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Nakamura Falters in Sight of Finish Line Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
October 11, 2011

Bilbao, Spain - 
For fans of American chess star Hikaru Nakamura, the past two days brought an unfortunate conclusion to a long and strong supertournament. After ten rounds over two weeks, spanning more than 4,000 miles, Nakamura finished shared third, along side "2800 club" members Levon Aronian and World Champion Viswanathan Anand. In fact, Nakamura secured the third place check on tiebreak, and gained nearly five rating points in the process.

In a vacuum, that would sound like a solid success, but Nakamura had high hopes for a shot at first place as he pursued a pawn-up advantage against Paco Vallejo Pons, yesterday in round nine.

Vallejo had just made his fortieth move, after an intense time scramble. Nakamura, who had stopped keeping score, lost track of the move number, and so turned to the arbiter and said, "is that forty?"* Exactly what happened next is a matter of dispute, but it seems to boil down to a difference of perception.

Nakamura saw the arbiter, Anil Surender, nod in agreement. The arbiter said nothing, and any head movement was unintentional. Indicating anything in answer to the question would actually have been against the FIDE laws of chess, specifically Article 13:

13.6: "The arbiter must not intervene in a game except in cases described by the Laws of Chess. He shall not indicate the number of moves made...", unless a player's flag has fallen.

Vallejo saw nothing, but a tournament staff member inside the glass cube reported that Surender had not nodded, while at least one spectator standing outside the cube said he appeared to. Either way, Nakamura was sure enough that he got up from the board with less than 30 seconds remaining on his clock to fetch himself a glass of orange juice.

Surender and Vallejo barely had time to register their surprise before the clock ticked down to zero. The arbiter went to Nakamura, who was still at the refreshment table and notified him that he had lost on time. Nakamura was dumbfounded.

"He looked me directly in the eye and he nodded his head up and down," Hikaru told me today. "I don't want to blame him, because obviously it was probably unintentional, but to lose a game like that with such high stakes, especially in a position where I was significantly better, I don't even know how to respond to it because I've never had a game decided like that ever before. I'm not even sure what to even think about it."

Surender explained he was confused about Nakamura's actions. Asked if it was clear that Nakamura had misunderstood when he got up from the board Surender said, "not at first, I mean I was very surprised that he went up, but I didn't really connect why [he got] up, or was he just running to get a glass of water, and then making his move forty immediately."

Nakamura immediately appealed the time forfeiture, writing out his view of the events for the tournament's Technical Director, Juan Carlos Fernandez. In his appeal, he referenced a previous game with Vasily Ivanchuk in Sao Paulo, when he had inquired about reaching the time control in a similar matter, and got no response from the arbiter. The implication was that this had been an answer in the negative, whereas this time around, the arbiter had confirmed they had reached move forty, in Nakamura's view. Of course the alternative interpretation is that in both cases the arbiter had simply remained silent after the unusual and inappropriate question, which he was barred under the rules from answering.

"I certainly bear a large part of the blame for not knowing that," Nakamura conceded Tuesday, but it's easy to see how, in the heat of battle, he could have made such a mistake. Perhaps the rules should call for the arbiter to inform the player, "I can't answer that", if doing so would not disturb his opponent. Nakamura's appeal, however, was denied and the win awarded to Vallejo Pons was left to stand. Instead of a possible three-way tie for first place, Nakamura found himself three points back of the co-leaders Magnus Carlsen and Ivanchuk, who had been the sole tournament leader for most of the past fortnight, even after the trauma of being robbed at gunpoint while trying to leave Brazil.

"There was really no way I was realistically going to play for a win today," Nakamura said. After Ivanchuk and Levon Aronian agreed to a draw, Nakamura and Carlsen soon followed suit, forcing a playoff for first place.

Carlsen went on to win the two-game playoff, to take the Grand Slam title, and cement his world number one ranking at 2826 on the next rating list.


Juan Carlos Fernandez, and Anil Surender observe game two of the Ivanchuk-Carlsen playoff


Nakamura's win over Aronian was a high point of the tournament, as it brought Nakamura to within one win away from first place. He managed to secure a better pawn structure through a series of exchanges soon after leaving the realm of opening theory. The players disagreed over whether the endgame was technically holdable for black, but Nakamura's persistence won the day.

Black's weak a-pawn and awkward knight on h2, were enough for Nakamura to convert the endgame.

After a mixed performance in Bazna (June), and disappointing minus score in Dortmund (July), Nakamura takes solace in the fact that he played well here against significantly stronger opposition. Despite the rare mishap in round nine, he expects to put the incident behind him in the coming weeks.

"There's always a silver lining, and so the fact that I played well and, in my mind at least, I should have won this tournament certainly makes it a little easier to deal with."

Fortunately for him, Nakamura gets a brief respite from chess until the Tal Memorial in late November. He plans to visit Cannes later to play some tournaments in conjunction with the World Series of Poker Europe.

Watch out for the triple range merge!

*Keeping notation is not required when players have less than five minutes and an increment of less than 30 seconds, under FIDE rules, however players are still responsible for knowing when they've made 40 moves.

Macauley Peterson was in Bilbao reporting for the Internet Chess Club's new Facebook page. Watch for more news and gossip in upcoming editions of The Full English Breakfast podcast, and New in Chess magazine.

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