Favorites Flounder, Leaders Come Up Winless in U.S. Championships R3

GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Irina Krush combined for just a half-point across three games in Friday's third round of the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships. // Lennart Ootes Photo

By FM Kostya Kavutskiy

Round 3 of the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship will go down as one of the most volatile rounds in U.S. Championship history. Two of the world’s top-10 players, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, as well as six-time reigning U.S. Women’s Champion Irina Krush, combined for just a half-point across three games. Despite slightly out-preparing 14-year-old GM Sam Sevian in a sharp variation of the Semi-Slav defense, GM Wesley So slipped in a fascinatingly complex middlegame, completely reversing the evaluation of the position. Sevian, the youngest GM in American history, grabbed his chance and never looked back, forcing the World No. 5 to resign on the 41st move.

On his loss So lamented his choice of opening, claiming, “It was a mistake, going for such a dangerous line without knowing all of the subtleties.”

Sevian turned the tables after playing the critical 29…Qxg5, trading into an endgame where his minor pieces were dominant. He confidently declined a draw offer a few moves later, and soon after wrapped up the victory.

GM Wesley So vs. GM Sam Sevian Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

GM Wesley So // Austin Fuller Photo

The other leader entering the day, GM Hikaru Nakamura, also faltered. After gaining an advantage from the opening and growing it to decisive proportions against GM Gata Kamsky, an uncharacteristic last-minute blunder from Nakamura allowed Kamsky to equalize with the beautiful shot 55.Nf7! and save the game. This was a huge opportunity blown by Nakamura, as he could have been the only player in the field with a perfect 3-0 score and theoretical chances to win the 11-0 $64,000 Fischer Bonus -- but will now have to settle for 2.5/3.

After the game, Kamsky remained candid about his own performance, saying “I was just outplayed, [Nakamura] had a completely winning position, in the last 20 moves I was just shuffling my pieces around, waiting like ‘When is he going to finish me off?’”

GM Gata Kamsky vs. GM Hikaru Nakamura Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

Joining Nakamura in the lead with 2.5/3 is Webster University’s GM Ray Robson, who was able to better navigate the complications in the sharp Russian Variation (5.Qb3) of the Grunfeld Defense against GM Conrad Holt. Ray has never started off a U.S. Championship so well and looks to be a serious contender for the title as the event goes on.

GM Timur Gareev threw spectators and commentators for a loop as he trotted out 1.d4 d6 2.Nf3 h6?! against GM Varuzhan Akobian, following up with 3…g5. Yet despite his eccentric opening, Gareev did not land in too much trouble and was able to generate enough counterplay to hold the balance and draw the game. Afterwards, Gareev defended his choice of opening, suggesting that as long as an offbeat variation hasn’t been outright refuted, it can be playable under certain circumstances.

The final two U.S. Championship games of the day saw two more complex Grunfelds. GM Alexander Onischuk found a nice trick against GM Kayden Troff to secure a large advantage in the early middlegame, much thanks to his far advanced d7-pawn. But Kayden defended with tenacity, and although Onischuk had several winning opportunities he was never able to fully put Troff away. GM Daniel Naroditsky and GM Sam Shankland drew relatively quickly, but not due to a lack of fighting spirit: An intense middlegame simply led to a forced perpetual, and the two players had to call it an early day.

Round 3 of the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championship no less hectic, with the biggest result being IM Nazí Paikidze’s upset over GM Irina Krush -- the first game the three-peating reigning champion has lost in the U.S. Women’s Championship since 2011.

Paikidze seized the initiative after finding the powerful sacrifice 20.Nxe5! and never looked back, winning a nicely played game against Krush. Paikidze’s victory effectively throws a wrench into the tournament standings, as Krush is now only at 1.5/3 and is no longer a runaway favorite to win the tournament.

IM Nazi Paikidze vs. GM Irina Krush Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

IM Nazi Paikidze // Kevin Duggin Photo

With Krush stalled, WGM Katerina Nemcova and IM Rusudan Goletiani jumped into the lead, both winning Friday to reach 2.5/3. Goletiani took advantage of WIM Viktoria Ni in the opening, winning a pawn with Black and landing a positionally dominant knight onto the d3-square. Nemcova had a more difficult route to victory, her game staying balanced until WIM Annie Wang misplayed in the endgame and allowed Nemcova’s rooks to double on the 7th rank.

WGM Katerina Nemcova vs. WIM Annie Wang Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

WGM Katerina Nemcova // Kevin Duggin Photo

Bouncing back from a nightmare 0-2 start was WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who reached a double-edged Open Sicilian against WCM Apurva Virkud, and won in nice attacking style. In another decisive game, WGM Sabina Foisor emerged from the opening with a structural advantage against WGM Anna Sharevich, building on her advantage in the middlegame and converting the win, to rebound back to an even score.

Round 4 continues tomorrow at 1PM with the marquee match-up Nakamura vs. So, a game that will be critical for the tournament standings and surely fuel the rivalry between America’s two best players. Make sure to tune into www.uschesschamps.com/live to follow all of the action.