Round 1 of the United States Championship was full of fireworks as five of the six games in the open section were decisive.

The 2016 United States Championships got off to a fast, if predictable start on Thursday. In the Open section, the difference in class of the players in the top part of the field over everyone else was obvious and led to a high number of decisive results as the higher ranked players notched up instructive wins.

Most people expect one of the three players in the tournament who are ranked in the top 10 in the world — Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So — to win the event. Round 1 did nothing to dispel that idea as the three showed no rust or inhibitions, and all posted comfortable wins.

At the same time, the young top-100 players, Samuel Shankland and Ray Robson, are no doubt very motivated to challenge them, and they started off with very controlled,  but admittedly harder, wins as well.

In the women’s section, the players appear to be much more evenly matched. Irina Krush, the defending champion, is clearly still a favorite, but she has a much tougher challenge this year. The Round 1 games were quite even with only Tatev Abrahamyan, a women’s grandmaster, and Carissa Yip, the youngest female master in United States history, able to post wins. 

Among the star players, So had the toughest pairing. His opponent was Gata Kamsky, the former challenger for the World Championship and a five-time United States Champion. Kamsky played a classical and solid Breyer System in the Ruy Lopez. He had an apparently normal position when So created an incredible attack out of nowhere: 

So, Wesley vs. Kamsky, Gata
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.3 | 14 Apr 2016 | *
20. Nh4! An amazing move because Nf5 is obviously impossible, right?
20... Qd8
20... Nf8 21. Nhf5  )
20... d5 21. exd5 cxd5 22. Nxg6!  )
21. Qc1 Kh7
21... h5 Nf5 is still possible, but I expect White can just prepare it for a more favorable moment with
22. Bh6 or Bg5  )
22. Nhf5!! Even though the knight seemed headed for f5 after Nh4, this move must have come as a huge shock for Kamsky. It still doesn't look entirely clear how strong White's attack is, but practically, Black just has nothing to do:
22... gxf5 23. Nxf5 Re6 24. Bxh6 Ne8 25. Bg5 Bf6
25... Qc7 is a better defensive move, but White is in no hurry. He has an overwhelming initiative and can continue with a move like:
26. f4 or other moves  )
26. Bxf6 Qxf6 27. d5 Re7 If White takes Nxe7, as Kamsky expected, the position would still be salvageable for Black.

The beautiful final position deserves a mention of its own: 

So, Wesley vs. Kamsky, Gata
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.3 | 14 Apr 2016 | ECO: C95 | 1-0
28. g4!! Black cannot move any thing, and after g5, he loses a full rook!

Nakamura, who had White against Aleksandr Lenderman, played a conceptually interesting new idea in a very well studied Catalan-like Slav Defense. His innovation was to go after the Black king in a position where it is more common to focus on trying to get an edge on the queenside: 

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Lenderman, Aleksandr
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.2 | 14 Apr 2016 | *
8. b3!? This has been played many times, but it is still not the most common way to continue. White accepts the fact that he will remain a pawn down, but opens up the queenside, which can possibly create development problems for Black's queenside.
8... cxb3 9. Qxb3 Be7 10. Ne5 a6 11. Rd1 O-O 12. Ne4 Technically, the next move is a novelty, but this is already a fairly new position.
12... Qc7 13. Ng5! An unexpected idea! The f7-e6 pawns are very weak, and this clearly highlights Black's lack of development.
13... a5 14. Bh3 Nxf7 was already possible, but Nakamura correctly decides that there is no hurry to break through. And avoiding moves that force Black to react keeps the tension and makes Black's life harder:
14... a4 15. Qc2 Bc8 16. Bf4 Qd8 17. Ng4 g6 18. Nxf6+ Bxf6 19. Ne4 Bg7 20. Bg2 Qb6 21. Bd6 Re8 22. Rac1 White is already dominating, and, over the next dozen moves or so, Black did not manage to improve his development.

Lenderman’s moves did not seem to serve much purpose, and he remained underdeveloped  until the very end. In his defense, the queenside pieces were really awkward, and there was no  obvious better setup for his pieces.

In comparison, Alexander Shabalov, facing Robson, played a more usual and old setup for White in the same variation: 

Shabalov, Alexander vs. Robson, Ray
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.6 | 14 Apr 2016 | 0-1
8. e4 A common path. These lines have been known to give Black few problems:
8... Be7 9. e5 Nd5 10. Ne4 The Bg5 and Nd6 idea looks scary for Black, but Robson was well aware that it doesn't cause him many problems:
10... Nd7 11. Bg5 O-O 12. Nd6 Bxg5 13. Nxb7 Qe7 14. a4 Bh6 Black is very comfortable.

Robson was never in danger and eventually won in spectacular fashion after a blunder by Shabalov: 

Shabalov, Alexander vs. Robson, Ray
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.6 | 14 Apr 2016 | 0-1
42. Ne8 Ne2!! which is an amazing mating idea. Shabalov resigned, depriving Robson of the pleasure of playing the following beautiful line:
42... Ne2 43. Rxc7 Ng1+ 44. Kh4 Nf3+ the king can't run away!
45. Kh3 Rxh2#  )

Caruana had a slightly tougher time against Varuzhan Akobian, who employed a bizarre variation in the Scandinavian. The line, popularized recently by David Smerdon, an Australian grandmaster, is certainly far from easy. Even though Caruana went for the most principled approach, it could be argued that he did not too well out of the opening: 

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Akobian, Varuzhan
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.1 | 14 Apr 2016 | 1-0
1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Nf6!? A rare move, but definitely not a pushover. Recently,David Smerdon, an Australian grandmaster, wrote a book, Smerdon's Scandinavian, about these adventurous Scandinavian lines that may be well worth checking out.
3. Bb5+ The critical continuation. White wants to hold on to the d5 pawn. I am actually surprised Caruana went for this, because going for a simple line, like d4, Nf3, etc., probably gives White a typical position where he could hope to outplay the lower-ranked Akobian. Now the game enters murkier waters:
3... Bd7 4. Bc4 Bg4!? Black's main idea in the Nf6 Scandinavian. This annoying Bishop move forced White to make less than ideal choices:
5. f3 Bf5 6. Nc3 Nbd7 7. g4 Nb6! This seems to have definitely been prepared by Akobian but he was probably surprised by the unsual:
8. b3!? An interesting over-the-board idea. Black's big hope is that White struggles to finish development, and that his king might be caught in the center. But with this move, Caruana plans to quickly finish development with Bb2, and also opens the path to queenside castling.
8... Bc8 9. Bb2 Nfxd5?! This plays right into White's plans. Particularly as Black fails to target the bishop on c4, which gives White just what he needs.
9... h5! would have been much more challenging.
10. Qe2 hxg4 11. O-O-O should lead to messy complications.  )
10. Nxd5 Nxd5 11. Qe2 e6 Again, Black just tries to play solidly, but this is not quite in the spirit of the rare line Akobian chose. Now White just gets an edge and faces little troubles in converting that:
11... Nb4 12. O-O-O  )
12. O-O-O b6 13. Nh3 Bb7 14. f4 Bd6 15. f5 Qe7 16. Bxg7 Rg8 17. Bb2 O-O-O 18. Rhf1 with an obvious advantage.

Perhaps Akobian’s strategy of going for completely off-beat variations might deserve closer attention from other participants. The idea is that a top player like Caruana would have no reason to study a variation like this, and it can be tough to create something over the board. But, as the game showed, Akobian’s approach is no guarantee of success. 

Shankland, who had White against Akshat Chandra, the lowest-rated player in the Championship, started with some explosive preparation, but the young Chandra (born 1999) was up to the task: 

Shankland, Samuel L vs. Chandra, Akshat
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.4 | 14 Apr 2016 | 1-0
13. Nf5 This line is common with Bb3 on the previous move, but there hasn't been many games with Bf1. Still, both the players seem to have been well prepared:
13... Bxh2+ 14. Kh1 Kf8 15. Qd4 An entertaining, but known, idea:
15... exf5 16. Qxf6 h6! The idea is of course
16... gxf6 17. Bh6+ Kg8 18. Re8#  )
17. Qd4 Bd6 18. Bc4 Bd7!? possibly an improvement over previous games.
19. b3 Qc5 20. Qh4 b5 21. Be3 Qc7 22. Bd5 Bc6 and Black was doing almost ok but not quite. White always has a nagging edge, and Shankland correctly realized in his preparation that the position with the King on f8 is just much harder to play as Black.
23. Rad1

Chandra was close to equality, but Shankland continued to create nagging problems for Black throughout the game. There were some easier ways to simplify things for Chandra, but one pretty way to force a draw would have been: 

Shankland, Samuel L vs. Chandra, Akshat
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 1.4 | 14 Apr 2016 | ECO: C07 | 1-0
35... Kg7! 36. Bxf8+ Rxf8 37. Rxf8 Qc1+  )
36. Re1 Qc7 was played in the game. Now after
37. Qxc7 Rxc7 38. Re8 Rf7 39. Ra8 Kg7 40. Bxf8+ Rxf8 41. Rxa6 Shankland showed exemplary technique to win. The computer thinks Black is almost fine, which feels like the wrong assessment. At the same time, the engines are getting better and better at endgames, so perhaps Black has potential to save the game if he keeps a passive setup. Chandra tried to defend in a more counter-attacking, human, style but he did not have the machine's accuracy and Shankland converted nicely:
41... g5 42. b4 Rd8 43. b5 Rd2 44. b6 Rb2 45. g3 Kg6 46. Kg2 h5 47. a4 f4 48. gxf4 g4 49. a5 h4 50. Ra8 Kf5 51. Rh8 h3+ 52. Kg3 Rb3+ 53. Kh2 Rb2 54. a6 Rxf2+ 55. Kg1 g3 56. Rxh3 Kg4 57. Rh8 Rb2 58. a7 Rb1+ 59. Kg2 Rb2+ 60. Kf1 g2+ 61. Kg1 Kg3 62. Rg8+ Kh3 63. a8=Q

In the last game of the open section, Alexander Onischuk, the former Champion, tested newcomer Jeffrey Xiong, who is only 15 years old, for a long time, but Xiong held on with some commendable endgame skills.

There was also a very pretty finish in Yip’s game:

Yip, Carissa vs. Gorti, Akshita
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | | Round 1.6 | 14 Apr 2016 | 1-0
44. Qe8+ Kh7 45. Qg8+!! Kxg8 might not be immediately obvious how giving away the queen helps White, but without the d7-pawn, White has great geometric motifs again:
45... Kg6 46. Qe6+! Kh7 47. Qf5+ is a nice geometric motif to win the bishop!  )
46. d8=Q+ Kf7 47. Qd7+ Kg8 48. Qc8+
48. Qc8+ Kf7 49. Qf5+ and Qf3.  )

Things get tougher for the top players in Round 2 as they all have Black. Against other top-10 players, Nakamura, Caruana and So have little need to avoid playing drawish variations as Black. But in the United States Championship, they may feel some pressure to try to win and may have to adjust their strategies. The games that will be particularly interesting to watch and that should be tough tests are Shankland vs. Caruana and Kamsky vs. Nakamura.


Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 90 in the world, he is currently a sophomore at Stanford University.