The 2015 Showdown in Saint Louis at the Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis took place November 12 – 15, 2015. The Showdown showcased America’s two highest rated grandmasters: U.S. Chess Champion, Hikaru Nakamura versus Fabiano Caruana. In a second match-up, Chinese Grandmaster and former Women’s World Champion, Hou Yifan, played against Indian Grandmaster Parimarjan Negi. Whenever the two best players in any discipline square off against one another, it is an occasion to be savored. American chess fans were especially eager to see America’s best face-off against one another and the Showdown in Saint Louis did not disappoint! The formats for both matches were unique. It was a four day event with each day featuring a different chess discipline. Day one featured a round of “Basque chess” where the players play their opponents in two simultaneous games against one another — one with Black and one with White. The time control was 90 minutes per player for the whole game with a 30 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. Two hard fought games between Hikaru and Fabiano ended in draws. The players split the first day 1-1.
Day two featured four games of Fischer Random chess played at a time control of 20minutes per player for the whole game with a 10 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. In Fischer Random, the pieces are shuffled along the first rank with both armies reflecting the new starting position. There are 960 potential starting positions, so Fischer Random is sometimes called, “Chess 960.” We were fortunate that former World Champion Garry Kasparov was in Saint Louis at the time of the match doing a nation-wide book tour promoting his new work, “Winter is Coming.” Kasparov chose eight potential starting positions and our Twitter audience chose their favorite four positions that the players would contest in an online poll. Fabiano drew first blood in the match but Hikaru bounced back with two victories to win the Fischer Random games 2.5-1.5. By virtue of that score Hikaru led the match 3.5-2.5 going into day three. Tellingly, in one of his post-game interviews, Hikaru reckoned that he was a favorite in Basque Chess, Fischer Random and Blitz Chess. However, he allowed that Fabiano’s best chances were in the Rapid games portion of the match. He was absolutely right!
Day three featured four games of Rapid chess with a time control of 15 minutes per player for the whole game with a 10 second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. Caruana drew both games he began with the Black pieces but won both games where he controlled the White pieces. Fabiano took the Rapid games by a score of 3-1. By the end of day three, Fabiano had reversed his “minus one” score in the match and led the match by a “plus one” score of 5.5-4.5. It would all come down to the final day!
Day four featured eight games of Blitz chess with a time control of three minutes per player for the whole game with a two second bonus for each move made beginning from move one. It seemed that everyone was in unanimous agreement: Hikaru as the highest rated Blitz chess player in the world (!) was the prohibitive favorite to win the Blitz chess games portion of the match. The only questions remaining seemed to be: Was Fabiano’s one point lead good enough to hold the match tied, or would Hikaru’s presumed victory in Blitz be so great that he would win the match outright. It seemed that not quite everyone was in agreement: At least Fabiano didn’t get the memo. Fabiano stunned the entire chess world by winning the Blitz chess games by a final score of: 4.5-3.5, with the final result being that Fabiano Caruana won the Saint Louis Showdown with 10 points to Hikaru Nakamura’s 8 points. This allowed Caruana to claim the winner’s $60,000 purse as well as serious bragging rights in American chess circles.
The secondary match during the Showdown in Saint Louis was even more decisive. Parimarjan Negi won both Basque games to take a 2-0 lead. The commentators were concerned that Hou Yifan, having traveled from China, was in trouble. Could she right her campaign? After all, her experience in Fischer Random chess didn’t exist. Hou Yifan however played wonderfully, decisively with the Fischer Random games 3.5-0.5, to take a one point lead in the match. Hou Yifan also took the Rapid games 3-1 and held a three point lead going into the final day. Her Blitz skills were on show there as well as she won the blitz games 4.5-3.5 resulting in an impressive final score of 11 points for Hou Yifan to seven points for Parimarjan Negi. For her fine performance, Hou Yifan, picked up a winner’s purse of $30,000.
Let’s now turn to the action and capture some of the thrills and spills of the two matches.
We are picking up the action from game one in the first Basque game:
Rossolimo Sicilian [B30]
Fabiano Caruana (2787)
Hikaru Nakamura (2793)
Showdown Saint Louis - Basque (1.1), 12.11.2015
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.d3 g6 6.h3 Bg7 7.Nc3 Nd7 8.Be3 b6 9.Qd2 h6 10.0-0 e5 11.Nh2 g5 12.Ne2 Nf8 13.Ng3 Ng6 14.a3 0-0 15.b4 cxb4 16.axb4 Nh4 17.f3 f5 18.exf5 Nxf5 19.Nxf5 Bxf5 20.Ra6 Qe7 21.Ng4
From the diagrammed position and at first sight, it appears that White can be satisfied with his position. He has the obvious maneuver: Ng4-f2-e4, in mind, keeping the e5-pawn blockaded. Thereafter, he will double Rooks along the a-file putting formidable pressure on Black’s Queenside pawn structure. Black would be forced onto the defensive. Hikaru takes a bold approach, sacrificing a pawn to seize the initiative and to give himself winning chances.
A very fine move indeed. Black’s g7-Bishop now plays an active role in the game, controlling the a1-square preventing the above mentioned plan.
22.dxe4 Rfd8! 23.Qe1?!
A very understandable slip: Fabiano wants to hold onto his extra pawn, thus he keeps his b4-pawn protected. The problem is that now Black keeps his light-squared Bishop to harass White’s Rooks. At the time, it wasn’t obvious, but White should have returned the pawn by: 23.Qe2 Bxg4 24.hxg4 Qxb4, with a roughly balanced position.
23…Be6! 24.Ra3 Bc4 25.Rf2 h5! 26.Nh2
Black’s aggressive play has reaped considerable dividends. Since his pawn sacrifice, Black’s pieces are finely posted while White’s army has been thrown backwards. Hikaru could now crown his fine play by: 26…a5! 27.Bxb6 Qxb4 28.Qxb4 axb4 29.Rxa8 Rxa8 30.g4 Ra1+ 31.Kg2, a forced variation that both players had seen. Hikaru had evaluated the position as “balanced” and thought his choice in the game gave him the best winning chances. If he had calculated one move further, he would have found: 31…Bc3!, realizing that White’s Rook is trapped! He would have soon won the Exchange with a considerable advantage.
Let me be the last in a long line of chess grandmasters to complain that chess can be a very cruel game. This slip gives White the time he needs to get his Knight back into play.
27.Ra4 Qe5 28.Nf1! Qb5 29.Ra1! Bxa1 30.Qxa1 Bxf1 31.Rxf1
As we see in our next diagrammed position, Hikaru has completed the plan he initiated on move twenty-six. He has won an Exchange in this variation as well. However, there is a huge difference between the two variations. In the game position the Queens remain on the board. This factor is greatly in White’s favor. Why? Because of the respective King’s positions. Black’s pawn shield has advanced, leaving his King vulnerable to a Queen’s attack and likely perpetual check. This vulnerability will give White the counter play he needs to offset his material deficit.
Hikaru now spent some time to reassess the situation. White’s threat of a Queen invasion by: 32.Qf6, has to be prevented. Clear. But which side has the advantage now?
31…Rd6 32.Qa2+ Kg7 33.Qb2+?!
Fabiano now misses his best chance in the game. Thanks to Black’s exposed King White would love to activate his pieces and bring them into the attack. For example, the move, Rf1-f5, would be brilliant. Winning in fact! Except for the small detail that the move is illegal. Rats! Hate that! Yet that illegal move helps us find the right idea: Open the position for the White pieces. The hidden move was: 33.f4!, a move that begs to be played. Fabiano had indeed considered the move and realized that after: 33…Qxb4 34.Qa1+! Kg8 35.Qe5!, he would be on the attack. What bothered him was the counter-attacking move: 33…Qe1, hitting the e3-Bishop while also preparing: …Rd6-d1, ideas. Remarkably, it is the same Queen check that gives White a strong initiative: (33.f4! Qe2) 34.Qa1+! Kh7 35.Re1!, the move that Fabiano had missed. By picking up a tempo against Black’s Queen while simultaneously protecting his e3-Bishop, White has the move he needs to go after Black’s King: 35…Qb5 (35…Qxc2? 36.Qe5!) 36.fxg5, with advantage to White.
33…Kh7 34.Ra1 a6 35.Rc1 Qe2 36.Qb3 Rg8 37.Qf7+ Rg7 38.Qf5+ Kg8 39.Qc8+ Kh7 40.Qf5+ Kg8 41.Bxg5 Rd2 42.Qe6+ Kh7 43.Qh6+ Kg8 44.Qe6+ Kh7 ½-½
A typical hard fought game in the match where both players had their winning chances only to be frustrated by the other. A finely balanced game indeed.
Day Three in the Rapid’s Fabiano was able to equalize the match in one of the most perplexing howlers of Hikaru’s illustrious career. The move Hikaru concocted was so bad the commentators were at a loss for an explanation. It was only with Hikaru’s considerable assistance were we able to understand what had gone so horribly wrong.
Rossolimo Sicilian [B30]
Fabiano Caruana (2787)
Hikaru Nakamura (2793)
Showdown Saint Louis – Rapid (3.2), 14.11.2015
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.Bxc6+ bxc6 5.e5 dxe5 6.Nxe5
White has spent a tempo or two to artificially isolate Black’s doubled c-pawns. In return, Black has the two Bishops, a temporary initiative which all in all should be good enough for a balanced position. As we see in the diagrammed position below, an expected move could be: 6…Qd5, with a double attack, 7.Nf3 Bg4 8.Nc3, and play would continue. Hikaru had another thought. How about: 6…Qd4 7.Qe2 f6 8.Nf3 Qg4, as a way of stirring up trouble on the Kingside? Interesting. Then he thought well why bother bringing his Queen into the game first, where it will be kicked around later, better to just attack the Knight right away!
A horrifying (elementary) blunder (played quickly). We were all taught as youngsters to be careful of allowing a Queen check on the h5-square. The commentary team was in a tizzy. Had Hikaru, one of the world’s very best players made such a howler? How is that possible? Or was this the “deepest preparation” ever undertaken in human history. Well as the above tries to explain, it was a calculation mix up.
While Hikaru played quickly Fabiano spent some time. First to overcome the shock of the mistake, secondly just to make sure that in fact it wasn’t some fantastic preparation. After correctly realizing, there was no problem, Fabi grabbed the loot!
7.Qh5+! g6 8.Nxg6 hxg6 9.Qxh8 Qd5 10.0-0 Kf7 11.Nc3 Qd4 12.d3 Bg7 13.Qh7 f5 14.Ne2! Qd6 15.Nf4! Bd7 16.Nh3! Be8 17.Ng5+ Kf8 18.Re1 e5 19.Bf4! Bf6 20.Qb7! Bxg5 21.Bxe5 1-0
In Chess parlance, this game was a “gift.” Fabiano capitalized on an egregious blunder to tie the match. Hikaru appeared to be so visibly shaken, he simply didn’t recover, went down in game four of Rapid’s and by the end of the day the lead had changed hands.
For Day Four the stage had been set: With a glaring exception, a well-played hard fought match was coming to an end. Hikaru would win the Blitz – of course – and the question was, in case the match was tied, would there be a tiebreaker? We nearly stopped asking after game one in the Blitz…
Queenside Fianchetto [A05]
Fabiano Caruana (2787)
Hikaru Nakamura (2793)
Showdown Saint Louis – Blitz (4.1), 15.11.2015
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.b3!?
In the Blitz match, as White, Hikaru played these Queenside fianchetto positions as a way of eschewing long winded theoretical debates, opting instead to get playable positions and to just “play chess.” It wasn’t an effective strategy as Fabiano wasn’t placed under any particular pressures as Black. As we will see in this game, in fact within a dozen moves he stood better!
2…g6 3.Bb2 Bg7 4.d4 d5 5.g3 0-0 6.Bg2 Ne4 7.0-0 c5 8.Nfd2?
A rather sophisticated move. A nice annotation, by the way, to explain a poor move. Most especially one I don’t understand. Better was: 8.c4, striking in the center.
8…Bf5! 9.Nxe4 Bxe4 10.f3?
Another less than optimal decision. White should be thinking about equalizing: 10.Bxe4 dxe4 11.c3 cxd4 12.cxd4 Nc6 13.e3, not a great achievement.
This one however is a cold mistake. Hikaru had to rein in his horns and play: 11.c3, seizing the defensive.
From the diagrammed position it is clear that White’s d4-pawn is under considerable pressure. Hikaru had anticipated the f5-Bishop to drop back: 12…Be6, when after: 13.e5, the g2-Bishop is opened and White will try to muddy things up. Can you see how Fabiano cleared the cobwebs?
A nice tactical shot that essentially wins the game on the spot.
White has no choice as capturing the Bishop isn’t an option: 13.Qxg4? Bxd4+ 14.Bxd4 Qxd4+, and the a1-Rook will fall.
13…Bxd4+ 14.Bxd4 Qxd4+ 15.Qxd4 cxd4 16.e5 Nd7 17.Rf4 Nxe5 18.Na3 Rad8 19.Bxb7
It isn’t that Black is just a pawn up but his pieces are better placed and the quality of his pawn structure is better as well. Hikaru tries his resourceful best to create problems but consistently, Fabiano was up to the challenge.
19…g5 20.Rf2 d3 21.cxd3 Nxd3 22.Rc2 Ne5 23.Rf1 f6 24.Bg2 Rc8 25.Rfc1 Rxc2 26.Rxc2 Rd8 27.h3 Rd1+ 28.Kf2 Bf5 29.Re2 Bd3 30.Rb2 Ba6 31.Ke3 Re1+ 32.Kd4 Nd3 33.Rd2 e5+ 34.Kc3 Rc1+ 35.Rc2 Rg1 36.Rd2 Ne1 37.Bd5+ Kg7 38.g4 Rg3+ 39.Kb4 Rxh3 40.Ka5
While Black is winning, the active White King, the QS majority and the strangely placed e1-Knight gives White hopes of salvaging a draw. Especially when the players are playing on their increments.
40…Bd3 41.Rd1 Nc2 42.Nxc2 Bxc2 43.Rc1 Rh2! 44.b4 e4 45.Re1 Bd3 46.a4 f5 47.gxf5 Kf6 48.b5 g4 49.Ka6 Ke5! 50.Bc6 Ra2 51.a5 g3 52.Kxa7 Rxa5+ 53.Kb6 Ra2 54.Kc7 Ra7+ 55.Kb8 Rg7 56.b6 g2 57.Rg1 Kd6? 58.Ba8?
White’s fifty-seventh move was a slip that allowed: 58.f6!, with better chances than the game.
58…Rg8+ 59.Ka7 e3? 60.f6?
Another trade of errors in harrowing time pressure. White simply had to grab the g2-pawn with his Bishop.
60…e2 61.f7 Rf8 62.b7?
Same comment as before.
62…Rxf7 63.Kb6 Rf8 64.Ka7 Rf7 65.Kb6 Rf8 66.Ka7 Be4 0-1
With this win, Fabiano took a two point lead in the match and held it to the final gong.
In closing special thanks to my commentator colleagues, WGM Jennifer Shahade, GM Maurice Ashley for their excellent work.