History suggests you can win a world championship without having beaten the world champion before.
Jose Raul Capablanca’s first victory over Emanuel Lasker came in the fifth game of their 1921 title match, won by the Cuban on a 9-5 score. Mikhail Tal never faced fellow Soviet star Mikhail Botvinnik before his triumphant performance in their 1960 match. Bobby Fischer famously had a record of three losses and two draws in five games against Boris Spassky before their epic 1972 clash in Reykjavik.
American top star Hikaru Nakamura recently announced that he was skipping this year’s U.S. championship tournament to concentrate on the candidates cycle for the next world championship match. The only problem: While Nakamura, now ranked No. 7 in the world, can hold his own against almost all of his top rivals, that doesn’t carry over to his games at classical time controls against Norwegian world champ Magnus Carlsen.
With two more losses to Carlsen at the just-concluded Vugar Gashimov Memorial Tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, Nakamura’s head-to-head score in tournament games stands at 10 losses, 15 draws and not a single win. Should the American emerge as Carlsen’s challenger in this candidates cycle, that would be a high psychological bar for him to clear.
The two wins were crucial to Carlsen’s impressive first-place finish in the event, held to honor the popular Azeri grandmaster who succumbed to a brain tumor in January at the tragically young age of 27.
It’s not as if Nakamura can’t get good positions against his Norwegian nemesis. In their Round 7 game, for instance, Nakamura as White gets the better of Carlsen in the early play in this Nimzo-Indian, obtaining an imposing pawn center and, after 22. f5 Ngf4 23. a4!, good play on both sides of the board.
But after 25. Nf2 (Rxf4!? Nxf4 26. Nh6+!?, was suggested by the analysts at Chessbase.com, with good compensation for White after 26…gxh6 27. Qxf4 Qg5 28. Qf2!, threatening both the rook on b6 and the pawn on h5) Qf6 (even now, Nakamura said later, “to lose this position is pathetic, basically) 26. Nxd3 (Nxh5!? Nxh5 [Nxf2+?? 27. Qxf2 Nxh5 28. Qxb6] 27. Nxd3 cxd3 28. a5 Rb7 29. Bxh5, and White looks strong) Nxd3 27. Qe3 Rb7 29. Nxh5 Qh6! 29. Qxh6 gxh6 30. axb5 axb5, Black, despite his pawn deficit, has a powerful initiative.
With a strong queenside press, Carlsen’s trademark relentlessness kicks in, as Black more than equalizes after 38. Kh2? (Rb1 is tougher, though Black still is on top on 38…c3 39. Nd4 b3 40. Nxb3 [Bxb3? Bd3! 41. Rc1 cxb2] cxb2 41. Rxb2 Bd3 42. Bxd3 Nxd3 43. Rb1 Rc3 44. Ra3 Nc5 45. Nc1 Rxh3+ 46. gxh3 Rxb1 47. Rc3 Nxe4) c3! 39. Nd4 cxb2 40. Rb1 Rc4 41. Nxb5 Rxc2 (winning back the pawn with a far superior position) 42. Nd4 (Nxd6 Rd8! 43. Nb5 Nf3+ 44. Kg3 [Kh1 Rc1+] Nd2 and wins), when Black misses the put-away volley with 42…b3! 43. Nc6 (Nxc2 bxc2) Nf3+ 44. Kg3 Nd2 45. Rxb2 Re8, winning decisive material.
Carlsen’s method is slower but just as effective, with his nimble knight reeling in the exchange after 45. Nxb4 Nf2 46. Ra2 Nd1!. White doesn’t have enough compensation for the loss, and in the final position after 52. Nd8 Re8!, Nakamura resigns because on 53. Nxf7 Rxd5 54. g4 Kg7 55. Kg3 Rf8 his knight is trapped.
The American star remains a world-class talent against anyone not named Carlsen, as can be seen in his nice victory over Azerbaijani GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov from earlier in the event. In this Caro-Kann, it is Nakamura’s opponent who goes pawn hunting, and White’s compensation for a while is hard to see. But when Black unwisely opens up the kingside with his king still in the center with 18. Qd2 g5?! (Qa5 19. c3 Rb8 20. Reb1 Rxb7 21. Rxb7 g6 was perfectly safe) 19. h4! g4, White doesn’t need an engraved invitation to initiate a powerful mating attack.
Keeping the queens on the board with 24. Bxg4 Qxc3 (see diagram) 25. Qe2!, the U.S. GM zeroes in on Black’s weak f7 square with a string of powerful strokes: 26. Bh5 Rh7 (not pretty, but 26…Ng6 loses to 27. Bxg6 fxg6 28. Qe4 Rg8 29. Qf4+ Ke8 30. Qf7+ Kd8 31. Qd7 mate) 27. Qe4 Rc8 (the plausible 27…f5 runs into 28. exf6! Rxb7 29. Qxe6! Qc8 30. Qd6+ Kg8 31. Qg3+ Kh8 32. f7 and wins) 28. Qxh7 Qxe1+ 29. Kh2 Qxe5+ 30. g3 — Black is now three pawns to the good, but that counts for nothing against the concentrated crossfire of the White attackers.
Nakamura wrapped up things after 30… Rc7 31. Rb8+ Ke7 32. Qxf7+ Kd6 33. Qf8+ Kd5 (Re7 34. Rd8+ Kc6 35. Qxe7; or 33…Kc6 34. Be8+ Kd5 35. Rb5+), and Black resigned seeing no reason to play out 34. Rb5+ Ke4 35. Rxe5+ Kxe5 36. Qf4+ Kd5 37. Qxc7, winning the house.
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. f3 c5 5. d5 O-O 6. e4 d6 7. Bd2 Nbd7 8. Nge2 Ne5 9. Ng3 exd5 10. cxd5 Bd7 11. a3 Ba5 12. Be2 b5 13. O-O c4 14. Be3 Bb6 15. Qd2 Rb8 16. Nd1 Bc8 17. Kh1 Nfd7 18. f4 Ng6 19. Bxb6 Rxb6 20. Ne3 Nc5 21. Bd1 Nd3 22. f5 Ngf4 23. a4 a6 24. Ng4 h5 25. Nf2 Qf6 26. Nxd3 Nxd3 27. Qe3 Rb7 28. Nxh5 Qh6 29. Qxh6 gxh6 30. axb5 axb5 31. Bc2 Ne5 32. Ra6 Rd8 33. Ng3 Rb8 34. Ra7 b4 35. Ne2 Bd7 36. Rfa1 Bb5 37. h3 Rdc8 38. Kh2 c3 39. Nd4 cxb2 40. Rb1 Rc4 41. Nxb5 Rxc2 42. Nd4 Rd2 43. Nc6 Re8 44. Ra4 Nd3 45. Nxb4 Nf2 46. Ra2 Nd1 47. Rxd1 Rxd1 48. Rxb2 Rxe4 49. Nc6 Kg7 50. f6+ Kxf6 51. Rf2+ Kg6 52. Nd8 Re8 and White resigns.