Eswaran Steals the Show in Round 1 of U.S. Champs

13-year-old Ashritha Eswaran stole the show in round 1 with her victory over Viktorija Ni. Image Credit: Lennart Ootes.

By Brian Jerauld

SAINT LOUIS (May 9, 2014) -- Lights! Camera! Quick-draw??

Eyes rolled on the first day of the 2014 U.S. Championship when the marquee matchup -- a fireworks-filled kickoff between top-seeds Timur Gareev and Gata Kamsky -- finished after 14 moves and only 40 minutes in a draw-by-repetition, starting a trend of half-points through an anti-climactic first round.

But while the men started the day snoozing, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Championship got bruising. The ladies took over opening day’s spotlight with just one well-earned draw and four spirited wins, including 13-year-old Ashritha Eswaran’s show-stealing introduction-by-checkmate as the last act of the day.

Taking an early lead with full points in the first round were Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabina Foisor with the white pieces, as well as reigning champion Irina Krush and Eswaran, in her first-ever U.S. Women’s Championship match, as black. In the U.S. Championship, only Ray Robson and Aleksandr Lenderman earned wins, with all other matches drawing.

Putting an extra shine on Eswaran’s endgame over Viktorija Ni was the youngster being all-but written-off an hour before the 84-move epic concluded. After a back-and-forth pendulum of a game, the 50th move saw Ni with considerable control into the endgame, including a rook to Eswaran’s bishop and a king well-positioned to defend black’s passed pawns.

But Ni’s 56. a4, with intentions to spring her b-pawn toward promotion, was incorrectly calculated and did little more than tie up her major piece in defense against Eswaran’s own a-file passer. Both players could have declared draw-by-repetition by move 70, though the back-and-forth only served to build clock time by way of the 30-second increment. Eventually Eswaran found the winning 70...e5, which created a shield to any checks by the white rook, and released the black bishop from a pin -- threatening a surprise checkmate-in-one after 71...Bc4.

Ni was quickly forced into submission as her rook failed to defend Eswaran’s passed connectors and pesky bishop, ultimately seeing her king smothered in the corner.

“I just try to relax and think about the position,” Eswaran said. “No matter what happens, I just try to do my best.”


Gareev’s chances to make an early statement in the U.S. Championship flopped, despite his 6. Bg5 in an exchange Slav, which seemed to provoke reigning champion Kamsky into early thought. Kamsky chased the white bishop away with 8...h6 9. Bh4 g5 10. Bg3, then threatened the bishop’s existence with 10...Nh5. It was a bishop pair Gareev refused to concede, leading to a repetition and a quick exit from the first round.

“I don’t have to beat Kamsky to get first place,” Gareev said. “The possibilities I saw were more double-edged, rather than necessarily better for me. I figured instead of gambling, I might as well just take it slow and be better in the next round.”

A small victory, perhaps, for Kamsky in the earlygoing.

“I consider it like football: you have to know where to save energy, and you have to know where to spend it and go for a win,” Kamsky said. “The way I played it, I forced him to make a decision right there on the spot whether he wanted to spend time and energy to win this game. He has to make this decision early on, without being able to see the final result or the position that may arise later.”

Also drawing were Varuzhan Akobian-Daniel Naroditsky and Alejandro Ramirez-Sam Shankland in rook-and-pawn endgames, as well as Mackenzie Molner-Alexander Onischuck -- though not without a lack of effort by the 2014 U.S. Championship wildcard.

Molner played a novelty 10. Nd3 in a Queen’s Indian, offering the c4 pawn in exchange for some healthy compensation in activity. But Onischuck’s nifty 16...Nc5 took advantage of a pin on Molner’s d-pawn, allowing the piece to remobilize and easily deal with white’s expedited queenside attack.

“I tried to play a little bit ambitiously by sacrificing the pawn, but it didn’t seem like I ever got more than enough to just keep the balance, never an advantage, it seemed,” Molner said. “(Onischuck) played some good defensive moves, like Nc5. I didn’t realize he was going to bring his knight around to a6; that was a good idea.”

The best game play from the men came from the hand of Ray Robson, who convincingly dismantled Sergey Erenberg's Petrov’s Defense for the full point. The game turned interesting after both sides castled queenside, with Robson creating better lanes and coordination of pieces through the middlegame. The move 25. g6 is when he cashed in his lead, a pawn sacrifice that allowed his rook to the seventh file and a fast track to Erenberg’s king.

“A critical moment was g6, and I think it was a pretty good sacrifice - he just can’t get rid of my rook on the seventh,” Robson said. “I’m going to put one rook on it, and eventually another rook, and he’s going to have big problems. I was a little worried that he might try to play something like Rg1 - he’d still be worse, but he could try to exchange one pair of rooks. I wanted to keep both of my rooks on the board, because eventually the other one is going to come to the seventh as well. He probably still had some chances to defend, but it was very difficult, especially with low time.”

U.S. Open winner Josh Friedel looked comfortable 16 moves into his English opening with Lenderman, enjoying better development and strong central control as part of a decent initiative. But Friedel’s slow-paced plans eventually stalled at 39. a5, allowing Lenderman to grab the momentum. The white army instantly crumbled from the center.

“It was a shifting of the mindset,” Lenderman said. “He was looking for defensive moves, all of a sudden, which could be a little bit tough - especially with lower time. I really thought I might lose this game, after getting outplayed, behind on time and in a position where I was not very comfortable - but I guess I was fortunate.”

Katerina Nemcova came out swinging for her first fight in the U.S. Women’s Championship, after recently switching federations from the Czech Republic, but ultimately succumbed to the five-time reigning U.S. women’s champion Krush. Though Nemcova was already down 35 minutes to Krush’s five after 12 moves, the game was shaping up to be a lively classic Sicilian.

Nemcova’s seemingly harmless 19. Nc3, removing her knight from the rim, was responded by Krush’s surprise 19...a5 and dubious follow-up 20...Qb8 to exchange her bishop for a rook three moves later. Two moves later, Nemcova was playing on the 30-second increment.

But she did not go quietly. Quick moves, and a pesky knight and queen, continued a proper harassment of Krush’s exposed king and gave fits to black’s endgame, despite featuring connected, passed pawns. The game continued through the 57th move before Krush finally broke through.

For a complete listing of the standings and round 2 pairings, visit

Tune into live play-by-play of round 2 today at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET with GMs Yasser Seirawan and Maurice ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade at