GM Magnus Carlsen ended GM Hikaru Nakamura’s incredible run of five titles in a row with a thrilling 13.5-12.5 victory to clinch Chess.com’s flagship 2023 Speed Chess Championship Presented by Coinbase.
The Norwegian got off to a strong, two-point start, but the ever-resourceful Nakamura fought to take a three-point lead in the 3+1 portion. After changing shirts, the former world champion evened the score just before the bullet section.
Just as Carlsen started pulling away in the second half of the bullet, Nakamura won on demand. The latter was on the verge of winning the last game to tie the score but allowed an unforgettable double rook sacrifice that sealed the deal.
Fans will not wait long to see this pairing again. They two speed demons are paired on the first day of the Champions Chess Tour AI Cup 2023 which starts on Monday at 12 p.m. ET / 18:00 CEST / 9:30 p.m. IST.
This was far from their first Final in the SCC—it was their fourth. Carlsen led their encounters 2-1, but Nakamura won his first in 2022. That match went down to the wire and was decided in the very last bullet game too, where Carlsen was a hair’s length from reaching overtime. Nakamura celebrated his victory while down two queens as the match clock expired.
Going into this year’s match, Carlsen led their head-to-head encounters on Chess.com in both bullet and blitz time controls. He was clearly the statistical favorite, but we have seen reality take its own form time and time again.
SmarterChess agreed, showing a slight preference for Carlsen’s chances. While it estimated their chances to be equal in the 5+1 and 1+1, it forecasted Carlsen’s edge to lie in the second portion. Curiously, that was the one segment he didn’t win.
„This is as good as it gets. Speed chess matches between Hikaru and I, be that blitz, or rapid, or even bullet, that’s as good a show as it gets,“ said Carlsen after last year’s exhilarating Final. And this year only raised the bar again.
5+1: Nakamura 4-5 Carlsen
The first half of this portion was the calm before the storm. In the first five games, Carlsen scored one victory and four games were drawn. The last four, on the other hand, were all decisive.
Carlsen took the first full point in game two, a Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense that took on the shape of a Benoni Defense. The world number-one hit his rival with the ol‘ „sealer sweeper“ sacrifice, 27.e5! followed by 28.f5, and closed out the game with a satisfying blow, 32.Rxe7!, winning a piece.
The next three games ended in draws. But on the other side of that equilibrium, the games were decisive at every turn.
Carlsen took a two-point lead after finding a tricky resource, 51.d6!, in mutual time trouble. But Nakamura proved his resilience as well, bouncing back in the next by winning the objectively drawn rook and bishop vs. rook endgame.
Carlsen won the next after firing the cannonball 21.Bxh6! followed by a winning attack.
The last game of the match was nervy and explosive. Both players were winning at various points, although the psychological trend was certainly in Nakamura’s favor for most of it. In mutual time trouble, the American GM prevailed.
3+1: Nakamura 5-4 Carlsen
Before this year, Carlsen had never lost a 3+1 portion against Nakamura in the SCC. It was a great start for the five-time SCC champ as he scored four wins in the first five games. At the halfway mark, Carlsen changed shirts and, when he returned, evened the score.
Nakamura played a gorgeous attack in the first game, finishing it with a lustrous queen sacrifice on the last move, 24…Qxg3!!. This would have been our Game of the Day had it not been for the last game of the match.
Nakamura won with an attack just as crushing in the next game. Suddenly, he led the match for the first time.
After a draw, he won two more. Both were defensible endgames where Carlsen, with almost no time, collapsed. The first one was a rook endgame, and the second featured a piece sacrifice by Nakamura for two connected passers.
„This was the most unbelievable endgame yet,“ said Naroditsky about the second, while Hambleton added: „Have you ever seen a mic drop in chess? This was one of them.“ Nakamura stood up emphatically and walked away as Carlsen remained in his chair looking at what went wrong.
„Carlsen“ and „losing equal endgames“ are frankly never uttered in the same sentence, unless the latter refers to his opponent.
Carlsen returned from the half-point break wearing a new shirt, the same one he had worn when he beat So on Tuesday. It seemed to work as he won two consecutive games. Then a draw. And, finally, came the last game of the segment, where he pulled the vintage Magnus endgame squeeze to tie the score.
Carlsen, when asked whether changing shirts helped, responded in the post-match interview: „The result sort of speaks for itself.“
The score was 9-9. One half-hour left. The stage was set for drama, and the players delivered.
1+1: Nakamura 3.5-4.5 Carlsen
The only other SCC Final tied at the end of 3+1 portion was Nakamura vs. So, 2018, which was tied at 10-10. Nakamura went on to win in the bullet. In this one, Carlsen had a lousy start; then he picked up speed.
The first game was a terrifying one for Carlsen fans as he hallucinated and gifted his opponent a queen.
He would later say: „I did feel that from last year and the Bullet [Chess] Championship this year, that I know I could come back from a reasonable deficit. So I knew that it was all about whether my brain could start working.“
And start working it did. He won three of the next four games. First, it was a same-colored bishop endgame, then a razor-sharp heavy-piece endgame, and finally, a conversion of two pigs on the seventh.
Carlsen led by two. But Nakamura won on demand after Carlsen’s clever but losing 26…Nxb2??. Nakamura concluded with two queens and a mating attack on the board—it’s hard to say what can be more winning than that.
There were three minutes on the match clock, and Nakamura was down by one. One more on-demand win and we would hit overtime.
In that fateful, final game, Nakamura was about to do it again. After snapping off the a-pawn with 20…Bxa2!, he won material and was in the driver’s seat. By 32…a4! it was clear that he had a huge attack. By 36…Qf1, it was crystal clear that Nakamura was winning.
And then the slip. 37…Ra1?? allowed the stunning finale we will never forget. Carlsen later said: „I thought I was lost for sure, and then I just gave a check, and I realized only after giving the check that it looks like I have at least a perpetual.“
Carlsen is a hard player to please—if he’s the judge and jury. He strived for more: „My goal for this season, also for the last two seasons, has been very clear: to, in a major way, establish the pecking order when it comes to speed chess. And, to be honest, I’ve failed miserably in that,“ listing his losses to GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Nakamura in prior seasons—and even winning by just one point this time.
The winner sad he wasn’t „at all satisfied“ with his performance in this match, „although winning ain’t bad either!“
Asked about which youngsters to watch out for in future SCC editions, he quickly said: „The answer is obvious,“ referring to GM Alireza Firouzja. He also listed GMs Nihal Sarin, Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu, and Nodirbek Abdusattorov. He added that Firouzja „is a little bit away“ and that the others are „far away.“
Nakamura also joined for an interview. After complimenting Carlsen’s „great double rook sacrifice to save the game,“ Nakamura clarified that his rivalry with Carlsen is still, perhaps, in its early days: „Frankly, it was not a rivalry until the pandemic. Magnus won pretty much every match that we played.“
He also said: „The fact that it was so close, all things considered, I’m very happy.“
Thanks to his five consecutive SCC titles, Nakamura’s reign (since December 6, 2018) lasted 1,751 days! Carlsen, in their SCC Final faceoffs, now leads 3-1.
Carlsen earns $22,788.46 for winning, and Nakamura makes $7,211.54 by win percentage.
If you were excited about this matchup, you need not wait long for their next encounter! Tune in to the AI Cup on Monday; they play again in the first round.
Adapted from NM Anthony Levin’s report for Chess.com. Read the full report with game analysis here.