The Leader Emerges with Caruana's Big Day

By GM Cristian Chirila

Alejandro Ramirez

Round four of the 2016 U.S. Championship and the 2016 U.S. Women’s Championship was a luxurious treat we were all waiting to witness. The eagerly expected clash between Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura—numbers 1 and 2 in American chess—was coming right after yesterday’s game between So and Caruana. Fortunately for the viewers around the world, today’s game was very different than the dull and cautious yesterday’s encounter. The players left all their carefulness at the door and went guns blazing as soon as the bell rang. Let’s start digging into these chess minds and see what jewels we can find!

2016 U.S. Chess Championship

Caruana vs. Nakamura 1-0

The victorious stare vs. the stare of disappointment

Caruana dusted his main rival and is now standing 1.5p ahead of him in the standings!

This was the highly anticipated remake of an endless story: one that will entertain chess fans all over the world for decades to come. The pressure was on their shoulders to play a combative game, and they surely delivered! Caruana opened with his pet 1.e4 and our fear to see a Berlin was quickly annihilated when Nakamura responded with the Sicilian. They were going to give us a heated game, and everybody knew it. Nakamura was first to throw the unexpected jab with 7…h5 !?, a common try when the pawn is on e5, but a very rare choice in the Scheveningen construction with the pawn on e6. Let’s have a closer look and see how the game continued.

Shankland vs. So ½ - ½

In almost every round, there is a pair that decides to take a free day and make a quick draw. This was that game of round four. The players blitzed a known line of the QGD in which White does get an edge, but a very minimal one. If Black knows the proper defensive set-up, he will have absolutely no problem defending. Wesley reacted very well to the lesser played 12.Be2 and the players immediately started chopping the pieces off the board. By move 28, only the pawns were left on the board and the players were ready to enjoy their sunny rest day.

Akobian vs. Robson ½ - ½

Akobian receiving some help from his former teammate Aronian?

Akobian seemed to be overly concerned with his opponent’s preparation this tournament. Unfortunately for him, the lines he is playing are not necessarily posing any difficulties and allows his opponents to equalize comfortably out of the opening. This was the case in the game against Xiong, and the script was almost identical against Robson. 10.Bb3?! is an extremely rare occurrence at any level, and to my surprise, was played almost instantly by Akobian. I don’t know if Akobian fired all his seconds before this tournament, but it surely felt that way today. This uninspired decision allowed the young title contender to obtain a significant edge as Black by playing natural moves. The game took a complex turn when Robson decided to allow an interesting tactical melee that started with 17.Rxd6!? and ended in a materially unbalanced position. Robson had the option of repeating the moves after 28.Rg1 but decided to go for the endgame after 28…Qxf3. Objectively, Robson’s decision was correct but due to an aggressive time trouble situation he ended on the worse side of the spectrum. Lucky for him, Akobian did not find the tricky 36.Nd7! and the game ended in a repetition.

Kamsky vs. Onischuk ½ - ½

Kamsky is not himself lately

This picture pretty much sums the whole game. Kamsky has not looked like his usual self this tournament, and today was no different. The opening was unambitious to say the least, and his middlegame play did not emulate the poise it once hold. Onischuk played a very active game and did not allow his opponent to get any hint of initiative. In fact it can easily be stated that it was only Black who played for an edge throughout the game. Despite Black’s slight edge, the game’s balance was never shaken and the players agreed to a draw after an uneventful struggle.

Lenderman vs. Xiong ½ - ½

Lenderman surely looked closely at Akobian vs. Xiong in preparation for his bout against the young American talent as he opted to test him in the same 4.Bf4 Grunfeld. Just like Akobian, he chose a very rare continuation, 9.b3 !? which essentially forces the transition into an endgame with a minimal edge for White. Jeffery was aware of this line and quickly neutralized White’s advantage with the interesting maneuver 12…Bd5 followed by Bxf3. This gave away the bishop pair but obtained a better structure while getting rid of his awkwardly placed White-square bishop. Xiong placed all the pieces on the right squares and struck at the right moment with 20…Nd5! to shatter any hope for an advantage for White. Draw was agreed soon after.

Chandra vs. Shabalov ½ - ½

The last game to finish for the. U.S. Championship field in round four was an extremely interesting battle between the national junior champion and the U.S. open winner. Both these guys have an interesting style and I was quite sure before the round that we will get an exciting battle on the board. My prediction for this game was that Chandra will score his first victory of the tournament, and boy was he close. Chandra came very well-prepared to the game showing an incredible understanding of this specific Caro Cann line. Let’s have a closer look as I believe this game did bring some very interesting middlegame ideas that cannot be overlooked.

2016 U.S. Women’s Championship

Abrahamyan vs. Paikidze ½- ½

Abrahamyan had an incredible miss in round three and I believe that played a part in round four’s game as she did not manage to press enough with the White pieces. Paikidze chose the Pirc Defense, a wise decision, as Abrahamyan was not ready and entered a dull and uninspiring variation. Black quickly equalized but failed to spot the tricky 17.Nd5! which would have given her opponent a strong initiative. Fortunately for her, the game continuation was not as dangerous and the two ladies quickly started the trading process. By move 30, there were only the rooks left on the board, and the two agreed to a draw. A solid and cautious performance for both as neither of them wanted to take any unnecessary risk to try and win this game.

Yu vs. Yip 1-0

Carissa Yip, the youngest player in the competition, was surely making waves with her performance. Unfortunately for her, she faced a motivated Yu in round four who knew what type of position to strive for. A very interesting Anti Grunfeld that transitioned into an English type of structure ensued with both players fighting to get the strategic edge over their opponent. Yip should have went for 19…c4! which would have allowed her to get an unpleasant upper hand. Instead, she went for the quiet 19…Nb6?! White managed to untangle her pieces and make use of her better structure. Yip conceded her White square bishop and it was all downhill from there. 1-0 and the youngest participant tastes defeat for the first time in the U.S. Women’s Championship.

Bykovtsev vs. Krush 0-1

A happy Krush ready to defend her title at all costs

After her incredible escape last round, it was clear that the chess gods were on Irina’s side. Her opponent played a brave Sozin attack but failed to prove her kingside pawn expansion had any venom attached. Irina skillfully outplayed her opponent and soon found herself in a much favorable endgame which she converted with ease. A step back for the young contender from California and a clear statement from the champion that she is very much in the tournament and ready to defend her title at all costs.

Zatonskih vs. Melekhina 1-0

Despite the heartbreak in the previous round, Melekhina chose the aggressive Benko in her game against the top seed. It seemed like a wise decision as she packed a huge time advantage out of the opening. Zatonskih was extremely slow with her decisions, and by the 20th move, I would have fancied Melekhina’s chances. Sadly, she failed to accurately time her break on the queenside. 19…c4 would have been the right moment to strike, after which the position would most probably peter into a draw. Instead she chose a static plan that allowed Zatonskih to place her pieces on the right squares and start a dangerous expansion in the center. Melekhina erred with 26…c4? allowing the knight to redirect towards the c6 square—a fatal misstep in those structures. White accurately punished her opponent’s errors and cruised to victory.

Gorti vs. Foisor 0-1

These two ladies surely came very motivated into this game—ready to revive their tournament and get back into the title contention. Foisor equalized fairly easy from the opening but failed to understand a small detail in the position and wrongly took with 16…exd5?! Luckily the young Gorti did not manage to find the right plan as she started shuffling her pieces without much substance. The correct plan to try for an edge should would have involved the opening of the “c” file after 19.0-0, Rc1,c4. Her plan quickly backfired when she missed the intermediary 24…Kf8! After that, it was all Black due to his majority on the queenside, and Foisor patiently converted her advantage. A crucial win for Sabina and hopefully an important confidence boost heading into the next rounds.

Eswaran vs. Nemcova ½ - ½

Nemcova is really struggling with her form. Last year’s third place has been unrecognizable in the first three rounds of this year’s championship, and today was no different. As in the previous round, Nemcova skillfully outplayed her younger opponent in the middlegame but failed to deliver the final blow. Surprisingly, it wasn’t in time trouble when Nemcova erred but immediately after first time control. 41...Rd8! would have given her a winning advantage! Instead she allowed her opponent enough time to create counterplay, and her advantage slowly dissolved in just a few moves.