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20 Mar

A Fined Performance

Amazingly for such a high-profile event as the Moscow Candidates’ Tournament, after all the hullabaloo over what transpired to be the costly “J’adoube” moment of madness from Hikaru Nakamura in his game with Levon Aronian, it was a mystery to a seasoned hack such as myself why no journalist at the press-conference asked a question about the incident.  The only player there was Aronian, as Nakamura was a no-show as he eschewed the niceties of the press conference, to instead head straight to his hotel room in a bad mood with no cats daring to get in his way - and that turned out to be a another costly decision for the reigning US champion.

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All the players are contracted to appear in the press conferences without any exception; and with Nakamura not attending, he got hit by the double whammy of losing what was a drawn game and also now fined by organiser’s Agon 10% of his final winnings (currently somewhere around €4,000 - roughly $4,500 - which will rise the higher he goes; up to a limit of €9,500, in the unlikely event that he somehow comes in first after his dreadful first half of the campaign).

Wisely, Agon waited until after Nakamura’s next round ‘Battle of the Bottom’ tussle with Veselin Topalov before informing him, rather than having it influence the mood of a player. So it turned out to be both a fine and a fined performance from Nakamura as won his first game. And this was the only decisive game of the round as the tournament now reaches the halfway mark, so Nakamura made a little ground on the field in the standings - but he’s still a long way off leaders Sergey Karjakin and Levon Aronian in the race to become Magnus Carlsen’s challenger in November.

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Round 7
Karjakin draw Aronian
Giri draw Anand
Svidler draw Caruana
Nakamura 1-0 Topalov

Standings: 1-2. Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 4.5/7; 3. Viswanathan Anand (India) 4; 4-5. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands) 3.5; 6-7. Peter Svidler (Russia), Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 3; 8. Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 2.

Photo © | Moscow Candidates Tournament

GM Hikaru Nakamura - GM Veselin Topalov
FIDE Moscow Candidates, (7)
Slav Defence
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 The Slav Defence has a reputation of being a solid option for Black. 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6 There is the other option of 6...Be4 7.f3 Bg6 that weakens g3 - but the drawback is that in several lines f3 control the e4 square, which in turn Black really wants to put his knight. So swings and roundabouts. 7.Nxg6 hxg6 8.Rb1 Ironically, it was Topalov himself who introduced this move into praxis, first playing it in his infamous ‘Toiletgate' World Championship match with Vladimir Kramnik back in 2006. 8...Nbd7 9.c5 a5 Black delays for now the option of the immediate 9...e5 10.b4 a6 that will see White playing a4-b5 etc. By delaying ...e5 and playing ...a5, Topalov is hoping that he can make use of the open a-file. 10.a3 Be7 As we said earlier, Topalov was the originator of this line, and indeed he would have been well aware that 10...e5 11.b4 axb4 12.axb4 Qc7 13.f4! led to White having a nice space advantage from the stem game  Topalov-Kramnik, 2006. 11.g3! White has to be careful not being too hasty with the queenside assault, as the tempting 11.b4 is strongly met by 11...b5! that throws a spanner in White's plans, as Black has total control over the e4 square. And now, if White continues on his merry way with 12.g3 axb4 13.axb4 there will come 13...Ne4! 14.Nxe4 dxe4 15.Bg2 f5 16.f3 Nf6! where Black will have e4 secured and also a hold of the d5 square. And coupled with the active rooks on the open a- and h-files, Black is doing more than OK here. 11...e5 12.Bg2 e4 Now it becomes a fight of whose pawn chain is the better of the two. 13.b4 axb4 14.axb4 Nf8 15.b5 Ne6 16.Bd2 0-0 There's no future on the h-file, so Topalov castles his king to safety. 17.Na4 Ng5 Both sides are pitching their stalls by "going for it" on opposite wings. 18.h4? Nakamura admitted afterwards that he had underestimated Topalov's plan here, and allowed his opponent serious counterplay. Instead, both players believed best was 18.0-0 Qd7 19.Nb6 Qf5 20.f4! more or less transposes to the game, but stymying any counterplay. 18...Nf3+! Taking full advantage for now of the knight on a4 being under attack. Can Black generate enough counterplay for his position? 19.Bxf3 exf3 20.bxc6 bxc6 21.Nc3 Bxc5!? Well, this is a typical Topalov response to being tied up - he goes immediately for the most complicated and dangerous way out. But there was the cool head way to proceed with 21...Qd7!? 22.Qxf3 Bd8! 23.0-0 Ba5 and despite being a pawn down, Black has lots of play in this position, as he'll exchange off the knight on c3 and have total control of e4 for his knight. That, along with the possibilities of Black playing a later ...Qg4 or ...Qh3 - and with all the pawns on the one side of the board - will make life difficult trying to attempt to win this for White. However, as I said, the move played in the game is typically Topalov. 22.dxc5 d4 23.exd4 There's no other option left now, as 23.Na4 the knight falls after 23...dxe3 24.Bxe3 Qxd1+ 25.Kxd1 Rxa4 and Black is winning. 23...Qxd4 The simpler route to saving this for Topalov could have been preventing Nakamura from castling with 23...Re8+ 24.Be3 Ra3! as that seems to force White into the line 25.Rb3 Rxb3 26.Qxb3 Qxd4 27.Nd1 Qd7! leaving White wondering just how he's going to get his king to safety AND develop his rook on h1. Not easy in this position. Meanwhile, if White does nothing, Black will increase the pressure with ...Nd5. 24.0-0 Very brave with that pawn on f3 - but Nakamura calculates his king is safe for now, as Black will need to keep defending the pawn on ...f3 -at least that's what he thought. 24...Qg4 25.Re1 Rfd8 Now the ...f3 pawn does come into play, as Topalov is threatening ...Rxd2 and ...Qh3 mating. 26.Rb2 The only move, as 26.Re3? falls into Topalov's cunning plan, as now comes 26...Qh3 27.Rxf3 Ng4 28.Rb4 Qh2+ 29.Kf1 Rd3! and the Black attack is crashing through to win. 30.Rff4 Rad8 31.Rxg4 Rxd2 32.Qf3 R8d3 33.Qg2 Rd1+ 34.Nxd1 Rxd1+ 35.Ke2 Qxg2 36.Kxd1 Qxf2 and Black is much, much better. 26...Rd4 27.Re7! The only move that keeps Nakamura in the game here. Without it, he's a goner as Black will double rooks on the d-file and win like the note in the previous variation. 27...Rad8 28.Qb3 The hit on f7 is what more than saves the day for Nakamura. 28...Rf8 29.Qd1 Rfd8 30.Qb3 Rf8 After all the complications and having to think through the ramification, Nakamura repeats a couple of times to save some time on the clock to move closer to the time control. 31.Nd1 (See Diagram) 31...Nd5?! Both players felt afterwards that this was the start of the losing thread.  It is a complicated position for sure, with both kings more or less tied down to defending mating threats, but what Topalov missed was 31...Qf5! (threatening ...Rd3 followed by ...Qh3 mating) 32.Re3 Qd7! 33.Qc2 Rd8 and Black's back in business as he's removed the f7 threat and now winning back his piece. However, it all likely ends in a draw after the forced liquidation with 34.Rxf3 Rxd2 35.Qxd2 Qxd2 36.Rxd2 Rxd2 Black holds a little edge in the position due to the White c-pawn being the weaker - but this should end in a draw. 32.Re5 Kh7? Two weak moves in a row seals Topalov's fate here. But with the digital clocks now metaphorically ticking down, Topalov can't find what the cold reality of the playing engine easily calculates here , with 32...Ra8! when he's still holding the position, as its too dangerous for White to play 33.Ra2 Rxa2 34.Re8+ Kh7 35.Qb8 g5 36.h5, as Black can just sacrifice his queen and still emerge for the dust with the winning position after 36...Qxh5! 37.Rh8+ Kg6 38.Qb1+ f5 39.Rxh5 Raxd2! 40.Qb7 Kxh5 41.Qxg7 R4d3 42.Kh2 Kg4! 43.Qh6 Nf4! 44.gxf4 Kxf4 and with this ice-cold refutation in the heat of battle, we are left wondering why machines are beginning to take over? 33.Kh2 Now if White gets in Ne3 he's just a piece to the good here. 33...Nf6 34.Be3 Rb8 I did like Topalov's philosophical response here in the post-game press conference with the players: "This would be the perfect move if it was not losing." 35.Qxb8 Rxd1 36.Rb1 And this is the reason why Topalov's "perfect move" was losing. 36...Qd7 37.Rg5 Ne4 38.Rxd1 Qxd1 39.Qf4 1-0 Despite the imperfections on both sides, this was a wonderful scrap to watch.

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