are rarely boring.