On Saturday GM Hikaru Nakamura won the 2020 Speed Chess Championship final presented by OnJuno. The American grandmaster decided matters in the bullet segment as he defeated GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 18.5-12.5 to win his third Speed Chess title in a row.
Early in the competition, Nakamura stated that his half of the bracket was tougher than Carlsen's. You could say that, after eliminating Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was actually the one having survived the toughest half. The big question was: could he do it again in the final?
Up until the third bullet game, the answer was "yes" as the Frenchman with three names was actually leading by a point there. That's how close things were.
However, where Carlsen clearly had an off-day, Nakamura didn't. The American GM got himself together, rose to the occasion, and won five games in a row there to decide the match in his favor and claim his third title in as many years.
"It was a very tense and very difficult final match," Nakamura said afterward. "I think there were a few critical moments where both Maxime and I had a chance to maybe take a big advantage which could have perhaps been insurmountable. But it remained very close and in the end, I was just able to keep it together and play a couple of good bullet games."
Nakamura pointed out that Vachier-Lagrave was basically an equal opponent until just a few games before the end: "It was very evenly balanced. Maxime played extremely well so a lot of credit to him for playing a fantastic match."
The match started with an atrocious blunder by Vachier-Lagrave that you normally don't see happening in a five-minute game. Perhaps the fact that he started with two losses against GM Magnus Carlsen in the semifinal before beating him, helped MVL to get over this.
After two draws, the Frenchman leveled the score and then took the lead right away with another win. He showed great calculation, as he would do throughout the match.
Then it was Nakamura's turn again. He won games seven, eight, and nine. Maxime then took the last five-minute game which meant that into the first break, Nakamura was leading 5.5-4.5. Nakamura had himself to blame for dropping to plus one instead of making plus three before the break. He was completely winning and then spoiled a drawn rook endgame.
In the middle of the three-minute segment, with 8-8 on the scoreboard, Vachier-Lagrave made a rare error in his calculations. Instead of winning prosaically, he went for the brilliancy prize but lost material and the game.
The three-minute segment ended in a tie which meant that Nakamura was still leading by a point at the start of the bullet. Even though this is his natural habitat, he lost the first two 1|1 games.
The first one, Nakamura afterward admitted was an extraordinarily good game by the Frenchman for this time control.
"This first bullet game was insane when he found this 22...Bd6 move," Nakamura said. "I calculated this whole tactic with this Ne5, Nf5 idea, and then Maxime found 21...Rxc1 and 22...Bd6 which was amazing. It was an incredible find in a bullet game especially."
Hikaru Nakamura – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
21…Bd6! 23. Ndc6 Bxc6 24. g4 Bb5! 25. Qxb5 Qh6 26. Re1 Ng6 27. Re2 Bxe5 28. Bxe5 Qg5! 0-1
The turning point of the match came after those two bullet wins by the Frenchman. To his credit, Hikaru shook off tough losses, brought complete focus, and scored 8/9 to win the match.
"First of all, congrats to Hikaru," said Vachier-Lagrave. "Of course, there were moments where I put up a great fight, but in the end, I think he deserved to win and played more consistently."
Maxime wasn't surprised that he took an early lead in the bullet phase: "I am nowhere near Hikaru's level in 1|0 but in 1|1 I can give it a fight even though at the end I sort of started drifting away."
Nakamura praised his opponent: "First of all, a lot of credit has to go to Maxime, not just in the bullet but throughout the match because he defended extremely well. It felt like he was defending a lot better than traditionally he has in a lot of games."
The 2020 Speed Chess Championship Main Event was a knockout tournament among 16 of the best grandmasters in the world who played for a $100,000 prize fund, double the amount of last year. The tournament ran November 1-December 12, 2020 on Chess.com. Each individual match featured 90 minutes of 5+1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3+1 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1+1 bullet chess.
Text: Peter Doggers