It was a very good day for citizens of the United States at the FIDE Grand Prix tournament in Thessaloniki as they went three for three while no non-citizen managed to win. Two of them, Gata Kamsky and Fabiano Caruana (who holds dual citizenship but represents Italy) are tied for first, while the third, Hikaru Nakamura, got his first win of the event.
Kamsky's win was the cleanest, as he simply outplayed Rustam Kasimdzhanov with the black pieces in a Dutch Defense. Kasimdzhanov didn't make any obvious, egregious errors, but was beaten a bit at a time. The only really clear error came on move 27. White should have played 27.e4, temporarily sacrificing a pawn. His position was worse but wouldn't have been lost. Instead, he tried 27.exf4, but this opened the kingside files and Kamsky took speedy advantage.
Caruana's win wasn't so smooth. First one player and then the other had a very slight advantage, but it was Alexander Morozevich who was doing most of the pressing. The key moment came on move 47. Caruana threatened 47...Qb1+ 48.Nf1 Qxf1+ 49.Kxf1 Rh1#, and so Morozevich played 47.Nf1(??). That took care of the mate, but it was a blunder, and he was lost after 47...Nh3+!, forcing the win of the queen. Instead, 47.Nxf4 exf4 48.Nh5 sufficed for full equality. (Note that 48...Qb1+ 49.Kh2 Qxe4?? walks into mate starting with 50.Qc8+.) A nice gift for Caruana!
The third decisive game was Nakamura's win over Veselin Topalov. Nakamura quickly won a pawn, but in light of the locked pawn structure and Black's good knight vs. White's bad bishop, a draw was the likelier result. Nakamura thought that Topalov's decision to exchange the last pair of rooks was a mistake, though even after the trade it wasn't clear that White could win. After the game Nakamura believed he could have won more easily with 44.Bxg6, but this is a mistake: after 44...Kxg6 45.Ke5 Nf5! 46.d6 Nd4! 47.d7 Kf7! 48.Kd6 Ne6 49.f4 Kf6! it's a draw.
Another key moment came at move 50. Nakamura thought for half an hour on 50.f5 before playing it, and Topalov instantly replied with 50...Nd6, which looks like a serious (and fairly obvious) error. As Nakamura pointed out, Black needed to play 50...Kg7, aiming to park the king on f6 and bringing the knight back to d6. He didn't see a way to win after that, and it's not clear that there is one. (I'm not completely sure about that, but I'm not spotting one and the computer doesn't offer any sensible lines either.) Topalov's move allowed 51.f6, which in turns makes it possible for White's king to make further inroads.
Nevertheless, the adventures hadn't yet come to an end. After 54...Nxb5 White had any number of clear winning approaches; for example, 55.Be8 Nd6 56.f7 Kg7 57.Kg5 followed soon by Ke6, or 55...Nd4 56.Kg4 Nxb3 57.d6 Nd4 58.Bf7 Nc6 59.Kf5. In both cases, White is not just winning but easily winning. Instead though, Nakamura played 55.Be2, probably anticipating 55...Nd6 and intending to meet it with 56.Bd3, cutting off the Black king. Instead, Black played 55...Nd4!, and now Nakamura had to think. He was down to his last 4-5 minutes until the second time control (achieved by making the 60th move). He looked nervous and his time was dwindling, but to his credit he played the absolutely correct - and probably only winning move - 56.Bh5!! To make this move he had to accurately calculate that 56.Bd3 failed, to recognize that 56.Bh5 won, and to have the inner strength to undo his last move. After 56.Bh5, 56...Nf5+ was probably a better try, but Topalov was lost in any case.
The other three games were drawn, but only Bacrot-Dominguez merits mention. It was a very long game, but instructive in two ways. First, it shows both the strengths and the limits of the minority attack. White got what he wanted and saddled Black with a chronically weak c-pawn. That's the strength. On the other hand, Dominguez showed that the one weakness, by itself, wasn't the end of the world. He never had any counterplay, but even so it was very hard for White to convert this slight advantage into something major. The second instructive aspect came late in the knight ending, when Dominguez bravely and correctly sacrificed the aforementioned c-pawn with 60...Nd7. If Mikhail Botvinnik's maxim that "knight endings are pawn endings" were true, then White would have won. Instead, Black got just enough counterplay, and between that and White's backward e-pawn, Dominguez was able to hold the game.
Round 8 Pairings:
- Grischuk (4) - Caruana (5)
- Dominguez (4.5) - Morozevich (3.5)
- Topalov (3.5) - Bacrot (2.5)
- Kamsky (5) - Nakamura (3)
- Ponomariov (4) - Kasimdzhanov (3)
- Ivanchuk (1.5) - Svidler (2.5)