Reports Apr 30, 2018 | 11:28 PMby Colin McGourty

Nazi Paikidze wins her 2nd US Women’s title

Nazi Paikidze beat Annie Wang in Armageddon to clinch the 2018 US Women’s Chess Championship and take home the $25,000 first prize. 15-year-old Annie Wang started in fine style to win the first rapid game and had a great chance to seize the initiative in the second, but when she hesitated the momentum swung in her opponent’s favour and Paikidze went on to demonstrate the composure that saw her win her 1st title in 2016. Annie Wang took the $18,000 prize for second place, though, and is sure to be back for more!

24-year-old Nazi Paikidze hadn't played competitive chess in 9 months, but still went on to win her 2nd US Championship | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Replay all the games from the US Women’s Championship – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all her results:

Relive the playoff action with commentary from Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley:

Annie gets off to a perfect start

When the fate of the 2018 US Women’s Chess Championship title went to a playoff, the psychological edge had to be with Nazi Paikidze. She was still unbeaten and had fought her way to the playoff despite feeling her chances were only about 5% when she was trailing by a full point with two rounds to go. She also had the advantage of the experience of winning the title in 2016, while 15-year-old Annie Wang was about to face a whole new level of pressure after cracking in the final game of classical chess.

A US Championship playoff was just another experience Annie Wang took in her stride | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

The opening of the first 25-minute game, a 4.Qc2 Nimzo Indian, also seemed to go Nazi Paikidze’s way, as she blitzed out the first 11 moves of a razor-sharp line while Annie was already taking serious thinks. Annie seemed to go astray, but when she went for the bold 14.e4! things suddenly swung in her favour. Paikidze spent almost six minutes before going for 14…Qd6?!

Annie now began to put on an impressive show of manoeuvring with a clever tactical basis: 15.f3! d3 16.Qf2! Nd4 17.Bb4!, with the point that 17…Nc2+ can be met with 18.Qxc2! and Black has nothing better than 18…Qxb4 and entering an ending two pawns down. That was actually no worse than the game, where Black was down two pawns with queens on the board and little compensation. Annie Wang fearlessly castled long and could have sealed the deal on move 26:

26.Be7! features the not-too-subtle threat of Qd8#, and after 26…Nb8 White has the clincher 27.Bd6+!. That would have completed a sparkling miniature, but as it was after 26.Ba5+ Annie continued to switch between attacking on both flanks, tormenting Black until finally Nazi Paikidze resigned on move 45.

Paikidze commented afterwards:

I started so badly today. I just realised that I was more nervous than I thought I was. That’s why in the first game I just didn’t see anything and that really threw me off, and it was very hard to come back and forget the first game, so I’m so happy I pulled it off.

What did she change?

I quickly meditated, like for two minutes, and I got good advice that she plays really fast and don’t try to play as fast as her. I guess she’s just better at blitz than I am, because I play better when I think, so I took my time in the second game and only speeded up at the end when I was already much better, and I think that helped a lot.

It might all have been very different, though, if Wang had taken advantage of how Paikidze misplayed a King’s Indian attack:

Here 17…f5! was crying out to be played, and Black has great play against the weakened white king. Annie only needed a draw, though, and perhaps hoped with 17…Re8?! to shore up the potentially weak e6-pawn. She may also have wanted to re-route her bishop to g7, but the slow plan was met by 18.b4! cxb4 19.axb4 and after 19…Nxb4?! (19…Bxb4!) 20.Nxd4 the game had lurched in White’s favour. Paikidze was suddenly in control and smoothly martialled her forces to attack the black king. The game ended with the b6-knight being gobbled up for free:

That meant the match went to Armageddon, and although the unusual time control with increments from move 1 theoretically made it more appealing to play with Black (needing only a draw to win the title but with one minute less on the clock), it was perhaps unfortunate for Annie Wang that she ended up with those black pieces. She’d lost her last two games with Black, and she was also tempted into what proved a fatal error – she repeated her play from the last game in the hope of playing the powerful moves such as f5 that she’d overlooked.

This time, though, Paikidze wasn’t going to repeat the same mistake:

Instead of the 14.h5? she played in the previous game she now went for 14.N1h2! and Annie ended up making aggressive moves “on general principles,” though they didn't fit the concrete position: 14…g5!? 15.h5! Rdf8 16.Ng4 Kb8 17.Bd2 f5? 18.exf6 Nxf6 19.Nge5 g4? 20.Nxc6+! Bxc6 21.Ne5! and Black was strategically busted:

What followed was a massacre, compounded by Black’s difficult time situation. Nazi explained that she’d taken the opposite approach from rapid chess and was this time trying to play fast:

To be honest I was not evaluating the position, I was just playing on her time, because I can’t make a draw and the only advantage I have is the one minute on the clock, so I thought I would play faster than she did and just really press her on time, because even if I get a slightly worse position it’s not easy at all to win when you have a few seconds on the clock, so that was my plan - to play on her time.

It worked, since in the final, utterly hopeless position Annie Wang actually lost on time:

It was a richly deserved victory for Nazi Paikidze, who has proven incredibly difficult to beat in the last few years in the US Championship. She summed up:

It means so much that I could win this again. To be honest, this is my fourth time here and the worst result I had was 2nd place, so I can’t complain! But of course I came here to win, so… goal achieved!

Annie Wang would also have deserved the title, though, after putting together an incredible 7/8 start to the tournament and then refusing to crumble when her rivals hoped she would. She came within the finest of margins of winning without the need for any playoffs, and her Cinderella story would have included automatic qualification for the US Olympiad team. It wasn’t to be, but she’s only likely to get stronger in the coming years. As Paikidze put it:

It’s unbelievable. She’s amazing. She made this tournament so exciting and she’s only 15. It’s crazy! When I was her age I couldn’t contain myself like she does, and she’s such a good player and good defender - and she’s very tough.

How good will Annie Wang become with some more experience? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

So all that’s left to do is congratulate Sam Shankland and Nazi Paikidze once more on winning the US Championships. We hope you enjoyed the ride!

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