Defending Champions' Title Hopes On Life Support In St. Louis

Defending Champions' Title Hopes On Life Support In St. Louis

| 12 | Chess Event Coverage

It was not a good day to be the king, or queen, at the 2016 U.S. Championship. The two 2015 title winners, GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Irina Krush, both drew, and saw the visage of the leaders get a little fuzzier at day's end.

Nakamura had the better end of an endgame but couldn't crack GM Alex Onischuk, while Krush was dead lost against FM Jennifer Yu but in time pressure saved the game in an Averbakh-worthy ending.

The problem for both is that the respective leaders won, and without much resistance. Both GM Fabiano Caruana and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan got a full point and some rest. The other leaders going into the round didn't keep pace. GM Wesley So and IM Nazi Paikidze both drew quickly, while IM Anna Zatonskih was Abrahamyan's victim.


IM Anna Zatonskih looks red in the face here, but actually took the blunder quite well.

The men have had top billing in these reports the last few days, so we will start with the ladies. Paikidze and WGM Sabina Foisor still had hot tea when they shook hands. Barely 30 minutes into the game, the longitme tournament leader went for a forced repetition, which she'd only seen a few minutes beforehand.

"I did see Qc2 right before I left the [hotel] room," Paikidze said. She spotted the draw, "then it actually happened in the game."

Games via TWIC.

Paikidze's short day allowed her to hit the gym early, though we expect she kept an eye on her competitor's games all day. Her grip on first had become tenuous.

"The standings are going to be intense now," she said.


Thanks to her 30-minute game, IM Nazi Paikidze's workout today was probably longer than her game.

In order to still have a slice of the pole position, Paikidze needed several results to happen: a Zatonskih-Abrahamyan draw and for Krush not to win. She only got one wish. Zatonskih played one of the worst moves of her storied U.S. Women's Championship career.

Recall that Zatonskih told yesterday that she thought tactics should be the focal point for an inactive player getting back into tournaments. Unfortunately for her, that training happened over the board.

"I actually checked my heart rate on my Fitbit," Abrahamyan said. It flashed well above the normal resting rate: 115.

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

"I had to drink more coffee or Coca-Cola," Zatonskih said, laughing. "It's a pity it happened in such an important game."

Considering the magnitude of the facile error, her post-round demeanor wasn't that of a person who blundered. GM Maurice Ashley wanted to know why she was uncharacteristically sanguine after the loss.

"OK I will go cry! You want me to cry?" she said with jocularity.

"It's the best-case scenario for me," Abrahamyan said, referencing Paikidze's quick draw. "I've already played all the women who can catch me. If I win, the championship's mine." In addition, her final two games are against two of the lower-rated juniors, although she admitted to getting nervous when she has a big score against someone.

She's still seeking her first title in this, her 13th appearance. Abrahamyan's come close twice, losing in a playoff in 2005 and in 2014.  She's never had such a favorable path to the championship.

"It's not a familiar feeling so I don't know what to do."

Here's a video interview with Abrahamyan, where she explains he feelings on the heart rate monitor in chess, and how her win today affects the tennis game of her second, GM Josh Friedel.

Seven-time champion Krush has avowed that her goal is to get to 10 titles to break the all-time record (Gisela Gresser won nine). The odds of notching 2016 in the record books became much longer today when she failed to beat a lower seed.


GM Irina Krush, whose doppleganger today was surely Princess Leia.

She was quite fortunate not to lose, as Black missed an easy win in the waning moments.

"I messed up in the end," Yu said simply.

"I walked along the edge of the precipice," Krush summarized. She said that even in the worse position, she was playing for a win. "I should have been punished for that."


Krush said afterward that her Reversed Benko Gambit was not a resounding success.

Here's the race for the $25,000 first prize. Note that Krush and Paikidze play in the last round.


Will this be the year that a new champ ascends? Either Krush or Zatonskih has won the last 10 years.

"Tatev's in a good position to win," Krush said. "The good fortune's been going to her."

All three other ladies' games were drawn, which was just fine with FM Alisa Melekhina. She had dropped five straight and after the lifelong 1. e4 player got tricked into a 1. d4 opening, she stared down a rook for two bishops ending. NM Carissa Yip instead played to get her exchange back, and Melekhina held.

Like Krush-Yu, they played until the worse side proved king-and-pawn basics.

"This is the fourth or fifth game where I'm down a pawn in the endgame," Melekhina said. "I thought, 'OK, here we go again!'"

On the men's side, Nakamura didn't get any closer to defending his title either. An interesting debate might be who has better chances to repeat: Krush or Nakamura. Well, not so interesting if you're them, but they do have an impressive 11 combined championships to comfort them.

Nakamura and Caruana got up from their chairs early today to view the happenings of each other, and for So (who remained seated). Not far into the games, Nakamura remained apprised of his competitors, and it didn't look good.

"I knew Fabiano was going to win out of the opening," Nakamura said.

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila:

The move 10...f5 might look improvised, but not so. Caruana worked it out two years ago with his present coach GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, even though the spike is not that cunning.

"It's not a great idea," he said of his novelty. "It doesn't give Black anything special, just a slightly worse position." In the end, he admitted that he's not sure why he played it, but he explained that "it's hard for White to keep control and improve his position."

"I think the position would be very solid if he had kept control of it," Caruana told "He played a few loose moves, Qb3 in particular."


GM Fabiano has the inside track to his first U.S. Championship.

Lenderman explained his principled chess and also articulated his weaknesses after the game (how many other players would do that?).

"You take a risk, you play principled, it just happens," he said. "That won't stop me from playing that way again. I don't see the purpose of making a dull draw given my tournament situation. It's the type of position he just understands better than me...People are getting used to me now and I'm becoming quite predictable. My sense of danger let me down."


GM Alex Lenderman might be thinking of Mitch Hedberg when playing Fabiano Caruana: "The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall."

On the new move ...f5, Lenderman said, "Sometimes there's a lot of bluffing in chess. I thought this move might be one of those situations."

Although Lenderman allowed checkmate on purpose "because I thought he played a really good game," he could have allowed a much flashier one several moves earlier. Take a look at what Caruana insisted on showing afterward. He called this tactic "one of the greatest moves that I've ever seen."

When I asked (for the second day in a row) if this idea clearly resembles bughouse, Caruana said, "You really want me to say yes, don't you!?" He agreed that the knight on e1 looks like it was just dropped there. "The problem is that I also have holes on my kingside. I'm not sure I would survive [in bughouse] with the hole in g6.

"It's such a pretty mate. I really wish I would have had a chance to play it."

He now faces a five-time champion (GM Gata Kamsky) and a newcomer (IM Akshat Chandra) in the last two rounds. "Gata seems like he's been struggling," Caruana said. "It doesn't look like he's really been enjoying playing this tournament."

Seeing the win by the man he's trailing, today Nakamura pressed hard in the knight-versus-bishop ending but couldn't find a path to victory. It was the third game of the day to go to king and pawn (well, Nakamura "improved" with two pawns).

Analysis by GM Robert Hess

"Alex [Onischuk], he didn't play well, let me put it that way," Nakamura said. He explained that the idea to trade everything was "terrible." Indeed, the common principle of playing with an isolated queen pawn is to keep material on the board. In fact, the video library includes lessons on the subject by three people who are in St. Louis (Zatonskih, GM Sam Shankland, and GM Dejan Bojkov).

Nakamura said he was sure Onischuk didn't see the 40...d4 endgame idea, when the "trick" 41. Bb4+ Kd7 42. Bxe7 a5! gets the pawn home. He added that White played well to hold the endgame.


GM Hikaru Nakamura and his freshly-chilled Red Bull (the club has a mini-fridge stocked with his sponsored drink).

What about his chances now that he's one point back with two games to play? "Realistically, even if I win two games, I'm not trying for first."

One consideration however is at least securing second or third, which ensures a date with GM Garry Kasparov and the other top finishers. Love them or not, you'd be hard pressed to find a chess fan who's not salivating at the chance to see those two giants of chess face off six times.

So fell a half point behind Caruana when he drew GM Jeffery Xiong, whose unbeaten streak continues (he's +1). We skip right to the end where Xiong showed that even the most banal positions have hidden treasures.

Xiong said his main goal for this event was not based on score. He wanted to learn from the world's best. In particular, he told that the best lesson came when Caruana pressed against him in their head-to-head game. Xiong said he wanted to see how to play for a win against someone 200 points lower as Black.


GM Jeffery Xiong and his daily "Air Jordan" hoodie. Unlike the jacket's namesake, Xiong never had to play junior varsity.

GM Ray Robson has something to say about all of this. Not only is he currently tied with Nakamura for third and thus the final spot in the exhibition, he also gets White against Nakamura in the final round Monday.

Today Robson couldn't punch any holes in Shankland's theoretical boat. 

"I tried to get something out of his preparation," Robson told "But he still had a new idea, ...Qc8. According to him it's just a draw, but that's just an oversimplification. It's move eight!"

Robson's tone was slightly frustrated but not irritated. "At this level everyone just wants to equalize with Black. I wouldn't blame him."

Robson said he considered 25. Rxg7 but since Black has the queenside majority, White could end up playing for all three results.


The in-vogue opening? GM Ray Robson played the double-fianchetto today, just like GM Gata Kamsky did, as well as GM Alex Shablov earlier in the tournament.

In other action, GM Gata Kamsky earned his first win against IM Akshat Chandra, and GM Varuzhan Akobian did the same against GM Alex Shabalov.

Kamsky said he can commiserate with Chandra's 1.5/9. He related his experience at Linares 1991, where he "upped" Chandra by going 1.5/12 before winning in round 13 against GM Jaan Ehlvest (who is also here in St. Louis as Shabalov's second).

If Nakamura rates his tournament chances low, then Robson is positively desultory. "I don't think I rated myself at any time as having chances for this tournament," Robson said, citing that he has to face So and Nakamura in the final two rounds.

Here's the pairings for round 10 and the current standings (graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios). Xiong on Nakamura: "I fully expect him to go all-out to win."





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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