It's a whole new ballgame in Wijk aan Zee, and it ain't soccer, it's baseball. Or maybe hockey, considering Hikaru Nakamura's sports preferences. Today the US champion checked tournament leader Alexei Shirov hard into the wall with a beautifully played win. The victory moved Nakamura to +3, just a half point behind Shirov. Magnus Carlsen joined him thanks to a relatively easy full point from Bad Ivanchuk. With six rounds to play the heretofore unassailable and apparently unreachable Shirov has been assailed and looks quite reachable indeed. Shirov will try to bounce back with white against Carlsen in tomorrow's 8th round in another critical game for the standings.
I said at the start I could imagine Nakamura going -3 or +3 depending on how his gambling style panned out. He has refuted this conjecture not only by reaching +3 undefeated after seven rounds, but by how he has gone about it. His three wins, all violent Sicilians, have been aggressive and occasionally spectacular. All, however, came from solid positions of strength built up with a steady hand. And the murderers row that was supposed to be his real trial has resulted in two easy draws with black against Anand and Ivanchuk, pressing for a win against Carlsen, and now a win against Shirov. He still has black against Kramnik coming tomorrow -- never a day at the beach unless you mean Normandy -- but so far it's been very impressive stuff.
Today Nakamura outplayed Shirov out of an unusual line of the Lasker/Pelikan, a cousin of the Sveshnikov. White captured on f6 early, on move 8, and Shirov decided to head into original territory instead of moving back to the usual Sveshnikov with 9..b5. How original? Well, I've got around 40 games in my reference database after his 9..f5 and 4000 after 9..b5. Of course Nakamura loves to get games into original channels himself. After 10.Nc4 Shirov played the interesting 10..Nd4 instead of the more forcing 10..b5 11.Ne3 b4 that has been tried a few times. Nakamura's 18.Be2! is a very interesting move, offering the b-pawn. Taking ("never capture the queen's knight's pawn with your queen") gets Black into trouble after 19.Qxd6! and no matter how Black captures the bishop, or even if he doesn't, White has a crushing attack thanks to the weakness of the e5 pawn and the threat of Nd5. Shirov went for a combination of his own a few moves later, but it appears Nakamura saw deeper. Grabbing the f2 pawn is tempting and it looks like Black survives after 22.Qxd6 Rd8! 23.Qf6, threatening Re2, and now the trap is sprung 23..Qxf2! 24.Bc6+ bxc6 25.Qxf2 and White has won the queen. Shirov's dastardly plan is revealed with 25..Be4 26.Qf6 (26.Rg1? Rxg2! wins for Black) 26..Bxg2+ 27.Kg1 Rd2 and now White has to force a perpetual check with 28.Qxe5+ Kd7 29.Qf5+ Kd8 etc.
Nakamura didn't fall for it, however, and his immediate capture on b7 set Black difficult problems. The white bishop on d5 was a monster on offense and defense and White had all the the time in the world to consolidate and begin to advance his queenside majority. 30.g3! is an insane-looking move, but White has to open another front to make progress and the white king is surprisingly safe. It was clear then that Black was in real trouble. White can keep strengthening his position and poking around for weaknesses and Black has no active plans. Passive defense is not one of Shirov's many strengths. With time getting short he lashed out with 34..e4, though it was likely already too late to defend. Getting out of the pin with 34..Qa7 or 34..Qc7 still runs into 35.c5. After Black's move the computers -- and the ICC kibitzers who love them -- went nuts, showing a huge plus for White after the c5 push he'd been working up to. Nakamura had the additional benefit of a big time advantage and he sunk into thought working out the complications. It was therefore a big shock when he finally moved and 35.Qc3 came over the wire. After the game he explained his analysis to Macauley and he said he couldn't find the KO after 35.c5 Qc7. The answer isn't simple, but it is quite pretty when you see it. 36.cxd6 Rxd6 37.b6! Rxb6 38.Qxa5! Rb7 39.Qa6! and Black is tied hand and foot with too many threats coming.
After 35.Qc3 all that was off the table and we wondered if Shirov had his pockets full of rabbits' feet. He still had a few moves to go until time control, however, and White still had many threats. Nakamura made a few useful waiting moves and his strategy paid off when Shirov blundered with 36..Ka7. After 36..Qc5 it's not clear how White is going to make progress despite the total domination of his pieces. Given a second chance, Nakamura ended the game with a few precise hammer blows. A great game that reboots the tournament as well. Nakamura now has to get the adrenaline out of his system to play black against Kramnik while Shirov has to regain his composure to face Carlsen.
Ivanchuk tried a new development idea in a fairly offbeat Slav against Carlsen. His 6..Be6 looks logical enough, forcing the issue in the center White was basically forced to grab a pawn or allow Black to equalize easily. After a serious think Carlsen decided the c5 pawn wasn't poisoned at all, thank you very much. After 15.Rd1 is was clear he was right and that Ivanchuk was already in trouble. Instead of staying down a pawn we thought he might sac a piece with 18..Bxf2+, although it looked insufficient and still does. Black gets two pawns for a piece and the white king needs some time to reach safety, but as the saying goes, a knight is a knight. Instead Ivanchuk decided to go out in a blaze of glory, sacrificing his queen for a rook and a thoroughly hopeless attack that fizzled before it began. Ivanchuk played on till move 35 hoping for a blockade or a blunder, or perhaps because the cable in his room is out. As easy a win as you can hope for at Corus and one that shows that sometimes greed does pay.
The other round 7 games were drawn, leaving Kramnik in the hunt on +2 ahead of Ivanchuk and Dominguez on +1. Kramnik needed every ounce of luck, pluck and dour defensive skills to draw against Nigel Short. After the game the Englishman said he just got nervous and couldn't focus enough to calculate as the endgame win slipped through his fingers. Looking at the position now after, say, 32..Bg8 it's hard to believe Kramnik survived another five moves, let alone drew the game. White has an extra pawn, a distant passer, and the superior combination of Q+N vs Q+B. A very big fish to let off the hook, especially after Ivanchuk also escaped Short in an inferior endgame. The mundane 47.Qe7 isn't trivial but surely must be winning. Earlier White had an even clearer win by simply pushing his a-pawn. 43.a5 c5 44.Qb7 was GM Benjamin's suggestion on Chess.FM and Black is helpless. Threats to f2 can be ignored as there is no perpetual. 44..Qf6 45.a6 Qxf2 46.a7 Qxe3 47.Qb8 is curtains. Instead, he let the black queen get in front of the pawn. It seems like Short's nervous system responds positively to being on the defensive, as against Carlsen, but negatively when he's on the brink of a big win. I guess the glass half full aspect is that he's clearly capable of playing great chess; he had Kramnik's Petroff beat cold. As for Big Vlad, his second bullet dodge of the tournament.
No shots were fired in van Wely-Karjakin. Even the tireless fighter van Wely was beaten down by five straight losses. There were rumors that Karjakin was feeling ill himself, so the unwritten "ethical guidelines" of Corus of playing 30 moves or three hours were skirted without much in the way of commotion. Tiviakov and Leko played, but not so you'd notice. A dull position in Caruana-Anand livened up all of the sudden only to flare out into a perpetual check just as quickly. Seven straight draws for the world champion (and for defending Corus champ Karjakin). That's still shy of Carlsen's nine straight draws to open the A Group last year. Still, Anand is looking in serious need of a strong cup of coffee. Smeets and Dominguez played a spectacular piece of Najdorf preparation. It looked like the Dutch tailender would have to accede to a quick draw by repetition. But after a long think, he sacrificed both rooks in classic style on a1 and h1 to play for mate. Incredibly, he said after the game to Macauley that he'd actually worked on this line a few months ago. He just couldn't remember exactly how it went. Scary. Dominguez then went for a long think himself and both players arrived to the conclusion that it would be White forcing the repetition, not black.
Round 8: Kramnik-Nakamura, Shirov-Carlsen, Anand-Ivanchuk, Karjakin-Short, Dominguez-van Wely, Leko-Smeets, Caruana-Tiviakov.