Caruana's Championship Mission: Beat The Junior

Caruana's Championship Mission: Beat The Junior

| 23 | Chess Event Coverage

Things could get very messy tomorrow, or GM Fabiano Caruana could make them quite simple.

By escaping with a draw today against GM Gata Kamsky he didn't clinch his first U.S. Championship, but he didn't spoil it either. In the final round, he only needs to beat IM Akshat Chandra, the struggling U.S. Junior Champion, to win the 2016 U.S. Championship. Chandra is the lowest-rated player in the event and has lost four straight.

Anything short of that, and we could have a rapid playoff Tuesday.

Also in Round 10, GM Hikaru Nakamura blistered GM Jeffery Xiong, handing the other teenager his first loss. GM Wesley So couldn't get anything against former teammate and roommate GM Ray Robson. His draw means that he joins Nakamura a half-point back, while Robson remains one point behind. Robson takes White against Nakamura in round 11.

If Caruana doesn't win, it could be a "Manic Monday" to catch him -- fittingly a song written by Prince, who died in the middle of the tournament.

First place is a record $50,000, or all the cookies you care to eat. (Photo: Lennart Ootes)

One thing Caruana has sewn up is a meeting with GM Garry Kasparov in the blitz event following the tournament. He told he's never played him in blitz or classical in person, but allowed that he may have online under one of Kasparov's pseudonyms. Caruana is guaranteed a top three placement since two of the three men chasing him face off in the last round.

The women's event crystallized much more clearly. Leaders WGM Tatev Abrahamyan and IM Nazi Paikidze both won, while perennial trophy winners GM Irina Krush and IM Anna Zatonskih were both upset by juniors. Abrahamyan thus retained her half-point lead and needs only to win tomorrow to capture her first crown. Only Paikidze can catch her.

No matter the result, the changing of the guard is official: for the first time since 2005, a woman not named Irina or Anna will be the women's champion. GM Maurice Ashley called it a "truly historic moment."

IM Nazi Paikidze ended the day where she started: trailing by a half-point. But she did shake two trailers.

Nakamura's win was also the first game to finish of the day. As he recovers from a slow start to get back in contention, he's found a unique routine each evening that's been working out -- a few hours of bullet on

"I just tried one night and I won the next day, then I tried it and I won again, so it seems to be working," Nakamura said. "I don't usually do it."

He had another secret weapon for today's game: his second NM Kris Littlejohn. Sure, he always gets help from his confidant, but it's usually in the form of Littlejohn's knowledge of computer use and opening lines.

GM Hikaru Nakamura and his second, NM Kris Littlejohn.

"[Kris] is from Dallas (the same place as Xiong) and they've played a few times," Nakamura explained. "So I had a little bit of extra insight."

Analysis by GM Robert Hess:

"I played a pretty risky opening and I walked into his preparation," Xiong said. "After Ng5 my position was already busted...I'm not sure what I was thinking.

"I was really impressed by how he finished up the game," he added, but said if instead 17. h4, "that's the end of it."

GM Jeffery Xiong's ability to hang with the veterans has been one of the exciting stories of the tournament. 

Xiong missed the move 23. Na3, trapping his rook, but said that he was lost anyway. Despite this, he's still looking like one of the sagest choices for the tournament's lone wildcard. Xiong sits at 50 percent, much better than many of the wildcards in past years.

After the game, Nakamura was still frustrated at the results of his back-to-back games with IM Akshat Chandra (draw) and Caruana (loss). He said he was proud of his comeback, noting that it resembled his slow start but strong second-half play at the Candidates' Tournament.

Confidence versus meditation: GM Jeffery Xiong in his usual pre-game pose of head down, eyes closed.

"I've played well since the mishaps," Nakamura said. "I'm assuming that Fabiano will take care of business tomorrow. I'm not thinking about winning the tournament."

SInce returning from Moscow, a tournament he placed so much importance on, Nakamura said he hasn't been 100 percent. He explained that he felt like he's "in a different world."

Here's an interview with Nakamura where he discusses his bullet play, his blitz career with Kasparov, and the next world championship cycle.

Next up Robson drew So, and only a handful of seconds later, Kamsky ceased hostilities with Caruana. The tournament leader could have been upended had the five-time champion not gone into a pure rook ending.

"I just wanted to see how I would play against him," Kamsky said afterward, noting that in the past he'd lost a few important head-to-head games against Caruana. "Come on, you're a Candidate! Play the Open Sicilian or something!"

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

Like Nakamura, Kamsky said he's been playing better chess as the tournament unfolds.

"People call me a tank because I start out slowly, but once I get going, I'm hard to stop."

"I think he's still in pretty good shape," Caruana told "He still has motivation, although sometimes he loses it. During the first half of the tournament, it seemed like he didn't really feel like playing but today he played a really good game."

GM Hikaru Nakamura inspects the makeup of GM Fabiano Caruana's game.

"I thought after the trade of queens I would slowly get the rook out (of the second rank) and take advantage of the dark squares," Caruana said. "I just thought my position was great and he slowly outplayed me, which doesn't happen very often."

The most tense moment for the 2800 was after spotting Black's dangerous 36th.

"Be6 worried me about half a minute, because that's how long it took him to move!" He told he used the 30 seconds to calculate. "There was nothing more for me to do. I was shocked that he so quickly took on d7."

When asked by how he felt about qualifying for the blitz event with Kasparov, Caruana said, "The main goal is to win the tournament, not to qualify for the top three. But of course I look forward to playing blitz, and especially Kasparov. I've never played him in a tournament game."

GM Fabiano Caruana (Photo: Lennart Ootes)

Caruana said that he's heard Kasparov has anonymous online account, but he doesn't use any. "I don't think it matters is people see your blitz games." (His username on is the unimaginative "FabianoCaruana".)

There's a decent chance another opponent for Caruana in the blitz will be Nakamura. Will the American number two want some payback for losing to Caruana in November's blitz portion and overall match at the Showdown in St. Louis? "I'm sure he does," Caruana said succinctly. 

For the game against his former Webster University roommate, Robson's preparation was nearly as unexpected as Nakamura's bullet. The college student prepared the night before and played two sets of tennis with this reporter in the morning. After splitting 6-7 (5), 6-3, we agreed to a draw since the round began in 45 minutes. After a quick shower, Robson had little trouble holding the balance.

Robson of course knows So's repertoire well and was not surprised by the Qc2, Bd3 line, which he said is "common for Wesley."

"I was worried he might know a lot more theory than me," Robson said. Instead, it was Robson surprising the top-10 player.

"When he played ...g5 obviously I missed this," So said. He also criticized his own move 19. Rd2. "Today I think I could have done better."

"I had a very comfortable position," Robson said. "I may have played a little fast to avoid pressure on the clock."

After the first eight rounds of seemingly constant time management issues, Robson has made a concerted effort to pick up the pace as he faces his usual Olympiad teammates (Caruana, Shankland, So, Nakamura, all in a row). 

He's passed the first three tests, all draws. "I can't really complain with what I've done in the second half of the tournament," he said.

The scouting report on GM Ray Robson: Solid opening knowledge, resourcefulness in bad positions, and a much-improved forehand.

In the other three games, only GM Varuzhan Akobian emerged victorious. He won his second in a row and gave Chandra his fourth consecutive loss. GM Alex Shabalov and GM Alex Onischuk drew the battle of the past-champion Sashas, while GM Sam Shankland and GM Alex Lenderman also split the point.

On the other side of the second floor of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, a momentary, and unwilling, passing of the torch occured today. GM Irina Krush squandered a superior position and lost to 12-year-old NM Carissa Yip, ending the former's bid for five straight titles. Longtime peer IM Anna Zatonskih also went down, to FM Jennifer Yu, meaning that St. Louis will crown a brand new U.S. Women's Champion.

Yip defeated her third career grandmaster, although she admitted after the upset that she nearly committed the biggest sin in chess: resigning when one is not lost! After the tactic 27...Rxd3 (which is not as accurate as slower moves like 27...Bh4 or 27...Kh8), Yip said she had planned to resign.

GM Irina Krush's remarkable run of women's titles and chase for a record 10 will have to pause after this loss.

Cooler heads prevailed and she found the calm, and forced, 31. Kg1, when she's actually better! Make sure you play until the end to see Yip's fancy finish.

"I was really excited and I was like, 'YES!'" Carissa said when she spotted the final idea. Despite this, she said this doesn't rank highly in her best games. "I just got lucky."

As 12 year olds go, NM Carissa Yip is interesting and loquacious in her answers from GM Maurice Ashley.

She thanked a few people that helped her this week. IM Denys Shmelov helped prepare her for today's Taimanov Sicilian. And then there's the mundane matters that need attending. Yip had one more person to thank.

"And my dad for washing my clothes so I don't look like a homeless person!"

Yip said the most she's ever won in a chess tournament is $500. Of course, she was guaranteed to quadruple that just for qualifying (last place is $2,000 but she has her sights set on the seventh-place prize of $5,000).

A glowing wand? No, it was Palm Sunday for GM Irina Krush. A friend left her the traditional talisman.

Zatonskih lost later on when she did nothing to prevent Yu from advancing her center pawns.

The winners opened up an insurmountable gap -- both Paikidze and Abrahamyan won.

Paikidze is still undefeated in 21 career U.S. Women's Championship games (she finished second last year, her first). "Before the game, I was very nervous, because this was a must-win situation," she said. "My husband said, 'Don't worry, you're going to have a beautiful game.' And that's exactly what happened."

Paikidze still trails thanks to the resourcefulness of Abrahamyan, who saved yet another bad position. Despite the play being below her standards, Abrahamyan has earned her fifth IM norm here in St. Louis. She doesn't need it of course, she's only courting the necessary 2400 FIDE rating, which she's been within four points.

IM Nazi Paikidze, trying to stay ahead of WGM Tatev Abrahamyan. (Photo: Lennart Ootes)

"I don't know why I'm getting bad positions every day," she said. "I can't complain. I'm still winning, but the quality of my play has really dropped."

"This is not fun, I don't enjoy it," she told 

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

The day carried special significance for Abrahamyan, an Armenian-American. Today is the 101st anniversary of the day that Armenians and the diaspora regard as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Abrahamyan's shirt showed it weighed heavy on her thoughts, though she said she blocked it out during the game.

April 24, 1915: "It's an important day for Armenian history and human history," Abrahamyan said.

"It's very nice to [win] because it's such a sad day," she told "To have something happy happen, it's a good feeling at least."

She said that her paternal grandfather is a genocide survivor. "He came to Yerevan from Western Armenia with his mom and sister." They ended up in a hospital, where his mother died.

"When he came out of the hospital he didn't know what happened to his sister. My aunt has been searching for years and years but she's never found traces of her. They think someone adopted her and took her to America but there's really no way of knowing."

Will Abrahamyan and Paikidze continue to work out together despite being the last two women left for first place?

"Actually I made her dinner last night so we're still friends," Abrahamyan said. "There's no reason to have hard feelings. If I don't win I'd be happy to see her win."

"The Purple Team" -- WGM Katerina Nemcova (left) and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan chat before their games.

Abrahamyan also admitted to being quite superstitious at tournaments.

"Whatever I eat on the first day, if I win, I eat for the rest of the tournament. But I've been eating different things." She also uses the same pen. And that's not all. "Today actually I went to the elevator and the one I usually use was broken. Oh my god I got so nervous. I tried to convince myself that it doesn't matter, but I just had this really bad feeling right before the game that something's going to go wrong. But it didn't."

In other action, WIM Ashritha Eswaran beat WIM Agata Bykovtsev for the only win by Black on the day.

One final note: a small incident in WGM Katerina Nemcova versus WGM Sabina Foisor ended with a good display of sportsmanship. When Nemcova's clock read all zeros, Chief Arbiter IA Carol Jarecki came over to investigate. Both women had 40 moves written on their scoresheet, but the clock didn't add time to Nemcova's clock. Foisor told Jarecki that Nemcova had time remaining when she completed her 40th move.

Jarecki explained that the clock malfunctioned and only registered 39 moves. She added the second time control, and the game continued to a draw.

Abrahamyan doesn't hold animosity toward her opponents. Maybe she's mad that her usual elevator was broken?

Here's the pairings for the final day and the leaderboard (graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios).

Live coverage of each round can be found at the official site or at Rounds begin at 1 p.m. Central Time daily until April 25. Any possible playoffs will be April 26.

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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