Akobian Leads U.S. Championship After Round 7
After round 5 of the 2014 U.S. Championship in St. Louis, GM Gata Kamsky predicted someone else would be champion this year. In his quest to be wrong, there's now a new man to chase.
GM Varuzhan Akobian (5/7) vaulted into the lead with wins in rounds 6 and 7, taking advantage of two straight losses by the earlier surprise leader, GM Alex Lenderman. Neither player has won the title.
Kamsky beat Lenderman today to stay within a half-point of Akobian; he seeks his fifth U.S. Championship and his fourth in five years. The only other player in the field to have won a title, GM Alex Onischuk, leads a quartet of players one point back.
"I don't feel like I have a huge advantage over the other guys," Kamsky told Chess.com. Weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Kamsky said he is noticeably more fatigued that last year, and that in round robins, "I was never very good at these things."
The tournament's only rest day comes closer to two-thirds rather than halfway through the 11-round tournament. "Whatever life throws as you...," Kamsky said.
Onischuk and Kamsky drew in round 6, setting up the pivotal Kamsky-Lenderman match today. Today he threw a King's Indian Attack at a French setup, a frequent tool of another repeat U.S. Champion, Bobby Fischer.
"I know Alex, he plays everything," Kamsky said. "He has been a hard-working guy. He's been slowly improving the last several years. Here he just took off - I hope the two losses don't hurt him."
According to Kamsky, his opponent's strategic mistake was trading off the dark-squared bishops.
Lenderman's resignation was not premature. Threats on g7 and the 7th and 8th ranks make his activity nonexistent. The computer said Kamsky was ahead by the silly margin of +37. "That's like all the pieces together," commentator GM Maurice Ashley said.
"My hope's been raised a little bit," Kamsky said of his chances to retain the title. "I wouldn't say I deserve [the lead]."
Akobian, one of the highest-rated players in the field without a championship on his resume, is playing in his 11th consecutive event (the longest active streak). He leads his frequent Olympiad teammate thanks to wins over two rising stars - GM Alejandro Ramirez (last year's runner-up) and GM Ray Robson (at only 19, playing in his 7th U.S. Championship!).
In round 6, after spending 20 minutes on move 4, he found what he wanted out of the opening and grabbed the bishop pair and active rooks. It took some work, but Akobian eventually rammed through Ramirez's fortress.
Today he followed with a fairly straightforward pawn-ahead endgame win over Robson. Akobian has been close to the title before, including during his first attempt in 2003. Perhaps superstitious from leading the event in its final segment, Akobian said he wished to not give an interview until after the tournament ends.
The 2014 U.S. Women's Championship has experienced an even more unpredictable 48 hours. GM Irina Krush has only mustered two draws, while her main rival, IM Anna Zatonskih, overtook her in round 6 thanks to poor defensive technique by WGM Camilla Baginskaite.
Defending rook and knight versus rook is easier than rook and bishop. Baginskaite is now in the company of the best woman of all-time, GM Judit Polgar, who once didn't successfully defend it either (against GM Garry Kasparov). For another player who has lost that ending, you don't even have to leave the room. Onischuk nearly got to 50 moves against GM Leinier Dominguez in Biel, 2008, before he too succumbed.
Zatonskih also won in round 6 versus the tournament's early sensation, 13-year-old Ashritha Eswaran. The veteran is attempting to prevent Krush from winning a third consecutive crown.
Baginskaite could be excused for being tired. The 103-move loss followed a 111-move defensive effort the previous day. The iteration of the Benko Gambit is called the "King Walk Variation," yet it was Black's king who walked a marathon on this day:
Both players stayed at the board after the six-hour game to analyze. They concluded that Black could have won by taking an exact route to c6 and forcing the queen to check from the queenside (although this reporter couldn't remember the minutiae after such a long day).
FM Alisa Melekhina had even more checks to consider today. She played the Benko's twin cousin, the Blumenfeld Gambit, and got similar middlegame play.
The strong central pawns lead to her denuding White's king right at the time control. Krush lost her way and had her clock fall to one second before playing her 39th move. Thanks to the increment, she made time control, only to realize she completely missed 40...Rxh3+!
Melekhina nearly won, but attempts with trading queens on e3 just barely fail. Both possible defenses are counterintuitive. For example: 44...Qe3+ 45. Qxe3 fxe3 46. Kg2! was Krush's find. The king walks to f3 and the rook runs away to g1 with check. White holds the draw since she can always sacrifice the rook for two pawns and force the rook pawn and wrong bishop ending. For her part, Melekhina saw the amazing 44...Qe3+ 45. Qxe3 fxe3 46. Kf1 Bh4 47. Re1! which also seems to draw.
Krush was not pleased with her play today, and she did not mince words. "I made a bunch of horrible moves in a row," she said. "I didn't calculate anything. I was up so much material. It's not uncommon for me to lose precisely this way." Krush joked that relinquishing the advantage is her "trademark."
"I didn't have a good feeling about this game. I didn't have any idea what I was doing in the opening," Krush said. "I'm thrilled to get the rest day." Melekhina didn't like the decision to place the queen's knight on a4, saying it should have gone back to b1 and then d2.
Zatonskih is thus on 5/6 while Krush, 4.5/6, must now chase. WGM Tatev Abrahayan is not out of contention. She sits at 4/6. Looking ahead, Krush gets White against Zatonskih in round 8.
Back to the U.S. Championship, two other men are making their move. GMs Daniel Naroditsky and Josh Friedel both moved to +1 with wins today (joining Onischuk and Lenderman on 4/7).
Naroditsky wanted to surprise the perennially booked-up GM Sam Shankland. He made the human decision to choose the exd4 line of the King's Indian Defense, but he also has the computer to thank.
"He couldn't have expected it," Naroditsky said. "He lunged at me but he was losing the thread. I predicted he would be in an aggressive mood." Naroditsky explained that he had the pawn sacrifice 12. Nd5 in his database, and that GMs score well as White. But Houdini balked, claiming Black's extra pawn was juicy, and apparently Naroditsky agreed. "I looked at this pretty in depth and I was comfortable."
Friedel followed round 6's upset win over GM Timur Gareev with another one today over Ramirez. The Open Ruy Lopez often features tactics on the long light-squared diagonal, and this game was the rule rather than the exception. But bottom-seeded Friedel survived thanks to two hearty knights. The queens traded and the worst was behind him.
According to the winner, things weren't always so assured. After the thrust ...g5, he thought he had prepped the calculations after ...Nd8, only to realize it was a slightly different position. "I was very upset with myself," Friedel said. "I thought I would lose. I was very careless." He mentioned that instead of 18. Qa7 he had expected 18. Rad1. "It looks very sketchy (for me). It was a very stressful game."
"A couple of days ago, I wasn't sure if I could win a game at all," Friedel said.
GM Alejandro Ramirez and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan
All players were scheduled to go to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game following the round. When it was rained out, they got to begin their rest early. Both the men and women are off Thursday. It is the only rest day for the U.S. Championship and the second of three for the women's event.
U.S. Championship Crosstable After Round 7
U.S. Women's Championship Crosstable After Round 6
You can find a complete listing of the standings and pairings here.
Tune into live play-by-play every day, resuming Friday, at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET, 20:00 CET with GMs Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade at Chess.com/TV!