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Upset, Game Of Tournament In U.S. Champs R7

Upset, Game Of Tournament In U.S. Champs R7

In January, GM Babu Lalith beat a reigning world champion in five moves when GM Hou Yifan played a protest game in Gibraltar. Surely that's a record for brevity, right?

Well, today at the 2017 U.S. championship, GM Alex Shabalov only needed four moves to beat a different reigning world champion! GM Jeffery Xiong, last year's winner at the World Junior Championship, went down in flames.

There's a bit of an asterisk of course.

Technically the game lasted 26 moves, but the first 22 took negative time for Shabalov. At one point, the clock differential was four minutes to one hour, 27 minutes. By Shabalov's own admission, he really only played four moves today, and by that point, he was completely winning.

"I'm happy of course but frankly I didn't play today," he said.

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Might as well go for a walk: GM Alex Shabalov had nearly all of his time remaining even at move 22, while his opponent was down to less than five minutes.

Still, the knowledge of the lines made the demonstration impressive, and it's one of the few times that a last-place player bumps down coverage of the 2800s. GM Ben Finegold called the game the "brilliancy prize of the tournament."

The rout was a Mike Tyson first-round uppercut compared to the Buster Douglas imitation put on by GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, who defied the odds in beating GM Fabiano Caruana.

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The above analogy isn't perfect. First, Buster Douglas was 42-1 to beat Mike Tyson in Japan (about 2.5 percent). According to the ratings, GM Yaroslav Zherebukh had about a nine percent chance to win (and 30 percent to draw). Also, unlike Douglas, Zherebukh was never close to being knocked down and counted out.

Back to Shabalov-Xiong first. Curiously, the youngest player, Xiong, has now lost to the two oldest players, both times as White (he lost to GM Gata Kamsky in round five).

So what went wrong for the promising American junior? Two things, one macro and one micro. First, he entered a game stylistically suited to his opponent, and didn't sense he was entering preparation. Second, he just didn't see Black's amazing rejoinder to his 21st move.

At home, neither did Shabalov, without some help. He recalled that the machine insisted taking with the bishop was better on move 20, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out why. After all, his rook on a8 was hanging.

"The computer showed this," Shabalov said, pointing to the b6-square. "And I was like, 'Whoa!'"

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Despite being 33 years older, GM Alex Shabalov (49) explained to Chess.com that he uses computers much more in preparation than GM Jeffery Xiong (16). Today, it showed.

That helps explain things to on-site commentator GM Eric Hansen, who said, "Shabalov spent only one minute on Qb6! He sees everything. When you have this position after move 20 against the world junior champion, you've got to be pretty excited."

With a rook en prise the only winning move is a short retreat? Yeah, that's the cold-blooded computer for you:

We've now analyzed the micro, but what about the macro? Could Xiong have gotten a quieter game?

"I didn't know it was so sharp," Xiong said of the line. 

"It's not sharp at all if you play 6. Bd3!" Shabalov replied.

If that was part "1a" to the news, then just barely "1b" would be current U.S. champion GM Fabiano Caruana getting pummeled by the tournament's only rookie, GM Yaroslav Zherebukh.

Is the description of his game too harsh? Not according to one pundit:

Caruana's pieces became so impotent that Zherebukh's rooks had time to make Tetris moves all over the kingside.

"I've never seen such helplessness on the part of an opponent like this," GM Yasser Seirawan said. "You don't do this to a 2800 player unless you're a 2700 player yourself."

Zherebukh is "just" 2619, although not after this tournament. GM Hikaru Nakamura said that he thought Zherebukh was certainly underrated.

"I really didn't like my position out of the opening," Caruana said. "I'm not really sure where it went wrong."

Zherebukh thought Caruana should have traded dark-squared bishops. Caruana didn't like his position after instead retreating, but he also showed myriad lines with sacrifices that all led to defeat if he had invited the enemy queen to h6.

Once he got in a better position, Zherebukh didn't take his foot off Caruana's neck.

"I didn't give him any single chance," Zherebukh said. "If I don't see a forced win that finishes the game immediately, I'm not going to go for it."

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Zherebukh, who had never played a 2800 before matching with GM Wesley So earlier in the event, admitted to Chess.com that his opponent's stature in the chess world "possibly" affected his play. He said that it was only once the bind was formed that he lost track of who he was playing but still knew he couldn't lose focus.

"The chance to beat a 2800 comes once in a lifetime," he said to Chess.com.

The tournament's lone wildcard is currently tied for the lead with So, a position the underdog called "beautiful." But his path to even get to St. Louis wasn't the one he imagined. In 2016, he was around 2640 FIDE and may have been able to "sit" on his rating to qualify. He told Chess.com that's when he began making scheduling blunders.

"I was trying to play some weak tournaments," Zherebukh said, explaining that he lost too many points to become an automatic rating qualifier. "I was really upset I didn't play in 2016...It's just the wrong strategy, playing [...] some weak opens."

After Zherebukh's heroics today, despite his best efforts, So couldn't stay in the sole lead.

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Once Olympiad and college teammates, GM Ray Robson's Webster Windmills were beaten by GM Wesley So's St. Louis Arch Bishops in the PRO Chess League. Robson didn't let history repeat today.

"I understand that it's impossible to play for a win at the get-go with either color," So said. "When he took on d4 it was a mistake because I have this very good counterplay."

So said two wins just barely eluded him -- one over the board, and the second from Robson's clock getting down to "two or three seconds" several times. Of course, as his former college roommate, he may know better than anyone how Robson likes to flirt with overstepping the time limit.

After wins came in bunches in 2016, So said they are much harder to come by this time. "Things have been very strange this year for Hikaru, Fabiano, and me," he said.

GM Hikaru Nakamura didn't mind having a devil-may-care approach to today's game against GM Sam Shankland, but outside of trying fruitlessly to get his knight to c5, the balance never tilted much either way.

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GM Sam Shankland. Was he playing Nakamura, or Karjakin?

"The first problem is that Sam, I think, prepared this [for] Magnus [Carlsen] for the match against Sergey Karjakin," Nakamura said. "I kind of had some idea that Sam had prepared some Slavs for that match...I really didn't get anything special.

"Frankly at this point in the tournament I didn't care if I was in danger because I had to try to get on the scoreboard, or so I thought."

Nakamura almost seemed to relish his match with top-seeded So tomorrow, since he wouldn't be forced to take the same risks as against the lower-half players.

The top three players, and six of the top eight, have now lost rating points through seven games.

In other action, GM Varuzhan Akobian drew fellow tournament veteran GM Alex Onischuk, while GM Gata Kamsky outplayed GM Daniel Naroditsky with his classic positional chess.

In the U.S. women's championship, they didn't have nearly the excitement of the previous day. Instead of six wins, they were reduced to two, and none by the pre-round leaders.

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The top board was "Blonde on Blonde." Fittingly it was a Rainy Day for the Women outside in St. Louis.

GM Irina Krush and IM Anna Zatonskih, they of 11 combined titles, drew. WIM Jennifer Yu, who beat both of them, could only draw despite being up two pawns in the endgame against WGM Sabina Foisor. That miracle escape keeps Foisor only a half-point off the pace in the hunt for her first title.

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WGM Sabina Foisor very nearly became WIM Jennifer Yu's third major upset, but a repetition saved her and kept alive the hope for her first championship.

IM Nazi Paikidze kept her slim tournament lead by virtue of drawing WGM Anna Sharevich, but now there is one more woman tied with Foisor for second. NM Maggie Feng outplayed fellow teenager WIM Emily Nguyen

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Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.

You can catch the full broadcast of the next round at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern at either Chess.com/TV or at the official site, uschesschamps.com.

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