Speed Chess Championship (RO16): Nihal Beats Sarana 16-10, Wins All 3 Segments

GM Nihal Sarin is through to the Quarterfinals of the 2023 Chess.com Speed Chess Championship Presented by Coinbase. He defeated GM Alexey Sarana with a final score of 16-10 after winning all three segments despite a brief internet connectivity scare in the last.

In the Quarterfinals, Nihal will face the winner of GM Dommaraju Gukesh vs. GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The next Round of 16 match is GM Dmitry Andreikin vs. Alireza Firouzja, which starts on Friday, September 8, at 1:00 p.m. ET / 19:00 CEST / 10:30 p.m. IST

This matchup had a bit of recent history. Last week, in the Julius Baer Generation Cup, Nihal forfeited his first two games against Sarana due to connection issues—and then mouse-slipped a full rook in the third game to lose the match.

On top of that, Sarana made it into this event through the qualifier, while Nihal was invited. The Serbian GM proved himself against some of the world’s best, including former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik

Sarana may have won the battle, but he hadn’t won the war. Nihal led their previous blitz encounters 65-33, with 14 draws. He beat Sarana in the 2020 Junior Speed Chess Championship Finals 18-7. Nihal also had the community vote, with 79% anticipating the Indian GM’s victory. 

SmarterChess predicted the 2022 Global Chess Championship finalist would win every single one of the three segments—a prophecy that proved to be true. In fact, the SmarterChess score prediction came uncomfortably close to the actual final score. 

5+1: Nihal 6-3 Sarana

If one listened to the pre-match predictions, they would have been flabbergasted in the beginning. 

Sarana won the first two games. In game one, we saw an interesting imbalance of a rook and two extra pawns (for Sarana) against two bishops (for Nihal); tactically, one of the bishops dropped.

The second game featured a sharp pawn race in a knight endgame. Bok summarized what happened: “Sarin was in the driver’s seat the entire game, but in the time scramble Sarana turns it around!”

In the end, Black was up a knight, but White was up a king.

Just as the chips were down, with his back against the wall, Nihal turned the match around. He won three games in a row, the third one showcasing a positional squeeze ending with firework tactics and checkmate on the board.

We’ve awarded this our Game of the Day distinction, with notes by GM Rafael Leitao below.

After two draws, Nihal won another game to take a two-point lead. Both players were living on the one-second increment, with Nihal making moves at several points with just one second on the clock. The Indian GM won the nervy queen and knight endgame.

As the players enacted the equivalent of boxing while balancing on a tightrope, Bok exclaimed: “This is stressful watching, imagine how the players feel!”

This is stressful watching, imagine how the players feel!

—Benjamin Bok

After this game, Korley said: “The tilt is real.” Although Sarana was getting decent (and often better) positions, Nihal was more resourceful when clock times were low. 

Nihal finished the segment with a three-point lead. In the last game, he masterfully outplayed Sarana in an endgame with four vs. three pawns on the same side of the board, with a queen and rook for each side. 

3+1: Nihal 5-4 Sarana

Staying true to the SmarterChess prediction, Nihal won the second segment as well. Sarana was able to win two games in the 3+1, but the score could have been closer if he didn’t let winning positions slip. Of course, easier said than done. It’s blitz.

After a nothing-happened draw in the first game, Nihal failed to convert a winning position in the second—another draw. In game three, the Indian GM made up for it by winning a really good knight vs. bad bishop endgame. The bishop was so bad, in fact, that Sarana just gave it away for a pawn out of desperation.

Two games later, Sarana won for the first time since game two—that’s 12 games in between the two wins.

But it was a pyrrhic victory, and Nihal picked up where he left off in the following game. They say tactics flow from superior positions, and 31.Bxa6! was a case in point.

NIhal won again and took a four-point lead in the next game. Sarana should have won the game that followed, but as often happens when the momentum so fiercely supports one player, when it rains it pours. The win slipped through Sarana’s fingers like sand.

Nihal won again by trapping a rook, winning the exchange. And although he lost the last game of the segment, the Indian GM still led the match by four points, 11-7.

1+1: Nihal 5-3 Sarana

Although he suffered an early scare with connectivity issues at the beginning of the segment, Nihal regained control and won the match. 

In a completely equal position, the Indian grandmaster lost the first game on time. Based on his reaction, it looked like internet connectivity was the culprit. 

After a draw, Sarana had a really good shot at winning another game, but Nihal held it. From there, the Indian phenom spread his wings and took off.

First, he evened the score with a win in the fourth game. He showed off the power of a queen and knight combination and ultimately sacrificed his knight in the endgame for a fancy finish.

He went on to win four games in a row. In game five of the bullet segment, Nihal grabbed pawn after pawn after pawn on the queenside as Sarana’s attack never materialized. “Christmas came early,” said Korley, as the white queen swallowed pawns like Pac-Man.

By the time Sarana had six and a half minutes left to overcome a six-point deficit, the comeback was pretty much impossible. Nihal lost the last game, but the match was over before it was over.

In the interview, Nihal admitted that he didn’t prepare at all for the match. Asked what the turning point was, he answered: “Winning the second game was good for me. After I won the third game, I was feeling extremely good,” without mentioning being worried at any point.

On his upcoming match against Gukesh or Vachier-Lagrave: “I guess I have decent chances against both of them. I guess MVL is the slight favorite.”

Nihal pockets $4,846.15 while Sarana makes $1,153.85 by win percentage.


All Games | Nihal vs. Sarana | Round Of 16

The main event of the 2023 Speed Chess Championship Presented by Coinbase takes place September 4-22. It is the strongest online speed chess contest in the world, with 16 players—12 invited and four qualifiers—vying for a share of the $150,000 prize fund along with one of the most prestigious titles in online chess. 

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