Four players are within a half-point of each other as the U.S. Championship enters the last three rounds.

With three rounds to go, the United States Championship is still very much up for grabs.

In Round 8, Hikaru Nakamura, the defending champion, beat Alexander Shabalov to close to within a half point of the co-leaders, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So.  Ray Robson, who drew with Caruana, is tied with Nakamura. The title looks like it will almost certainly be decided among those four players.

Caruana is one of the best  prepared players in the world, but he was caught off guard by Robson in a fairly well-known variation of the French Defense. So, who like Caruana, also had White, had a minimal advantage throughout his game against Alexander Onischuk, but it wasn’t enough to win. Nakamura’s game against Shabalov was chaotic and unclear, but it ended prematurely after Shabalov blundered horribly on Move 40.

In the Women’s Championship, the fight is even closer. Anna Zantonskih, the former champion, continued her upward march by beating Ashritha Eswaran to join the two previous leaders, Tatev Abrahamyan and Nazi Paikidze.

Abrahamyan was actually fortunate to hold off Irina Krush, the defending champion, as Krush played a nice game to obtain a great position. But she let Abrahamyan survive a tough endgame. Paikidze completely dominated her game against Katya Nemcova, but she also failed to win after Nemcova found a nice tactical blow to force a draw.

Against Shabalov, it seemed that Nakamura was completely dominating the game from the outset. He even won an exchange with a cute little bishop maneuver:

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Shabalov, Alexander
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 8.3 | 22 Apr 2016 | *
24. Bh4!? Very unexpected!
24... Qh6 25. Be7 It already looks as if the game is over, but Shabalov manages to hold on for a while longer.

But the game did not end quickly. Instead, things became surprisingly hard for Nakamura because of a surprising lapse by Nakamura immediately after he won the exchange. Perhaps he had some idea in mind, but on the surface he just blundered his f4 pawn. Considering how much control Black was able to exert over the dark squares after the f4 pawn fell, I would bet it was an oversight:

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Shabalov, Alexander
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 8.3 | 22 Apr 2016 | ECO: B42 | 1-0
27. Qf2?
27. Qd2 Rxc4 28. Ne2 This seems pretty nice for White.  )
27... Qxf4 28. b3 Bg7 29. Ne2 Qh6 Tthings don't seem easy for White as Blacks minor pieces have great potential.
30. Rcd1 Nc6 31. Qb6 It is slightly risky to leave the kingside unguarded. Things now start to get pretty messy:
31... Nfe5! 32. Nh2 Bf8
32... Bf6! /\ Bh4 was another great way to create play. It was faster than Bf8 and Be7:
33. Rxd6 Bd8 34. Qf2 Bh4 35. g3 Be7  )
33. Qxb7 Be7 34. Kh1 Kh8 35. Ng1 Rg8

Things took another dramatic turn on Move 40, as Shabalov evidently had a hullicination that he was creating a pretty mating net. It turned out to be a blunder, probably much to Nakamura’s relief:

Nakamura, Hikaru vs. Shabalov, Alexander
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 8.3 | 22 Apr 2016 | ECO: B42 | 1-0
39... exf5! 40. Rxe7 Nxe7 41. Qxe7 Nf6 This looks dangerous because Black's king is exposed, but White's knights aren't too impressive either, so the position remains unclear.  )
40. Nxd2 Nf2+ 41. Kh2 Bd6+ 42. g3 I imagine Shabalov wanted to play Rxg3 and hope for a brilliant mating net, but Black is getting mated first after Qxh7.

In Caruana vs. Robson, Robson made a smart choice in the opening by choosing a very forcing, but slightly out of fashion French variation. A few years ago, this line was all the rage, so Caruana had no doubt analyzed it in great detail. Yet, it is easy to forget or confuse variations and this is perhaps what happened with Caruana. Caruana has been surprised before during the Championship, as in Round 1 against Varuzhan Akobian, but this was different. The forced sequence of moves made it much harder for him to simply play something solid and try to outplay his opponent. In the end, Caruana had to settle for a perpetual check:

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Robson, Ray
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 8.1 | 22 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
20. Qf4!? Even though Caruana was the one who played the novelty, it looks as if Robson was better prepared. One of the problems with preparing such complicated openings is that Black seems to have too many options, so it is impossible to account for all of them:
20... Qc4 21. exf6 Rg8 22. Nxd5!? A surprising decision. I think that Caruana probably calculated this would end in a draw, but couldn't see anything better to do. Still, I found it surprising because there was certainly a chance to go wrong (for example, look at the line with 25...Bd6). He certainly had safer ways to maintain the balance, but it is a complicated situation in which pressing too hard can lead to problems, so the decision to force things was understandable.
22... exd5 23. Re1+ Kd8 24. Qb8+ Bc8 25. Qa7 Be6 A much more fun perpetual, which would have required great precision from both players was:
25... Bd6!? 26. Re7 all other moves just lose. I wonder if Caruana calculated this whole line before playing Nxd5:
26... Rxg2+ 27. Kxg2 Bh3+! 28. Kf3 the only way to draw!
28... Qf1+ 29. Bf2 Qd1+ 30. Ke3 and now Black can either make a draw with Qc1 or
30... d4+ 31. Qxd4 Qxd4+ 32. Kxd4 Bxe7  )
26. Bb6+ Kc8 27. Qa8+ Kd7 28. Qb7+ Kd6 29. Ba7 Rxg2+! and perpetual follows:
30. Kxg2 Qg4+ 31. Kh1 Qf3+ 32. Kg1 Qg4+ 33. Kh1 Qf3+

The game between So and Onischuk followed the same path as the game between Caruana and Onischuk two rounds before.  So deviated slightly, and it seemed like he had a slight edge for a while, but it was too little in the endgame. And endgames are something Onischuk is really good at, so it never felt like So was ever close to winning.

In the only other decisive game of day, the disappointments continued to pile up for 16-year-old Akshat Chandra. He missed many great chances to win against Aleksandr Lenderman. Eventually, the game wound its way to almost equal endgame in which Lenderman showed some nice technique to gin his first win of the event:

Chandra, Akshat vs. Lenderman, Aleksandr
U.S. Championship 2016 | | Round 8.6 | 22 Apr 2016 | 0-1
Nc6 55. Nb5 Ke5 56. f3? Chandra doesn't realize how desperate his situation could be.
56. f4+! Kd5 57. g4! was a wonderful line. In the game, White's play was too slow but in this variation, he is in time to create a passed pawn. The key was to realize that he couldn't afford to play slowly anymore:
57... Nd4 58. Nc3+ Kc4 59. Nb1 hxg4 60. Kg3  )
56... Nd4 57. Nc3 b5 58. Kf2 b4 59. Ne4 b3 Now things are very hard for White
60. Nd2 Kd5 61. Ke3 b2 62. Nb1 Kc4 63. g4 Nb5 64. gxh5 gxh5 65. f4 Nd6! After Nf5, the h4 pawn is hanging!
66. Nd2+ Kc3 67. Nb1+ Kc2 68. Na3+ Kc1 69. Kd4 Nb5+ 70. Nxb5 b1=Q 71. Nd6 Qb2+ 72. Ke4 Qf6 73. Nc4 Qxh4 74. Ne5 Qf6 75. f5 h4 76. Nd3+ Kd2 77. Nf4 Qg5 78. Ke5 Qg3

The crucial match in the Women’s Championship was between Abrahamyan and Krush. Krush dominated the game right from the start. and she had many tempting possibilities, though she chose to steer toward an endgame where she continued to have good propects. At a certain moment, however, she lost control of the position:

Abrahamyan, Tatev vs. Krush, Irina
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | | Round 8.1 | 22 Apr 2016 | 1/2-1/2
Rf1? Giving up the e-file finally gives White some counterplay:
35. Re2! Rd1
35... Bxd5 36. Rd2 Bxf4+ 37. Bxf4 With the opposite-colored bishops, the position should be close to equal, particularly because of White's activity.  )
36. Kf2 Kf7?! At least Bd5 had to be played. Now Black misses some tactical ideas after
37. Ne6! Be7 38. Ng5+ Maybe the best decision was to force a draw with Bxg5.
38... Ke8 39. Nxh7 Kd8? 40. Nf8
40. Bf8! would have completely turned the game around. Black is forced to take on f8, and after
40... Bxf8 41. Nxf8 Bxd5 42. Nxg6 White seems to have very real winning chances.  )
40... Bc5+ 41. Kg3 Bxf8 42. Bxf8 Bxd5 43. Bh6 Be4 44. Rd2+ Rxd2

Krush’s desperation to try to hold on to her advantage almost led to a loss, but Abrahamyan failed to find the strong move Bf8! Krush was visibly disappointed in the post-game press conference, but she still is very much in contention for the title.

The other critical miss of the day was in Paikidze vs. Nemcova. Paikidze played quite nicely in the early middlegame stages to get the following position, where she was completely in control:

Paikidze, Nazi vs. Nemcova, Katerina
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | | Round 8.2 | 22 Apr 2016 | *
29. f4 White's position is a little too nice! Paikidze continued to dominate for a long time by shuffling her pieces around, but couldn't find a crushing blow:

But Paikidze didn’t find an exact way to break through. In the end, Nemcova found a nice tactic to save the day:

Paikidze, Nazi vs. Nemcova, Katerina
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | | Round 8.2 | 22 Apr 2016 | ECO: E05 | 1/2-1/2
Bd7! creating some chances for counterplay.
48. gxf5?!
48. Rc2 keeping the structure intact was perhaps the best idea but after
48... Rxc6 49. Nxc6 Qxf4+ 50. Rg3 Bxc6 51. Qxc6 h5 things are still messy.  )
48... exf5 49. Rxd5 Rxc6! The idea behind Bd7!
50. Nxc6 Qxf4+ and now White can't avoid the perpetual checks:
51. Rg3 Bxc6 52. Qxc6 Qf2+ 53. Rg2 Qf4+ 54. Kg1 Qe3+ 55. Kf1 Qf3+ 56. Kg1 Qe3+ ...

With four players in contention for the women’s title, and each player continuing to miss chances, it is very hard to predict who might win.

The open section isn’t much clearer. Robson may still be the key player who might determine the champion as he has yet to play Nakamrra and So. Judging with the ease with which he survived against Caruana in Round 8, he might still surprise everyone by playing for the title himself. 

In Round 9, Caruana, So, and Nakamura  all have Black. Caruana has perhaps the easiest pairing. His opponent, Lenderman, has been struggling to make draws for most of the event, but he did win (albeit with great help) in Round 8, so he might be in much better spirits now.

Nakamura faces the extremely solid veteran Onischuk. It would be interesting to see how much risk Nakamura will be willing to take in order to put pressure on him. But the most exciting game will probably be 15-year-old Jeffery Xiong vs. So. Xiong is still unbeaten, having drawn comfortably with Shankland in Round 8. But now he faces his biggest tests — in the next two rounds, he plays So and 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.