Fabiano Caruana leads the open section, while Tatev Abrahamyan is at the top of the women’s championship.

The United States Championships finally has clear leaders in the open and women’s sections.

In the open section, Fabiano Caruana took the sole lead with a win over Aleksandr Lenderman in Round 9, while Tatev Abrahamyan became the leader of the women’s championship after she beat Anna Zatonskih.

The top three ranked players in the open section — Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So  — all had Black in Round 9. As I mentioned in the report on Round 8, it is generally harder to choose the type of fight the game takes when playing Black. So if the player with White chooses to play solidly, it is much harder to win.

Fortunately for Caruana, he couldn’t complain about the play of his opponent, Aleksandr Lenderman. Perhaps buoyed by his first win of the tournament in Round 8, Lenderman played a wildly aggressive game against Caruana in Round 9. Caruana responded by playing very controlled and had few problems scoring a point.

So, who was tied with Caruana after Round 8, didn’t have such a nice opponent. Jeffery Xiong, who is 15 years old, continued his unbeaten run by playing solidly against So.

Nakamura’s opponent, Alexander Onischuk also played carefully against Nakamura. Nakamura, who was a half point behind the leaders after Round 8, and who was desperate for a win to try to catch up, pushed the position to its limits, but just fell short of breaking through Onischuk’s defenses.

In the Women’s section, all eyes were on the game between the leaders: Zatonskih, the resurgent former champion, and Abrahamyan. Abrahamyan, who was Black, played interestingly in the opening to pose some unusual problems for White, but the game ended suddenly after Zantonskih blundered her queen:

Zatonskih, Anna vs. Abrahamyan, Tatev
U.S. Women's Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.1 | 23 Apr 2016 | 0-1
15. Qxd4??
15. Nxd4 would have maintained an interesting position. Black should have decent compensation after
15... Nxf4 16. Rxf4 O-O because Black has her bishop pair and Whites pawns are slightly weaker. After Nxe6, the game would head toward an opposite-colored bishop endgame that would be drawish despite Black being down a pawn.  )
15... Bc5! A nasty surprise!
16. Qxc5
16. Nxc5 Qxd4+ is the point.  )
16... Rxc5 17. Nxc5 Qd4+ 18. Kh1 Qxc5 19. Bd2 O-O 20. b4 Qe7 21. Bf3 Nf6 22. a3 Rc8 23. c5 Bd5 24. Bf4 Qxe2

Nazi Paikidze, the other co-leader after Round 8 in the women’s championship, had Black against Sabina Foisor and played carefully to make a draw. Irina Krush, the top seed and defending champion, fell a point behind Abrahamyan, after Krush failed to pose any problems to Jennifer Yu, a 14-year-old master.

In the opening, Caruana enticed Lenderman to advance his g-pawn all the way to g6:

Lenderman, Aleksandr vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.2 | 23 Apr 2016 | *
1. c4 e6 2. Nc3 d5 3. d4 Be7 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Bf4 c6 6. e3 Bf5 Black plays a fairly provocative line. Recently, people playing Black with this opening have not done very well, but Caruana wanted to win, so he decides to provoke Lenderman into being aggressive:
7. g4 The most principled continuation. This must have come as a relief to Caruana, because White could certainy have played a dull, but super solid setup with moves like Bd3, etc. Now, White is committed to playing something exciting, which provides chances for Caruana as well.
7... Be6 8. h4 Nd7 9. g5 h6 Continuing his theme of provoking White.
10. g6 f5!? An interesting decision. The computers don't like this move, but I don't see any reason why. Temporarily at least, Black blocks White's play on the king side, as well as in the center. Now, it is White's turn to prove he can create an initiative, but that is not easy. In the game, Lenderman, doesn't even try to create much, which gives Black more than enough time to regroup:

At first glance, the pawn on g6 looked very dangerous for Black. But it isn’t immediately obvious what to do next. White probably needed some more concrete plans, like immediately trying to attack the f5 pawn by playing Bd3 and Qc2, etc. Instead, Lenderman continued a little too solidly — not the best mix after advancing your pawn all the way to g6. He got his pieces placed nicely, but this gave Black more than enough time to finish development and launch his own play with c5. After that, White’s position collapsed quickly as the pawn on g6 only became a weakness:

Lenderman, Aleksandr vs. Caruana, Fabiano
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.2 | 23 Apr 2016 | ECO: D31 | 0-1
11. Bg3 The plan to play Nf4 is somewhat slow.
11... Ngf6 12. Nh3 Nb6 13. Nf4 Bd7 14. f3 O-O 15. Kf2 Black has regouped completely, while White's new setup doesn't inspire confidence. He is playing a little too positionally, which is not the right thing to do after pushing your pawn to g6!
15... Rc8 16. Bd3 c5! Now Black's counterplay starts.
17. Kg2 cxd4 18. exd4 Bd6 19. Qb3 Kh8 20. Bb5 Bxf4! 21. Bxf4 Nh5 The g6 pawn is a huge weakness.
22. Be5 Bxb5 23. Qxb5 Nc4 24. Rae1 Nxe5 25. Rxe5 Qf6 and now it is all over. Lenderman played on for a while, but it didn't change much:
26. Kf2 Qxg6 27. Rg1 Qf6 28. Rh1 Nf4 29. Ke3 Ng6 30. Rxd5 Nxh4 31. Rd7 Qg5+ 32. Kd3 Nxf3 33. Rd1 Qg2 34. Rxb7 Rfe8 35. Rc7 Rb8 36. Qc6 Red8 37. Kc4 Rxd4+ 38. Kc5 Rxd1 39. Nxd1 Qg1+ 40. Kc4 Qd4#

The game between Onischuk and Nakamura started slowly. They reached an endgame that is generally regarded as being close to a draw. However, Black’s slightly better pawn structure does give him some chances. Nakamura milked the position as much as possible by showing some great technique:

Onischuk, Alexander vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.3 | 23 Apr 2016 | *
31. Ne3 Nf4+!? After the exchange of knights, it would probably be much harder for Black to create any new chances. So Nakamura keeps things more fluid:
32. Ke4 f5+! The key idea is to push the White king away from e4 so that Black can play d5 later on.
33. Kf3 g5 34. Nc4?! I think this allows Black to play Kc6 and Kd5. In addition, Nxd6 is not really what White wants to do as then the Black knight will be clearly better than the White bishop.
34... Ng6!? Creating threats like Nh4. Also, note that Black is ready to bring his King to d5 quickly:
35. g4
35. g3 Kc6  )
35... Kc6 Things are becoming more challenging for White. He could continue defending solidly, but that would mean he would be passive for a long time. Instead, Onischuk decides to play actively.
36. d5+!? exd5 37. Nxd6 fxg4+ 38. Kxg4 Kxd6 39. Kf5 White's idea. The King activity seems to be enough to offset the pawn sacrifice....

Just before Move 40, Black had one golden chance to possibly get a winning advantage:

Onischuk, Alexander vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.3 | 23 Apr 2016 | ECO: E54 | *
Nh4+! Nakamura played Ne7 instead. This move is really surprising, even if Nakamura was in time pressure, because after Nh4, he could have repeated moves.
40. Kg4 because Nf3 has to be stopped. Now Ng6 was possible to safely reach the 40-move time control. But Black also has another brilliant way to play:
40... Ke6! 41. f4 The only way to make use of the knight on h4.
41... h5+! Forcefully getting his knight to f3.
42. Kxh5
42. Kxg5 Nf3+  )
42... Nf3! and the bishop has no good way to manage the advance of the d-pawn:
43. Bb4 a5 44. Bc3 Kf5 45. fxg5 Nxg5 followed by Nf3 and d4, etc.

Still, I have to admit, the line was really hard to calculate, and Nakamura, perhaps intuitively, decided to avoid it. After 39. … Ne7, Black still had an extra pawn, but White’s king was far too active:

Onischuk, Alexander vs. Nakamura, Hikaru
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.3 | 23 Apr 2016 | ECO: E54 | *
Ne7+?! 40. Kf6! d4 41. Bb4+ Kd7 42. Bd2! There is no way to improve for Black. The king on f6 is far too active:
42... d3
42... Nc6 43. f4! gxf4 44. Bxf4 h5 45. Kf5  )
43. Ke5! Ng6+ 44. Kf5 Nf4 45. h4 Nh3 46. hxg5 Nxg5 47. Kf4 Ne6+ 48. Ke3 and things are basically equal.
48... Nc5 49. Be1 Kd6 50. b4 Ne6 51. Kxd3 Kd5 52. Bc3 h5 53. Bf6 b5 54. Ke3 a6 55. f4 Nf8 56. f5 Nd7 57. Ba1 h4 58. Kf3 h3 59. Kg3 Ke4 60. f6 Kf5 61. Kxh3 Nxf6 62. Kg3 Ne4+ 63. Kf3 Nd2+ 64. Ke2 Nc4 65. a4 bxa4 66. Kd3 Na3 67. Bg7 Nb5 68. Kc2 Ke4 69. Kb2 Kd3 70. Bf8 Kc4 71. Be7 Nd4 72. Ka3 Kb5 73. Bf8

Nothing exciting happened in the game between Xiong and So. Xiong has been having a great tournament, and So understandably didn’t want to play something particularly risky. So things quickly simplified to a drawn endgame. Similarly, in Ray Robson vs. Sam Shankland, Robson didn’t seem particularly ambitious, even though he was also a half point behind the leaders after Round 8, and things quickly simplified into a drawn position.

There were two more decisive games in the open section. In one, Gata Kamsky, a five-time U.S. Champion and former World Championship candidate, gave a long endgame lesson to 16-year-old Akshat Chandra. In the other game, Alexander Shabalov, a four-time U.S. Champion, made an unfortunate blunder to give Varuzhan Akobian his first win.

In his prime, Shabalov used to be among the best attacking chess players in the world. But now, at 48, age is clearly catching up with him. Despite playing some interesting chess, this was the third game he lost by making a sudden blunder:

Shabalov, Alexander vs. Akobian, Varuzhan
U.S. Championship 2016 | chess24.com | Round 9.5 | 23 Apr 2016 | 0-1
28. Rb8?? Rf1 would still be about equal
28... Rxf2 29. Bf1 Shabalov clearly thought that Bd6 was an irresistible threat, but...
29... Rxf4! 30. gxf4 Rxc7 wins for Black.
31. Ra8 a4 32. Rb1 Rc8

With just two rounds remaining, it looks like things might be clearing up in both the sections. Abrahamyan has come close to winning the United States Championship many times in the past, and this might finally be her time. Not only does she have a half point lead over Paikidze, but Paikidze also has a very challenging last round match against Krush.

It seems that the open section is coming down to a race between Caruana and So because it seems that it will be very tough for Nakamura to catch up, particularly as he has more challenging opponents in the last two rounds.

Things look pretty good for Caruana as he plays White against Kamsky in Round 10. While Kamsky is very experienceed and has beaten the very best players in the world, he is past his prime and shouldn’t represent a big threat to Caruana. After that, Caruana finishes up against the somewhat out-of-form Chandra, while his rivals have tougher pairings. Whether So will still be able to challenge Caruana for the title going down to the wire will probably be determined in Round 10, as So plays Robson.


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.