The first thing I learned today while heading to the venue, was that the Carlsens and Nakamuras had been moved to a location near the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, where they could relax and have lunch without the danger of being cut off in Oslo by snow near the round time. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me, since I had to dig my way out of my house and into snowdrifts to start my early journey, as plows hadn’t made it to my suburban corner not so distant from the playing hall.
The fourth and final day of the ‘slow’ section of the event began with Magnus leading Hikaru 7-5 in the race to 12.5 points. With the last two-pointers at stake, Nakamura would need to break even at least in order to avoid a situation where he would need a vast majority of the final 8 ‘blitz’ games. Playing white in the first game today, the American would need to deal with his own observation from the day before, when he noted that feeling obligated to get an advantage from the first move, and not really knowing enough about the start position to do so, made playing white a dangerous proposition in practice.
The starting position was ‘relatively normal’, which is interpreted as being cozier for Magnus, though he now seemed to be settled in and ready for anything. Nakamura’s approach was to escalate his policy of rapid aggression and ‘anti-normalization’, banking on a combination of confusion and gradual time pressure to work in his favor.
This backfired in even more gruesome fashion than it did the night before, game seven developing as a one-sided contrast between this risky approach and Magnus’ serene strategical play. The ‘regular’ world champion completely dismantled his ‘FR’ rival, and Nakamura neatly summed up his efforts to keep things weird today as ‘just bad’, which was brutally honest – and fair. Now trailing 5-9, a fourth consecutive win by black would be necessary to keep him in the match. A Magnus win would leave Nakamura practically needing to blank Carlsen in the concluding 10-minute games on Tuesday.
Nakamura waited precisely one move before deciding to go all in and launched a gambit on move 2. Magnus retaliated with a far nastier countergambit, and for a pawn and ten precious minutes, built up a tremendous initiative. The script was familiar – Carlsen playing with harmony and tactical precision, Nakamura somehow managing to stay wobbling on the cliff edge and ahead on the clock thanks to defensive resourcefulness. Despite being declared dead by various human and mechanical commentators, Hikaru performed some amazing escapology, and after time control had ‘only’ the well-known burden of trying to hold an inferior ending vs the world’s leading technician. But he still had an extra 10 minutes, and time control meant only an extra 15 minutes each. Like the good old days before opening theory, there is no increment in the slower games. An hour is all you get for the whole thing. Still, the reduced material made the clocks unlikely to be a factor. But then…
Naka’s dogged defence finally resulted in a R vs R + B ending, and with Magnus low on time and Hikaru comfy clock-wise, the survival chances were high. It would not be the black win Nakamura so desperately needed, but he wouldn’t need a total miracle on the final day either.
Did I say miracle? What happened next was one of the oddest things I can remember seeing in too many years of following elite chess. Magnus simply played and played until his flag fell, the game ending with a flurry of hands and no physical way to counteract his opponent’s extra minutes. From a distance this could look like a scandalous and cynical game of ‘clock’ by Nakamura, it was in fact something quite different, and truly bizarre.
When the players spoke to NRK TV just after the result, presenter Line Andersen’s first question was the only required viewing. She asked a steaming Magnus how he could not have agreed or declared a draw, even when it was clear that Hikaru was ready to stop playing. His answer – a very frosty: ‘I didn’t notice that’ – contained unspoken volumes, and I at least detected more than a little accusation of unsporting play.
I would be very interested to know what Line meant when she said she could see this wish to draw by Hikaru, presumably some stares or body language. I don’t know because during the final phase of the game I was watching the clock and board. And from here several things were clear:
Magnus was about to lose on time. Around move 90, Hikaru repeatedly tried to trade rooks and force a draw. Body language or not, these were clear attempts to draw despite his huge time advantage. Despite not making progress and not having more than a handful of seconds, Magnus repeatedly avoided exchanges and kept trying. After this, Naka clearly saw red and decided to just keep his rook on the board, and they whizzed and banged until Magnus’ flag fell, which took only a few seconds. Hikaru’s miracle had come early.
At no point did Magnus take his opportunities to end the game, or signal the arbiter. It must also be noted that Nakamura can neither claim a draw when worse, nor force his opponent to stop acting crazy.
Watching this, my only thought was that I had witnessed the flip side of the secret of Carlsen’s success – a will to win so extreme that it just could not be physically disarmed. Simen Agdestein was more phlegmatic: he’s not used to time pressure, it rattles him. This might be the simple explanation for the increment generation. Harder for me to gauge; in my day, you had your time, and it could run out. To me it looked like a man in the grip of his basic urge.
Afterwards Magnus said he just lost his head, and seemed to think that someone would step in and stop the game. Then it all just ended in adrenaline and hands.
The event has been old-fashioned in very many ways so far – no opening theory, no increment, no negativity – losses have been taken in stride, the games have been discussed amicably, the new aspects a source of animated conversation.
Now we head into the last day, the match still very much undecided, and after that icy post-game comment from Magnus, perhaps with hostilities finally sneaking into this duel. The finish of game eight was the kind of nasty crash that can leave a nagging, lingering pain with both players.
The players agreed on one thing as they left the arena; that the 8-game set of 10-minute games (with five seconds increment) would very likely be the most draining part of the event. Tune in!