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A First and Final Trip to Amber Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
March 22, 2011
 
LiuNaka.jpg
FM Liu and GM Nakamura in Monaco, Photo Elliot Liu
One might be forgiven for looking at Hikaru Nakamura's Facebook and Twitter updates last week and concluding that he was not taking the prestigious Amber Blindfold and Rapid Tournament seriously. But according to the U.S. number one, such a superficial view would be very much mistaken.

On the eve of the tournament, Hikaru opted for an all-nighter at the Monte Carlo Grand Casino out on the town in Monte Carlo with FM Elliot Liu, who was in town making a brief tourist swing through Monaco for the weekend.

Finally returning to the tournament's luxurious Monte Carlo Bay resort hotel around dawn, he could not have snagged more than five hours of sleep before the 2:30 PM start of the first round blindfold session -- his first competitive blindfold game ever -- against Magnus Carlsen.

In the opening two rounds, Nakamura lost track of his opponents' bishops, drawing with Carlsen in the first case, and missing a one-mover against Aronian.



And yet, as the tournament enters its final leg, Nakamura is far more disappointed by his rapid effort than his blindfold. Without sight of the board, he has generally played well, despite a score that remains a half point worse than his 50% performance in the rapid.  [Update 11:30 EST: Nakamura's blindfold win over Topalov in round nine pushed his blindfold score to even.]

Naka225.jpgAmber is a unique tournament with three discreet standings -- blindfold, rapid, and both combined, each with their own prize fund -- and this 20th and final edition is the strongest ever. The field of champions includes ten out of the top eleven players in the world, and while most qualified by rating alone, Nakamura earned his spot by winning the 2010 NH "Rising Stars Vs. Experience" Tournament, in Amsterdam. (See Americans Abroad: Nakamura Nets Amber Spot)

Nakamura has made several trips back to the Monte Carlo Grand Casino since that first night, playing mostly blackjack and occasionally roulette, and faring well, even donating some of the proceeds to Global Giving Japan Earthquake And Tsunami Relief Fund, according to his Twitter feed. "Seeing as how this is the first time I'm in Monaco," he explained after the second round, "I figure I can go out and enjoy, have some fun, and as long as I don't start losing every game, I think people will know where my priorities are."

Nakamura's first win in Monaco came in the third round blindfold at the expense of Vasily Ivanchuk, who lost with white in just 27 moves.



Ivanchuk, newly back in the Top 5, is the only player to have participated in all twenty editions of the tournament, and celebrated his 42nd birthday last Friday, making him the among the oldest players in the field, nine months shy of Boris Gelfand.

The mini-match victory was sweet for Hikaru, on account of a small rivalry the pair developed via the past two finals of the Cap d'Adge rapid tournament in France. In 2008, Nakamura won, much to the chagrin of the local Ivanchuk fans who were not afraid to show their displeasure during the closing ceremony, much to the irritation of Nakamura. By contrast the crowd erupted in cheers after the 2010 final, as Ivanchuk had his revenge in a two-game match that featured the King's Gambit.

In their Amber contest, the rapid session saw Nakamura hold an unpleasantly passive middlegame for a draw, giving him 1½-½ for the day.

Another 1½-½ mini-match win followed in the fourth round, this time over Vugar Gashimov. In the rapid, Nakamura was forced to make a curious king march from e8 to d7 to c8 and leave his queenside undeveloped until well into the middlegame, and yet he went on to win.



On the first rest day, Nakamura tweeted, "Three profitable days in a row at the Grand Casino and two straight victorious matches! Things are turning around here in Monaco!!"

Unfortunately, his luck held up better at the blackjack table than at the chess board. In the fifth round he lost to 16-year old Anish Giri, who was invited despite losing a blitz playoff to Nakamura in the NH Tournament qualifier. Nakamura felt he was quite a bit better in the game, but later let it slip and even lost. This plus his second round loss to Aronian were the only major blindfold disappointments for Hikaru thus far.

His most painful loss of the tournament came in round six against Gelfand, a game Nakamura considers one of the worst in his life.



He sites trouble calculating and an inept lack of concrete analysis for his tactical oversights. In blindfold chess, Nakamura explained, one tends to make decisions "based on feel", especially late in the game when time pressure forces the player's hand. But at rapid, relying on intuition alone rather than calculation can be catastrophic. (You can view Gelfand's analysis of this game below.)

Nakamura rebounded in the seventh and eighth rounds, with two solid draws against World Champion Anand, and a 1½-½ win over Grischuk. (See Nakamura's live analysis in the video below.)

Hikaru was conspicuously absent from the VIP / Press room in the first week. In the evenings many players kick back with games of table-football, which can become nearly as competitive as the chess. Nakamura attributes his relative aloofness to spending more time on preparation for each game rather than being averse to socializing with his fellow competitors. At Amber, players do sometimes avoid playing their main lines, but nevertheless they prepare very well, as all world class players tend to.

It's worth noting that in addition to Liu, Nakamura was paid a visit by long-time friend and fellow ICC shareholder John Fernandez, for several days, as well as Hikaru's parents, who stayed from rounds three through seven.

For his stepfather -- FM Sunil Weeramantry -- seeing Hikaru play at Amber is the fulfillment of a wish made years ago. Nakamura recounted that Weeramantry has often said how important it was for him to see his son play blindfold with the world's best. The chance to come to Monaco to see it in person was not to be missed.

Still, Hikaru says having friends and family around probably didn't help his chess, and that being free of distractions is generally preferable.

And speaking of distractions, what about all that blackjack at the casino? Nakamura stands pat:

"Look, I've been playing chess long enough to know how to mix a social life with chess...I'm certainly taking this seriously, and it's not like I'm going to throw in the towel."

With three rounds and six games to play, he's tied for fourth in both the blindfold and rapid, and fifth in the combined standings, but if he doubles down from here, a top three finish may still be within reach.
 




Macauley Peterson is in Monaco producing video for the Association Max Euwe and the official tournament website. He can be reached via Facebook, YouTube, and his home page,www.MacauleyPeterson.com. 
 
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