Caruana Breaks Through As So Nearly Falters
Round six of the 2017 U.S. championship was a countdown of sorts: three, two, one, zero.
The world number three's gap to the world number two was one point going into the day (while the ladies played zero draws!). That's more of a chasm than one-point leads in most any other sport, especially when the man you are chasing enjoyed White and hasn't lost since Willy Wonka was alive.
GM Wesley So has been floating in bubbles since his last loss in July 2016, but today he nearly hit the overhead fan against GM Varuzhan Akobian. After drinking magic soda and advancing g4 and h4 early, the effervescence wore off. Somehow his king escaped the turning blades of Akobian's queen+rook grinder, and thus So kept his streak and his tournament lead.
GM Wesley So began with a seemingly quiet opening before attempting to repeat his 2016 crush of GM Varuzhan Akobian. It didn't work this time.
Were Akobian a little more precise, he would have overtaken the field. Instead, he remained a half-game back, and was joined by a new face in the chase group.
Returning champion GM Fabiano Caruana closed out his first win of the fortnight today. The point came with relative ease over five-time champion GM Gata Kamsky. Along with Akobian and others, Caruana is now on +1 and tied for second.
GM Fabiano Caruana didn't have to labor as much as the leader, and was walking around a good bit today.
GM Hikaru Nakamura got quite a scare against the struggling GM Alex Shabalov, but escaped to remain in that large second-place group.
So won quite a few PRO Chess League games recently with slow buildups, but today he did not equivocate with his intentions. In particular, 7. g4 and 8. h4 showed he wanted to wipe Akobian off the board.
Would it be a repeat of 2016, when he did just that? So is fairly mild-mannered, so it's unlikely he is still smarting from his 2015 forfeit loss to Akobian (after all, they are on the same winning PRO League team!). While his moves suggest deliberateness in aggression, Akobian played brilliantly in defense and could have even won in the end.
"He played really well," Akobian said. "Even at the end I thought that I am winning but then he found this queen check and Qe7. It's the only way to save."
Akobian correctly stated that 31...Qd3 was the big mistake, although he preferred 31...Ng1 (his original idea) to the commentators' 31...Qc2+. Both alternate moves win.
"I missed that the king escapes," Akobian explained. "I really thought that I was going to win."
"I'm surprised that I am even leading with +2," So said. "Last year I think out of seven games I was on +4 and Fabiano was on +4."
As for Caruana, he simply has Kamsky's number. Despite struggling in a draw at last year's flagship American event, the 20-something has four wins against only three draws and no losses against the 40-something. Today, it was another Sicilian (Kamsky's third in 2017), but Caruana switched from last year's Rossolimo.
"It was pleasant to win, especially such an easy game," Caruana said.
"I was surprised by ...h6," Caruana said. "I guess the idea is to trade queens but he just has a bad ending."
As you saw above, it wasn't the 15th move that was the former champion's undoing. One move later, he hung his a6-pawn due to an elementary tactic.
"The a-pawn is one of the most important pawns on the board," Caruana said, explaining that it is needed to drive White's knight away from b4.
Caruana spoke with Chess.com about this year's event and his personal record with Kamsky. Here's the video:
Nakamura stated previously in the tournament that success by the "big three" largely depends on whom you get Black against. Today cellar-dweller GM Alex Shabalov might have seemed to fit into Nakamura's scenario since the fellow four-time champion plays aggressive, wide-open chess no matter the color or predicament.
GM Alex Shabalov literally and figuratively had GM Hikaru Nakamura looking over his shoulder.
There is of course one problem. The favorite gets his desired winning chances with Black, but also gets a chance to be upset. For much of the middlegame, it looked like Shabba may just do that.
Today's final winner was GM Sam Shankland, who beat his fellow Olympiad fourth-board, GM Ray Robson.
The result means Shankland moves up to the even score group, dropping Robson down to the same.
Along with Caruana, Nakamura, and Akobian, there are two more college students remaining at +1 and still nipping at So. GM Daniel Naroditsky is there after today's draw with GM Jeffery Xiong. Ditto GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, who drew with GM Alex Onishcuk.
In the 2017 U.S. women's championship, the dozen combatants might as well have had the "Ashley Rules" in place. No, commentator/organizer GM Maurice Ashley doesn't usually advocate for a complete banishment of draw offers, although that's a rule he may well lend his name to!
All six games produced winners, none more important for the standings than defending champion IM Nazi Paikidze's win as Black against seven-time champion GM Irina Krush. Paikidze's been on a tear since losing a seven-hour marathon in heartbreaking fashion.
The two women responsible for the last five titles faced off on the stage board.
Her secret weapon for a possible repeat? A salubrious diet. Paikidze now has a Whole Foods within walking distance of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. She's there nearly daily, but it wasn't just kale that helped today. Things were cruising for Krush when another many-time champion forgot about the a-pawn.
"I got nothing out of the opening," Krush said. "We got a balanced ending, then she tried some things on the kingside, but it didn't go really well for Black."
Full disclosure -- Paikidze didn't observe the mythical "Ashley Rules" as she admitted that she offered a draw right before Krush blundered the pawn.
The rest of the field experienced a whitewash -- all five other games were won by White.
Last year's early sensation NM Carissa Yip got back to even in a most unlikely way. She demolished IM Anna Zatonskih by having all the trumps: better attacking prospects, the bishop pair, and mountains more time.
NM Carissa Yip, still only 13, said she's not as nervous as last year.
"I'm OK with it," Yip said in the normal laconic parlance of teenagers (she can go much more in-depth about iPhone features, as seen in the video below). "I didn't really expect this win."
"After f4, f5 I wasn't really sure I was winning," Yip said.
Chess.com interviewed Yip about her future plans. Here's the video interview:
The final game presented in this report was a long time coming for one woman. A loooong time.
WGM Sabina Foisor had managed merely two draws against six losses against WGM Tatev Abrahamyan. The futility includes five consecutive losses at this event, dating back to 2012.
WGM Sabina Foisor finally threw the monkey (or is it penguin?) off her back.
You would think that Foisor would be nicer to the woman to whom she owes her spot on the Olympiad team last year. When Abrahamyan declined to take her normal spot for Baku 2016, first alternate Foisor joined the team and ably chipped in with 2.5 points in three games.
While the women collectively had six decisive games today, so too does Foisor on her personal scorecard. She now has four wins and two losses with no draws.
"I'm just trying to play for the win if I have the chance," she said. Of the personal futility against Abrahamyan, she said, "I lost a lot of games to her, but the past seven years I kept getting Black."
Just past the halfway point, all but three men are on even scores or better:
It's rare for a woman to win the title with a loss on her card, but Paikidze's seeks to defend her title by doing just that:
Tomorrow's Robson-So and Nakamura-Shankland continues the necessary Olympiad teammate matchups:
Meanwhile the annual Zatonskih-Krush matchup has lost some of its luster as both are coming off losses, but will be key to seeing if either can regain form:
All images courtesy Spectrum Studios.