Leaders Lose, Field Catches Up at U.S. Championships
GM Varuzhan Akobian and IM Anna Zatonskih methodically built their leads over the first 10 days of the 2014 U.S. Championship and 2014 U.S. Women's Championship. In a few hours, both lost for the first time and allowed the field to draw even.
GM Sam Shankland surprised Akobian with a rare continuation against the Caro-Kann, an opening that hasn't exactly troubled him. Across the room at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, GM Irina Krush scored a dramatic win over Zatonskih to recover after a string of draws in rounds 5-7.
The men play twice more in the next two days; the women have a rest day tomorrow and play their final round Monday.
"It wasn't such an easy day for me," Krush said. She called the round a "must-win game."
Lamenting her drawing streak and suffering the lingering effects of a cold, she said being down one point felt like another strike against her. "I didn't believe I could do it. It's like I was in a script, a nightmare script that someone else had written for me."
In her own visualization of this movie, she assumed the protagonist would meet an unhappy ending. In real life, the "twist" is that she's now tied with Zatonskih. The ending won't be written until round nine, and quite possibly a playoff after that.
"I didn't think that it was an easy endgame for Black to play," Krush said. "But my technique wasn't very good. I'm so happy because I did what I needed to do today." Both women dipped below 30 seconds for most of the rook-and-pawn ending.
The two are now tied with 6/8. In round 9, Krush gets Black against WIM Viktorija Ni, while Zatonskih takes White against WGM Katerina Nemcova. The only other woman in contention is WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who won over surprising junior NM Ashritha Eswaran today to get to 5.5/8. She needs both top women to not win to have any chance of winning her first title.
Shankland switched to 1. e4 a little while back, and claimed to have a perfect score against the Caro-Kann, which he faced today against Akobian. Both players cited the importance of 7. c3 instead of the more normal 7. Be3 as an interesting deviation.
"I didn't react well against it," Akobian said.
"Theory regards 7. c3 as nothing special, but I had some ideas and I was hoping to change that evaluation," Shankland said.
Akobian criticized his inability to prevent White from playing h5. He wished that he had played it himself, although after his bishop relocated to g7 it was too late since there are sacrifices coming on g6.
"I don't know why I didn't play ...h5," he said. "I was going to play it. I just have to shake it off and play well the next two games."
By his own calculations, Shankland said the win put him in the driver's seat for the secondary competition - a spot on the U.S. Olympiad Team for Tromso, Norway. He's in a battle with players like GM Ray Robson for the final spot, which is a complicated formula based on ratings and age (Robson also won today to keep that race tight). The winner of the tournament earns an automatic invitation to be on the U.S. team.
Shankland didn't just help himself. A group of players closed the gap thanks to him ending Akobian's four-game winning streak. When asked by commentator GM Maurice Ashley if defending champion GM Gata Kamsky owed him a beer, Shankland said, "I am old enough to drink, but I'd prefer some free lessons or part of his winnings!"
Kamsky only cut his margin in half. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to use his extra pawn in the endgame against GM Mackenzie Molner, who used a common stalemate trap to hold the balance.
Kamsky appeared deflated and explained that he thought he was winning. "I thought after 18. Bg4 I would exchange light-squared bishops, I would put my king on e2, and things would be very unpleasant for Black," Kamsky said. "He defended well."
His only self-criticism was not playing 29. c4 to keep pawns on both sides of the board. He sensed some threats against his king and instead allowed the pawn to be captured.
One man who made the most of Akobian's slip was a name from earlier in the tournament. GM Alex Lenderman, the early leader, suffered two losses before the rest day, but has now fully recovered. He won his second game in a row to catch Akobian on 6/9.
"Somehow this bishop got tangled up," Lenderman said. "I realized I had a chance. You have to always fight like Magnus Carlsen does."
"Before this tournament, I haven't beaten a grandmaster in 16 straight games," Lenderman said. He said he's been completely shut out in 2014 before arriving in St. Louis. Lenderman now has five wins in nine games, the most of anyone on the men's side.
Lenderman didn't expect to be tied for the lead with two rounds to go. "Miracles can happen," he said.
Even though the tournament is a round robin this year, the pairings are shaping up more like a Swiss. The two leaders, Lenderman and Akobian, happen to meet in the final round. Before that, Akobian plays Kamsky tomorrow as White.
Another dark horse making himself known is GM Josh Friedel, who is the bottom seed - he qualified by winning the U.S. Open last year. He won today to push his mark to 3.5 out of the last four and 5.5/9 overall. Tied with Kamsky, they play Monday.
U.S. Championship crosstable after round 9
You can find a complete listing of the standings and pairings here.
Tune into live play-by-play every day, resuming Sunday, at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET, 20:00 CET with GMs Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade at Chess.com/TV!