Three of the world’s top six players play for the United States, giving it a good chance to recapture the World Championship.
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The United States may be on the verge of complete chess supremacy, with not only the best team in the world but quite possibly the next world champion.
Last September, the United States won the team gold medal at the Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan. It was the first time that the United States had been the top team in the biennial competition since 1976, a year in which the Soviet Union and some Eastern Bloc countries boycotted. And before that, the last time that the United States won was in 1937, before the Soviet Union had developed its assembly-line program to churn out the best players in the world.
The victorious United States team was led by a trio of stars – Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura, who all rank in the top six in the world. The three of them pose a real threat to dethrone Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champion, and to bring the world championship title back to the United States for the first time since Bobby Fischer captured it in 1972.
Sophie Triay / Tradewise Gibraltar Chess 2017
Hikaru Nakamura playing against Yu Yangyi of China in the playoff for the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters title.
Nakamura, 29, who is ranked No. 6, won the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, one of the world’s strongest open tournaments, last Thursday. It was his third consecutive Gibraltar title – an unprecedented run. Though Nakamura’s overall record against Carlsen is not impressive in classical, or slow, chess – 12 losses with one win and 19 draws– Nakamura has done better the last few times he has faced him, including notching his only win last year in the Bilbao Masters. Nakamura thrives in complicated positions, as, for example, in his last round against Romain Edouard of France in Gibraltar.
Romain Edouard vs. Hikaru Nakamura
Tradewise Gibraltar |Catalan Bay GIB |Round 10.3 |28 Jan 2017 |0-1
1. d4Nf62. c4e63. Nc3Bb4The Nimzo-Indian Defense. 4. Nf3O-O5. Bg55.e3 would be safer, particularly against a player like Nakamura. 5... c56. Rc1Once again, e3 was safer. 6... h67. Bh4cxd48. Nxd4d5Not
surprisingly, with White's king still in the center, Nakamura wants to open up
the center as quickly as possible. 9. e3Ironically, this time, 9.cd5 would
have been the wiser choice. 9... e510. Nf3d4Black already has the
initiative. 11. exd4exd412. Nxd412.Qd4, trying to exchange queens would
have been the wiser move. 12... Qb613. Nf3The knight moves to f3 for the
third time in the first 13 moves -- a sure sign that there is something wrong. 13... Rd814. Qc2g5The pin must be broken. The damage to Black's kingside
pawn structure does not matter as much as being sure that all the Black pieces
can participate in the attack. 15. Bg3Nc6No need to rush; Black continues
to develop. 16. Bd3g4Black must disrupt White's pieces before he has time
to castle. 17. Nh4Bf818. Qb1Re8+19. Kf1Be6White's extra pawn gives
him some compensation, but his pieces are awkwardly placed. 20. h3?An
error: 20.Nf5, bringing the knight back toward the center, was better. 20... Nh521. Ne4Nxg3+22. Nxg3Rad823. hxg4Ne5Black has the initiative
and his pieces are posed to strike; White is in trouble. 24. Be2Bxg4!?Not
the most accurate; 24... Bc4 was the right way to go. 25. Bxg4Returning the
favor. After 25.f3 followed by 26.Nhf5, White would be creating problems for
Black. 25... Nxg4Now Black has a huge edge. 26. Qc2Bb427. c5Qa6+28. Kg1Be1Not the most accurate. After 28... Re1 29.Re1 Be1, everything falls. 29. Rh3Bxf2+30. Kh1Re1+31. Rxe1Bxe1The rest is just mop up. 32. Nf3Nf2+33. Kh2Nxh334. Nxe1Ng535. Qc3Qg6White throws in the towel as
he really has no hope.
Caruana, 24, has actually struggled a bit recently, though he remains No. 3 in the world. He has the record for the third-highest rating ever (after Carlsen and Garry Kasparov, the former world champion), which he achieved in 2014 after he had one of the greatest performances ever at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. That victory, which shows that he can go on streaks where he is unbeatable, coupled with his overall consistency, would make him a threat in any match.
So, 23, and ranked No. 2, may be the biggest threat, and not just because of his ranking. He has been on an unbelievable tear in recent months, winning the Sinquefield Cup, the London Classic and, last week, the Tata Steel Chess Tournament. Those are three of the biggest tournaments of the year. While Carlsen did not play in the first two tournaments, as he was preparing for his world championship match in New York last November, which he won, he did play in Tata Steel and finished in second, a full point behind So.
Tata Steel Chess 2017
Magnus Carlsen, left, playing against Levon Aronian of Armenia during the Tata Steel Chess Tournament.
So has not just been winning, he has also not been losing – he currently has a 56-game unbeaten streak. During the streak, in which he has rarely been threatened, So has shown that he has a universal style. He has won games by blowing his opponents off the board, and with subtle positional masterpieces, where it is hard to see exactly what his opponents did wrong. Should he make his way through the cycle to become the challenger, Carlsen would clearly have to be concerned.
Wesley So vs. Radoslaw Wojtaszek
Tata Steel |0:38:33-0:14:33 |Round 10 |25 Jan 2017 |1-0
1. c4The English opening can transpose to many other openings, so it is
quite flexible. 1... Nf62. Nf3e63. g3d54. d4By transposition, the
opening has become a Catalan. 4... Be75. Bg2O-O6. Qc2A bit unusual and
not thought to be best. White generally just castles. 6... c5The most
natural move. Black attacks the White center now that the queen is no longer
defending the d-pawn. This position is thought to be quite reasonable for
Black. 7. O-ONc68. dxc5d4Black can win the c-pawn at his leisure. 9. a3a510. Rd1e5A slight inaccuracy. It is natural that Black wants to
reinforce the d-pawn, but taking on c5 with the bishop was the better way to
do it. 11. Nc3Now Black must take the c-pawn or he will have problems
after Na4. 11... Bxc512. Nd5!?The knight cannot be taken and is quite
annoying on d5. 12... h612... Nd5? 13.cd5 Qd5 14.Ng5, and Black will not
survive long. 13. Bd2With the idea of playing b4. 13... a414. Bb4Nxb415. axb4Nxd516. bxc5Nb417. Qd2Nc6All the preceding exchanges made sense
and Black seems fine. 18. b4!A nice move. White gets his pawns rolling by
taking advantage of the pin along the a-file. He also threatens to attack the
knight defending the e-pawn. 18... Qe719. Qb2Bg420. Re1Rfd8?A mistake
for a very subtle reason: It allows White to organize a blockade of Black's
center pawns. Instead, 20... Be6 was better. 21. Nd2Be622. b5Nb823. Qb4White has made no extraordinary moves, but Black's position has become
difficult. 23... f524. Nb3Once again taking advantage of that pin along
the a-file. 24... Nd7?Another mistake, but even the computer's suggestion
of 24... a3 offers little relief. 25. Bxb7Rab826. Rxa4And just like that
White is up a pawn. The rest was rather simple. 26... Rxb727. c6Qxb428. Rxb4Rc729. cxd7Rxc430. Rxc4Bxc4It seems that Black will be able to
restore material equality, but... 31. Rc1!Be6The only move. 32. Rc8!?Good enough: 32.b5 was better. 32... Rxc833. dxc8=Q+Bxc834. b6And
Black resigned as there is nothing he can do to stop Nc5 and b7, winning his
bishop, after which the endgame would be trivially easy to win.
Tata Steel |0:09:33-0:43:33 |Round 11 |29 Jan 2017 |0-1
1. d4It was the last round and a win would guarantee So first place. A draw
would probably, too. 1... Nf62. Bg5The Trompowsky. Not a very popular
opening as it is thought to give Black several good ways to equalize. 2... d53. Nd2A sideline, even in the Trompowsky. The drawback of the move
becomes immediately apparent after Black's reply. 3... c5!Hitting White's
d-pawn, which is undefended. 4. dxc5e65. e4h66. Bh4dxe46... Bc5 was
also fine. 7. Qe2Qa58. O-O-O?This is just crazy. White does not have
enough of an initiative to justify this move. 8... Qxa29. Qb5+Practically
losing. White essentially helps Black develop. 9.Bxf6 made more sense. 9... Nbd710. c6White is halucinating. 10... bxc611. Qxc6Bb7!Of course.
White is already dead lost. The rest is just a massacre. 12. Qxb7Qa1+13. Nb1Rb814. Qxb8+Nxb815. Bb5+Nfd716. Ne2Be7?!After 16... g5 17. Bg3
Bg7, White would be in deep trouble. 17. Bxe7Kxe718. Nd4Nc519. h4Rd820. Rh3Nd3+!A nice finesse. 21. Bxd3Rxd422. Be2Rxd1+23. Bxd1Qa524. Nd2f525. Rg3Qe526. Ra3Nc627. g3Qd428. Re3Nb4White had seen enough;
his position is absolutely hopeless.
Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of WorldChess.com. He is a FIDE master as well.