Fall of the world champions: Nakamura and Nepomniachtchi progress to the final

GM Ian Nepomniachtchi and Hikaru Nakamura were confirmed as grand finalists for the 2022 Fischer Random World Championships on Saturday after winning their respective semi-finals by convincing margins.

Nakamura needed just three games to book his spot after dispatching the fast-paced world champion GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov 3-0, while Nepomniachtchi was equally impressive against GM Magnus Carlsen after losing the opener, bouncing back to win their game 3-1.

The Fischer Random World Championship Finals will take place on October 30 at 8:00 a.m. PT / 4:00 p.m. CEST.

Four deserving semi-finalists seemed impossible to separate on paper. However, the position randomizer did its best to dump players with a weirdly asymmetrical position selected for the first round of the day. Interestingly, the starting position only showed an advantage of 0.27 for white, slightly less than in a normal chess game.

The queenside was always going to be a target in such a setup and Nakamura did his best to distract Abdusattorov with a wild kingside rook raise on move three. Despite the diversion, the Uzbek GM was able to catch Nakamura’s a-pawn with his queen and take a significant advantage. He relaxed a little too soon, however, and Nakamura pounced, trapping his queen and forcing an unfavorable exchange that cost him the game.

Carlsen finished what Abdusattorov couldn’t and decimated Nepomniachtchi’s queen wing with a perfectly timed bishop’s sacrifice. As if offering the bishop wasn’t enough, Carlsen then offered an additional exchange sacrifice to rub salt in his opponent’s wounds. The match was not perfect and Carlsen had to prove himself late in the game, following fierce resistance from Nepomyachtchi. The world champion finally managed to take the lead.

After an unbeaten streak in the group stage, Abdusattorov looked the least likely to go down without a serious fight, but Nakamura was simply unstoppable on Saturday when the pressure came. The American blitzer’s second game was the most engrossing of the day and he led from start to finish, climbing to 2-0.

Seeking to join his longtime rival on the 2/2 in his own semi-final match, Carlsen appeared to be on course for a second win before several unusual errors turned the script around. 41. Carlsen’s Kd2? was the worst of them and proved decisive, leaving the recurve world champion with his head in his hands.

The third round saw the introduction of another unusual starting position where the player’s knights started on squares a1 and h1.

In an unavoidable situation, Abdusattorov opted for a big cross setup against Nakamura and showed promising signs of a resurgence when he swapped queens and established two passed pawns on c and d files. The key moment of the game came when Abdusattorov had the opportunity to create a third passed pawn on move 21, but he missed his chance and Nakamura quickly reversed the situation.

It almost seemed like Nakamura was in a hurry on Saturday and now we understand why: he had to return to his hotel to film his recap of the day’s game for Youtube, which he uploaded just an hour or two after the end of the matches. His analysis of his three matches is well worth the detour!

A 3-0 scoreline doesn’t do justice to the strength Abdusattorov has shown in this tournament and it’s easy to imagine the 18-year-old will be a favorite for this title and others in the years to come.

Nakamura’s early round lift gave Abdusattorov plenty to think about. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Meanwhile, a crucial match was being played out between Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi who were struggling in a third home and away game. Nepomniachtchi fought for the initiative from the start and was eventually rewarded for his efforts, winning in just 28 moves.

One of the questions I sometimes hear about Fischer Random is whether there could be an initial position where white’s advantage is much greater than in a normal game. I don’t know how to answer this question scientifically, but I suspect that in this position there really is a greater advantage than usual, especially since Black cannot maintain symmetry, as we will see. In any case, the fact that Carlsen is still losing with the white pieces is an indication that this shouldn’t be a big deal.

If there’s one player you’d tip to win on demand with black, it would of course be Carlsen. From the first move, the Norwegian world champion showed his intention to create imbalance and asymmetry and after seven moves each, Carlsen had only moved pawns! The strategy certainly paid off and Carlsen started looking for tricks and traps that would bother Nepomniachtchi, but no water could be wrung from that stone on Saturday.

Carlsen definitely had the means to draw, but given that only a win would take him forward, he pressed and eventually over-pressed, which gave Nepomniachtchi a 3-1 margin.

Nepomniachtchi ponders his next move against a formidable foe. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

With both finalists having played confidence matches on Saturday, a high-octane showdown is expected in Sunday’s final between Nakamura and Nepomniachtchi. One of these players will be crowned the new Fischer Random World Champion, so tune in to find out who will win.

Knockout bracket

The Fischer Random World Championship, presented by the Government of Iceland and the City of Reykjavik, brings together the best players from around the world to compete in a series of classic Fischer Random games for their share of the $400,000 prize and the title of FIDE Fischer Random World Champion. Fischer Random (also known as Chess960) is a chess variant where all the standard chess rules are the same except for the starting position of the pieces, which can be in any of 960 semi-random configurations. Strongly endorsed by GM 11th World Champion Bobby Fischer, the variant eschews opening preparation to highlight players’ true understanding of chess.

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