Making the difference in the bullet portion, Hikaru Nakamura defeated Wesley So on Sunday to win his first Speed Chess Championship title. The final score was 15.5-12.5 for Nakamura.
This Speed Championship event started with an invitational qualifier on June 26 followed by an open qualifier July 10. In the bracket rounds between July and December, Nakamura ( @Hikaru) beat Hou Yifan 27.5-2.5, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 21.5-13.5 and Levon Aronian 17-12 to reach the final. So ( @GMWSO) beat Wei Yi 18.5-9.5, Vidit Gujrathi 16.5-10.5 and Jan-Krzysztof Duda 20-7.
What about the mutual history of the finalists? Well, in OTB (over-the-board) rapid and blitz play, Nakamura (who will turn 31 in a week) beat So (who turned 25 in October) 11 to 4, with 14 draws.
Nakamura reached a Chess.com final for the third straight year, with only Magnus Carlsen being a mountain too high in the 2016 GM Blitz Battle and the 2017 Speed Chess Championship. (This year the Norwegian didn’t participate.)
So has had his speed successes as well. For instance, he came second in both the 2016 and 2017 Leuven Grand Chess Tour rapid and blitz, and finally won the event this year.
The SmarterChess model said Nakamura was a two-to-one favorite over So:
The match started at noon Pacific time, which was 2 p.m. for So but 9 p.m. for Nakamura, who was playing from Italy. As always, the first part of the match consisted of 90 minutes of 5+1 blitz.
It was So who took an early lead with a fine positional game as Black. Allowing the pawn endgame was a mistake from Nakamura, but the endgame seemed lost anyway.
After a draw in game two, a crazy third one followed—despite a rather timid opening sequence. Nakamura was constantly better and showed one of the typical advantages of having the bishop pair: you can trade one set of bishops, and you still have a bishop versus a knight!
However, in this case the trade (and subsequent pawn sac) involved a tactical error after which it was just equal, but So played too passively and got into trouble anyway. Nakamura then missed a simple win and shook his head as he only noticed it after playing a different move, but ended up winning anyway.
After a draw and a win for both sides, Nakamura played one of his best games of the whole match in game seven. With lots of head-bobbing (to the music he was listening to), he showed great endgame play based on superb calculation.
Commentators GM Robert Hess and IM Danny Rensch managed to show and explain almost all the critical lines, but were still stunned when they noticed the checkmate on h8 at the end of the variation in the final position.
So made a good comeback, but Nakamura won game nine to take the lead again. However, in the final five-minute game it was So again who took the point home, and so the score was all equal once more. I didn’t help that Nakamura lost about 90 seconds during the game being absent from his computer (probably due to a toilet break) and maybe at that exact moment he could have tried an exchange sacrifice.
5+1 segment score
After a solid draw, So again was the first to take the lead, now in the three-minute portion. Nakamura managed to double White’s f-pawn in another Italian game, but this was actually favorable for White. But, as it happens in blitz, that was not the end of the story.
Nakamura once tried the Giuoco Pianissimo as White and drew. The opening was seen 12 more times in this match with So as White.
Afterward, Nakamura said that the Italian was a good opening to keep playing as Black as he wasn’t too happy with how he was playing initially: “I felt it made sense to stay solid. If that wasn’t good enough then that’s how it goes and Wesley deserved the win.”
Three decisive games followed: first another for So, who thus took a two-game lead, but then two in a row for Nakamura. As the players ended with four straight draws, the score was still equal going into the bullet segment!
The first of those three decisive game saw a rather instructive knight endgame.
It’s interesting to note that even after this match, So kept his unbeaten record in all three-minute segments.
3+1 segment score
Nakamura won the first bullet game to take the lead in the match, a joy he hadn’t felt for 11 games. This time, he wouldn’t let go anymore—whereas he had in fact lost the bullet portion against Aronian the day before, he wouldn’t lose a single bullet game this time around.
Together with the commentators, So got confused over a pawn endgame and lost a drawn position, but it was understandable as he had been playing more or less on his one-second increment for about 10 moves already. (Earlier in the game, Nakamura had been winning.)
With the following game, the last decisive one in the match, Nakamura took a three-game lead. It was a typical example of his bullet prowess. The endgame might have been a draw several times, but So couldn’t hold against this opponent.
In the next battle Nakamura showed a well-known tactic that he’s used before (along with e.g. Alexander Grischuk): using the match clock against the opponent by taking as much time as possible in a game that would normally have been agreed to a draw already. First, he premoved dozens of moves with his bishop and then, when So took that bishop (thereby missing a chance to end the game quicker based on the 50-move rule!), Naka then also premoved a bunch of king moves. Luckily, So could be seen laughing about it on the camera as well.
1+1 segment score
According to the regulations, $5,000 would go to the winner and an additional $5,000 was going to be split by win percentage. As a result, Nakamura won $7,767.86 in this final and So got $2,232.14.
Asked whether he would have signed up for going into the bullet on an equal score, So said: “The shorter the time control, the bigger Hikaru’s advantage gets. Before the match I was hoping maybe I can try to get some lead because I knew that when the bullet comes, it’s very hard to control the situation. As you can see from the match, once the bullet game starts, Hikaru just played fantastically.”
“In general I felt if I am not down more than two points than I would have very good chances in bullet,” said Nakamura. “Wesley played much better than I did pretty much the first two hours, maybe a little more than that. I think I was quite lucky.”
So continued complimenting his opponent: “Hikaru is not only good at complex and complicated positions but also in endgames, so I have to choose the least of two evils. I either get outplayed in an an endgame, or I go for a complex position and I somewhere blunder a piece, that’s always the issue.
“I think I was just playing too slow in the bullet,” So said. “It’s very hard to compete against Hikaru in that regard. Congratulations for winning the Speed Chess Championship.”
Nakamura agreed that having certain opening systems ready for bullet, like an early Nf3 and b3 which he plays often these days, makes sense: “In general the reason for that is to avoid theory and basically make it where you have to find good moves really quickly. I’m probably gonna keep doing that. I think in bullet, playing main lines is a bit silly. (…) In general you have to play good moves, play on intuition.”
Replay the live broadcast of the final.
And so another Speed Chess season has come to an end. You can find all information about the competition here. Chess.com’s next big event will be the 2019 PRO Chess League season, which starts on January 8, 2019.