Caruana, Paikidze Clinch 1st U.S. Championships

Caruana, Paikidze Clinch 1st U.S. Championships

| 51 | Chess Event Coverage

The final round of the 2016 U.S. Championships produced the expected result for the men, but an emotional inversion for the women. When the afternoon closed, GM Fabiano Caruana and IM Nazi Paikidze carried the day.

(Photo above: Lennart Ootes.)

Their wins ended, or at least put on hiatus, the dominating runs by four multiple-champions. Prior to today, all 14 titles awarded since 2009 by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis had gone to GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Irina Krush, or IM Anna Zatonskih.

With the exception of the slight discomfort against Kamsky in round 10, Caruana played mostly clean chess the entire fortnight. Ditto for Paikidze, who was the only woman never to be in danger of losing a game during the tournament. The commentators agreed that their stability made them worthy champions, though one of them had to make an unlikely comeback today.

IM Nazi Paikidze struggled to maintain her equanimity late in the game...

...and released her tears right after Krush congratulated her. (Photos: Lennart Ootes.)

After failing to convert a few winning positions late last week, Paikidze's one extra draw meant that she trailed WGM Tatev Abrahamyan going into today. The odds got longer when you looked at the pairings. Both women had Black, but Abrahamyan was playing one of the juniors, while Paikidze faced the seven-time champion Krush.

Everything worked out for her -- Abrahamyan lost her way in her secondary opening and Paikidze outplayed Krush.

WGM Tatev Abrahamyan said she doesn't know how long it will take to get over today's events. Despite the setback, she congratulated Paikidze on her Facebook page: "There's no one else I'd rather see win it this year."

"I'm still shaky," Paikidze said. "I cannot believe this is happening."

Her eyes watered as Krush resigned, but her emotions were on display during the game too. As the first time control came to a close and Krush clearly had trouble parrying all the threats, Paikidze could be seen closing her eyes and breathing deeply, even when on move.

Before the $25,000, the winner got a warm hug from her husband. (Photo: Lennart Ootes.)

Despite the long odds, she had one person who foresaw the entire day -- her husband.

"I think he's the only one who believed this outcome today," said Paikidze.

Krush said she was very surprised by 17...b5, a pawn offer that the commentators lauded.

Analysis by GM Robert Hess

Games via TWIC.

The tension built in the final moments, when the cluster of kingside pieces resembled a slow-moving amoeba. The emotions had time to build up for Paikidze. When Krush offered her hand, the winner buried her head in one hand, and turned away from the crowd to compose herself. Then she embraced her husband.

Paikidze said she "freaked out" when she saw Abrahamyan lose. By that point she sensed (correctly) that she'd missed an easier win, and she thought she'd blown her chance to win outright.

Paikidze can't believe what she saw -- Abrahamyan losing and giving her control of the tournament.

"I feel terrible for my friend Tatev," Paikidze said. "She was so close so many times and this was only my second time."

Abrahamyan, twice losing in a playoff in her dozen appearances, also had watery eyes after the result. She told that this close call hurt the most.

"I knew it was going to happen," Abrahamyan told as she watched the final moves of the game. Cruelly, the timing of her defeat meant that she had to watch for more than one hour to see if Paikidze would convert her superior position.

"If she wins with Black the title is hers and there's nothing I can do," Abrahamyan said during the interregnum after her game ended.

"I didn't have a lot of hope. After my loss I was in disbelief and now it's just really final."

Both top women wear Fitbits during their games. Abrahamyan checked her before the round, and it surely spiked after the game began.

Abrahamyan and Paikidze embraced after everything ended. Paikidze told Abrahamyan, "I'm sorry, I hope you're OK." conducted a video interview with the winner, who was still emotional:

How did Abrahamyan lose not only the title, but the chance at a playoff tomorrow? It began with her choice to eschew her favorite French; Abrahamyan hoped to avoid any preparation by WIM Ashritha Eswaran. But the youngster played something outside of Abrahamyan's studies, and she admitted to not knowing the positions as well.

No matter how much she leaned in, Abrahamyan couldn't solve the riddle of the d5-weakness.

GM Garry Kasparov, a guest commentator, criticized the decision. "In the last round, you don't play something you don't know," he said. "[Being in a familiar opening] helps you overcome the crisis...I don't think she was ready for a fight and she got punched."

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

Eswaran said she played a very similar game about two months ago. In particular, the ideas of re-routing the knights to d5 and the maneuver Ra1-a3-b3 were fresh in her memory.

"I knew that she would be playing for a win," Eswaran said.

The loss meant that both Krush and Zatonskih lost two in a row late in the tournament. Zatonskih took third and Krush dropped all the way to sixth.

Early tournament sensation NM Carissa Yip lost to Zatonskih today, allowing the veteran a top-three placement in her return to the event.

NM Carissa Yip's win over GM Irina Krush in round 10 did much to shape the finish of the women's championship.

WGM Katerina Nemcova had her sister visiting from Czech Republic all tournament. Their mother made them matching shirts with "Sisters" sewn on them.

Caruana ensured there would be no such drama in the U.S. Championship. He slowly overran IM Akshat Chandra, handing the U.S. Junior Champion his fifth straight loss, to clinch clear first place. That nullified the result of GM Wesley So's game (he couldn't overcome staunch defense by GM Alex Lenderman).

Several hours earlier, Nakamura drew GM Ray Robson in a game where the four-time champion had no chances to push.

Manager IM Lawrence Trent shows his phenom the way to victory.

Qualifying for the post-tournament blitz event with Kasparov was a secondary consideration by the top players, and now we know that the trio advancing will be the three top-10 players: Caruana, So, and Nakamura.

Here's how Caruana ensured victory. His only real tickle could have been the trick 19. Rad1 Qc6 20. Bxf7+! Kxf7 21. Qc4+ but Caruana said he thought he could hold the uncomfortable position.

"I tried to play for a win and not leave my fate in my opponents' hands," Caruana said.

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

"I'm not sure if it's my biggest achievement to date, but it's one of the most satisfying," Caruana said. "In terms of quality I probably deserve the [tournament] win."

So concurred: "He completely deserved it. I'm happy that he switched federations."

Kasparov praised Caruana for recovering after the "disastrous finish in Moscow."

Here's's video interview with Caruana:

The win was the only decisive result of the day. The other 10 men drew, but two most certainly hoped for more. Both Nakamura and So began the day one half-point behind, and both needed to win as Black to try to catch the 2800 leader.

Like Paikidze, Caruana also got a hug after his win. (He also gets $50,000, which is actually less than his exhibition match win at the Showdown in St. Louis!)

Nakamura never had a chance. He tried the Berlin, the first one of the entire championship. Instead of getting the mainline endgame, Robson went for symmetry and that was that.

"Sometimes this line is more dry that the queen trade line since there's not as many imbalances," WGM Jennifer Shahade said.

"The onus is on White to prove something," Nakamura restated as he had done earlier in the event.

"I wasn't sure what Hikaru was going to go for," Robson said. "He played the Berlin which is as solid as you can play. I don't really have anything special against it."

"Plus four is never bad but I guess I'm supposed to score more against this field," Nakamura said. 

Did he consider playing for more today? "Realistically I assumed that even if I had won today I wouldn't tie for first," he told "To not finish in the top three would be quite bad, that's why I chose to play this way. Perhaps if there wasn't this secondary tournament, maybe I would have taken more risks. All things considered, it didn't make sense."

Both GM Wesley So and GM Hikaru Nakamura needed help today to catch the leader, but neither got it.

So had much more of a fighting chance against Lenderman. Despite the highly tactical opening, So played with celerity. His paced dropped severely when trying to conjure a winning plan with his extra pawn, but White's bishop pair walled off any king advancement.

So said he played too much chess last year when he lost four games at both the U.S. Championship and the Sinquefield Cup. He used a two-month break from tournaments to rest before this year's championship.

As you can see from above, Robson becomes the outsider looking in for the Kasparov blitz event, to be held April 28 and 29. But he's not worried. He calculated that today's draw guaranteed him a higher rating than either GM Sam Shankland or GM Alex Onischuk, which punches his ticket for the U.S. Olympiad team. (He also noticed that he is above GM Gata Kamsky, so even if the veteran changes his mind about playing in another Olympiad, Robson's spot is safe.)

"I wasn't in good form," Robson said of his slightly-above-average performance. "Not better or worse than usual."

Surprisingly the three super-GMs who qualified for the blitz have never played a single blitz game with Kasparov over the board. Even online none are absolutely sure they've played him.

Nakamura said that ensuring he'd qualify made the last few days "very stressful" and also tricky. He had to simultaneously think about trying to finish first without risking a loss, which might drop him down in the standings. "It's quite important not to do anything crazy for that reason," he said.

In the oldest versus youngest matchup, GM Jeffery Xiong missed a win and drew GM Alex Shabalov today. Xiong finished on 50 percent in his first championship.

Would winning the blitz event make up for not defending his championship? "I don't know how to view this upcoming event," Nakamura told "I'm just viewing it as being fun."

Who's the favorite? That will be a hot topic during tomorrow's closing ceremony and the off day Wednesday. Nakamura said that the advancements in chess generally makes succeeding generations better. Nakamura summed up the conundrum: "It will be interesting to see how Garry does against us. We're supposed to be better, but he's supposed to be the best player ever."

So is less foggy of where he stands. "I'll be the underdog," he said.

GM Gata Kamsky basks in the sun as the game begins. He ended his event by choosing to repeat moves with GM Sam Shankland, making his -1 score his worst ever at the event.

Nakamura told that he thinks delay instead of increment helps Kasparov, and he assumed all three challengers are faster than Kasparov in their tactical vision.

"Otherwise then we're clearly not studying hard enough."

GM Hikaru Nakamura realizes there's no chances left in the position. (Photo: Lennart Ootes.)

The format and prizes have been reported previously, and we now know the times. The broadcast begins at 12:35 p.m. Central Time April 28 and 12:50 p.m. Central Time April 29. Every player will play nine games each day at a time control of G/5 with a three-second delay per move.

Graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.

The Kasparov blitz event on April 28 and 29 can be seen at the official site or at

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