Fabiano Caruana will face 5-time Champion Hikaru Nakamura in the Quarterfinals of the 2023 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship Presented by Coinbase. Caruana defeated Nodirbek Abdusattorov 13.5-10.5, though the score doesn't reflect the double-sided nature of a match where Abdusattorov strung together a 5-game winning streak at the end of the 3+1 phase before Fabiano stomped out the flames and regained control in bullet.
Replay the commentary from Danny Rensch and Aman Hambleton.
This was Abdusattorov's third time in the SCC, but it was also his first time ever playing someone not named Wesley So in the first round. Surprisingly, he and Caruana had played just one blitz game before on Chess.com, which Abdusattorov won. Despite several games played at the rapid time control in the Champions Chess Tour, blitz was a relatively untrodden path.
Although 70% of the community predicted a Caruana victory, SmarterChess predicted a closer struggle. It predicted Caruana would win by just one point and that he would only surpass his younger opponent in the 3+1 portion.
The actual match went very differently than anticipated as Caruana won the first segment, lost the second, and barely snuffed out the comeback in the third to win the match.
After dropping a loss in the first half, Caruana won nearly every game of the second half to take an early lead.
The first four games should have been draws. Three of them were, but Abdusattorov took the lead after Caruana overpressed in an equal endgame in their second game.
Then Caruana went on a three-game winning streak. Game 5 was dramatic as Abdusattorov hung a full knight on d6 unprovoked and—due to mutual blindness—Caruana missed it. The two-time U.S. champion won the game later anyway after a desperate piece sacrifice by his opponent.
The next two games were wins for the American super-GM too. The first he won on time; the second ended with perhaps the most beautiful checkmate sequence of the day.
They say a knight on the rim is dim, but Caruana used two dim knights and a pawn to finish the job. This is our Game of the Day, annotated by GM Rafael Leitao below.
The last game ended in a draw. This meant that Caruana led by two going into the 3+1 phase of the match.
This segment started as a continuation of the last, but it ended with a 180-degree swing-around. In the second half, Abdusattorov started the comeback that would bleed into the bullet segment.
Abdusattorov won the first game. The rook endgame should have been a draw despite two extra pawns for Black, but he took the full point after Caruana made a decisive mistake with little time.
Abdusattorov was about to win the next game until he made a slap-your-forehead kind of blunder.
Tilt continued to spread its roots for the young Uzbek GM as Abdusattorov lost the next game in 26 moves after hanging a one-move discovered attack. In the following game, he had to give up his whole queenside to save a rook from getting trapped. He saved the rook but lost the game.
That's three consecutive wins for Caruana and a 5-point lead by this point. While a 4-point lead had been overcome in the past, five points never have. The weight of history hung on the prodigy's shoulders.
Here's how Caruana summarized it later:
I thought I was basically running away with it, but then I started to choke game after game.
After a draw, Abdusattorov won game after game after game after game—the last three of the segment. The very last one ended with a deadly attack on the dark squares after the cruncher 37.Rg5!
The segment ended with just a one-point lead for Caruana.
Abdusattorov's 3-game winning streak from the 3+1 games extended to a 5-game streak as he won the first two 1-minute games, but the reigning U.S. champion was able to stop the bleeding and take over the reigns once again in the second half.
Every single one of the eight games played in this segment was decisive. Abdusattorov continued his impressive streak even when the position on the board didn't suit him.
Caruana was completely winning in the first game up a full piece with play against a weak king. Take a look for yourself below.
You may have also noticed that both players combined had fewer than six seconds. The evaluation bar swung up and down, and Abdusattorov won the time scramble.
"He's lost his marbles!" said Rensch as Hambleton exclaimed, "Who's walking into what here?! This is madness!"
After the Uzbek talent won yet another game, making it five and taking the lead, it looked like he might really turn the match around.
That's when Caruana won five of the last six games in the segment. The tactic to finish Game 3 was the opening salvo to the anti-comeback comeback.
Can you find it?
Nobody said all the games were going to be pretty. It's bullet chess, after all. At one point, both players missed there was a hanging queen on e2, prompting Hambleton to quip: "They're not on the right page, but they're on the same page!"
In the last two minutes, Abdusattorov was down by two points. If he'd won on demand, he would have had a shot at leveling the score in one final game. He did reach a winning position, in fact, but blundered into a clever tactic that lost his rook and the match.
Caruana joined the broadcast for an interview and mentioned how the SCC matches seem to usually be decided in the bullet segment no matter the score in the blitz.
He named players like Carlsen, Nakamura and Alireza Firouzja who are fantastic at playing at a high level with little time on the clock. About himself, a little self-deprecatingly, he added:
Sometimes I can scrape my way out of trouble, but purely by luck... For me, the main task is not to flag!
He called the upcoming match against Nakamura "a very tough match, I won't sugarcoat it." No player besides Carlsen or Nakamura has ever won the SCC.
Fabiano shared an anecdote from Sunday. After the Champions Showdown 9LX concluded in St. Louis, he observed Nakamura playing against Ray Robson with odds of about 35 seconds against one minute, over the board.
He concluded the anecdote:
In terms of bullet, he really is a monster. But I'll do my best.
Caruana advances while also making $4,687.50. Abdusattorov earns $1,312.50 of the split prize by win percentage.
The Speed Chess Championship continues Tuesday, September 12th, with two more matches. First MVL vs. Gukesh at 7:30am ET/13:30 CEST/5pm IST, and then Carlsen vs. Vidit at 12pm ET/18:00 CEST/9:30pm IST.