Hikaru Nakamura has won the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz with three rounds to spare, remaining unbeaten and winning both the rapid and blitz sections, but a perfect day was spoilt by losing the no. 1 spot on the blitz live rating list. Magnus Carlsen is now the world no. 1 in classical, rapid and blitz and lost no time in trolling Hikaru with what the US star called “some ridiculous tweet”. Fabiano Caruana’s hopes of first place died when he lost to Hikaru, but he took clear second place, with Richard Rapport sealing 3rd.
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Caruana’s short-lived battle for 1st
“I thought maybe if I have a good blitz day today there’s still some hope,” said Fabiano Caruana of his attitude going into the final day of the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, and the way he cut Hikaru’s lead to two points in the first round of the day was cause for optimism. He landed the killer blow 30.Rxg7! against Peter Svidler…
…but confessed afterwards that he hadn’t had it all worked out.
The thing is when I saw 30.Rxg7 I was very happy, I thought this is the end of the game, and 33…Re6 comes on the board, and I think, oh my God, I’m losing, because 34.dxe6 Nf6, I have one move which doesn’t lose, I thought how is this possible, I’m taking his rook, I’m up a bunch of pawns and I’m attacking him, and I lose my rook.
There was a solution, however:
And then I saw 35.Rxc5! and it was a huge relief that I have this move and I don’t lose on the spot.
In fact after 35…Qd6 36.Qg7! everything was working out move by move for Fabi, who went on to win in 40 moves.
That set up the next game perfectly, with Fabiano taking on Hikaru with the chance to cut his opponent’s lead to a mere point. Fabi had Black, but by move 29 he had real chances.
The key move here was 29…Nd4!, attacking the d5-pawn and freeing up a path for the f-pawn. The point is that after 30.Bxd4 exd4 you can’t play 31.Qxd4? due to 31…f5!, winning a piece, as the e1-rook is undefended.
That would have been game on, but instead after 29…Rd7 it was Hikaru who took over, before going on to win smoothly as black pawns began to drop.
With a 3-point lead the tournament was essentially decided, with the win over a completely out-of-sorts Jeffery Xiong in the next round emphasising the point. Hikaru then cruised with draws, some easier than others…
…until he clinched 1st place despite missing a win in an 84-move game against Peter Svidler.
In the end he would win by a full three points.
World Champion trolling
Hikaru clinching first meant he was free to focus on other goals for the last three rounds. As he explained:
When you come into an event normally there’s one primary goal, which is to win the event, that’s obviously your first goal. Very rarely do you end up in a situation where you can potentially have additional goals, and for me coming into this final day the first thing was to make sure I locked the tournament, which I think was pretty clear from about Round 4, then there’s the second one, which is try to keep the no. 1 ranking, try and win some games at the end, which is why I started really opening it up in the last three or four games, and then there’s the third one, to not lose any games. I accomplished one of those two additional goals, so overall it’s just really hard to complain. I enjoyed it and it was fun to be back in Saint Louis and I’m sure I’ll be back again soon.
The two additional goals — winning games on demand and staying unbeaten — were arguably contradictory, but Hikaru managed to walk that tightrope and went into the final game against Liem Quang Le knowing that a win would see him remain the blitz world no. 1. Hikaru had the black pieces, but nevertheless, Liem’s 21.Bh6? gave him a chance.
Hikaru picked up a pawn with 21…Bxh6 22.Qxh6 Nxb2 but was unable to squeeze out a win, commenting:
If I look back I’m probably the player who shows the most emotion over the board and I don’t know, but I feel like I wasn’t shaking my head until maybe the game against Liem today, and I think that says a lot as well… It wasn’t so much the result, because a draw was fine, but it’s just that Liem blundered this pawn on b2 and I thought I would have winning chances, but he actually played really well in the blitz and he defended extremely well in the game after he blundered this pawn, and I just didn’t have chances to win.
In fact it seems Hikaru’s best chance was to play differently immediately with 21…Nxb2! in the position above. Black would have a huge advantage after 22.Qxb2 Bxh6, so instead we would likely get 22.Bxg7 Nxd1!, when Hikaru might have feared 23.Qh6 and Ng5, but 23…f5! would solve that issue.
The draw in the game did mean that Hikaru fulfilled the unstated goal of winning the blitz section as well as the rapid — he scored 12/18 compared to Liem Quang Le’s 11.5/18, with the Vietnamese star climbing from last place to 5th overall during the blitz. What Hikaru hadn’t managed to do, of course, was keep the blitz no. 1 spot on the live rating list.
Magnus Carlsen, now the world no. 1 in classical, rapid and blitz chess, didn’t waste long to do a little trolling, which Hikaru had seen before he was interviewed.
Maybe towards the end I was a little bit unhappy because of course this +6 score in blitz, I lost some like 16 points, and Magnus made some ridiculous tweet about it, but overall I would say that it was just the fact that I was relaxed throughout and just very chilled. It didn’t matter if I won or lost.
Hikaru had still had a wonderful tournament, with Garry Kasparov commenting, “it’s a pity Hikaru’s not playing the full cycle, because his instincts in blitz and rapid are still phenomenal”. Unlike most of the participants who now have just one day’s rest before playing the Sinquefield Cup, the US star can go back to his day job of streaming.
It was a curiosity that the top four in the overall standings were also placed in order of their scores on the second day of blitz — Nakamura: 6/9, Caruana 5.5/9, Rapport: 5/9 and So: 4.5/9. Richard Rapport was happy to have performed much better than in Paris, but had some regrets:
Just kind of for no reason I threw out a few points which would make the tournament much more interesting!
He had games to celebrate as well, however, including the end to his wild game against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, where each of his moves got to play on the fact that Qb2 would be checkmate, if it was allowed.
37…Rb1+! 38.Kxb1 Rb5+ 39.Kc1 Qxc3+ 40.Bc2
And now the other rook delivered the final blow: 40…Rb1+! White resigned. When it was pointed out to Richard that he’d got lucky, since he was also dead lost a few moves earlier, he responded:
I figured this is blitz with a 2-second increment — you can take some risks when it comes to attacking the king. I think people are going to blunder eventually, and the question is just who will blunder last!
When it comes to overall tour standings it had been a good event for Wesley So and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who overtook Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, while Fabiano Caruana is also within touching distance of the top three spots, for which prizes will be given out.
Fabiano hasn’t been happy with his year:
It’s been not the best is an understatement. Every event has been a huge disappointment except for Wijk aan Zee at the start of the year. Since then it’s just been disappointment after disappointment, so this is a nice little bounce-back.
When asked about his tour chances, Fabi pointed out that it had helped him that Levon Aronian, Anish Giri, Teimour Radjabov and Alexander Grischuk had either been unable to travel or unwilling to play given Covid restrictions:
I’m kind of lucky that half the players have played less events than me — that helps quite a lot!
It’s worth watching Fabi’s interview if only for Yasser Seirawan’s unstoppable laughter after that comment!
So the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz is over, but the Sinquefield Cup already starts on Tuesday. Remarkably, and again due to pandemic-related travel issues, the field still hasn’t been announced, but Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is one player we didn’t see in the Rapid & Blitz who’s expected to start.
We’ll have live commentary here on chess24 with the one and only Alexander Grischuk!