'Virus In The Air' Creates Chaotic Finishes At U.S. Champs

'Virus In The Air' Creates Chaotic Finishes At U.S. Champs

| 19 | Chess Event Coverage

How to describe a day in which three men sacrificed pawns in the opening, while three women blew easily-winning games? After five hours at the 2016 U.S. Championships where the unpredictable became the expected, commentator GM Yasser Seirawan put it this way: "There's a virus in the air!"

If there was germ warfare it spread quickly.

For every woman who joyously saved a lost position, there was also one who needed the antibiotics. Such is the nature of our zero-sum game. But the win/loss/draw dynamic wasn't the story, it was the shocking inability by these elite players to properly punctuate the ending to well-played games.

If the twin tournaments are slinkies, today the fields contracted -- there are now two trios at 2.5/3 in each event.

The entropy began just before the first time control. FM Alisa Melekhina had completely outplayed defending champion GM Irina Krush, but two moves before the extra time, she erred badly. The miracle escape for the field's lone grandmaster helped her avoid the same exact slow start as last year (in 2015 Krush began draw, win, loss; this year is draw, win, draw).

Although Krush had 90 seconds plus increment for 18 moves, she crawled her pieces into a ball and waited for Melekhina to use her time to find the finishing move. The underdog didn't play the cleanest method, but still found an important exchange sacrifice to preserve the "easy" win.

In the all-magenta matchup, the color is supposed to signify "universal harmony and emotional balance." Not sure if color psychology can be trusted in chess!

At least, it was easy from the sidelines. On her 39th, two moves before she could take a breather, Melekhina went for a quick, forcing win. She failed to see Krush's countersac, which created an immediate draw.

"This is one of the biggest escapes I've ever made," Krush told "The position was pretty much resignable, and to climb out of that!"

She became an alpinist on this day:

Games via TWIC.

"Rxd6 came as a complete shock to me," Melekhina said. She bravely attended the post-game broadcast interview, and managed to seem more buoyant than the interviewers and their delicate questioning. "At that point I did a quick pawn count and realized that everything I worked for is over. You always need those extra few minutes to think things through." Those were minutes she didn't have.

Melekhina appeared more sanguine that any of her peers likely would have been. She added, "If I can play like this for the rest of the tournament I'll be very happy."

Full credit to Melekhina: She came downstairs afterward, answered questions, and remained positive. After years of covering this event, not too many players suffering a similar setback have done the same.

"You have positions where you're down a pawn, it's technical, and you manage to save it," Krush said. "But this was just...I'm not usually down that much material. Everything was good except the move f6. How can my rooks fight against the two pawns? There was one little trick that I saw."

On the opening, which began as a Pirc, then transformed into a hybrid Closed Sicilian/Grand Prix (Melekhina in the confessional booth: "I'm kind of winging it"), Krush said she wasn't surprised at the alternations but "I don't think I'll be repeating my opening play any time soon. I always had problems to solve, especially with my king."

When told of the stat that she nearly mirrored her first three results from last year, she told, "You know Mike, I had a feeling when I was starting to lose, didn't I lose in round three last year?" Yes she did, to IM Nazi Paikidze, but then Krush mounted a comeback to defend her title.

Krush might have also been calculating that she'd go into Sunday 1.5 points back from the leader. Instead, the constellation of good fortune continued when WGM Tatev Abrahamyan also inexplicably couldn't convert. She was "only" +3 or so (Melekhina's peak computer evaluation was closer to +5) but she still smarted afterward.

"I was just better the whole game," Abrahamyan said after her bout with co-leader NM Carissa Yip. "Even the French bishop [got active]! What more can you ask for?! It's very bad to just lose a half-point." Abrahamyan thus couldn't shake Yip, as they both remain on the lead at 2.5 and only 0.5 clear of Krush.

WGM Tatev Abrahamyan's Fitbit was more needed by her second. GM Josh Friedel was likely pacing all afternoon.

Yip admitted that she was out of her preparation very early. She'd never seen 3...h6. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do."

She had a chance early on to give the perennially weak e-pawn for dynamic play. Even though she said she's an attacker by nature (in the past the Bostonian studied with GM Larry Christiansen), Yip clung to the pawn but was miserable until a strange strangulation of Black's two bishops that proved to be the necessary antidote.

Yip's opening-round win made her the youngest-ever to win a game at the U.S. Women's Championship. At 12, she's a year older than Krush during her first appearance in 1995, but Krush registered only five draws that year.

NM Carissa Yip had beaten a pair of juniors, and today she was recalcitrant toward her elders!

Although it's extremely premature, we will note here that Krush's title in 1998 as a 14 year old would be eclipsed by Yip by two years. caught up with the youngest-ever female master, and we asked her if she thinks her opponents might be preparing for her by watching her videos. Here's a video interview:

The madness wasn't yet over. While neither Abrahamyan's lone passed pawn nor Melekhina's twin passers could bring home the full point, in another game, even an extra rook didn't guarantee success.

WFM Jennifer Yu said after getting lost in the variations that she "complicated things unnecessarily...I didn't realize she had counterplay." WIM Agata Bykovtsev's three passers were spread wide, and usually a rook can handle that, but Black's active king gave White fits.

In deference to Yu, although she didn't have to enter this endgame, the win was fairly opaque especially in mutual time pressure. The on-site commentary team decided to play it out for posterity, and GM Ben Finegold also struggled to win it versus GM Alejandro Ramirez.

"We were both tired," Bykovtsev said. On her early decision to give a piece for fragments of counterplay, she said whimsically, "I had accepted a loss already."

WIM Agata Bykovtsev has passed calculus-based physics courses and apparently plays on in lost positions out of inertia. It's a good thing too!

About the only woman immune from the pox of blundering was the most consistent woman of the last two championships, IM Nazi Paikidze. She rolled over WIM Ashritha Eswaran without any hassle, and in doing so joined Abrahamyan and Yip atop the tables at 2.5/3.

The game was close to level until Eswaran mistakenly began putting pawns on the same color as her bishop.

"When I saw her games, I noticed that she's a good tactical player," Paikidze told "But she had more problem playing simple positions. That's why I chose this opening. I was hoping to get exactly what I got."

This scouting report held true as Eswaran only needed a few moves to spoil a decent game. "I think she fell apart," Paikidze said. "She really helped me advance."

IM Nazi Paikidze's limited schedule means she hasn't lost a rated game in several years!

"This last year I've been doing a lot of different things," Paikidze said. "I play one tournament per year." If she has her way, she'll double that later this summer. She's never played in an Olympiad, even for her native Georgia, but she said she will eagerly accept an invite to the American squad this year if one comes her way.

WGM Katerina Nemcova can't seem to get going this year. She now has only two draws from three games after also spoiling a good position against WIM Akshita Gorti, who hadn't scored yet before today's upset win.

IM Anna Zatonskih drew her third consecutive game, this time to WGM Sabina Foisor.

For all the mess on the women's side of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, early on it was the men who tried to thrill the modest crowd. Three of them played pawn sacrifices in the opening -- GMs Alex Onischuk, Ray Robson, and Wesley So.

Onischuk had the best result, while the other two were relegated to worse endings that they held.

GM Alex Onischuk, the Head Chess Coach and Program Director at Texas Tech, said he didn't prepare much for this event, but that hasn't stopped him from playing some frisky games.

"Today I had to play creatively," Onischuk said of his mindset to combat yesterday's 24-move loss. In fact, he could have won brilliantly on today's 24th move, but his choice was good enough.

So's gambit initially looked good but in the day's longest game he wasn't able to convert the full point after co-leader GM Fabiano Caruana gave it back and even pressed the ending. They mutually maintain the lead at 2.5/3 (along with Robson). There are thus no more perfect scores in St. Louis on either end of the hall.

Analysis by GM Dejan Bojkov:

Early on, So-Caruana surely looked like the game of the day. It garnered the early attention until the ladies stole the show.

Robson's attempt to get to 3-0 fizzled despite an extremely rare attempt to get to unchartered territory early. The move 4...g6 is a near-novelty and along with GM Jeffery Xiong both spent about an hour on the first 10 moves as a result.

It fell flat quickly, and Robson was down the gambitted pawn for quite some time.

Before the game GM Jeffery Xiong showed the light side of the Force...

...but after the first move he turned toward to Dark Side.

"He definitely had me on the ropes from the opening," Robson said about the resident Sith Lord of chess. Robson felt lucky to get to bail out in a drawn piece-down ending.

With the possibility of an all-20-something U.S. Olympiad team, and teenagers like Xiong improving rapidly, Robson said, "I'm excited for the future of American chess."

The split-point was Xiong's third-straight draw against higher-rated players to open his U.S. Championship career. "I am a little disappointed," he said. "It's not easy getting any winning positions in this tournament."

He didn't produce the biggest surprise of the day, at least not purely in terms of result. IM Akshat Chandra didn't cave to defending champion GM Hikaru Nakamura. The game never waivered from stasis, and after Chandra's draw offer on the time control was declined, Nakamura offered one in return a few moves later.

Only once did Chandra have a mini-panic.

Chandra said he didn't lament being paired as Black against Nakamura. He said he only feared getting Black against the lot -- Nakamura, Caruana, So, and Kamsky. "If I had Blacks against all of them, I think I might just go back home," he told

2015 U.S. Junior Champion IM Akshat Chandra, wearing the shirt that got him the invite.

GM Sam Shankland only played three decisive games at the 2015 U.S. Championship (to So's 10!) but the Californian already has that many in three days this year. Today he outplayed GM Varuzhan Akobian from an equal middlegame.

GM Sam Shankland, eyeing one of the final two spots on the U.S. Olympiad team, will need a solid rating performance, or an outright win, to boost his chances.

In the only other game, GM Alex Shabalov's double-fianchetto opening drew GM Gata Kamsky.

Here's the pairings for round four and current standings. Graphics courtesy 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, with the lone rest day coming April 19.
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