Speed Chess Championship: Nakamura Beats Ding In Spectacular Armageddon Finish, Advances To Finals


In the last semifinal match of the 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event, GM Hikaru Nakamura defeated GM Ding Liren in the culminating Armageddon game after an unforgettable, back-and-forth, and epic four-hour struggle. The five-time U.S. Champion and number one seed will face GM Wesley So in the final match on Sunday, December 19, at 10 a.m. PT/19:00 CET. 

The American grandmaster’s resilience, his ability to strike back despite unfavorable match situations, was a recurring theme in this hand-wringing match. Winning on-demand in the final bullet game to send the match into tiebreaks, then drawing the final game of the tiebreaks in a precarious position and sending the game into Armageddon, and ultimately winning the final game with the Black pieces, Nakamura proved that even when he was knocked down, he was never out.

How to watch?

The games of the 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event are played on the Chess.com live server. They are also available on our platform for watching live games at Chess.com/events and on our apps under “Watch.” Expert commentary can be enjoyed at Chess.com/tv.

2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event

The live broadcast of the match.

Although no one could have predicted exactly how this intense match would develop, some pre-match predictions were curiously accurate. While Ding outplayed Nakamura several times in the late-opening or middlegame stages, he was unable to convert a full point in several key games.

Chess Insights

Accordingly, commentator GM Daniel Naroditsky repeated a sentiment we have heard many times before: “It doesn’t matter how winning you are [against Nakamura]—it really doesn’t!” Nakamura, true to his style, found seemingly every resource available to keep fighting and Ding was unsuccessful in winning many endgames in this match.

Blitz 5+1: Nakamura-Ding 5-4:

The five-minute portion was perhaps the least dramatic but also the most accurate. During game two, commentator IM David Pruess observed: “He’s giving me, like, classical chess vibes so far in this blitz match… aiming for super-high quality, really focused, willing to think hard, use mainline openings,” which would fairly summarize the first section of the match. 

Both players played a fairly consistent repertoire. Nakamura opted for symmetrical Grunfeld or double-fianchetto systems as White. Meanwhile, Ding played a Catalan in every white game of this section except for game four, where we saw a Nimzo-Indian, an opening he did not repeat for the rest of the match. 

In hindsight, the critical moments where Ding did not convert a decisive advantage, and in some cases even went on to lose, really hurt his chances. Watch how Nakamura quickly seizes a single chance he is given:

Blitz 3+1: Nakamura-Ding 4-6:

Due to Nakamura’s renowned strength in the bullet segment, many of his opponents angle for gaining an advantage in the blitz sections and having a lead to fall back on, later, in the bullet games. Ding certainly accomplished this by scoring more points in the 3+1 portion, but his advantage could have been larger had he not missed some important opportunities, especially in games five and 10 of this segment.

After the first game, another Catalan, Pruess observed: “Nobody’s touched their e-pawn with White before move 10 yet in this match!”

After three draws, Ding won convincingly as Black in game four. He really should have won the next game, after playing the Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD) with 5.Bf4, but was unable to put the game away in the ensuing time scramble.

Then Ding, after winning as Black in game six, won again as White in the next game, in a QGD with 5.Bf4 again, in one of the best games of the match, and in only 24 moves:

Nakamura won the following game, drew the next, and cranked out a new opening for the first time as White—the Ruy Lopez—after which he saved a critical pawn-down knight ending in the final game of the 3+1 portion.

By the end of the blitz sections, Ding led by one point with a total score of 10-9. For most players, this is often not enough of a margin to hold off the American GM in the bullet segment. But who could have known what was in store?

Bullet 1+1: Nakamura-Ding 4.5-3.5:

This section of the match was, hands down, the most exciting before the tiebreaks and Armageddon. In a feat not many in the world can lay claim to, the Chinese GM held his own against the American in the very segment where he is most feared.

The first surprise was when Ding won game one. He had a somewhat shaky conversion in a four-knights endgame, but the win never slipped.

The next three games were all decided by White wins, funnily enough, as the players each exchanged proverbial punches. But then Nakamura won for the second time in a row by game five, this time as Black, in an opposite-colored bishop middlegame. This is usually the point where, once he picks up momentum, Nakamura can run away with the bullet segment in a few blinks of the eye.

But then Ding won, too, as Black! After a draw in the following game, suddenly Ding only needed a draw to win the entire thing. Going into the last game of the 1+1 portion in a must-win situation, Nakamura delivered a sensational victory:

The score was 13.5-13.5, and the match was sent to tiebreaks! Interestingly, in the post-game interview, Ding later admitted he did not realize a draw here would have secured the entire match victory!

Tiebreaks: Nakamura-Ding 2-2:

Tensions were high as Ding had seemingly done the impossible; he rivaled Nakamura in the bullet segment (and nearly won it, too!). Now all three results were possible. 

Nakamura won the first game as Black in his usual style—playing quickly and setting problems for the opponent on every move. The next game, an Italian, ended peacefully in a draw.

Ding, in a must-win situation now, also delivered a win on-demand! He built an impressive attack that culminated in the following stunning combination.

In the final tiebreak game, a win by either player would have clinched the entire match. Just as Ding seemed to have real pressure building, but with no obvious plan forward and with under 20 seconds left, he acquiesced to a three-fold repetition of moves.

Armageddon: Nakamura-Ding 1-0:

In the end, an Armageddon game, the tiebreak of all tiebreaks, decided the outcome of the match. Ding had the white pieces and five minutes against Nakamura’s four—with no increment this time. As compensation for the extra minute, the American GM had draw-odds, meaning he needed only to draw as Black in the final game to win.

While Ding built up significant pressure in the middlegame, he tragically blundered an exchange on move 16 and, despite still having compensation, was not able to convert his position into a full point.

In the post-match interview, both players shared some compelling insights and opinions. 

When asked by Naroditsky how he mentally recovered in times of crisis, Nakamura answered: “Yeah, I mean, I think the main thing is you have to keep going, believing in yourself…” After comparing this match to his with GM Alireza Firouzja in the Bullet Chess Championship earlier this year, he added:  “You just try to hang in there, try to believe that good things will happen. But it obviously was a very tough match and a lot of credit goes to Ding for playing so well.”

Asked by Pruess if he expected the match to be as close as it was, Ding responded: “Of course I did not prepare [for] a tiebreak… Today’s game was very tense… I had more better positions than Hikaru, but he defended well and sometimes he played very very quickly in very complicated positions. That’s his skills.”

When asked for his thoughts on playing Wesley So in the finals, Nakamura remarked: “I mean, I don’t know; I have to say, out of all the Speed Chess Championship matches… I thought this was the hardest match I’d played—and that includes the match I lost to Magnus, by the way. Obviously Ding couldn’t quite convert to the same degree as Magnus did, but after the match today, I’m gonna just try to play good chess and hopefully good things will happen. Today was an epic match and it was a lot of fun to play.”

…I thought this was the hardest match I’d played—and that includes the match I lost to Magnus, by the way.
—Hikaru Nakamura

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Chess Naka Final

The 2021 Speed Chess Championship Main Event is a knockout tournament among 16 of the best grandmasters in the world who will play for a $100,000 prize fund. The tournament will run November 8-December 19, 2021 on Chess.com. Each individual match will feature 90 minutes of 5+1 blitz, 60 minutes of 3+1 blitz, and 30 minutes of 1+1 bullet chess.

Find all information about the Speed Chess Championship here.

Previous reports:

  • Speed Chess Championship: So Edges Out Nihal, Enters Finals
  • Speed Chess Championship: So Knocks Out Caruana, Advances To SF
  • Speed Chess Championship: Nakamura Defeats Giri, Will Face Ding In SF
  • Speed Chess Championship: Ding Eliminates Aronian, Advances To Semifinals
  • Speed Chess Championship: Nihal Dominates Against Rapport, Advances To SF
  • Speed Chess Championship: Caruana Upsets MVL, Meets So In Quarterfinals
  • Speed Chess Championship: So Rallies, Eliminates Xiong
  • Speed Chess Championship: Nakamura Dominates In Bullet, Advances To Quarterfinals
  • Speed Chess Championship: Nihal and Aronian Win And Advance To Quarterfinals
  • Speed Chess Championship: Rapport Knocks Out Sarana In Dramatic Tiebreaker
  • Speed Chess Championship: Ding Beats Mamedyarov, Close Finish To Reach QF
  • Speed Chess Championship: Giri Defeats Duda, Advances To Quarterfinals


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