Hikaru Nakamura, the grandmaster who gave up classical chess for several years and instead made a career as an online streamer with more than a million followers, scored the best result yet of his comeback on Friday, when he snatched first prize in the final round of the elite event at Stavanger from Fabiano Caruana. The reigning US champion and 2018 world title challenger had led all the way in an event where the world No1 Magnus Carlsen trailed in sixth out of 10.
Nakamura’s last gasp victory also made him the new world No2 behind Carlsen in the live ratings, with Caruana relegated to No3.
It all turned on Caruana’s 17th move f7-f5, played in the mistaken belief that Nakamura could not reply 18 Nxc5 because of 18…Qa5 winning a piece. Caruana realised too late that 19 Ng5! Qxa3 20 Qh5! would be winning for White. Instead, he had to play an endgame two pawns down which Nakamura systematically converted. Caruana resigned at move 55.
Nakamura had deputies for his stream while he played the tournament, but in several games he used the confessional, where players can talk to the outside world while awaiting their opponent’s next turn, to give a running commentary on his own game, and in one instance (“Welcome back, everyone!”) on the other games as well.
Nakamura’s energy is boundless. In Tuesday’s seventh round after he and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov completed both their classical and Armageddon games in the time it took Carlsen and Firouzja to play their first few moves, he went on to take yet another first prize in Chess.com’s Titled Tuesday, which he has already won more than 50 times. He has impressed with his pragmatic, tactically barbed playing style and his lightning fast reflexes when games go down to the wire.
Caruana could still take comfort from his second place: “You work for a long period of time and the results don’t really show, but at some point everything just comes together and you start to play better.” The commentator Maurice Ashley described his colleague’s focus: “I know for a fact that for Fabi it’s world champion or bust, especially now that Magnus has abdicated the throne. He’s thinking: ‘I’ve got to show my stuff right now, particularly with all the young players coming up.’ Time is ticking, he’s 30 now.” The elephant in the room is the general perception among top players that China’s Ding Liren is a subpar world champion who will be vulnerable to his next challenger.
Dommaraju Gukesh, who only turned 17 at the start of the tournament, also scored a major success by finishing third, and is starting to look the most likely of his generation to make it all the way to the very top. The teen is up to world No 13 in the live ratings, has risen to India’s No2 behind the legendary Vishy Anand, and is coached by Anand’s former trainer.
Gukesh is already fearless and combative against the very top players. He defeated Firouzja in classical, beat Caruana in Armageddon, and had a winning position against Carlsen in Armageddon before spoiling it with an over-optimistic sacrifice of queen for two minor pieces. In contrast to Gukesh, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 18, who had performed strongly in recent online and over the board events, had a rare failure at Stavanger, where he was on course to finish ninth out of 10.
Carlsen won the previous four editions of Stavanger, but this time he misfired, scoring eight classical draws in a row. He won seven out of eight ensuing Armageddons, yet the scoring system put him in the bottom half of the table. His career has long featured occasional blips, so his next two scheduled classical tournaments, in September-October at the European Club Cup and the Qatar Masters, will provide a better indication of whether his classical form is really in decline.
Final Stavanger scores after nine rounds (classical win 3, Armageddon win 1.5, Armageddon loss 1, classical loss 0) were:
Nakamura (US) 16.5
Caruana (US) 16
Gukesh (India) 14.5
Anish Giri (Netherlands) 13
Wesley So (US) 12.5
Carlsen (Norway) 11.5
Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 11
Firouzja (France) 10.5
Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan) 9
Aryan Tari (Norway) 6