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Nakamura: Second, and Going Solo Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
December 15, 2011
 NakaCarlsen.jpgA year ago, at the close of the 2010 London Chess Classic, Hikaru Nakamura and Garry Kasparov shared a cab home from the awards dinner at Simpson's in the Strand, discussing opening theory and, more importantly, the start of a new training regimen, with the former World Champion reprising the role of coach.

The following month, Nakamura's biggest triumph: Clear first place at the Tata Steel tournament in Wjk aan Zee. With just one training session under his belt, most of the credit goes to the player, although when the news of his work with Kasparov finally became public, Nakamura described the advantages, both in terms of preparation and psychology, that he took from that one session.

On Monday, with a flashy win over Michael Adams, Hikaru achieved his second best performance, clear second place in the London Chess Classic, behind Vladimir Kramnik. But this success bookends his short-lived collaboration with Kasparov. Shortly before the tournament, Nakamura decided to strike out on his own.

It is common to want to change something when things are not going well, and Nakamura's tournament results throughout 2011 were uninspiring, by his own admission.

"After the [Tal Memorial] in Moscow, I pretty much wanted to quit chess, but I guess I was smart not to do that," Nakamura quipped after his last round victory. Danny King, anchoring the live commentary webcast, had asked if he was tired, playing so many events in short succession. Tired? No. "After this event, I just want to play more chess. I wish there was another round tomorrow," Nakamura continued.

LCClead.jpgHikaru's final round game was a must-win, to have any chance at first. Sporting his lucky purple shirt, and yellow tie, as he frequently does during key games, he made the unusual choice to surprise Adams with a King's Gambit.

"I felt a little bit inspired by Nigel, oddly enough," Hikaru began his post-game chat. Nigel Short had tried the romantic gambit himself in round seven against Luke McShane, during which it was Nakamura's turn to give commentary along side King and IM Lawrence Trent.

Short recently won a King's Gambit during a blitz match with none other than Kasparov, but in London McShane came out on top.

"The thing is, you know, the King's Gambit is really a lousy opening, and you've really got to be in the mood for it. I slept very well last night," Short explained after that game. "I was feeling quite refreshed and ready for some action."

Ironically, Nakamura said he chose the opening for the opposite reason: He'd slept poorly -- only a few hours -- and didn't want to play "classical, standard chess," instead looking for an unbalanced position with chances for both sides.

In Short's estimation “the only reason why the King’s Gambit is playable is because Black has about ten good lines, but he can only play one at a time, that's actually why it's OK.”

It was not the advice of his second, Kris Littlejohn, who Hikaru noted, opted uncharacteristically not to watch the last round game.

In the VIP room I briefly asked Garry Kasparov, who was in town for meetings and a book signing, what he thought of the opening choice, to which he replied, "if I worked with Nakamura I would not have recommended it." Kasparov was remarkably aloof during his brief visit to the tournament, and by several accounts succeeded in alienating at least some friends and acquaintances in attendance. The political situation in Russia is quite tense following a week of widespread public protest in response to allegedly fraudulent elections. It’s quite likely that Kasparov’s involvement in the political opposition movement to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has been weighing on him. He and Nakamura avoided speaking.

In the game, Adams opted for 3…d5 and after 4.Bc4 Be6 5.Bb3 c5, Nakamura concluded that Black was already at least equal.

"Maybe it wasn't the best opening choice by me but I felt like taking a chance, much like in the Anand game. I felt I had nothing to lose," he told me after the game. "Essentially I can't win first place, but at the same time, the rating doesn't matter and I just wanted to have fun and play a good game.

He had played the King's Gambit in blitz and rapid, notably against Vassily Ivanchuk in October 2010 in Cap d'Agde, and facing Dimitry Andreikin at the World Blitz Championship last November. To find a game at classical time controls, however, one would have to go back to 2009 against Alexander Ivanov in Foxwoods.

Computer evaluations favored Adams for the entire contest, until his fateful blunder 38…b3


Nakamura quickly spied the tables-turning 39.Qc3!, winning due to the fact that 39...Rf8 40.Ne6 b2 41.c7 b1(Q) loses to 42.Qxf6+, promoting with mate on the next move.

"I just think it wasn't Mickey's tournament and frankly he just miscalculated a lot during the game," said Nakamura.

Unfortunately for Hikaru, by then Kramnik had sealed the tournament, drawing comfortably with white versus Levon Aronian.

Nakamura's real chance to try for first came the day before with his white against Short, who had already lost four games. But in the middlegame he allowed the position to close irrevocably.

After 20.e4 f4, Hikaru played 21. g4. Even with the h-file opening eventually, there was very little play in the position. Nakamura explained that the pressure of leading the tournament, which he hadn't experienced since Wijk aan Zee caused him to play too cautiously. "I just felt like I panicked. I just thought I would get mated and I sort of feel like in retrospect it was unfortunate that in the really critical game of the tournament I sort of backed off of what really got me into contention, which was just taking chances and trying to play aggressively."

He noted that chess engines suggests 21.h4, and during the game he had looked at this move briefly. "But I just felt it was too risky to go for it, and once again, it's sort of very contradictory because both against Anand and today [against Adams] I sort of had the 'who cares' attitude where I would just try to play and create an imbalance...Maybe I would have lost the game but at the end of the day it's not about the rating points, it's about trying to win tournaments."

Kramnik had a chance to gain enough points by beating Aronian to surpass him in the live ratings, but he too pragmatically opted to focus on securing tournament victory. While normally espousing a blasé attitude towards Elo points, Kramnik nevertheless was quite interested in gaining the number two spot in the world rankings behind the surging Magnus Carlsen. He can take solace in the fact that he has now passed the World Champion, Anand, who dropped below 2800 for the first time since May, 2010.

At the closing dinner, Kasparov was asked, as he was last year, to award the tournament trophy, creating what must have been an awkward moment, as he and Kramnik have not been on the best of terms for years.

When Kasparov and Nakamura first began their training relationship, neither wanted it known, publicly. But the chess world is small, and it later emerged that most of the world's elite either knew or strongly suspected as early as March. When asked by Danny King on the live webcast whether the training sessions would continue, Nakamura was coy, saying only, "we'll see."

He was generally diplomatic, praising Kasparov's opening preparation, but downplaying his middlegame and endgame proficiency in a manner that was widely interpreted as disparaging. Surely the decision to part ways was a complicated one, and more details will emerge in the coming weeks.

Carlsen decided to end his own training with Kasparov in part because he was doing so well, winning tournaments one after another, so that he felt he didn't need Kasparov anymore.

For Nakamura, a second major tournament win still eludes him, and perhaps as a result, he did not want Kasparov anymore.

"I think I've proven that I can compete with the top players," he summed up his London experience.

Now, charting his own path, he will need to keep proving it to the world.

Macauley Peterson was in London producing the live commentary webcast, which can be re-played in full at LondonChessClassic.com.