15 Jul

Hex Hexed

It’s often been said that just two words prevented Hikaru Nakamura from becoming the world’s No.1 player: and those words are “Magnus” and “Carlsen”.  For some strange reason, Nakamura has lived under a hex cloud that has prevented him from playing against the World Champion, at least in classical chess.  And the hex has been so bad, that over the last 11-years, Nakamura has lost 12 and won none with 18 draws - but finally, the 4-time U.S. champion managed to break the hex, thanks to yet another hex!


These two arch-rivals met in the opening round of the Bilbao Masters Final in the Spanish Basque Country - and the opening round is easily the best time of all to play Carlsen, as the world champion has his own little hex with a long history of losing in the opening round. And that’s exactly what happened, as Carlsen somewhat optimistically over-reached and found himself being comprehensively outplayed by Nakamura.

I’m sure inside Nakamura had to be doing all sorts of Korbut flips and double somersaults at finally managing to beat Carlsen, but he looked somewhat calm when he turned up to do the post-game press conference, described his win offhandedly as “not that big of a deal.” At least now Nakamura has done something that Alexei Shirov couldn’t do with his hex, because a generation ago Garry Kasparov won 15 games, without ever losing to his Latvian arch-rival.


And with all the other games in the opening round being drawn, Nakamura took the early lead in the tournament - but in round 2, Carlsen stormed back to his winning ways as he overpowered the young Chinese wunderkind, Wei Yi, to record the only win of the round, as he ominously moved into second place, just a point behind Nakamura at the top.

Photo © | Bilbao Masters Final

1. Hikaru Nakamura (USA) 4/6; 2. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 3; 3-5. Wesley So (USA), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Anish Giri (Netherlands) 2; 6. Wei Yi (China) 1. (In Bilbao, the three-point rule applies for a win, with 1 point for a draw)

GM Magnus Carlsen - GM Hikaru Nakamura
Bilbao Masters Final (1)
Sicilian Dragon, Fianchetto Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Ne2 The Keres or Chameleon variation. It was named after Paul Keres, who had a fondness for it, even playing it against Bobby Fischer at the 1962 Curacao Candidates Tournament. Mainly play transposes back into a mainline Sicilian with White playing Nbc3 and d4 - but Black has to be careful he doesn't fall into a bad line of the Closed Sicilian, or perhaps even finessed into a bad mainline Sicilian. 2...d6 3.Nbc3 a6 4.g3 g6 5.Bg2 Bg7 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 We're now back in known territory: The Fianchetto Dragon. 7...Nf6 8.0-0 0-0 9.b3 Carlsen want's to contest the long, dark-square diagonal. 9...Nc6 10.Nxc6 bxc6 11.Bb2 Qa5 12.Na4 Bg4 13.Qe1! Qh5 I'm sure Carlsen would have been very happy with 13...Qxe1 14.Raxe1 and a typical trademark grinding position. Nakamura, however, would rather keep the queens on the board to play to his strength of complicating matters. 14.f3 Bh3 15.g4!? Carlsen seems to be in an 'adventurous' mood. The solid options were 15.Rd1 or even 15.c4 and a big clamp on the d5-square. 15...Qh6 16.Rd1 g5 17.Bc1 Bxg2 18.Kxg2 Qg6 19.h4 Opening the h-file looks attractive but preventing ...d5 with 19.c4 looked the right way to go here. 19...gxh4 20.Qxh4 d5! Too late now, because this puts the kibosh on c4 - now Carlsen has to be careful he's not dominated in the centre and the game opens up, because if it does, it will only be to Nakamura's benefit. 21.g5? This is just wishful thinking - Carlsen has nothing here for the pawn, and Nakamura reacts energetically to make the most of his advantage. 21...dxe4 22.f4 e6 Stopping f5 - and with it any kingside attack from Carlsen. Nakamura is a pawn up, but Carlsen can try and hit on those two weak Black pawns on the queenside. But a pawn is a pawn. 23.c4 Rfd8 24.Rde1 Ne8! Activating his bishop and shoring up the defence of e4 by ...Nd6. 25.Nc5 Nd6 If the pawns were equal, then Carlsen would have a small advantage to work with his wonderful knight on c5 hitting a6 and e4. But Nakamura has a pawn, and he intends to hold on to it! 26.Qf2 f5! 27.Bb2 Nf7 Nakamura has the d-file, and with ...Nf7 he's looking to play an eventual ...e5 to create two powerful passed pawns. It's a bad position for Carlsen - but we've seen him save worse than this in the past, and quite a few times against Nakamura! 28.Bxg7 Kxg7 29.Qg3 Rd6 30.Rd1 Rad8 31.Rxd6 Rxd6 32.Qc3+ Kg8 33.Rf2 Qh5 Also very strong was 33...e5 34.fxe5 (Hopeless was 34.Qg3 Rd1! 35.Rf1 Rxf1 36.Kxf1 Qd6 with a big winning advantage.) 34...Qxg5+ and Black is winning. However, Nakamura takes the uber-cautious approach, having seen Carlsen escaping from seemingly unpleasant positions against him in the past. 34.Qh3 Qd1 35.Qe3 e5! Carlsen's position is in ruins now, with little he can do to remedy this. 36.Qg3 Rg6! (See Diagram) Nakamura again finds the clinical move that further increases the pressure on Carlsen. 37.Kh2 exf4 38.Qxf4 Qh5+ 39.Kg1 Qd1+ 40.Kh2 Qh5+ A typical repeating of the moves to safely reach the time control, and then go in for the kill. 41.Kg1 Nxg5 Also winning was 41...Rxg5+ 42.Rg2 Qg6 - but Nakamura has stronger by bringing another piece into the attack on Carlsen king. 42.Qb8+ Kg7 43.Qe5+ Kh6 44.Qf4 Qd1+ 45.Kh2 Qd4! Carlsen is either getting mated or losing his knight. 46.b4 Kg7! With the double whammy of ...Rh6+ or ...Nf3+ leading to mate. 47.Qc7+ Kh8 48.Qc8+ Rg8 49.Qxf5 Nf3+ 50.Kh3 Qd6! 0-1 Carlsen resigns, as he can't counter the dual mating threats of ...Qh6 nor ...Qg3.  

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