Akobian Wins To Become So's Newest Co-Leader
The players' fortunes at the 2017 U.S. championship have resembled more of a bingo hopper than any linear path. Just when you think one player has the best trajectory to the title, everything is thrown into chaos again.
Round eight of the tournament also served as an examination of the French Defense. Two keys games used it, and like the event as a whole, there were mixed results.
GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, fresh off the win of his life, gave one back today. Despite telling the man he vanquished a day earlier, GM Fabiano Caruana, that he just wanted to play 1. e4 and make a draw, instead he went down convincingly.
GM Varuzhan Akobian, an inveterate French player, won as Black and is the newest co-leader with GM Wesley So.
GM Yaroslav Zherebukh's moment in the sun ended a few hours later inside the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
Despite one loss earlier in the event, Akobian has now drawn the praise of one on-site pundit. GM Ben Finegold said after today's game that only Akobian is playing consistently.
He added: "I never know who's going to win this tournament. Now I know even less."
So couldn't create any distance with the field despite Zherebukh losing, as the top seed played an equal game with GM Hikaru Nakamura. The four-time champion has unnaturally drawn seven straight after an opening-round win. Comparatively, in his last three championships (all 11 rounds), he's won five, five, and six games.
Caruana wouldn't go gently into the middle of the pack. A day after being summarily outplayed by Zherebukh, Caruana punished a dubious opening line in the French by GM Daniel Naroditsky. He was expecting the French since his opponent lost as Black in the Spanish yesterday.
"So I thought he may not want to play it again," Caruana said.
GM Fabiano Caruana (left) correctly guessed the opening today, while GM Daniel Naroditsky was already dreading playing a second Black in a row.
Although with more up-and-down results than other players, Caruana's in a large pack still lurking at +1 and one half-point back.
The round began with a moment of silence for the passing of 1954 U.S. champion GM Arthur Bisguier.
After that, a dyed-in-the-wool French player, Akobian, made chess look easy. He did nothing particularly special except understand that his bishop pair would outweigh his fractured kingside. Other than that, he probably unwittingly sold a lot of books on the French today.
He decided to repeat the line So used against Zherebukh, but added the wrinkle 8...Qc7, an idea he said GM Vladimir Kramnik has used.
Caruana essentially refuted a known move. Sure, it didn't helped that Naroditsky was somber before the round about playing two Blacks in a row, with the second against a 2800. However, 9...b6 didn't have a sound reputation even prior to today. Instead 9...Nc6 or 9...Ne7 were more prudent choices.
Since Black failed to get more pieces out, Caruana did what you're supposed to do with a lead in development -- open the center. His immediate rejoinder 10. c4 had Black backpedaling for the rest of the game.
The soundness of the rout made an impression, so Caruana went even further about Naroditsky's opening choice: "I don't think ...b6 is a move."
The win gets the defending champion back in the black. "At this point, I'll be very happy with +3," Caruana said. He'd need two wins in the final trio to get to that mark.
GM Fabiano Caruana shows off his win.
For those wanting wins, So-Nakamura continues to disappoint in the U.S. championship, unlike the fireworks they show in their annual summer matchup at the Sinquefield Cup. They've now drawn all three games since 2015 in the national championship, a far cry from their decisive games in August (which have featured checkmates, revenge, and some spicy post-game comments).
A day after being up more than an hour on the clock, today GM Alex Shabalov fell behind more than an hour. His style suits the black side of the Marshall Gambit, although today he allowed it as White but showed nothing new and drew GM Gata Kamsky.
GM Hikaru Nakamura walks by his own board, leaving GM Wesley So alone with his thoughts.
GM Jeffery Xiong showed good resilience after losing quickly yesterday. Today he beat fellow would-be 2700 GM Sam Shankland, who reminded everyone that there are World Cup spots on the line in addition to the title.
"To get four bad positions against me and score 2.5 points is pretty gross," Shankland said. "I don't think anyone else has ever done anything like that."
Finally, here's an interesting ending reached by GM Alex Onischuk and GM Ray Robson. You don't see queen versus rook-plus-three-or-four-pawns very often. In truth, most of Black's queenside pawns were immaterial; all of Robson's hopes rested on setting up a kingside fortress.
"I think Ray [Robson] missed something; he probably didn't see Nc4 then Ra3 coming," Onischuk said about the earlier part of the game that led up to the queen trap. "I don't think he planned to actually sacrifice his queen...I don't think he has enough compensation. I mean, clearly he doesn't."
GM Alex Onischuk takes a look over at his opponent, who was also his former student.
Was Onischuk just trolling Robson with the incredibly slow technique 47. Kf1? If he had any history of malice you may think he was dragging out the pain for Robson beating his Texas Tech team in the Final Four of College Chess.
That's not part of Onischuk's constitution, of course. Likely he was just shifting breakthrough ideas.
"The rest of the game was quite easy," Onischuk said. "Even thought it was a long game, the technical part was not hard."
Onischuk is back in the mix for a possible second title. He didn't predict that he'd be here.
"I expected the top three guys to have like +8 by now," he joked, but quickly reminded himself that he has Black against Nakamura tomorrow. "If I survive that one, it's gonna be much easier."
In the U.S. women's championship, the story was largely the same. The leader drew, allowing another challenger to rise up.
IM Nazi Paikidze could only muster a half-point for the second day in a row. NM Maggie Feng, the top FIDE-rated girl under 18 in the country, thus stays a half-point back.
IM Nazi Paikidze isn't putting the field away, but neither is she taking herself out of the championship.
Here's a video interview with Paikidze.
Rising up to the join the reigning champion was WGM Sabina Foisor (like her veteran counterpart in the open, Akobian, she is seeking her first title after many attempts). Foisor looked to have a difficult conversion despite being up an exchange, but she handled the ending with aplomb.
WGM Sabina Foisor is actually coached by the guest analyzer for this report, and her fiancee, GM Elshan Moradiabadi. Is this her year? Tomorrow's battle with Paikidze will go a long way toward answering that question.
No drama here, just crisp technique for the full point:
"I'm happy I played well so far," Foisor said. "I'm sure I missed the win at some point. It was such a good position and then I went for the exchange. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the exchange...I was really worried at some point that I might not win anymore."
GM Irina Krush had years in St. Louis where she practically lapped the field. The last two years, however, have just about combined for more losses than the rest of her championships. OK, it has only been four, but the veteran cannot be counted out. Her win today puts her right back within striking distance, only a half-point back.
"It's time to make up for lost ground," Krush said. "I'm not really having trouble getting an advantageous position...somehow I've got to be more precise."
Finally, here's WGM Katerina Nemcova's nice tactic against NM Carissa Yip.
WGM Katerina Nemcova is now a "quasi" chess professional (teaching and playing) since graduating from Webster University last year.
As the two tournaments approach the final weekend of play, no one has stood out from either pack with any sort of dominance.
Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.