Two New Faces Join the Leaders at the U.S. Championship
ByRobert HessApr 07 — 3:00 PM
Image by Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Varuzhan Akobian and Sabina-Francesca Foisor moved into ties for first after important wins in Round 8.
The United States Championship Open and Women’s Championship both have a two-way tie for first with three rounds to play: Wesley So, who has led from the early stages, now shares the lead with Varuzhan Akobian, eachwith 5 points, while Sabina-Francesca Foisor has caught up to Nazi Paikidze. They each have 5.5 points.
So was tied with Yaroslav Zherebukh after Zherebukh pulled off a career win over Fabiano Caruana in Round 7. But Zherebukh hita roadblock in Akobian in Round 8 and lost.
So had White against Hikaru Nakamura, but managed only a dull draw. Meanwhile, Caruana, the defending champion, rebounded from his shocking loss with a resounding victory over Daniel Naroditsky.
Caruana, Nakamura, and Zherebukh sit just a half point behind the two leaders, each with 4.5 points. They have been joined by Alexander Onischuk, a former United States Champion, who beat Ray Robson, a former student, by breaking through a fortress that Robson tried to create.
In the Women’s Championship, Paikidze, the defending champion, only managed adraw with Maggie Feng, one of the several teenage players in the tournament. That draw allowed Foisor defeated to catch up after she beat Emily Nguyen, who in last place, with only a draw in Round 1 — against Paikidze.
Feng, who is playing in her first Women’s Championship, is having the tournament of her life. She is tied for third with Irina Krush, a seven-time champion, each with5 points. Krush’s results have been disappointing thus far, but her win over Apurva Virkud in Round 8 keeps her in the hunt for an eighth title.
The two championships are being held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. It is the ninth consecutive year that the club has hosted both events. The open tournament, a round-robin with 12 players, has a prize fund of $194,000. The women’s tournament, which is also a 12-player round-robin, has a prize fund of $100,000.
Akobian is no stranger to being at the top of the leaderboard in the championship. In 2014, he tied for first before ultimately losing in a rapid playoff to Gata Kamsky. He is once again in fine form, as evidenced by the way he smoothly outplayed Zherebukh in a French Defense.
Yaroslav Zherebukh vs. Varuzhan Akobian
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 8 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: C07 |0-1
15. Bxf6Zherebukh got nothing out of the opening and was already slightly worse, but this move simply hands the advantage to Black. Akobian's king is hardly exposed and the two bishops prove to be immensely powerful in an open position. The doubled f-pawns actually help corral the White knights. 15... gxf616. Qe3Bf417. Qc3f5
( 17... Nd7likely was stronger, threatening to exploit the pinned bishop with b6-b5. If the queen flees, for example: 18. Qb2Ne5is a problem. The bishops dominate. )
18. Bf1Rac819. b4
( 19. Qf6is an odd-looking move, but it would have kept Akobian wary of any potential perpetual checks. Of course Black remains much better, but it would be necessary to play precisely. )
19... Ne420. Qxc7Rxc7With the queens off the board, Akobian
can nurse his advantage without any concerns. 21. Nc4Rb822. Nxb6Rxc223. Nd7After this, Akobian cruises to victory.
( 23. Ne1should be insufficient, though it makes Akobian's task trickier. 23... Nxf224. Nxc2Nxd125. Rxd1Be4Equalizes material and then some. )
23... Rbc824. Bd3Rb225. Bxe4fxe426. Rd4f527. Rad1Zherebukh was already in trouble, but this expedites his demise. 27... exf328. Rxf4Rd2!A nice motif, exploiting the back rank. White drops a piece so he resigned.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Daniel Naroditsky was punished for a poor opening choice.
With his fellow grandmasters splitting a point, Caruana pounced on the opportunity to inch closer to a title defense. He handed Naroditsky a second straight defeat by punishing the Stanford student’s offbeat opening choice.
Fabiano Caruana vs. Daniel Naroditsky
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 8 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: C18 |1-0
1. e4e62. d4d53. Nc3Bb44. e5c55. a3Bxc3+6. bxc3Qa5This move is rarely played nowadays, and Naroditsky's play in this game is unlikely to encourage its revival. 7. Bd2Qa48. Qg4
( 8. Qb1Was a main line, forcing Black to play 8... c4White's plan is simple: put all pieces on the kingside and try to break through. )
8... Kf89. Nf3b6Too risky. It's clear that Naroditsky is underdeveloped, and though the move b6 is a thematic one in the French, Caruana jumps on the opportunity to break open the center.
( 9... Qxc2Black is up a pawn only temporarily. 10. Rc1Qg611. Qxg6hxg612. c4Equalizes material again, leaving White with a clear
advantage. The unopposed dark-squared bishop will prove very valuable. )
10. c4Ne711. Bd3dxc4When a king is uncastled and the majority of a players pieces are on their original squares, opening the position tends to be a poor decision.
( 11... Ba6Retains the tension, which should favor Black if he is able to survive the next few moves. )
12. dxc5bxc513. Ng5Now Caruana goes on the offensive. White has too many threats to counter. 13... h614. Nh7+Rxh7Sadly forced. Attempting to avoid this sacrifice simply quickens Naroditsky's demise.
( 16... Bd5Would have been a more stubborn resistance. If the bishops are traded on d5, the knight takes its place. Caruana is up an exchange and is much better, but the fight continues.
The game continuation is straightforward. )
17. Rab1Ba618. Be3Qa519. Rfd1Nxe520. Qg3f621. Rd6Bc822. Rbd1Nd523. Bf4Rb824. Bxe5fxe525. Qxe5Qd226. Rd8+Kf727. Bg8+Kg628. Qe4+Kf629. Qf3+Naroditsky threw in the towel since his queen is lost. 29...Qf4 30. Rf8+ does the trick.
Alexander Shabalov and Kamsky both scored wins in Round 7, but against each other there were no fireworks. Although they combine for nine championships, the two have found themselves at the bottom of the crosstable throughout the event.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Ray Robson received a new lesson from his ex-teacher, Alexander Onischuk.
Onischuk turned back the clock by punishing Robson, who chose a dubious opening.
Alexander Onischuk vs. Ray Robson
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 8 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: D85 |1-0
40. Qf4Rc8If it were Robson's move, he could set up a fortress. Black needs his king on g7/g8 and his rook patrolling the fifth rank. However, he's one tempo too slow. 41. Qxf6Rxc542. Qd8+Kh7
( 42... Kg7would be required for the fortress, but it loses the rook to 43. Qd4+ )
43. Qf8The king is cut off from protecting f7, making the defensive task impossible. Onischuk demonstrates nice technique. It is important to note that White can't afford to exchange too many pawns. For instance, a Black rook on e6 and pawn on f7 (with king on g7) versus queen and h-pawn is a known theoretical draw. 43... Rf544. Kg2Rf645. Kf1Rf546. Ke2e547. Kf1Rf648. Kg2Rf549. f3Rf650. Qe7Rf551. g4hxg452. fxg4Rf453. Kg3Rf154. Qxe5Rg1+55. Kf3Rb156. Qd4Rc157. Kf4Re158. Qb4Rf1+59. Ke5Kg760. Kd6Rf6+61. Kd7Re662. Qc4g563. h5Re564. Qd4f665. Kd6
In the final game of the round, Jeffery Xiong knocked off Sam Shankland with the Black pieces. Both players have 3.5 points.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Maggie Feng, left, could make no headway against Nazi Paikidze. Their game ended in a draw.
In the Women’s Championship, there were three decisive games, all by players who had White. If Feng had won, she would have overtaken Paikidze, who had Black, had no problem holding a draw. Their game followed one between So and Nakamura in the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, which was also held in the St. Louis chess club.
Maggie Feng vs. Nazi Paikidze
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 8 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: E05 |1/2-1/2
( 14... Qb715. Bc5c316. Rfe1Nd517. e4Nb618. Rac1e519. dxe5Rd3Was played in Shabalov-Onischuk from Round 2 of the Championship. Black went on to win, but White held an advantage. )
15. Rfb1Rb616. Bc5Rd717. Rd1Rxd1+In the postgame interview, Paikidze told Maurice Ashley that she studied this opening extensively. She improved on Nakamura's exchange sacrifice against So at the 2016 Sinquefield Cup.
18. Rxd1Rb819. Bxc6Bb7Around here, after blitzing out the opening, Feng sank into thought. She was considering the ramifications of keeping the bishops on the board and decided it too risky. 20. Bxb7
( 20. Bb5Asks for trouble. Paikidze would seize the initiative and launch a blistering attack with 20... e5For example, after 21. Bxc4Qh322. f3Ng423. Bxf7+Kh824. Qxa7Rf8!White would be extremely fortunate to survive. )
20... Qxb721. Qxa7Forcing a draw. 21... Qxa722. Bxa7Ra823. Rb1c3Played after a long think. Paikidze understood that attempting to play for a win was really playing for a loss:
( 23... h624. Rb8+Rxb825. Bxb8and only White can be better here. )
If not for a tremendous blunder in her Round 2 game against Krush, Foisor might be in first at this point. Though she missed some chances to shorten her game against Nguyen, she finally converted her extra exchange. She will face Paikidze in Round 9.
Sabina-Francesca Foisor vs. Emily Nguyen
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 8.2 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: E09 |1-0
54. R3e5Foisor has been up an exchange for a pawn for thirty moves. Nguyen would optimize her drawing chances if she could keep her rook on the board, but she's run out of useful moves. 54... Rc7Nguyen certainly would have preferred to disconnect the rooks, but retreating the bishop fails for a tactical reason.
( 54... Be655. f5!And White crashes through. Bishop and pawn are great mutual defenders, but here the setup is undermined by this beautiful sacrifice. 55... gxf556. g6 )
55. Ke3Kb756. Kd4Rxe757. Rxe7+Kb658. Rd7Kc659. Rd8Be660. Kc3a5Nguyen's drawing chances would have been much higher had she been able to leave her pawn on a6. Realistically, she'd eventually be forced to push the pawn at some point, but this speeds up the process.
Now Foisor can infiltrate with her king and attack the pawns from behind. 61. Ra8Kb662. Kd4Bb363. Ke5b464. Kd4Be665. axb4axb466. Rb8+Kc7
( 66... Ka567. Kc5Simultaneously threatens the pawn and checkmate. White now wins easily. )
67. Rxb4Kd668. Rb6+Ke769. Ke5Bc470. Rb7+Kf871. Kf6Importantly, Black did not have time to get her king to g7. 71... Ke872. Rb8+Kd773. Rf8With Rxf7 coming next, resignation was not premature.
Katerina Nemcova, a graduate of nearby Webster University, underperformed with just 1.5 points in her first five games. But since the rest day, she has righted the ship, scoring 2.5 points in her last three games. In Round 8, she beat Carissa Yip by undermining Yip’s protection of the d7 square, which netted her an extra piece.
Katerina Nemcova vs. Carissa Shiwen Yip
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 8 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: B72 |1-0
16. exd6Nf6?Yip had already misplayed the opening and is down a pawn, but this move loses a piece. 17. Nxa5Qxa518. Bxf6Bxf619. d7Nemcova has successfully removed all the defenders and collects a bishop. 19... Bxd720. Qxd7Red821. Qg4Bxc322. bxc3Rxc323. Bd3Rxa324. f5Rd625. Rbe1Qc726. fxg6hxg627. Qf4f528. Bxf5!The position is completely winning for White but this is the most direct path. Black's king lacks shelter and the mating attack requires no effort. 28... gxf529. Qg5+Kf730. Rxf5+Rf631. Qh5+
The battle of the Annas (Sharevich and Zatonskih) ended in a draw, so the two remain in striking distance with 4.5 points apiece. Tatev Abrahamyan almost joined them, but she failed where Foisor succeeded; in fact, despite being up an exchange, Abrahamyan almost handed Jennifer Yu her third major upset.
Krush continued her quest for an eighth title with a win over Virkud in which she was betterfrom start to finish.
Irina Krush vs. Apurva Virkud
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 8.4 |06 Apr 2017 |ECO: D37 |1-0
In both the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship, a surprise contender is now among the leaders. Can Akobian and Foisor continue their magical runs? With three rounds to go and Akobian-Caruana and Paikidze-Foisor looming, there’s a lot to look forward to in Saint Louis!
Robert Hess is a former United States Junior Champion, recipient of the 2010 Samford Award (the most prestigious in the United States for young players) and was runner-up in the 2009 United States Championships. A 2015 graduate of Yale University, he is the chief operating officer of The Sports Quotient, a statistically-based sports site that he co-founded. He can be found on Twitter at @GM_Hess.
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