Image by Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
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. b5Ne515. Nxe5Bxe5and Black would have a very solid position without many worries. )
( 14... Bb8was possible, but I don't think Caruana
was really afraid of letting his structure be spoiled by Bxf6. )
15. Nxd6Qxd616. axb4Qxb4
( 16... Nxb417. Bxf6gxf618. Rc4!would have been a beautiful way to transfer the rook to the kingside after which White's
attacking chances look very dangerous. )
17. Bxf6gxf618. Rb1Qe7A 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:
( 19. Bd3!?/\ Nh4, Qh5 was a blunt way. It was also possible - perhaps stronger - to combine it with ideas like Rb5. 19... Kh8Black has to prepare against moves like Nh4 - Qh5. But White can still continue: 20. Nh4!?or play more slowly with Bc2. )
19... Rfd820. Nd4
( 20. Bd3!?with similar ideas, or even Qb1 next would again be more enterprising. )
20... Kg721. Re1This just feels a little too
slow to test Black. 21... Nxd422. Qxd4Bf5Giving back the d5-pawn is the
simplest way. Black's king now seems very safe: 23. Rxd5Rxd524. Qxd5Be425. Qd1Qb4and 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
g543. hxg5hxg5and 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. Kg4was played, and then 33... Kf8was just good for Black. )
33... fxe634. Qxe6+Kf835. Rd3Black 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. h3would
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!Rc239. g5Ne4+40. Kf3Nd2+41. Kg4seems like this lets Black escape but the Black king is still in a mating net and Rc8 isn't possible! 41... Kg742. Rb7h5+43. gxh6+Kxh644. Rxe7and 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. g5Rxe340. gxf6exf6It 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. Kf2Re442. Kf3f543. Rb8+Kg744. Rb7+Kf645. Bd5Re746. Rb6+Kg747. Rd6Kf848. Be6Kg749. Rc6Kf650. Bc4+Kg751. Rd6Rc752. Be2Re753. Rc6Kf854. Kf2Kg755. Bf3Kf856. Kg3Kg757. Kh4h658. Kg3Kh759. Bd5Kg760. Kf3Kh761. Kf2Kg762. Bc4Kh763. Be2Kg764. Rc4Kf665. Rc8Kg766. Rd8Kh767. Bf3Kg768. Bd5Kh769. Rd6Kg770. Be6Kf671. 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... Bf7was
played in the game, and he did not last for long: )
50. Qxc8Qxf7 is better
for White but far from winning. 50... Qf5!and White can't avoid a perpetual. 51. Rxc6Qd3+52. Kf2Qd2+53. Kg3Qe1+54. Kg2Qe2+
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
( 33... Ra3or 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... Nd535. a5Rb836. Rcb1Ra837. a6The same Nc5 fork pattern again! 37... Rxa638. Nc5Raa339. 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. Nxd3Rxd3is certainly
nice for White, but Black might have good chances to defend. )
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:
( 33... Rb1or Rb2 would have maintained Blacks dominating position, and White would have had almost no counterplay. )
34. Rc3Bb235. Rxc5!Perhaps Abrahamyan
missed that Black can keep everything intact after 35. Bd4 Ra5! 35... Bxa436. 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:
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. e7Re6!is probably what Melekhina missed. )
40... Rxe6now it is a draw. 41. Rd1Re2+42. Kf3Rxa243. Rd8+Kxg744. Rd7+Kg645. 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.
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.
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