Nakamura’s Miracle

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014. It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup.

And one of these players was having the tournament of his life.

Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014

Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the highest rated chess tournament in history. It was the Sinquefield Cup, held in St. Louis, MO from August 27 to September 6, 2014.

It featured 6 of the top 10 players in the world, including the 23 year-old world champion Magnus Carlsen. Half of the field had ratings over 2800, and, indeed, the average rating of the players was just over 2801. To give some perspective, Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest chess player ever, had a peak rating of 2851. That is an astounding 21 points higher than anyone else until Magnus Carlsen. Only 3 active players in the world today have ratings over 2800, and all of them were in St. Louis for the Sinquefield Cup. And one of these players was having the tournament of his life. Fabiano Caruana, the world's number 2 chess player as of October 2014 Fabiano Caruana, an Italian player who is now the world’s number 2, was crushing everyone in the tournament. Things like this just don’t happen very often at the highest levels of chess. As chess fans are well aware, draws are the most likely outcome between players who may step out of book after as many as 20 or 25 moves (and yes, that is a lot of moves). In St. Louis, Caruana won his first seven games. Seven games in a row against elite competition is such a rare accomplishment that you have to go back to Bobby Fischer to find a comparison. In 1971, Fischer won 13 games in a row leading up to the final candidates match to determine who would challenge for the world championship. His victims included top 20 grandmaster Mark Taimanov, top 10 grandmaster Bent Larsen, and former world champion Tigran Petrosian who was then number 3 in the world. From 1970 to 1972 Fischer won 39, drew 21, and lost only 5, all against the best in the world (and that includes game 2 of the world championship match, which Fischer forfeited). Unheard of. Simply unheard of.

Yeah, I never heard of it.
Yeah, I never heard of it.
Is Fabiano Caruana on such a similar hot streak? Who knows? Caruana is currently playing (and winning) at the European Chess Club Cup, but the competition there is not as consistently high. I can say with confidence that Fabiano Caruana’s 8.5/10 score is one of the greatest, if not the greatest tournament victory of all time. You’d have to go to former world champion Anatoly Karpov’s 11/13 performance at the Linares tournament in 1994 to find a comparison. But this post is not about Fabiano Caruana. It’s about the US champion Hikaru Nakamura who was basically having a crap tournament in St. Louis.
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Hikaru Nakamura, the top rated player in the United States, October 2014
Languishing in last place, Nakamura had 4 draws and 4 losses going into the 9th round in which he was to meet Caruana. Caruana had just had his win streak snapped by Carlsen in the previous round with a draw. But it was a game Caruana probably should have won. So if there ever was a time when you’d expect a one-siding drubbing, this was it. I know from experience how losses can wear on your self-confidence. The anger, the disgust, the contempt…all aimed at yourself for this blunder or that miscalculation. When your head is swirling with putrid emotions, you really cannot play chess well, and getting clobbered over and over is just the thing to do that to you. Remember, chess can break your heart. Well, a one-sided drubbing it turned out to be. [Those unfamiliar with chess algebraic notation should reference this chessboard. Every square has a lower case letter and a number. Note the e4 square in the middle. Pieces are denoted by upper case letters: K=King, Q=Queen, N=Knight, B=Bishop, R=Rook. Pawns are not denoted by letters at all, just the squares to which they move.] algebraicNotation Here’s the game after move 28 for white (Caruana).
28. Kh3 ... Black to move
28. Kh3 … Black to move
According to Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s analysis from Chessbase.com, the position by move 28 is fairly even. But then Nakamura as black begins to find some inaccurate moves. First he plays 28…Rg6, followed by 29. c4 Ne7.
29... Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check along the white arrow.
29… Ne7 (Yellow arrow). White is now threatening check with his rook along the white arrow.
This last move basically allows a check on the back rank. This couldn’t have happened before since the king could have moved to e7 to threaten White’s rook and start blockading White’s passed pawn on e5. But now with his own knight occupying that square, Black has fewer options. Anyway, from that point on Caruana tortured Nakamura. He simply pressured his American opponent by advancing his pawns and his king, and by giving Black less and less breathing room with every move. At one point, Black had to sacrifice a pawn for nothing just to stave off imminent defeat. It got so bad that the commentators for the Sinquefield Cup were predicting Nakamura’s resignation. The computers were giving White an advantage of something like 4 points, which is crushing. No grandmaster should blow such a commanding lead. Indeed, by move 40, White had a forced win. It would involve a counter-intuitive yet elegant sacrifice that most amateurs would never see, let alone consider. Yet for chess grandmasters, finding such moves is their bread and butter. It’s elementary, actually. Here, see if you can find it.
40... Kg7 White to move and crush.
40… Kg7 White to move and crush.
No, I didn’t find it either. White captures the knight with his rook on g6, and then loses his rook when Black recaptures. This is called going down the exchange since a knight is less valuable than a rook, especially in an endgame. So why would White deliberately lose material like this? Well, because he can now march his pawn down the e file to the back rank where it can be promoted to a queen, and there is nothing short of sacrificing his own rook that Black can do to stop it. See for yourself. [pgn height=365 autoplayMode=none] [FEN “8/ppp3k1/r5nR/2p1PKP1/2P4B/8/P1P5/8 w – – 0 40”] 40. Rxg6+ Rxg6 41. e6 Kh7 {The king getting out of the rook’s way to let it defend. Going to the f file to blockade the pawn loses the rook} (41… Kf8 42. Kxg6) 42. e7 Rg8 43. Kf6 Rg6+ 44. Kf7 Rg7+ 45. Ke6 Rg8 46. Kd7 Rg7 47. Kd8 Rg8+ 48. e8Q Rxe8+ 49. Kxe8 {And Black is down a whole piece and completely busted.} [/pgn] At this point, Nakamura could have resigned. No one would have blamed him for it. His position was in shambles…again. Also, considering that he was playing a streaking wunderkind in the middle of a once-in-a-century rampage through the cream of the chess world, yeah…maybe he could have lived to fight another day. I’m sure by move 40 Nakamura was longing for the comforts of home. I’m sure whatever angst he was feeling about his impending defeat was nothing that some Ibuprofen, a tall glass of his favorite beverage, and a watching few Netflix reruns of Breaking Bad on a nice, comfy couch couldn’t cure. I mean, what’s one more loss after you’ve already been handed the big

goose egg 4 times in the same tournament? You get used to losing, really, and then after that it’s not so bad. And the guy who comes in last place still pockets $20,000. So there’s that. losingdemotivator But you see, Hikaru Nakamura didn’t resign. Wunderkind or no, if you’re gonna beat me, I am going to make you work for it every inch of the way. He must have been thinking something like this because he never once stopped fighting. Despite his previous sub-par performances, he never lost faith in himself. He never crumbled under the pressure. And sure enough, Fabiano Caruana missed his elementary win. Short on time, he played bishop to f2 instead, attacking Nakamura’s c pawn but at the same time taking his foot off the gas along the kingside. This allowed Black the time and space to mount sufficient defense to White’s attack. Black started with a check with the knight on e7, and then began threatening white’s pawns on the queenside with his rook.

40... Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking 2 white pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
40… Ne7+ 41. Ke4 Ra4 (Attacking both pawns and pinning one of them to the white king.
Despite White’s brutal onslaught on the king’s side (a rook, 2 pawns, and his king vs. Black’s undefended king), Nakamura was able to gobble up two pawns, exchange his knight for the bishop, and produce a passed pawn of his own along the d file. Most importantly, he was able to get his rook behind White’s king. From such a position, he could harass it at will.
50. Rd7 Rf3+
50. Rd7 Rf3+
From this point on, it was Nakamura’s game to lose. With constant pressure on the white king, if Caruana made the wrong move, Nakamura could actually win. He gave a check on the f file, and the white king moved out of the way along the g file. Note that Caruana had no other choice. Had he moved his king to the e file, it would have been trapped there. Black’s rook controls the f file, and moving the white king the d file would block his own rook and allow Black to eventually queen his pawn. And without king and rook for support, White’s pawn attack stalls. Meanwhile on the queenside, Nakamura’s 3-to-1 pawn advantage looks mighty menacing indeed. Not about to let the king out of his sites, Nakamura followed him to the g file and checked him there. Of course, White’s king had to return to his previous square on the f file. This happened again and again, and a draw was declared after the position repeated itself 3 times. They say that everyone loves a winner. But that’s not entirely true when it comes to chess. In chess everyone loves a fighter. Someone who never stops fighting for the win will always endear himself to the fans. Bobby Fischer once complained about many top players don’t try their best. They play for draws in order to protect their reputations rather than taking risks and playing for the win. “I play honestly and I play to win,” said Bobby. And people loved him for it. Some still do. In round 9 of the Sinquefield Cup, the greatest American player since Bobby Fischer never once stopped fighting for the win. And his near Phoenix-like resurrection from the brink was remarkable to behold. It really does serve as an inspiration for all of us. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings…over your grave. Until then, you fight for the win.