Wow. Even when he was in clear first with two rounds to go you didn't want to say it out loud and jinx it, the way none of the other players will talk about a no-hitter in progress in baseball. But now it's over! Hikaru Nakamura, the 23-year-old from White Plains, NY and two-time US champion, just achieved the biggest victory of his career at the Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. He finished in clear first place with six wins, one loss, and six draws. Trailing him were world champion Viswanathan Anand, world #1 Magnus Carlsen, #3 Levon Aronian, and former world champion Vladimir Kramnik. Nakamura's +5 score was the highest in the Wijk aan Zee A Group since
2002 2006 and was good for a incredible performance rating of 2879. The result will push the American into the top seven in the world with the top five in reach. Congratulations!
[It was just a guess the first time, but then, despite looking for it specifically in Anand's results for the past 10 years and in the Wijk site history page, I still managed to overlook that Anand and Topalov tied for first at Wijk aan Zee in 2006 with +5. Inexcusable blindness. Usually this sort of thing is cleared up quickly thanks to the fact-checking department, aka the comments, but I haven't had time to read them lately.]
The final round was a bit of a piffle otherwise, as final rounds often are. Every game was drawn in the A Group for the first time this tournament. The two key games, Nakamura-Wang Hao and Nepomniachtchi-Anand were actually interesting, however. Nakamura surprised his opponent with a shift into a Benoni structure, probably a smart decision to go for more forcing play and avoid a long grinding game in which nerves might become an issue. He swapped pieces, offered an exchange sac on b4, and invited Wang Hao to take on considerable risk to play for a win. The Chinese declined and took the draw on move 22. Nakamura then had to sweat out whether or not Nepomniachtchi's exchange sac for a blockade was going to be enough to hold Anand. After 38 moves it was and Nakamura became the clear Tata Steel champion. An amazing tournament for him, especially with two wins coming after a rough loss to Carlsen that might have derailed him.
Aronian tried to move up to reach Anand against Smeets but couldn't make it happen. Shirov and l'Ami also showed up for work. Grischuk-Carlsen was admirably sharp, if mostly played before, but they fizzled out before move 20. Carlsen ended on +3, which was quite an good score considering the number of lapses he had. Only Nakamura had more wins than his five and of the only three decisive games between the six plus-score players, two were Carlsen wins. The other was Nakamura's win over Vachier-Lagrave. Speaking of, in the final round Vachier-Lagrave moved his queen four times in a row against Kramnik early in a Grunfeld and lived. A very strong performance from the Frenchman, who finished on +2 with Kramnik and lost only that one game.
In the middle on down, really only Giri's even score stands out due to his youth. He only won two games, but one was against Carlsen and he was pressing against Anand and Nakamura. The 16-year-old is clearly ready to handle the A Group and will likely be a fixture for the next dozen years at least. Grischuk was unrecognizable, losing five games. Shirov, who started with five wins last year and finished =2-3, came in dead last. But with him we're used to the highs and lows. At least he helped out the locals by keeping Smeets and l'Ami out of the cellar. Smeets started strong but just couldn't keep his head above water. l'Ami was the only winless player. Nepomniachtchi and Wang Hao both played some interesting chess and were welcome additions. Ponomariov showed his solidity for an even score, but he seemed to go into a shell for a while in the middle.
It will take some research, and of course it will be subject to debate, but this is a strong contender for the best individual American tournament result since Fischer. Kamsky's match run to the FIDE world championship in 94-95 deserves mention, as does his victory at the FIDE KO in 2007. But you can count the number of times an American has finished ahead of a reigning world champion, let alone a field like this year's Wijk aan Zee. And by "you can count" I mean "You'd better do the counting because I'm too lazy/busy to look through that much data right now and off the top of my head I've got nothing." Kamsky at Las Palmas 94 and Seirawan at Haninge in 1990 are about it for big round-robin wins, and both were ahead of Karpov, not Kasparov. Both were Candidates and Kamsky a FIDE title challenger. Or am I forgetting a big one? Is there a Browne or Kavalek or Christiansen result that should be in there? Probably.
Of course this isn't just a great result "for an American." +5 is rarefied territory in super-tournaments. Making a list with Topalov, Carlsen, and Ivanchuk as the few to do it recently shows how hard it is. It's also great because with Nakamura playing rabbit, the other contenders were forced to push. That is, just because
Anand and Kramnik haven't put up +5 in over a decade doesn't mean they haven't won plenty of tournaments. [As corrected above, Anand did it in 2006, sorry for the error.] They just haven't had to put up big scores to win them. +3 is great if it wins the event, but if it's only good for fourth place you'd better raise your game and stop taking days off. This is why nobody is asking why Peter Leko hasn't played in so long. Fresh blood!
So, what's up with Linares? All I remember hearing is that they were considering a Bilbao-style outdoor element and that Carlsen would be there, but that was a while ago.