"He's finishing up his bingo card!" said Eric Hansen as Hikaru Nakamura managed to play 14 of the 16 possible first pawn moves for White on the way to beating Yu Yangyi 19:9 in their Last 16 Speed Chess match. Nakamura will now play either Fabiano Caruana or Nodirbek Abdusattorov in the quarterfinals as he attempts to make it six Speed Chess Championship victories in a row.
Replay the commentary from Eric Hansen and Benjamin Bok.
When it comes to speed chess in recent years, there have been two towering giants.
Once again this year, Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen are the players to beat, though the likes of Alireza Firouzja and Wesley So have the potential to challenge them. 12 players were invited, including World Champion Ding Liren, while four others had to battle through qualifiers: Alexey Sarana, Dmitry Andreikin, Vidit Santosh Gujrathi and Yu Yangyi.
It's Yu Yangti, the Chinese blitz no. 2, who faced the daunting task of taking on Nakamura in the first Round of 16 match in 2023. The predictions were sobering: a mere 5% chance of winning the match.
In the end it was the predicted tough day at the office for Yu, but, as Nakamura commented afterward, "All the credit in the world goes to Yu Yangyi for making it so exciting!"
The match followed the same gruelling format of previous Speed Chess Championships, with 90 minutes of five-minute chess (with a one-second increment after each move), followed by 60 minutes of three-minute, and then 30 minutes of one-minute games.
We got a taste of what to expect in this match from move one, when Nakamura opened 1.a3!? and took a sip of his drink.
The 12th most popular first move of a game of chess was not the worst thing Yu could face, and he soon went on to get an advantage. He remained comfortable for the whole game, but he burned up time before overpushing at the end, with instantly fatal consequences.
There were many more missed half points, or points, for Yu, but he also never lost the will to fight.
That was evident when, after a 142-move draw in game two, he won a third game that was most noteworthy for the first and the last moves. 1.a4 by Nakamura was the first sign that 1.a3 was no mere joke to start the match. Yu couldn't know it yet, but his opponent would go on to play a different pawn move in all 14 of his games with the white pieces. The tragedy was that he never got to play 1.h3 or 1.h4, but the season is young!
Nakamura afterwards explained why he'd done it:
Yesterday there was a match that Magnus played against Alireza Firouzja in the Champions Chess Tour, and I felt very much like Magnus was intentionally trying to play slightly dubious openings to see if Alireza would be able to punish him. And I feel like in the SCC I’m starting to do the same sort of thing, where it’s not so much dubious positions, but I’m trying to make it more challenging, at least in the early rounds. I feel like on average I’m going to be winning if we get to the 3+1 or the 1+1, so I try to tinker and just mix it up a little bit more than I usually would. We’ll see if it continues to work or not. I think last time I played against Paravyan and I did something pretty similar, I played h3, b3, all kinds of silly stuff. I’m just trying to make it interesting!
On this occasion, Yu looked to go about punishing the move perfectly, until his very last move, 44...Be4? suddenly allowed Nakamura to turn the tables. The five-time champion, however, lost on time before spotting 45.Re3!.
The opening bingo with the black pieces was very different. In game two, Nakamura had met 1.e4 with the most solid and popular move at the very top level, 1...e5 (in sub-2700 chess the Sicilian, 1...c5, takes over). In game four, however, he went for the outlandish 1...a5?!, the 14th most popular move in the position. It should perhaps have a parental guidance certificate, but in the first outing it brought Nakamura a win from a sudden mating attack. He would ultimately play it nine times in the match (compared to five 1...e5s), including in the last seven games in a row. The last four of those, he won.
Yu stayed calm, however, and was the player pressing in game five, before Nakamura called game six "a very critical moment". After 22.Qxd5 Yu was simply a healthy pawn up.
A win for Yu would see him level the scores at 3-3, with Nakamura admitting that in that case his opening fun might be over:
If I won that game I thought it would all go in my favor, and I think once Yu Yangyi blundered and lost that game, it did start to go that way. If he’d won that game, and it gets to [3-3], I think I would probably have switched it up, but after that it was just very smooth.
Yu not only lost his extra pawn, but found himself a pawn down in a queen endgame, before losing on time on move 83, in a drawn position.
With the wind in his sails, Nakamura then spotted a fine tactical detail in the next game to take a three-point lead. It was the "Coinbase Savvy Move Of The Day", as described by Benjamin Bok.
The omens were bad for Yu, since the accepted wisdom was that the shorter the time controls became, the greater Nakamura's advantage.
In the first three-minute game it was the turn of 1.c3 by Nakamura, who found himself in a lost position but won it anyway to take a four-point lead. When Yu then had a two-pawn advantage in the next game Hansen, commentating on the match, gave an ultimatum:
This has to be a win. No matter what, Yu Yangyi has to win this position! Anything but a win is an absolute failure.
To no-one's huge surprise, however, Nakamura went on to draw. The real surprise was that Yu still wasn't broken, and hit back in the next game to punish an over-ambitious king move with an 18-move miniature. Ironically, that win was scored against the first entirely standard opening that Nakamura had played with White, 1.c4.
That story would be repeated, with Nakamura restoring the four-point lead with a game the commentators felt was a magnificent example of his ability to outplay his opponents in low-risk positions.
Yu hit straight back, however, with a crushing attacking game, perhaps his best effort of the day. The final position was memorable.
Nakamura confessed that at this point, "I sort of was getting mad at myself", but then he put his foot on the gas, grinding out two brilliants wins in a row. He made it three-in-a-row for the first time in the match, with some help from his opponent.
"The match has taken its toll," said Hansen, as Yu rejected an obvious and strong sacrifice in the following game, with the three-minute section ending with a six-point lead for the reigning Bullet Chess champion. That left Yu needing to pull off the comeback of the century in the one-minute games if he was going to win the match.
It didn't happen, but once again Nakamura was impressed:
To Yu Yangyi’s credit, he made it very difficult, and even in the bullet I was not happy with the way I was playing at various moments, so I did have to actually extend myself a bit.
After Yu lost the first game, a pre-move blunder by his opponent in the next ignited if not a comeback, then a local revival.
For the first time in the match, Yu went on to win two games in a row, then three games in four, but like Wile E. Coyote defying gravity, it couldn't last. Nakamura went on to win the final five games and wrap up a 19-9 victory.
The Speed Chess Championship is single elimination, so Yu is out, while Nakamura now goes forward to face the winner of Caruana vs. Abdusattorov in the quarterfinals.
Who would Nakamura prefer to face?
I would say that in general I’m probably hoping to play Fabiano, just because I think against Fabiano in 1+1 I should have a bigger advantage than I do against Nodirbek. Maybe that’s wrong on my part, maybe Fabiano’s better at bullet, but I guess I would say probably Fabiano, just because I’ve played him so many times and he's more familiar.
First up, however, we have Wesley So taking on Levon Aronian.