'Drunken Pirates' Hijack Wins In U.S. Champs Opener

'Drunken Pirates' Hijack Wins In U.S. Champs Opener

| 24 | Chess Event Coverage

All three world top-10 players drew boxes last night giving them more Whites than Blacks at the 2016 U.S. Championship. Their first-strike advantage allowed them to bombard their enemies, and when the fusillade ended, three points were the booty. 

Who can we thank for the rough seas? GM Wesley So was the leader, demolishing five-time champion GM Gata Kamsky in the shortest blitzkrieg of the day. The gunpowder was still pungent as his 28. g4 crippled his opponent. Kamsky anguished before relenting.

As for the extended "piracy" of the analogy? We can thank GM Josh Friedel for that. His tournament tweets read like a Johnny Depp manuscript.

The sudden finish, in only two hours, was preceded by a more swashbuckling move So made several minutes earlier. See if you can light the fuse to the cannon and find GM Yasser Seirawan's favorite move of the round:

"I didn't see the Nh4, Nf5 plan," Kamsky admitted. "It was difficult to see if the piece sacrifice would work, but it seems to work. My king on h7 is really weak."

He added that he had only prepared for 1. d4, and when he saw the king's pawn come forward, he assumed So had something prepared for the Spanish, but figured he had to play his main defense anyway.

Counting last year, GM Wesley So is on a three-game winning streak at the U.S. Championship. He only had one draw in all of 2015's event.

So said he didn't have everything completely worked out after the sacrifice, nor was he worried about not getting adequate compensation.

"I don't think I'd be a professional chess player if I tried to calculate everything," he said. "I'd get too big of a headache."

Here's the full game including the convincing finish.

Analysis by GM Robert Hess:

Games via TWIC.

After the game, caught up with So to discuss the game, his life as a chess pro, and his participation on the national team.

"I'll get into the rhythm and try to convince the kids that I'm not dead yet," Kamsky said of his remaining tournament.

As you sing a sea shanty in your head, we move on to the next vessel that ran aground, this one helmed by GM Alex Lenderman. Raising the battle flag against him was the defending champion GM Hikaru Nakamura, who went for the initiative right away with an early queenside pawn offer.

"You can't play too safe," he said. "I think a big score will be needed."

All seasoned chess photographers know that the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis has one board under the skylight. GM Hikaru Nakamura glistened today, figuratively and literally.

It wasn't long before the game's underdog also had to walk the plank:

"Mentally I'm definitely tired after the Candidates'," Nakamura said. What about the eight-hour bullet match on that ended yesterday morning (discussed in our pre-tournament report)?

He explained that once you get going in a series like that, the time can just get away from you. He only ended the marathon because he had to catch his flight to St. Louis. "It certainly won't affect my energy levels."

Nakamura thought the event would be a three-man battle among the triumvirate at the top, with the possible exception of GM Ray Robson (who also won today).

Getting back to the three-headed rabble taking out defenseless kings, we arrive at the near-world championship contender, top-rated GM Fabiano Caruana. He told that it was refreshing to play in an event with a new mixture of players.

"[It's] a pleasant change from the endless spree of Berlins and Anti-Marshalls," he said. His last event among the hoi polloi was the 2015 Millionaire Chess Open. True to his wishes, he got a "new" move at the outset!

GM Fabiano Caruana, playing like an eight year old!

GM Varuzhan Akobian dug into his childish bag of tricks for his first-ever meeting against Caruana. His two mainstays against 1. e4, the French and Caro-Kann, were both jettisoned in favor of a tertiary opening he hasn't played since his nascent tournament days -- the Scandinavian!

This was the first appearance of 1. e4 d5 in the U.S. Championship since the event moved to St. Louis (NM Tom Braunlich played it four times in 2007). This was also Akobian's first foray with it this millennium (his last iteration was in 1999). And of course this was the first game by Caruana at the tournament, although his past history in the building has had sublime moments (seven straight wins en route to the 2014 Sinquefield Cup and a convincing victory over GM Hikaru Nakamura in November's one-on-one Showdown in St. Louis). 

At the outset, it seemed Akobian's sneak attack reaped some treasure. Caruana took longer and in fact chose somewhat of a sideline, 3. Bb5+, that Akobian had faced before. In fact, the first-ever game in the database with Akobian playing Black in the Scandinavian was exactly this line (in the 1996 World Youth Under 14 Championship, where Akobian trotted out 1...d5 several times, only losing to Grischuk!).

Despite the unexpected opening, Caruana's manager IM Lawrence Trent seemed more surprised than his client. 

Caruana said after the game that he studied 3. Bb5+ when he was eight! "I like to hold on to pawns when I have the chance," he told

However in that initial game in 1996, Akobian dropped all the way back with 5...Bc8 (perhaps portending his later disposition toward the French). Today, his bishop hung around the party, but then caved to innate impulses and retreated back to c8 eventually. Commentator GM Maurice Ashley thought that the passive play was a mistake and resembled an awkward French structure with Black behind tempos.

Theory buffs may also wish to know that in GM David Smerdon's new book, Smerdon's Scandinavian, he also recommends the rejoinder 7...Nb6 as played in the game, but no comments follow (Caruana seemed content with his reply 8. b3 nonetheless). Instead of 7. g4, Smurfo's recommendation is to follow Bouaziz,S (2360)-Larsen,B (2595) Las Palmas 1982, which is embedded in the game viewer.

The carnage was not over, as two more wins followed on the final three boards. The five wins in the opening round equaled the opening swordfight from the last super-tournament in St. Louis, the 2015 Sinquefield Cup.

Nakamura's dark-horse, or perhaps up-and-coming pirate, Robson, was the sole winner that raised the Black flag to attack. He took out GM Alex Shabalov with the sparkling 20...Bc1. By putting his bishop where the opponent's usually belongs, it found life on the more important wing. Robson was congratulated by fellow Webster University teammates for finding the move, but in his usual modest way, he didn't think it was anything special.

GM Sam Shankland was the final victor, against IM Akshat Chandra. Like Caruana and Kamsky, his preparation was for naught.

"He played the Sicilian in every game I'd ever seen of him, then he played the French on move one," Shankland said. "I had to improvise right away."

GM Sam Shankland had to struggle to overcome the bottom seed.

He said he thought the win would come much easier, and listed the reasons. He was White, against the lowest-rated player, he had initiative, and Chandra used more than one hour on move 18!

Chandra had about three minutes for 22 moves, plus the 30-second increment per move.

"He defended like a genius on every single move!" Shankland recounted, his positivity slowly ending. Eventually, the 2015 U.S. Junior Champion faltered in a slightly worse rook ending.

Shankland said that if wins are going to be this hard to come by, he may be in for a long two weeks.

The only draw came from GM Alex Onischuk against GM Jeffery Xiong.

Against the tournament's other teenager, Onischuk was about as exasperated as Shankland following the fight. "Before the game I thought, 'I should trade queens to try to squeeze him,'" Onischuk said. The first part of the plan worked, but not the second.

"I realized today that I'm not one of the favorites," Onischuk said. "The top three guys won so easily. The goal is to finish fourth!"

Don't remember Xiong as a 2500? It's not you, it's him. It look him less than one year to cruise from the high 2400s into the low 2600s.

The "X-Man" continues his march. (Image courtesy FIDE)

On the other side of the room, the U.S. Women's Championship featured more restrained chess (so it feels like a good time to drop the pirate theme!). Only two women won, and neither of them were the top seeds.

WGM Tatev Abrhamyan and NM Carissa Yip will go into day two with the early lead (thus making seven total players alive for the $64,000 Fischer Prize for a perfect score, which no one has ever seriously challenged in St. Louis).

The youngest female master in American history thought she had the game won against WIM Akshita Gorti, then overlooked the last-minute salvo 42...Bf3. She initially thought she'd lost the full point, then through a series of geometrical moves (has she even studied geometry?) she nudged her second queen into the right place.

In typical adolescent directness, she put it this way: "I thought I was going to lose! Oh nevermind, I'm not going to lose!"

Yip said she was "really excited" when she got the email inviting her to St. Louis. She and her dad were checking the ratings daily to see if she could sneak into the top 10 (it was important to her to qualify and not get in via wildcard).

NM Carissa Yip, actual size! What factoid does she share with Caruana? They both have perfect lifetime records at the U.S. Championships (1-0 of course).

Yip also revealed some motivation to do well now that she's here.

"I'm hoping to get in the top three because my mom said she'll get me a new phone." Yes, it's a teenage field on the women's side.

Yip said she also wants to make it on the national squad to play in the Women's World Teams. When asked her where it will be held, she said, "Oh I don't know, I just want to get there!"

Abrahamyan, widely viewed as the strongest American woman never to win a title, got off to the right start. After one falter by WIM Agata Bykovtsev, White's bishops and passed pawn carved up Black in no time.

The other three games were drawn, including IM Nazi Paikidze pressuring but not overcoming past champion IM Anna Zatonskih; seven-time champion GM Irina Krush drawing as Black against WGM Katerina Nemcova; and WGM Sabina Foisor splitting the point with FM Alisa Melekhina.

Smoke on the water? WGM Tatev Abrahamyan went Deep Purple in hair and dress to open with a bang.

Krush said that with all the tournament titles (she's won the last four) that only first place will do these days. "That's the only result that feels successful," she said.

Melekhina just came off a tournament win last weekend at the Marshall Chess Club, and was thrilled to get the tournament's final invite after WGM Anna Sharevich pulled out. Melekhina said she wants to enjoy the event more this year (she's now practicing law and isn't sure how much time she will have in the future).

How to spend the evening then? 

FM Alisa Melekhina at the Powershare Series Tennis tournament that came through St. Louis Thursday night. You can try to guess the player returning serve, or scroll down...

You cannot be serious! Actually John McEnroe mostly had fun with the crowd despite the "novelty" of the players calling their own lines. Maybe we should try this for chess? No arbiters for a "throwback" tournament?

If you're wondering who won (chess players are usually results-oriented!), McEnroe beat Jim Courier in a tiebreak, then Andy Roddick, still of booming first-serve fame, dispensed James Blake. McEnroe was wily in the final...

...but Roddick handled him without issue.

While the tennis legends ship off to the next town, most of the fortnight still remains for America's best chess players. Here's the standings (all graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios).

Here's round two's pairings:

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, with the lone rest day coming April 19.

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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