Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, two of the pre-tournament favorites, are among the leaders, along with Ray Robson

After the fireworks of Round 1 of the United States Championships, which is being held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, Rounds 2 and 3 were a little quieter, with fewer decisive results. After three rounds, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, two of the pre-tournament favorites (or Big 3), were tied for the lead along with Ray Robson. Hikaru Nakamura, the other top seed, is a half point back, along with Samuel Shankland. 

The first showdown between the Big 3 occurred in Round 3 when So faced Caruana. The game ended up being the longest of the day as they drew. 

The big surprise of the round was that Nakamura failed to win with White against Akshat Chandra, the gritty United States Junior Champion. This was a nice, and deserved, comeback for Chandra after he missed a chance to check mate So in Round 2 and ended up losing.

The other new young player in the field, 15-year-old Jeffrey Xiong, continued to impress. In Round 3, he broke Robson’s two-game winning streak and Robson had to use all his experience to barely save a clearly worse endgame.

In the Women’s section, Tatev Abrahamyan and Carissa Yip, the Round-2 leaders,  met in Round 3. The more experienced Abrahamyan completely dominated the game, but let yip escape in the very end. The standings are very fluid as Nazi Paikidze capitalized on the draw by the leaders to join them by winning her game. All three are tied for the lead at 2.5/3. Meanwhile, pre-tournament favorite, Irina Krush, has been struggling to find her rhythm and is a half point behind the leaders with 2 points.

A bit predictably, the game between So and Caruana wasn’t as exciting as when these top players take on lower-ranked rivals, because then they obviously feel more comfortable taking risks. The game resembled two boxers circling each other for a long time with neither able to land a serious blow. In the middlegame, So found an interesting pawn sacrifice to inject some life into the game:

So, Wesley vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.1 | 16 Apr 2016 | *
14. Nb5! The best way to generate interesting play.
14. b5 Ne5 15. Nxe5 Bxe5 and Black would have a very solid position without many worries.  )
14... axb4
14... Bb8 was possible, but I don't think Caruana was really afraid of letting his structure be spoiled by Bxf6.  )
15. Nxd6 Qxd6 16. axb4 Qxb4
16... Nxb4 17. Bxf6 gxf6 18. Rc4! would have been a beautiful way to transfer the rook to the kingside after which White's attacking chances look very dangerous.  )
17. Bxf6 gxf6 18. Rb1 Qe7 A critical position. White has many possible moves, but the two major plans are: go after the Black king, or try to get back the material on the queenside, and hope for a better pawn structure.

Having made things a bit more interesting, So reverted to a more conservative strategy. Perhaps against another opponent in the field, So would have gone for aggressive ideas like Bd3!?, which lead to interesting, but double-edged play. Against Caruana, So kept things under control, but trying to win back the pawn also did not put much pressure on Caruana:

So, Wesley vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.1 | 16 Apr 2016 | ECO: D40 | 1/2-1/2
19. Rb5
19. Bd3!? /\ Nh4, Qh5 was a blunt way. It was also possible - perhaps stronger - to combine it with ideas like Rb5.
19... Kh8 Black has to prepare against moves like Nh4 - Qh5. But White can still continue:
20. Nh4!? or play more slowly with Bc2.  )
19... Rfd8 20. Nd4
20. Bd3!? with similar ideas, or even Qb1 next would again be more enterprising.  )
20... Kg7 21. Re1 This just feels a little too slow to test Black.
21... Nxd4 22. Qxd4 Bf5 Giving back the d5-pawn is the simplest way. Black's king now seems very safe:
23. Rxd5 Rxd5 24. Qxd5 Be4 25. Qd1 Qb4 and Black had no problems. Caruana even pressed for a while in the endgame, but the result was never really in doubt.

Nakamura tried to outplay his much younger opponent by going for unorthodox variation of the Reti opening, but Chandra did not make any rookie mistakes. In the final position, Chandra could have comfortably continued to press:

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Chandra, Akshat
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.3 | 16 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
g5 43. hxg5 hxg5 and plan Nb8 - Nc6 - Nd4 next. I would admit that White should probably be able to hold a draw as he can hope to create a fortress that prevents Black's king from entering, but Black has little risk.

Still, accepting his super-star opponent’s draw offer seems perfectly reasonable. Particularly after the two extremely close misses he had. It is worth mentioning the amazing opportunity Chandra missed in Round 2:

Chandra, Akshat vs. So, Wesley
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 2.3 | 15 Apr 2016 | 0-1
33. Rxe6+!
33. Kg4 was played, and then
33... Kf8 was just good for Black.  )
33... fxe6 34. Qxe6+ Kf8 35. Rd3 Black has no checks! Apparently Wesley missed that Qe6 guards the h3 square so there is no way he can defend against Rd8 mate.

In Round 2, Robson had used the London System, pioneered recently by Gata Kamsky, to win a nice game. In Round 3, Xiong used the very same system against him! The 15-year old showed great maturity to keep increasing the pressure on Black throughout the game. But in the end, Robson held with a nice and intuitive piece sacrifice:

Xiong, Jeffery vs. Robson, Ray
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.2 | 16 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
37. g4?! This move looks tempting as g5 creates fascinating mating threats, but this allows Black the chance to try and sacrifice a piece. Considering the position, that may have been a relief for Robson.
37. h3 would have made Black suffer much longer. White can try to play g4...g5, or Rb4...e4...e5 next.  )
37... Rxh2+ 38. Kg1?! This move really lets the winning chances slip, but it was admittedly quite hard to calculate how Kg3 was much stronger:
38. Kg3! Rc2 39. g5 Ne4+ 40. Kf3 Nd2+ 41. Kg4 seems like this lets Black escape but the Black king is still in a mating net and Rc8 isn't possible!
41... Kg7 42. Rb7 h5+ 43. gxh6+ Kxh6 44. Rxe7 and Black isn't being mated immediately, but his knight is awkwardly placed, and he still needs to defend for a long time.  )
38... Re2! 39. g5 Rxe3 40. gxf6 exf6 It seems quite hard to convert this position into a win. After f5, Black has a very solid pawn structure, and exchanging the rooks leads to a draw. Xiong tried for a long time but it wasn't hard for Robson to hold the game.
41. Kf2 Re4 42. Kf3 f5 43. Rb8+ Kg7 44. Rb7+ Kf6 45. Bd5 Re7 46. Rb6+ Kg7 47. Rd6 Kf8 48. Be6 Kg7 49. Rc6 Kf6 50. Bc4+ Kg7 51. Rd6 Rc7 52. Be2 Re7 53. Rc6 Kf8 54. Kf2 Kg7 55. Bf3 Kf8 56. Kg3 Kg7 57. Kh4 h6 58. Kg3 Kh7 59. Bd5 Kg7 60. Kf3 Kh7 61. Kf2 Kg7 62. Bc4 Kh7 63. Be2 Kg7 64. Rc4 Kf6 65. Rc8 Kg7 66. Rd8 Kh7 67. Bf3 Kg7 68. Bd5 Kh7 69. Rd6 Kg7 70. Be6 Kf6 71. Bd5+

Shankland had suffered a tough loss in Round 2 to Caruana. At the end of the game, Shankland had played Bg8 to Bf7 and back to g8 many times, while Caruana roamed the whole board freely, slowly improving his position. Sadly for Shankland, the engine pointed out a huge lapse by Caruana which had would have let Shankland save the day:

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Shankland, Samuel L
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 2.1 | 15 Apr 2016 | 1-0
49. Ke3? Black basically had no moves for a long time, but suddenly he had an amazing tactical idea:
49... Qf7!! I was talking to a friend about this position, and we realized that in the pre computer age nobody would have ever noticed that Ke3 was such a big lapse. How times change!
49... Bf7 was played in the game, and he did not last for long:  )
50. Qxc8 Qxf7 is better for White but far from winning.
50... Qf5! and White can't avoid a perpetual.
51. Rxc6 Qd3+ 52. Kf2 Qd2+ 53. Kg3 Qe1+ 54. Kg2 Qe2+

This would be a very difficult game to recover from for anybody, but Shankland played a solid game in Round 3 and grabbed the gift Akobian gave him in the following position:

Shankland, Samuel L vs. Akobian, Varuzhan
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.4 | 16 Apr 2016 | 1-0
Nb4?
33... Ra3 or Rb8, etc., would give Black more than enough compensation to hold. The a2 or d4 pawn will eventually fall.  )
34. a4! 34. Ra4 35. Nc5 is a fork! Now White is up a pawn and Black has little compensation. Perhaps upset by overlooking this idea, Akobian puts up little resistance the rest of the way:
34... Nd5 35. a5 Rb8 36. Rcb1 Ra8 37. a6 The same Nc5 fork pattern again!
37... Rxa6 38. Nc5 Raa3 39. Rb7! An amazing idea to refuse to take the rook on d3! Now, Nxe6 is a much more annoying threat, and White cleans up Black's kingside pawns:
39. Nxd3 Rxd3 is certainly nice for White, but Black might have good chances to defend.  )
39... Rd2 40. Nxe6+ Kf6 41. Nd8 Kf5 42. Rxf7+ Ke4 43. Re1+ Kxd4 44. Ne6+ Kc4 45. Rc1+ Nc3 46. Rxh7 Kb5 47. Rb7+ Kc6 48. Rxc3+ Rxc3 49. Rc7+ Kd6 50. Rxc3 Kxe6 51. Rf3 Rd4 52. h4 Ke5 53. Kg2 Ke6 54. Kh3 Ke5 55. g4 Rd1 56. g5 Rd6 57. h5

Yip has had a dream start to her United States Championship debut, but in Round 3 she ran into serious trouble against Abrahamyan. Abrahamyan, who had two great wins in the first two rounds, missed a great chance to grab the sole lead in Round 3:

Yip, Carissa vs. Abrahamyan, Tatev
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.1 | 16 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
Bb3?
33... Rb1 or Rb2 would have maintained Blacks dominating position, and White would have had almost no counterplay.  )
34. Rc3 Bb2 35. Rxc5! Perhaps Abrahamyan missed that Black can keep everything intact after 35. Bd4 Ra5!
35... Bxa4 36. Ng4! Black was still dominating because of the bishops but things weren't so easy anymore.

Black was still better, but Yip defended excellently to stay in the lead.

Alisa Melekhina missed an even bigger chance to beat Krush, the defending champion, in Round 3. Melekhina co-ordinated her pieces perfectly in the middle game to obtain a huge initiative. Krush barely managed to exchange the queens, but being two pawns down, her prospects did not look bright until:

Melekhina, Alisa vs. Krush, Irina
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 3.2 | 16 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
39. f6? Probably the result of severe time trouble and Krush's lucky stars! Just defending the knight, or moving it somewhere, would leave White completely winning as her pawns would be unstoppable.
39... Rxd6! 40. fxg7
40. e7 Re6! is probably what Melekhina missed.  )
40... Rxe6 now it is a draw.
41. Rd1 Re2+ 42. Kf3 Rxa2 43. Rd8+ Kxg7 44. Rd7+ Kg6 45. Rxb7

Round 4 will feature one the most crucial matches of the Championship: Caruana vs Nakamura. A decisive game, either way, could ultimately decide the title. In addition, Shankland will face So, which should be a very exciting game to follow. This time, Shankland has White, so it will be interesting to see if he can he put up a better challenge to one of the Big 3.

In the Women’s section, Abrahamyan takes on another co-leader, Paikidze, with White. Both of them have the potential to fight for the title, and this match could already be a turning point in the event.

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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.