Tension Mounts as Race Tightens for U.S. Championship
ByParimarjan NegiApr 23 — 9:10 AM
Image by Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
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 |chess24.com |Round 8.3 |22 Apr 2016 |*
24. Bh4!?Very unexpected! 24... Qh625. Be7It 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:
( 27. Qd2Rxc428. Ne2This seems pretty nice for White. )
27... Qxf428. b3Bg729. Ne2Qh6Tthings don't seem easy for White as Blacks minor
pieces have great potential. 30. Rcd1Nc631. Qb6It is slightly risky to leave
the kingside unguarded. Things now start to get pretty messy: 31... Nfe5!32. Nh2Bf8
( 32... Bf6!/\ Bh4 was another great way to create play. It was faster than Bf8 and Be7: 33. Rxd6Bd834. Qf2Bh435. g3Be7 )
Fabiano Caruana and Ray Robson before their game in Round 8.
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 |chess24.com |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... Qc421. exf6Rg822. 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... exd523. Re1+Kd824. Qb8+Bc825. Qa7Be6A much more fun
perpetual, which would have required great precision from both players was:
( 25... Bd6!?26. Re7all other moves just lose. I wonder if Caruana calculated this
whole line before playing Nxd5: 26... Rxg2+27. Kxg2Bh3+!28. Kf3the only way
to draw! 28... Qf1+29. Bf2Qd1+30. Ke3and now Black can either make a draw with
Qc1 or 30... d4+31. Qxd4Qxd4+32. Kxd4Bxe7 )
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 |chess24.com |Round 8.6 |22 Apr 2016 |0-1
Nc655. Nb5Ke556. f3?Chandra doesn't realize how desperate his situation could be.
( 56. f4+!Kd557. 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... Nd458. Nc3+Kc459. Nb1hxg460. Kg3 )
56... Nd457. Nc3b558. Kf2b459. Ne4b3Now things are very hard for White 60. Nd2Kd561. Ke3b262. Nb1Kc463. g4Nb564. gxh5gxh565. f4Nd6!After Nf5, the h4 pawn is
hanging! 66. Nd2+Kc367. Nb1+Kc268. Na3+Kc169. Kd4Nb5+70. Nxb5b1=Q71. Nd6Qb2+72. Ke4Qf673. Nc4Qxh474. Ne5Qf675. f5h476. Nd3+Kd277. Nf4Qg578. Ke5Qg3
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:
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:
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.
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