Hikaru Nakamura has used drawing the one spot in the draw to good effect in San Sebastian by winning his first two games with white. In the first round the new US champion completely outplayed former world champ Karpov before almost letting him off the hook and then winning on time (in a winning, if still a bit tricky, endgame position). Today he took on young Frenchman Vachier-Lagrave's two names and theoretical Najdorf (into a Scheveningen structure). Vachier-Lagrave is just 18 and has worked his way quickly to the 2700 level. As with Nakamura, three years his elder, this powerful round-robin with established stars is seen as a chance to make a mark. That added some extra spice to their encounter today, which even attracted the attention of the busy Garry Kasparov, who watched live online off and on. That the Frenchman is a diehard Najdorf player might also have something to do with that.
Nakamura definitely knew it was going to be a Najdorf and the players didn't spend a great deal of time getting to a well-known position on move 20. This position after 20.Ne2 has been seen in games by Anand, Kasparov, and even Nakamura himself in 2003. I think it's been under something of a cloud after 20..c4, but apparently Vachier-Lagrave thought 20..Bc6 was okay for Black. If he's right he didn't prove it today. White's new 21.Qc4, ignoring the a6 pawn while giving up the f3 pawn, put on the pressure with the queen on the very annoying c3 square. Black grabbed the pawn and if he's looking for a place to improve, perhaps the 23..Qb7!? Kasparov glanced at during the game is worth a deeper look. Back in the game it was remarkable how quickly it dissolved into a much better endgame for White. From there it was slow but sure progress. Black never blundered; it's hard to even figure out where he went wrong. Incredibly smooth stuff from Nakamura, who we can expect to face a sterner test with black against top seed Svidler tomorrow.
That dropped Vachier-Lagrave back to even after his spectacular win over Kasimjanov's Dragon yesterday. The other player who won in the first round was unable to reproduce his success, so Nakamura stands alone in the lead. Spaniard Vallejo Pons, who brutally swindled Granda from a lost position in round one, used the French to hold Movsesian without much effort. Karpov got nothing in a less-than-consequential line of the Grunfeld against Ponomariov. They played it down to the bitter end though, which is always nice to see, especially when contrasted with Dortmund. The Grunfeld between Kasimjanov and Svidler was a lot more interesting but was drawn in just 24 moves of a repetition.
Granda played a very sharp duel with San Segundo out of one of Granda's typically oblique Reti openings. Really fun tactics to play through if you turn your engine off and realize how hard this game is. San Segundo was close to a win but Granda's wonderful desperation push 24.e6!? induced a blunder and turned the tables. Interpolating 24..c3! would have turned Black's combination into a winner. The check on f7 is worse than useless. After 25.Ba3 Bxe6 White's game move f5 no longer works because the black knight has e5, unlike in the game. So 26.hxg4 Bd5 and the threat of ..Rh3 mate can't be met without giving up loads of material. A real slugfest and a bit unlucky for San Segundo.
Round 3: Svidler-Nakamura, Vachier-Lagrave-Karpov, Vallejo-Kasimjanov, San Segundo-Movsesian, Granda-Ponomariov. Live here at 11 EDT. We'll be relaying on the ICC as well, which will come in handy if Dortmund craps out on us again. Van Wely is the clear leader in the B group, aka the Kutxa Tournament, with wins over Cifuentes and Fernandes.