Leaders Spoil Turns With White, Nakamura Takes Advantage

Leaders Spoil Turns With White, Nakamura Takes Advantage

| 29 | Chess Event Coverage

Before the ink dried on the headers to the notation sheets, round eight produced a multitude of interesting openings at the 2016 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship. Spectator heads swiveled more than at a tennis match -- nearly all of the dozen contests got off to a lively start.

"I don't think there's one boring opening in the tournament," GM Maurice Ashley said.

To wit:

  • GM Varuzhan Akobian advanced his g-pawn to g5 by move seven.
  • In response, GM Gata Kamsky played a rare continuation once tried by WGM Katerina Nemcova, when she was 16.
  • GM Ray Robson moved his black queen five times, only to see her back on d8.
  • Both GM Alex Shabalov and GM Irina Krush played the same Dragodorf pawn formation with a Kan (Kragodorf? Drakandorf?) setup.
  • GM Sam Shankland played the Trompowsky, only its third iteration a the championship since 2007.
  • FM Akshita Gorti's king was on f6 and the opponent's queen on h8 by move 12.
  • FM Alisa Melekhina's black pawn reached h4 by move 9.

All this and we didn't even mention the obscurities in the crucial GM Fabiano Caruana-GM Ray Robson clash, most notably that the notoriously languid Robson was ahead one hour on the clock against the 2800.

When the smoke cleared, GM Hikaru Nakamura defeated the "Kragodorf" and closed to within a half-point of the lead, the closest he's been since round two. On the women's side, a traffic jam occurred when IM Nazi Paikidze spoiled a better position and only drew, growing the lead pack to three ladies.

GM Hikaru Nakamura, sporting his "tournament beard," played GM Alex Shabalov. Both men have four lifetime titles.

Although it ended in a draw, we start with Caruana-Robson, the most vital game for first-position placement. Robson told yesterday that the top players will punish him for poor time management. Today that wasn't remotely an issue. Thanks to the increment of 30 seconds/move, Robson used negative time for the first 18 moves and didn't pause for anything other than writing down his move until his 25th turn.

"I wanted to avoid the positions where he's good at," Robson said of his methodology. "In a lot of the main lines he gets a bind. [Today] was not the typical type of position where he squeezes me."

Indeed, none of Robson's pieces were hamstrung late in the game, creating positions with nearly double-digit candidate moves.

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila, courtesy the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Caruana's 20. Qf4 became the novelty, but he admitted that did not remember all of his homework. He said afterward that the response, 20...Qc4, he originally thought was a "big mistake" and he hadn't expected it. 

"It's risky for Black but then again he might be fine," Caruana said. "It's such a complicated position and general considerations don't really count for much."

One variation offered was 22. Rb1 but Caruana found 22...Bc8! 23. Rb8 Kd7 to be annoyingly stable for Black. He did take pleasure in showing off one funny checkmate: 25. Kh1 Qxd4?? 26. Re8+! Kxe8 27. Qxc8#.

"He went for complications,which he probably analyzed and I shouldn't have gone for," Caruana told "At some point I was getting worried that I would lose this game...After 25. Qa7 I missed 25...Bd6 because I missed [after ...Rxg2+ Kxg2] Bh3." Robson said he also missed the idea, although it's still only a draw!

The idea of sacking twice to keep the initiative resembles a main stratagem in bughouse, which Caruana's been dabbling in with his free time lately. "If it was bughouse I think I would have done very well," he told, but allowed that the variant probably doesn't help improve your chess. 

GMs Fabiano Caruana and Ray Robson, perhaps discussing how they both missed the idea of sacking on g2 and then again with ...Bh3+ (although that's still a draw too!).

"Even though I prepped so deeply and he followed it, I kept finding lines where I'm in trouble," Robson said. He added that he didn't even know which side of the board a perpetual would occur on, let alone who wanted one, throwing the position into extreme opacity.

Many more of those convoluted lines were on display when asked Robson for his thoughts on the game. Here's the video interview:

One board away, Nakamura took full advantage of the small opening to get back into the tournament. He won against Shabalov, further cutting into the leaders' margin. Once back as many as 1.5 points, now the gap is as skinny as it comes.

To Shabalov's credit, the veteran refuses to play for simple equality as Black. In a game full of sacs and countersacs, Black couldn't quite mate White with his minor pieces.

Analysis by GM Cristian Chirila, courtesy the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

"It's quite nice to be this close," Nakamura told "I don't feel that I should be. It seems that Ray [Robson] just prepared a line, and he got lucky, Fabiano [Caruana] just walked into his complete preparation."

"That being said, Fabiano still has to play the weak link, so I hope I still have a shot." Nakamura's reference was to Caruana's final-round Black against the field's lone international master, Akshat Chandra. "I'm pretty confident that Fabiano's going to win at least one more game...I was certainly expecting to be on +5 now, not +3. Now it makes my decision (in round three) a little unfortunate or dubious to go crazy against Fabiano."

Now, Nakamura has to double-down because of his earlier profligacy: "If I'm going to win this tournament, I'm going to have to take big risks."

Nakamura's "perfect storm" of results became complete when GM Wesley So couldn't break through as White against GM Alex Onischuk.

Unlike some other rounds this tournament (that will surely be in consideration for the best-game prize), GM Wesley So had a quieter draw today.

Akobian-Kamsky had all the makings of a slugfest between old friends, but ended up more like two declawed kittens rolling around. 9. g4 was particularly flamboyant, as was the deft response 9...a6, seemingly ignoring White!

Black's goal is to play ...c5 and answer d5 with a Benko-type move ...b5. The move ...a6 had been played about 20 times before, once by another player present in St. Louis. No, not a man, but rather WGM Katerina Nemcova in 2007.

The resulting pawn tension didn't open nearly as many files as seemed possible, and the locked-up position caused an eventual handshake.

GM Jeffery Xiong took Black and drew the struggling GM Sam Shankland. Xiong is still without a loss, but the longest active championship streak without a defeat is owned by Ray Robson at 14 games. Xiong's only playing in his first-ever championship, so he can't really compete with that!

"Memoirs of an Invisible Grandmaster" starring Jeffery Xiong.

In the last game of the day, GM Alex Lenderman won a knight-and-pawn ending against Chandra. The victory mercifully ends Akobian's stat that he noticed during the rest day: None of the three men who played in the 2014 playoff had won a game. Collectively it took the trio 24 chances to notch a "W" this year.

The cream is rising to the top. This quartet is very likely to be 80 percent of the U.S. National Team at the Olympiad. (All graphics courtesy Spectrum Studios.)

The likely ladies team has also risen to the coveted top positions, though most could not be happy with the day's play. IM Nazi Paikidze could have remained in solo first, but overlooked a salvo that cost her a half-point. IM Tatev Abrahamyan played "one of the worst games of her life," yet drew, to GM Irina Krush, who has been used to winning such positions in St. Louis.

WGM Tatev Abrahamyan (left) nervously paces next to her workout buddy, IM Nazi Paikidze.

About the only woman who could be happy was IM Anna Zatonskih. She won her third game in a row for her first share of first since the opening ceremony.

IM Anna Zatonskih's return to the U.S. Women's Championship carries with it the same solid style as the last time we saw her.

"Every tournament you need some kind of luck," Abrahamyan told "Today I could have easily lost, and there's no way I could catch Irina because I've played her, I couldn't catch Nazi because I've played her.

"Today I just knew my position was lost but I was thinking, in tournaments these are the opponents I look forward to. GMs and 2500s. But somehow I always play my worst against her. Probably it's psychological because she's the highest rated. I'm not thinking about playing someone this level, I'm thinking about the highest rated."

Most players demur when asked what they would do with first-place winnings. Not Abrahamyan. If she wins the record prize of $25,000 she'd get Beats By Dre headphones. Pink, to match her phone.

GM Irina Krush has played uncharacteristically below her abilities the last two games, but still only trails the leaders by a half-point.

Zatonskih, the oldest woman in the field, has been handling the youngsters over the board all week. And why not? She brought two of her own with her. Her pair of young children and husband are both here in St. Louis for the first time during her title quest.

"Speaking honestly, it would be better to play without kids (present)," she told "I have no choice. With the little one I still breast feed. He's so little." She said that since she had to take her youngest, then bringing the whole family was a zugzwang.

"Sometimes I'm preparing in the lobby because everyone is asking questions. 'Momma do this, momma do that.' Sometimes the little one is waking me up five or six times. I got used to it. Everyone is doing this. I'm not unique. Everyone that's working [does this]. Chess is my work."

She said tactics were the first thing she had to work on. "Even to play rapid chess would be great to play before the tournament," she said, adding that she doesn't have time for online chess.

Zatonskih said that despite the demands of motherhood, she intends to play in the Olympiad. ("I will do everything possible to play. I really want to play. I have no idea how to do it!") She's looking forward to teaming with Paikidze for the first time.

"I heard about her when she was playing in the Russian Championship, she was beating everyone," Zatonskih said. "Kosteniuk, Kosintseva. I remember when she was like 16 or 18 she was so talented."

Paikidze didn't beat herself up after failing to win an advantageous position a few days ago, but today she surely was counting down until Black's resignation when tragedy struck for her (euphoria for Nemcova of course!).

Analysis by GM Robert Hess:

Nemcova spotted the move ...Rxc6 just one move before she played it. "It wasn't that easy for White either," she said. When asked if she felt fortunate with the escape, she reminded that she was ahead a pawn in the opening, which she was pretty happy with.

On winning the event, Nemcova admitted that it is "out of my hands" (she rests in fourth but at 1.5 points back that's akin to a mile).

"It sucks but I have to forget about it and move on," Paikidze said of the day's game. On the three-way tie with the seven-time champion close behind: "Coming to this tournament I expected it to be a similar situation."

Ashley wanted to know if she considered the "Petrosian" idea of walking her king to a2 before breaking open the kingside. Paikidze's opinion was that it "wasn't necessary."

In the other contests, the younger girls did well. FM Akshita Gorti beat WIM Agata Bykovtsev, WFM Jennifer Yu sent the luckless FM Alisa Melekhina to her fifth straight loss, but NM Carissa Yip's late mistake was punished summarily by WGM Sabina Foisor.

NM Carissa Yip has faltered down the stretch, but she was the talk of the ladies event in the first three days.

One final (very important!) note. The details have been released by the host club about the special event with GM Garry Kasparov following the championships, to be held April 28 and 29.

GM Varuzhan Akobian reads the details before the round, which are...

  • The top three finishers in the U.S. Championship will compete against Kasparov, for a total of four players.
  • There will be three round-robins per day, for a total of 18 games per player over two days.
  • There will be short breaks between games (1-2 minutes) and longer breaks between round robins (10-15 minutes).
  • The time control will be G/5 with a three-second delay (no increment).
  • The total prize fund of $50,000 will be awarded as follows: $20,000 for first; $15,000 for second; $10,000 for third; $5,000 for fourth. Kasparov has agreed to donate his winnings to help fund the U.S. Olympiad Team.

Here are the pairings for round nine and the standings, with graphics courtesy of 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.

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