Hikaru Nakamura defeated Levon Aronian 3-1 in the all-American Fide Grand Prix first leg final at Berlin on Thursday as the five-time US champion, who has become a Twitch stremer with more than a million followers, showed his speed skills by winning both 15-minute rapids after two classical games were drawn.
Nakamura needed a wildcard from the Fide president to compete in Berlin, and that decision drew sharp criticism from Arkady Dvorkovich’s Russian compatriots, but his games were full of energy and ideas. The decisive final encounter was level until Aronian, needing a win to stay in the match, advanced his white king too far into the black camp where it was trapped by Nakamura’s rooks.
This was the first leg (of three) of the Grand Prix, which qualifies its top two finishers to the eight-player Candidates at Madrid in June, the event which will decide the 2023 challenger for Magnus Carlsen’s world crown.
There has been tension between Aronian and Nakamura dating back to a touch-move incident at Moscow 2016, but the former Armenian, 39, and the 34-year-old, who has popularized chess to huge online audiences, are now both well placed. They will miss the Grand Prix second leg starting in Belgrade on 28 February before returning for the final leg in Berlin on 21 March. In contrast, the quintet of Russians who failed to get past the group stage all face elimination.
The only US casualty who did not reach at least the semi-final in Berlin was Wesley So, and the former Filipino was knocked out by a compatriot. Leinier Domínguez found White’s winning move in the diagram with seconds to spare, avoiding a plausible but losing alternative, Can you do as well?
Aronian, Domínguez, and Carlsen’s 2018 challenger, Fabiano Caruana, are all residents of St Louis, which has become a global chess center with backing from the billionaire Rex Sinquefield. St Louis has a chess Hall of Fame, a chess club open nine hours a day, and the world’s largest chess piece, a 20ft high king.
Sinquefield’s other ambition was to create a group of top grandmasters, through a mixture of home talent and transfers, capable of winning the biennial 150-nation Olympiad. That target has already been fulfilled, as the US won gold in 2016, were an unlucky second to China in 2018, and will again be favorites at the next Olympiad in Moscow in July.
The Grand Prix action now moves to Belgrade, where the favorites are Anish Giri, the Netherlands world No 9, Shak Mamedyarov, Azerbaijan’s world No 7, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, France’s world No 11. The last two are both in the same Belgrade preliminary group, already styled the “Group of Death”.
China’s world No 3, Ding Liren, withdrew from both Berlin and Belgrade and is thus out of contention. What has happened to him raises the question whether Chinese sports officials have quietly downgraded their achievement targets. International chess, as opposed to the Chinese version which is much more generally popular, has only been taken seriously by Beijing since the 1970s.
Chinese teams have been regular winners of the women’s Olympiad, won gold at the open Olympiad in 2014, and then, at Batumi 2018, won both Olympiad titles, the first nation to achieve the double since the Soviet Union in 1986.
Success at Batumi was generally expected to lead to a still stronger Chinese campaign to create a challenger for Carlsen’s individual global title. It seemed that this would be spearheaded by Ding, but the 29-year-old, who should be at the peak of his powers, has just missed a major opportunity
There are suggestions that Ding left it too late to apply for a visa for Berlin, then decided he had little chance to do well in Belgrade and gain a place in the final leg via a withdrawal. In contrast, China’s No 2, Yu Yangyi, has played in the World Cup and the Grand Swiss, and is also in the field for Belgrade.
The obvious solution for Ding is to establish a second home in Europe from where it would be much easier to commute to major tournaments, Aronian, when still an Armenian, had a base in Berlin, while both India’s Vishy Anand and Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov operated from Spain in their peak years.
A wider concern is that Beijing sports officials may have made a policy decision to downgrade their chess ambitions and to consider the 2018 double Olympiad gold as sufficient fulfilment, tacitly abandoning any further campaign to support Ding towards the individual world top. Perhaps they have concluded that Carlsen is too strong to dethrone.
Carlsen himself will be back in action on Saturday in the Airthings Masters, the opening event of the online Meltwater Champions Tour. Games start at 5pm, and Carlsen’s four opponents that day in order will be Russia’s Vladislav Artemiev, the 17-year-old world rapid champion, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Russia’s rising star Andrey Esipenko, 19, and the defeated 2021 challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi.
3803† 1…Qf2! threatens 2…Rxh3+! 3 Kxh3 Qh4 mate. If 2 Qd4 Qg3+ 3 Kh1 Re1+ wins the queen. Dominguez v So: 1 Kh1! win. The game ended 1…Nh4 2 Rxh4 g6 3 Rxh5+! and mates. If 1…Rf3 2 Re8+! mates. If 1…g6 2 Re2 wins. White planned 1 Re2?? but saw at the last moment that it loses to 1…Ne1+! 2 Rxf2 Rxf2+ 3 Kg3 Rg2+! and Nxd3.