Rapport On Full Throttle At Champions Showdown Day 1
Richard Rapport off to a great start in Saint Louis. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

Rapport On Full Throttle At Champions Showdown Day 1

| 23 | Chess Event Coverage

U.S. champion Sam Shankland couldn’t get much from his home advantage against Richard Rapport in an intense opening day of the 2019 Champions Showdown in St. Louis. The 22-year-old Hungarian superstar had it all too easy in the first four rounds of the rapid match and could have been on full score hadn’t Sam held a pulse-pounding rook endgame on round four.

Fabiano Caruana redeemed team America as he outplayed India’s Pentala Harikrishna and brought home three convincing wins.

The Champions Showdown in St. Louis, Feb. 20-24. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

The Champions Showdown pits five U.S. grandmasters against five international elite players in a rapid and blitz match-up, for a 36-round marathon over five days. Among the challengers are former world champion Veselin Topalov and the World Blitz runner up Jan-Krzysztof Duda. The venue is, of course, the Saint Louis Chess Club, which hosted the Cairns Cup only a week ago.


A great start of the season for Fabiano Caruana. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

Fabi’s leaked world championship notes may have been on everyone’s mind (and databases!) during his match with Magnus Carlsen. Nonetheless, his opening preparation is sounder than ever and had Harikrishna on ropes for most of the four games. A positional knight sacrifice on the last round of the day paralyzed the Indian GM, who couldn’t keep up with the kingside pawn advance and slipped into a hopeless ending.

Quite satisfied with his 2019 debut, Caruana commented on choosing Harikrishna as his opponent for the matchup: “I think we’ve only played a handful of classical games over the years. I just wanted to play somebody I hadn’t played much and I think would be a tough challenge.”


Leinier Dominguez just joined the U.S. dream team. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

Another beneficiary of Fabiano’s world championship match preparation was Leinier Dominguez. The Cuban born super-grandmaster was part of his team and admitted getting a great deal of knowledge from the match. His first tournament in stars and stripes, however, got off to a bumpy start against Veselin Topalov. The Bulgarian veteran had comfortable play but missed a few opportunities to consolidate the lead of the match.

“Mentally, I am retired”, commented Topalov. “I obviously studied my opponent, but I don’t think I have done any big preparation.” His statement follows the news of another former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, leaving professional chess a few weeks ago.


A day to forget for the American champion. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

As one of the most original players on the top chess circuit, Richard Rapport had convincing pressure as White and didn’t have to struggle to see his initiative through in games one and three. In an effort to even the odds, Sam Shankland had to force his hand and spoiled a complicated rook endgame, piling up to an unpleasing streak of losses.

The American champion avoided a white wash, not without an effort, as he managed to defend with precision another rook ending, this time with two extra pawns for the Hungarian.


A Ruy Lopez themed match underway. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

An interesting Ruy Lopez theoretical battle between Wesley So and David Navara started what is set to be a balanced and dynamic match-up. So’s central pawn advance in the Open Variation backfired in game one, allowing David Navara to seize the full point with a crushing miniature.

So’s quick comeback showed his endgame wit, which he reiterated in his next White game. His kingside attack punished the weaknesses left behind by an early pawn avalanche and got him into a superior opposite-colored bishop ending and on plus-one in the match.


Are Jan-Krzysztof and Hikaru saving their energies for the blitz showdown? | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club.

The youngest player of the tournament, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, wasn’t at all afraid to face blitz and rapid sensation Hikaru Nakamura. Hikaru caught him offguard with an unexpected Four Knights and took advantage of a few inaccuracies in the time scramble.

The Polish Olympic sensation got right back at him:

In an interview with Maurice Ashley, Duda cherished the opportunity to play in the top circuit: “Almost every top player plays in St. Louis, even Garry Kasparov himself, so it’s nice to be here," he said.

Here are the standings after round four (two points for each win, one point for each draw):

Graphics: Saint Louis Chess Club.
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