There were four more decisive results in Round 7 with Wesley So pulling into a tie for the lead with Fabiano Caruana

After seven rounds, the fight for the title United States Championship remains very tight. Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, two of the pre-tournament favorites, are tied for the lead, each with 5.5 points. Sitting a half point behind is Ray Robson and a further half point back is the defending champion, Hikaru Nakamura. 

Caruana and So have been neck and neck throughout the tournament. Caruana had temporarily taken the sole lead after Round 6, when he had White, and efficiently dispatched Alexander Onischuk, while So made a fighting draw against Nakamura.

But in Round 7, Caruana, who is ranked No. 3 in the world, failed to win with Black against 15-year-old Jeffery Xiong. Xiong, who is still unbeaten and is having the tournament of his life, put up a stubborn defense that Caruana could not crack. This allowed So to once again catch Caruana with the quickest game of the day. His opponent, Alexander Shabalov, played an extremely complicated Slav-Moscow variation, but blundered right after the opening. Nakamura continued to try and climb back up the standings by winning a nice game against Varuzhan Akobian. 

The Women’s section continues to be very unpredictable. Nazi Paikidze, the sole leader after Round 5, made a solid draw in Round 6, but that allowed Tatev Abrahamyan and Irina Krush, the defending champion, to catch up to her with inspired wins.

In Round 7, luck was on Paikidze’s side, as her opponnent, Agata Bykovtsev, failed to find the best defensive option. Meanwhile, Krush, who has played inconsistently, posed few problems for her teenage opponent, Ashritha Eswaran, and was held to a draw. Abrahamyan kept pace with a very hard fought win against Alisa Melekhina.

Caruana was surely cheering on Shabolov in his game against So, but he couldn’t have been happy with Shabalov’s opening choice. In Round 5, Shabalov had played a really dry Reti opening against Caruana and given him absolutely no chances to create interesting play. That game ended in a draw. Then, in Round 6, Shabalov won a smooth game against Sam Shankland. It seemed to boost his confidence, as in Round 7 he decided to play one of the most complicated openings imaginable. But So was well prepared and Shabalov blundered right after the opening and lost quickly:

Shabalov, Alexander vs. So, Wesley
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 7.2 | 21 Apr 2016 | 0-1
19. Qe5+?! I remember analyzing this line ages ago, so this was clearly not a big surprise to So. But Shabalov appears to have been improvising over the board and chooses a tempting looking variation that leads to a lost position:
19... Kf8 20. Rd6? Qc7 21. Nf5 Ne8! It was easy to miss this move!
22. Nxg7 Qxd6 23. Ne6+ Kg8! The other move which Shabalov probably didn't see.

As I have mentioned in earlier articles on this Championship, it is a tough decision for the top three players (Caruana, So, Nakamura) how to play as Black against their lower-ranked opponents. In Round 7, against Xiong, Caruana tried out a different strategy than playing his usual solid lines, as he had in Round 5 game against Shabalov. The sideline that Caruana chose to play against Xiong’s Spanish proved to be a good decision as Xiong soon found himself in an unusual and slow endgame:

Xiong, Jeffery vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 7.1 | 21 Apr 2016 | *
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 g6!? It is interesting to see Caruana choose rarer variations in order to fight for more with Black. Black has a lot of different side variations against the Spanish, so, as a White player, it is almost impossible to remember exactly what to do against all of them. That makes it understandable that Caruana caught the 15-year-old Xiong by surprise:
5. d4
5. c3 or Nc3, is the usual approach.  )
5... exd4 6. Bg5 This doesn't appear to be very challenging as it lets Black complete his development quickly. Also the further simplifications don't really cause any problems. But, as I said, it is impossible to prepare against all these lines as White, and, over the board, it is of course much harder to find the best plan.
6... Be7 7. Bxe7 Ngxe7 8. Bxc6 Nxc6 9. Nxd4 Qf6 10. c3 O-O 11. O-O b6 12. Qf3 A reasonable decision to go for the endgame, but only Black has any chances to be better.
12... Qxf3 13. Nxf3 Re8 14. Nbd2 d6 Caruana was definitely quite happy at this point. He got Xiong out of his comfort zone and into a slow endgame, something a 2800 grandmaster is definitely better at than a 15-year-old. Also, objectively, this is a great achievement for Black as he has a more pleasant endgame following the opening. Caruana plays the next part of the game quite nicely to increase the pressure:
15. Rfe1 Bb7 16. Re3 Re7 17. Rae1 Rae8 18. Nf1 It is very hard for White to find any useful plans, so Xiong continues to shuffle pieces around.
18... a5 19. h3 a4 I'm not convinced this was required as it turned out to be a weakness later on. But Caruana was probably right not to worry about moves like Ra3 and Ra4 as that would misplace the rook.
20. N3d2 Ne5 21. c4 Kf8 22. f3 h5 23. Ra3 f5! 24. Rxa4 Nd3 25. Re3 Bc6 26. Ra7
26. Ra3 fxe4 27. fxe4 Nxb2  )
26... Nxb2 27. Rb3 Na4 28. exf5 gxf5 29. Ng3 Rf7 30. Nxh5 Re2 31. Nf1 f4! the h5-knight is completely stuck.
32. Rd3 Nc5 33. Rd2 Re1 34. a4

For most of the game, Caruana continued to build the pressure on Xiong’s position, but at the crucial moment, he missed Xiong’s amazing defensive resource:

Xiong, Jeffery vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 7.1 | 21 Apr 2016 | ECO: C70 | 1/2-1/2
Rc1?! It doesn't give away the advantage, but practically, it would have been much more unpleasant to not allow Nxf4:
34... Ree7! 35. Rd4 Ne6 36. Rd2 Rf5 37. g4 fxg3 38. Nfxg3 Rxf3  )
35. Nxf4! White was really struggling, so this is like a breath of fresh air!
35... Rxf4 36. Rxc7 Be8? Trying to keep the b6 pawn alive. Instead, Black had to go after the Knight on f1, and keep his last rank safe as well:
36... Bd7! 37. Rxd6 Rfxc4 38. Rxb6 There are other better defensive moves, but Black is still clearly better.
38... Rd1! and Rcc1 next would win the game.  )
37. Rxd6 Nxa4 38. Rd8! Rcxc4 39. Rh7! The White rooks are too strong! While the Black rooks are awkwardly placed. They can't even go to the e-file easily:
39... Rh4 40. Rb7 Rh6 41. Ne3! The key difference compared to lines with36...Bd7 - the White Knight quickly becomes active.
41... Rc1+ 42. Kh2 Nc5 43. Rbb8 Re6 44. Nf5 Rce1

Once again, as in his previous games with white, Nakamura created an initiative out of nowhere against his opponent’s king, even though Akobian played one of the most solid lines in chess — the Petroff Defense. In a relatively normal looking position, Nakamura suddenly launched his kingside offensive. Akobian could have certainly defended better, but in the end he was overwhelmed:

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Akobian, Varuzhan
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 7.4 | 21 Apr 2016 | 1-0
21. Be4 Rad8 22. Qb1! g6 23. f4! c5
23... f5 was perhaps required but after
24. Bc2 the White knight on e5 looks very dangerous. Maybe next White can even play g4!
24... b5 25. g4! fxg4? 26. Bxg6  )
24. f5 cxd4
24... Bb3 was the best defensive move, but it does look really awkward to put your bishop on b3. And White has plenty of interesting options - from grabbing a pawn on b7, to more nuanced options like:
25. Bd3! cxd4 26. Nc4! Bxc4 27. Rxe8+  )
25. fxe6 Rxe6 26. Nxf7! Now it's all over:
26... Kxf7 27. Bd5 Qxd5 28. Rxe6 dxc3 29. R6e5 Qd4+ 30. Kh1 b6 31. Qa2+ Kg7 32. Re7+ Kh6 33. Qf7 Nc4 34. Qxh7+ Kg5 35. R7e6 Qd3 36. h4+ Kf4 37. Qh6+

The crucial position which helped Paikidze keep a share of the lead was after she played the tempting Ne6. It appeared that White would force the trade of the dark-squared bishop — a dire sitation for Black. But Bykovtsev missed a nice resource to turn things around:

Paikidze, Nazi vs. Bykovtsev, Agata
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 7.1 | 21 Apr 2016 | 1-0
38. Ne6? Bxg2+ 39. Kxg2 Ra8? Black misses a great chance to save the game here!
39... Bh6! 40. Ng5 is the only way to avoid losing material but now
40... Nf6 looks very nice for Black.  )
40. Rc2 The threat of Nxg7 is very strong.
40... Ra4 41. Nxg7 Kxg7 42. Qf4

So everything remains up for grabs in the Women’s Championship. Interestingly, the ratings of the players have not proven to not be a great predictor of results — a lot seems to come down to the psychology and nerves of the individuals. Krush may still win, but she has not been her usual dominating self. And Anna Zantonskih, a former champion, has edged her way back into contention and is now tied with Krush. 

In the open section, Caruana, So and Nakamura have all played against each other, so the champion will be determined by who can squeeze out the maximum number of points against the lower-rated players. Since no one in the field is a pushover, the final rounds should have a lot of fighting chess. Nakamura has the most experience — he has won five United States Championships — but his one point deficit will be very hard to overcome. 

The player who might make a huge impact on who wins is Robson. He has yet to face the Big 3. How he does against them, and how they do against him, might very well determine who becomes champion. 

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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.