Both the new champions won in the last round while their top rivals lost or were unable to keep pace.

With victories in the last round of the United States Championship, Fabiano Caruana and Nazi Paikidze pulled away from the other competitors to clinch the overall and women’s titles in the United States Championships. The tournaments were held currently at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which hosted the competitions for the eighth consecutive year.

Caruana had a half point lead before the last round, ahead of Hikaru Nakamura, the defending champion, and Wesley So. All of them were playing Black, so there was certainly room for surprises. If two players ended up tying for the first place, then they were supposed to have a playoff on Tuesday.

Caruana didn’t leave anything to chance by beating Akshat Chandra, the tail-ender in the tournament. Nakamura and So were only able to draw their games, so Caruana’s winning margin was a full point margin. It is his first United States Championship since switching federations last year from Italy to the United States.

In the women’s section, the fight for the title had been a race between Tatev Abrahamyan and Nazi Paikidze. Going into the last round, Abrahamyan’s chances of winning her first United States Women’s title looked bright. She was half a point ahead of Paikidze, and Paikidze had Black against Irina Krush, the defending champion.

But things took a dramatic turn. Abrahamyan, who had Black, struggled from the start against 15-year-old Ashritha Eswaran. Eswaran, who was already playing in her third United States Women’s Championship, played very well and never gave Abrahamyan a serious chance to stay in the game. Meanwhile, Paikidze created unexpected complications in a dry opening to score a brilliant win against Krush.

It was slightly surprising for me to see Nakamura play the infamous Berlin Defense, also sometimes called the Berlin endgame, against his opponent, Ray Robson. The Berlin is known among the top players as one of those extremely solid variations that is hard to crack for White. At the same time, it is much harder to win as Black, and Nakamura needed to win. Robson was half a point behind Nakamura, but he didn’t try to be ambitious against the Berlin, and the game quickly simplified to a drawn position.

On a practical level, Nakamura’s decision to playthe Berlin made sense as it would have been rather optimistic to hope for Caruana to let a draw slip against Chandra. But Chandra is a young and improving 16-year-old, so it was certainly not impossible that he might beat Caruana.

The way their game started, it looked like a real possibility. Chandra played a really solid variation of the Anti-Marshal against Caruana, one in which White typically does not take many risks. The game quickly became a symmetric endgame, which looked quite drawish:

Chandra, Akshat vs. Caruana, Fabiano
ch-USA 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.1 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: C88 | 0-1
29. Bc4?! White seems to be in a rush to simplify things, but he missed a crucial chance to reduce Blacks activity.
29. Rb5! And the knight on c5 would feel much less comfortable. After Nd7, the position is very drawish and after
29... Nd3 30. Rd1 Black might end up losing the e5 pawn.  )
29... Nd3! Instead of just simplifying the position, Caruana finds the most precise way to keep things interesting.
30. Ra4
30. Bxd3 Rxd3 31. Rc1 is far from a draw because White's knights are really passive. Black can continue
31... f6 and Nf4 to maintain pressure for a long time.  )
30... Ngf4 Now it is getting harder to equalize because Black's pieces are much more active. Still technically, it should be close to equal:

Despite the drawish nature of the position, Caruana continued to squeeze the most out of it. A few inaccuracies made Chandra’s situation difficult and Caruana showed nice technique to get the full point:

Chandra, Akshat vs. Caruana, Fabiano
ch-USA 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.1 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: C88 | 0-1
31. Ne1 Trying to simplify seems like the correct idea.
31... Nxe1! It might seem counter intuitive to exchange the knights but Caruana notices that he can put his rook unchallenged on the 2nd rank which proves to be very important.
31... Nc5 32. Ra5 might end up simplifying quickly.  )
32. Rxe1 Rd2 33. Bf1? Keeping the bishops on the board doesn't help White at all and it leaves him with fewer squares for his pieces.
33. Bxe6 would have put Black in a harder spot. Then fxe6 might pose some concrete problems but would spoil his structure permanently. If Nxe6, then White is able to kick the Black rook out of the second rank:
33... Nxe6 34. Re2! and even though Black is better, it will still be a tough fight.  )
33... Rb8 34. Rb4 Ra8! Both the rooks now enter the second rank.
35. Rb7 Raa2 36. Nh1 Not a pretty picture for White! Still there is no way to win material, at least not yet.
36... c5 37. Rc7 Ra5 38. Ng3 Rc2 39. c4 g6!? It is hard for Black to improve immediately, so he just continues playing useful moves. Also he has the plan of eventually capturing the c4 pawn after Kg7, although it can be avoided by White because of pressure on f7 and c5. But it is hard for White to just play simple moves and Caruana waits for Akshat to collapse:
40. Rb1 Kg7 41. Rcb7? The rook was excellent on c7 so this move makes little sense. Now the 'a5' rook is free, and Black wins quickly:
41... Raa2 42. Nh1! Bxc4 Black is a pawn up and the knight on h1 isn't pretty either.
43. Bxc4 Rxc4 44. Re7 Rb4 45. Rd1 Rd4 46. Rb1 Ne6 47. Rbb7 Nd8 48. Rbc7 Kf6 49. f4 Rd1+ 50. Kh2 exf4 51. e5+ Kg5 52. Rxc5 Ne6 53. Rc3 Rdd2

In contrast to Nakamura, So was a lot more ambitious in his game against Aleksandr Lenderman. So played an interesting idea in the opening to enter some crazy complications:

Lenderman, Aleksandr vs. So, Wesley
ch-USA 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.3 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: A10 | 1/2-1/2
1. c4 g6 2. e4 e5 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 Nf6 6. Nc3 O-O 7. Be2 Re8 8. f3 c6 9. Bg5 Qb6!? A rare, but very interesting idea. Black tries to exploit some dark-square motifs to force White into moving the knight on d4.
10. Qd2 but Lenderman doesn't move it!
10... d5! Lenderman was probably not afraid of an immediate
10... Nxe4 because after
11. Nxe4 Bxd4 12. Nf6+ White seems to be doing quite well.
12... Bxf6 13. Bxf6  )
11. cxd5
11. exd5 Nxd5 is fine for Black as well - this was perhaps more difficult for White because:
12. cxd5 Bxd4 makes the White King feel quite uncomfortable.  )
11... Nxe4! 12. Nxe4 Trying to force exchanges with Nf6 coming next.
12... cxd5! Bxd4 was probably close to equal, but So is trying to keep his chances alive by complicating things.
12... Bxd4 13. Rd1 cxd5 14. Qxd4 dxe4 15. fxe4  )
13. Be3!? Lenderman goes for a long, forcing sequence of moves that requires precision from Black:
13. Nc3 Bxd4 14. Nxd5 Qc5 is quite messy.  )
13... dxe4 14. Nb5 Qf6 15. Nc7 Rd8! 16. Bg5! The best practical decision to simplify the position.
16. Qc1 was possible but going for material seems a very risky proposition because Black is very well developed. After
16... Nc6 17. Nxa8 Nd4! even though White is ahead in material, it seems to be very hard to continue.  )
16... Rxd2 17. Bxf6 Rc2! 18. Bxg7 Rxc7 Things have calmed down.
19. Bc3 exf3 20. Bxf3

After the dust had settled, So had an extra pawn in the endgame. But there were still many technical difficulties because Lenderman had a powerful pair of bishops to compensate for the pawn. In the end Lenderman defended fairly well and there was no easy way to win. Lenderman’s bishops were particularly nice in the following position:

Lenderman, Aleksandr vs. So, Wesley
ch-USA 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.3 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: A10 | 1/2-1/2
46. Bf7 Black has been relatively successful - he has created a passed pawn on the queenside, has an active king, etc. But Whites bishops are still a pain to deal with. Importantly, a move like Nd5 would allow White to force a drawish opposite-colored bishop endgame. Blacks other problem is that it is very hard to deal with the wall created by the diagonal attacks of Whites bishops, so the bishop on e4 is also tied to defending the kingside pawns.
46... a4 47. Kf2 a3 48. g3 Kc5 49. Ke3 Bf5 50. Kd2 a2 51. Kc1 Bb1 52. Kb2 Kd6 53. h3 Nd3+ 54. Ka1 The bishops still form a solid wall against any possible attempts by Black to bring his king into the kingside. So tries for a while but there isnt much hope:
54... Ne1 55. Kb2 Nd3+ 56. Ka1 Ne1 57. Kb2 Ng2 58. Ka1 Kc6 59. Kb2 Kc5 60. Ka1 Ne3 61. Kb2 Ng2 62. Ka1 Kb4 63. Kb2 Kb5 64. Ka1 Ne3 65. Kb2 Nd1+ 66. Ka1 Nf2 67. Be8+ Kb4 68. g4 hxg4 69. hxg4 Nxg4 70. Be7+ Kc3 71. Bxg6 Bxg6 72. Kxa2 Ne3

The laziness of the last day and the fact that many players were out of contention showed in some other games. Both Alexander Onischuk vs. Varuzhan Akobian and Gata Kamsky vs. Samuel Shankland ended in draws without much fight. In contrast, the women’s section, had almost all decisive games!

The crucial game for the championship was between Eswaran and Abrahamyan. Eswaran played smartly and very maturely to get a solid edge on the White side of a Sicilian Najdorf. The position was very passive for Black, and that didn’t quite suit Abrahamyan’s style of play:

Eswaran, Ashritha vs. Abrahamyan, Tatev
ch-USA w 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.1 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: B92 | 1-0
10. Nd2!? A slightly unusual idea. White delays castling on the kingside to quickly bring the knight on b3 to e3. It seems really slow at first, but works admirably well. It seems to have caught Abrahamyan by surprise as she lets White get her ideal setup:
10... Bb7 11. Nc4 Qc7 12. Ne3! The key idea is that pawn on e4 can't be captured.
12... O-O 13. O-O Rfe8 This move is wasted, but White already had an edge.
14. Bc4! Rac8 Nxe4 still can't be played.
14... Nxe4 15. Nxe4 Bxe4 16. Bxe7 Rxe7 17. Bd5! because of this nice trick!  )
15. Bxf6! Avoiding Nc5 after Qd3
15. Qd3 Nc5!  )
15... Nxf6 16. Qd3 Black is forced to go return the rook to a8, which is clearly not good or her. White is now able to keep adding pressure until Black collapses and loses both her central pawns.
16... Ra8 17. Rfd1 Red8 18. Bd5 White is dominating because Blacks bishop on e7 is really poorly positioned.
18... Rac8 19. Ra3 Rd7 20. Rb3 Bd8 21. Bc4 Ra8 22. Ncd5 Nxd5 23. Bxd5 Bxd5 24. Qxd5 Rc8 25. Rc3 Qb8 26. Rxc8 Qxc8 27. Nc4 h6 28. Nxe5 Rc7 29. Qxd6 Bf6 30. c3 Bxe5 31. Qxe5 Rd7 32. Rd5 b5 33. Qf5

The other critical game was Krush vs. Paikidze. Krush started with a solid Reti opening and usually White is able to try for an advantage in these lines without much risk. But Paikidze turned things into a mess with an excellent pawn sacrifice:

Krush, Irina vs. Paikidze, Nazi
ch-USA w 2016 | St Louis USA | Round 11.2 | 25 Apr 2016 | ECO: A07 | 0-1
b5! Now White has to either put her knight or the bishop on a5 neither is good. Then Black is ready to open the center.
18. Bxa5 Qc8 19. axb5 cxb5 20. Nd2 exf4 21. gxf4 Nd5! This puts White's center under great pressure. The bishop on a5 doesn't help.
22. Rf3 f5 23. e5 g5! White had other moves, like b4, which the computer recommends, but that is much harder to find in a game because it seems to completely wall off the bishop on a5. One practical option that seems reasonable is
24. fxg5 This just collapses. Opening the e-file with the queen on e1 should have been a big red flag.
24. Qd1 It was better to run away from the e-file and then hope to use the undefended knight on d5 to create pressure along the g2-a8 diagonal.  )
24... Nxe5 25. Rf2 Ne3! 26. Nb3 Nxg2 27. Rxg2 f4 Things are much more difficult for White because of her open king. There were a few inaccuracies, but mostly White never got a real chance after this:
28. Qc3 Nc4 29. Qf3 Qf5 30. Nxc5 Qxc5 31. b4 Qf5 32. Rf2 Re4 33. Rg1 Rae8 34. Bc7 Re3 35. Qxf4 Rxh3+ 36. Kg2 Ne3+ 37. Qxe3 Qg4+! The final tactical trick.
38. Qg3 Rxg3+ 39. Bxg3 Re3 40. Kh2 Qh5+ 41. Kg2 Qxg5 42. Kh2 Re6 43. Rgg2 Qh5+ 44. Kg1 Qd1+ 45. Rf1 Qd4+ 46. Rff2 Re1+ 47. Kh2 Qd1 48. Bf4 Qh5+ 49. Kg3 Rh1 50. Rh2 Rg1+ 51. Rhg2 Rh1 52. Rh2 Qg6+ 53. Kh3 Qe6+ 54. Kg3 Re1 55. Rhg2 Qg6+ 56. Kh2 Qe4 57. Bg5 Qxb4 58. Bf4 Qe7 59. Kg3 Re6 60. Kh3 Qd7 61. Kh2 Re4 62. Kg3 Qf5 63. Rf3 g5 64. Bxg5 Rg4+

The rest of the game was just a formality as Black had a clearly winning advantage. Paikidze held her nerves in check to become the new United States Women’s Champion!

In the end, there weren’t many surprises in the Open section. The three favorites - Caruana, Nakamura and So - ended at the top. And the most crucial matches were their individual encounters - Caruana’s win over Nakamura in Round 4 proved to be the margin between him and the others. The fight for fourth place was also determined by the top three as the only player to survive (i.e. draw) all his games against them was Ray Robson and he easily took fourth place, a half point behnid Nakamura and So, but a full point ahead of Onischuk. 

The top three finishers will now play a four-player round-robin blitz tournament with Garry Kasparov, the former World Champion. Since the top three are all in the top 10 in the world, it should be an exciting event!

The women’s section was much more surprising. Krush and Zatonskih had won every United States Women’s Championship in the last decade, so this tournament perhaps reflects the rising level of other women players in America. This was only the second United States Championship for Paikidze since switching her federation from Georgia, and she has not yet lost a game in the national championship!

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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.