Wesley Catches Fabiano; Nazi and Tatev Continue Their Title Run

By GM Cristian Chirila

Round 7Round seven of the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship was arguably the most exciting one up to this point. As we approach the final days, the tension is rising and each individual’s nerves are starting to play a crucial role. Our pick for the most important game of the day was Jeffery Xiong’s first big test as he was facing the world #2 Fabiano Caruana. Wesley So was also following closely in the standings and had the Black pieces against the ultra-aggressive Alexander Shabalov.

In the Women’s Championship, the leaders—Paikidze, Krush and Abrahamyan—were all facing players that were having a critical tournament situation. Let’s analyze the games and understand how the players fared in this nerve-wracking round!

2016 U.S. Championship

Xiong vs. Caruana ½ - ½

Jeffery Xiong, Fabiano Caruana

This was undoubtedly one of the most important games of the round. Fabiano was coming in as the leader and knew that in order to preserve that status he would need to place as much pressure on his opponents from now till the end of the tournament. But today, he was facing a different player; a guy that he has never faced—a player that is arguably the biggest talent raised on American soil since Nakamura burst on the chess scene. That player is Jeffery Xiong and this was not going to be a cakewalk.

The game started off with a hybrid Ruy Lopez with 4…g6. Maybe Fabiano was inspired by the World Champion who used this same opening to win a nice game only two days ago in Norway. Jeffery looked surprised and allowed Black to get the upper hand after giving up his bishop pair without much fight with 8.Bxc6?! From there on, Fabiano exerted incredible pressure for the rest of the game. Unfortunately for him he did not manage to convert due to a marvelous resilience by his opponent.

Draw and the title race tightens up.

Shabalov vs. So 0-1

Akshat Chandra, Alex Shabalov, Wesley So

This was clearly one of those off days for Shabalov. He is known to be an extremely active player but failed to continue the game immediately after his preparation was over. Wesley surprised Shabalov (maybe himself too) with 17…Nf6?! Which has been played only once and it is quite an inaccuracy. His elite GM confidence confused White and he did not manage to play the most natural 18.Nf5! which would have given him a very pleasant advantage. Shabalov resigned at move 23 due to a terrible blunder in an already difficult position.

Robson vs. Chandra 1-0

Ray RobsonThis was a very important battle in the title run. Chandra has had a subpar event and as is the customs, when sharks smell blood, they will attack with ruthless precision and aggression. This was the case for Robson who knew a full point would put him back into the race and allow him to once again have a shot at the top laurel. White played the surprising 9.Qe2!?—a move that has only been played once before and that holds some serious poise attached. The point of it is to try for a queen exchange with Nc4-Qe5 and allow your queenside majority and centralized pieces to make the difference in the ensuing endgame. Chandra was not having any of that and avoided the queen swap at all costs which might have ultimately proven to be in his detriment. It was a tense middlegame but ultimately White managed to break through Black’s solid complex with 22.Nxb7! It was pawn up for Robson after that and only a miracle would have saved Chandra. Unfortunately for him, the miracle never came and Robson is back in the title contention!

Nakamura vs. Akobian 1-0

Hikaru NakamuraAnother masterpiece by one of the top three titans of the tournament. Nakamura surely came to the game expecting to face Akobian’s renowned French, but Var had other plans. He surprised the national champion with the Petroff Defense and the game soon turned into a theoretical battle.

Nakamura had the last say in the matter and proved that even when surprised, 2800 caliber players have a secret bank of information that helps them to casually beat top GMs. Let’s take a closer look at this game and see how Nakamura managed to outplay his opponent. 

Onischuk vs. Shankland 1-0

Shankland came into this tournament as a feared player, but he has not managed to find his rhythm and the results have been below the expectations. Onischuk was having a stable event at 50% and was looking to make use of his Whites in order to climb the rankings and threaten the leaders. White chose a tricky line with Qc2-Rd1 in the QGD, but it did not seem to work as Shankland fully equalized after the opening and maybe could have even pressed for an advantage at some point. Instead, he started playing too passively and took some suspicious decisions that damaged his position. Onischuk slowly increased the pressure and forced his opponent into submission after showing impressive endgame technique. In the end, it was a game that shows that even in the most equal and dry positions there are always ways to test your opponent. Today it was Onischuk’s hunger to win that prevailed as he now moves at +1 and starts eyeing the top places.

Lenderman vs. Kamsky ½ - ½

White came very well prepared and manage to amass a serious edge out of the opening. Kamsky felt in danger of being squashed down and tried to create counterplay by sacrificing a pawn after 19…b5?! This was a rushed decision and White could have obtained a big advantage if he would have found the cunning 24.N1a3! Instead, the game continuation failed to produce any results and Black fully equalized a couple of moves later.

2016 U.S. Women’s Championship

Paikidze vs. Bykovtsev 1-0

Nazi PaikidzeNazi is a terrific athlete; she works out every day sometimes even twice a day. As the tournament progresses and we enter the final round, it is very likely that we will see an improvement in her level of play.

Once again, Nazi clearly stated with her opening choice that she believes she is the superior player, the g3-b3 development not being objectively a difficult line to refute. Agata did not have a clear plan and the uncertainty got her in real trouble quite quickly, but with some good moves and a bit of luck she could have flipped the tables and actually obtain an advantage after 39…Bh6! Instead she played Ra8 and after the game continuation the position was almost resignable.

Krush vs. Eswaran ½ - ½

Krush dodged another bullet. The seven-time U.S. Women’s Champion tried to play a slow game and take her opponent to the endgame, where she thought she would outplay her and win with ease. This was not the case as the young Ashrita held her own and actually managed to outplay her much more experienced opponent. She should have held the bishops on the board with 25…Re2, after which Irina would have a difficult defense. Instead, she chose to enter the rook’s endgame, one that Irina knew to perfection and held the draw exemplary.

Melekhina vs. Abrahamyan 0-1

Tatev AbrahamyanThis game was arguably the wildest one in the Women’s Championship and subsequently the longest one as well. Melekhina was sitting at the bottom of the standings while Tatev was comfortably sharing the lead with Nazi. Nobody would have bet that this is going to be a nail biting escape by Tatev, but as it often happens in these type of events, the player sitting at the bottom of the table should never be underestimated as she can produce some incredulous surprises. Surpriseland was the direction in which this game was going with Melekhina building a huge advantage and pressuring Tatev to the breaking point. Her aggressive pawn sacrifice yielded great results and Alisa could have obtained a decisive advantage after the natural 20.Bh6! followed by an irresistible attack on the king. Our silicon friend suggests that Black could have resigned at this point. Unfortunately for Alisa, who has had a heartbreaking event, she did not find the winning move and instead allowed her opponent to get the winning edge. The two women traded blows and ultimately ended up in an equal endgame after the time control. Tatev gathered all her energy and realized that she still maintains some winning chances due to the poor coordination of White’s pieces. With good technique, Tatev managed to outplay Alisa in the endgame and joins Nazi in the leader’s chair.

Zatonskih vs. Gorti 1-0

This was a one-sided affair with the experienced Anna Zatonskih playing an almost perfect game and completely outplaying her younger opponent. Akshita did not understand the requirements of the position she was playing and incorrectly released the central pressure with 10.fxe5? This allowed White to obtain an incredible outpost on e5, as well as a game long target on e6. Anna knew she has a decisive strategic advantage and she never let go of it. Akshita did not have the necessary patience to defend such a passive position and cracked by playing 26…g5? Which simply gives a pawn and does not get any ounce of counterplay in return. The game quickly ended after that in a convincing victory for Zatonskih.

Nemcova vs. Yip 1-0

Katerina NemcovaKaterina is trying to chain a few wins together and close the gap with her rivals that stand at the top of the standings. She knew that a golden opportunity would be in her game against Carissa Yip, the youngest participant and a very big talent in her own right. Once again the experience played an important role and Katerina managed to outplay her opponent out of the opening. Katerina never allowed her opponent to get back into the game and she now moves to 5th place, 1.5p behind the leaders.

Foisor vs. Yu 1-0

Sabina has had a difficult tournament up to this point but one thing that she surely didn’t lose is her motivation to win games. Today’s game was proof of that as the players played a tame game and ended up in a completely equal endgame. Sabina channeled her inner Carlsen and decided to play on to see how well her opponent handles technical endgames. Yu played a good game but at some point forgot about her opponent’s threats and blundered with 70…Ra1?? Allowing her opponent’s king to invade via f5 and obtained a decisive advantage. Sabina took advantage of her chance and finished her opponent with immaculate technique.