A brilliant victory by Wesley So in Round 9 of the United States Championship was almost overshadowed later on by a terrible blunder by Fabiano Caruana that allowed Varuzhan Akobian to keep pace with So in the race for the title. They each have 6 points
Meanwhile, Alexander Onischuk continued his career revival as he beat Hikaru Nakamura to stay within striking distance of the leaders. He has 5.5 points.
A further half point back is Yaroslav Zherebukh, who beat Caruana in Round 7. Incredibly, Caruana and Nakamura, who were thought to be So’s primary rivals before the tournament began, are officially out of contention; they each have 4.5 points.
In the Women’s Championship, Sabina-Francesca Foisor and Nazi Paikidze remained in joint first, with 6 points apiece, after they drew in 30 moves. Irina Krush spoiled her opportunity to catch the leaders when she failed to convert a pawn-up ending against Carissa Yip. Krush is now tied for third with Anna Zatonskih, who dispatched Maggie Feng’s offbeat opening.
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.
Although So’s scintillating performance was overshadowed by the shocking losses of the other two members of the United States’ “big three,” it was one of the finest victories in United States Championship history.
Whereas Xiong went down quickly, Nakamura, who was outplayed early on, clawed back into his game against Onischuk, the 2006 champion. The opening went awry for Nakamura and the four-time champion jettisoned a couple of pawns in the hopes of obtaining sufficient counterplay. Just after the time control Nakamura halved his pawn deficit, but Onischuk’s extra pawn kept him firmly in control. It appeared Nakamura had a strong defense in place, but Onischuk’s persistence paid off.
It was Onischuk’s second straight win.
The final game of the round was Akobian versus Caruana. Akobian had a slight edge for the first thirty moves, after which he played quite poorly in mutual time trouble. Caruana picked off one pawn and then a second, reaching the second-time control with unopposed passed pawns on the queenside.
Normally a surplus of two pawns is more than enough to win. But Caruana is clearly out-of-form and he inexplicably gave away his b-pawn as the commentary team of Maurice Ashley, Jennifer Shahade, and Yasser Seirawan looked on in bewilderment. Still, the defending champion retained good winning chances. Akobian’s stubborn resistance forced Caruana to exchange his c-pawn for the f-pawn. Then Caruana suffered one of the worst blunders of his career.
While all the drama was unfolding, Gata Kamsky and Sam Shankland played a relatively uneventful draw in a Berlin Defense. Ray Robson, a student at powerhouse Webster University, could not shake Zherebukh, his collegiate rival from Saint Louis University. Despite a promising ending, Robson could not find a finishing touch and split the point.
Daniel Naroditsky, the third collegian in the field, was incredibly emotive throughout his game against Alexander Shabalov. Naroditsky, a junior at Stanford University, was visibly frustrated that he was unable to convert a winning position and found himself nearly lost. He ended up drawing, ending his losing streak at two games.
The Women’s Championship had three decisive results as well, but by comparison it was a quiet day. Tournament leaders Paikidze and Foisor drew without painstaking effort. That suited Foisor, who had the Black pieces. She will now face Zatonskih in Round 10.
Zatonskih pulled within a half point of the lead by beating Feng, who played an overly ambitious variation of the typically tranquil Queen’s Gambit Accepted and was down a pawn 16 moves into the game. Feng, who is competing in her first U.S. Women’s Championship, showed her youth by making a number of unforced errors. Zatonskih had little trouble finishing her off.
Emily Nguyen suffered her eighth straight loss, this time to Tatev Abrahamyan. Abrahamyan’s reward is a clash with Paikidze, whom she can catch with a win. Jennifer Yu and Katerina Nemcova traded just one bishop and agreed to a draw after 43 moves. Meanwhile, Apurva Virkud proved that not all opposite-colored bishop endings are drawn in her win over Anna Sharevich.
Krush has won seven championships, but an eighth might elude her after she could not defeat Yip. Krush, who had Black, switched from the Caro Kann Defense, which she used against Abrahamyan and Zatonskih, to the Sicilian. After a balanced opening the momentum swung to Krush, who essayed a beautiful queen sacrifice. Yip had no choice but to return the queen and attempt to hold a draw in a pawn-down knight endgame. Yip smartly captured Krush’s a-pawn and used her own as a decoy to activate her king and take all of Krush’s remaining pawns.
With just two rounds to go, three players in the open section and four in the women’s division have a realistic shot of winning the title. All eyes will be on the Round 10 matchups of the top contenders, particularly the match up between Foisor and Zatonskih. Can Akobian handle Robson, against whom he has a phenomenal record? Will So topple Kamsky as he did a year ago? These questions and more will be answered Saturday 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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