Wesley So crushed bottom seed Alexander Shabalov in his 57th unbeaten classical game in a row as the 2017 US Championships began in St. Louis. He was joined in the early lead by Hikaru Nakamura, who eventually made Ray Robson pay for clock handling that would have made even Alexander Grischuk blush. The other games were drawn, with reigning Champion Fabiano Caruana in some trouble against Sam Shankland. The women’s round will be remembered for Anna Zatonskih’s incredible self-destruction after a game spent pressing for a win against Jennifer Yu.
The open section of the US Championship has a $194,000 prize fund and only a single player rated below 2600, but there’s no mistaking who all eyes will be on. So, Caruana and Nakamura are in the world’s top 6 players, while Jeffery Xiong comes next at world no. 71:
In the first round it was Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura who got off to winning starts - you can replay all the games by clicking on a result:
You can rewatch the commentary, including all the player interviews, below:
There’s just no stopping Wesley So at the moment. For a 57th game, going back to last July, he avoided defeat. He did better than that, of course, simply cruising to victory against 49-year-old Alexander Shabalov. All it took were a couple of misguided moves by the black queen for Wesley to seize complete control, with the black king also stranded in the middle of the board. The final move, 22.Rd7!, is a fitting summary of the game:
White is poised to crash through on the c6-square.
Wesley is yet to win the US Championship, telling Maurice Ashley this is his third attempt, after scoring +2 in 2015 (that traumatic forfeit Championship) and an unbeaten +4 in 2016. The Round 1 win edged him up to 2823.8 on the live rating list, 14.2 points behind Magnus, and once again Maurice decided to talk about Wesley So’s results with his colleagues. As in the 2016 London Chess Classic, they showed some mild annoyance and weren’t willing simply to praise their rival:
Caruana: He’s having a good run, but I still don’t think that’s he unbeatable in any way
Nakamura: I think everyone puts too much credence in the ratings… Wesley has terrible results against Magnus.
Hikaru Nakamura had a cutting summary of his win over Ray
I was very confused throughout the game – if he hadn’t looked at this f5-line or he hadn’t looked at chess in a while.
The bemusement was understandable, since in an Anti-Berlin Robson played fast until Nakamura’s 12…f5 stopped him in his tracks:
Ray thought for 42 minutes here, although this had been played before in a high-profile game by Alexander Grischuk against Fabiano Caruana in the 2015 London Chess Classic. Caruana would draw all 9 games at that tournament, but he should have won against Grischuk, after the Russian blundered in time trouble.
Caruana provoked g6 with 13.Qh5+, while Robson eventually decided on the immediate 13.Qe2, but after some more pauses for thought Ray had around 2 minutes compared to 1 hour and 20 minutes for his opponent. Like Grischuk he’s a high-performing time trouble junkie and managed to reach a rook and opposite-coloured bishop ending that was at least difficult for Black to win. It may still have been a draw, but he “cracked under pressure” (Nakamura) and Hikaru didn’t miss his chance:
The exchange sacrifice 44…Rxg3! forced an ending where the bishop and black pawns were too much for the white rook to handle. Nakamura gave a smooth demonstration of the winning technique.
Afterwards Nakamura talked about his goals for the coming couple of years, where his focus will be on the World Championship:
It’d be nice to win, but you have to be practical about what’s more important in life. I’d take a 5th place finish here if it meant I was going to qualify for the Candidates.
Elsewhere the games were full of incident, but no-one could quite pull off a win. Sam Shankland felt that some “psychological nonsense” from him – hinting at being ready to repeat the position – provoked Fabiano Caruana into a rash move, though Caruana said he was simply unhappy with his passive position. 22…h5!? nearly backfired:
With 23.Rc4! Shankland was able to seize the seventh rank, but afterwards his advantage slipped away. As Fabiano put it, “he let me off the hook pretty easily”.
Debutant Yaroslav Zherebukh admitted he doesn’t have a great record against Gata Kamsky:
We just play, play, play and then suddenly I look at my position and I have to resign.
He pulled off an unlikely coup, though, when he surprised his opponent with 1.e4! instead of his familiar 1.d4. Gata spent four minutes on 1...c5 and tried to imitate Anatoly Karpov, who he said had a wonderful intuition for guessing where young opponents had prepared opening traps for him… and dodging them.
Kamsky failed, though, and felt move 20 was where his opponent gave him a helping hand:
Zherebukh commented “I should have gone all-in at some point”, and both players felt 20.Kh1 was much too slow here. 20.Nxg7!? is very playable, though White can also try 20.Nxe5 fxe5 21.Qg4 if he doesn’t want to burn any bridges. After the move in the game Kamsky was able to return his knight from the rim and eventually force an exchange of queens.
Gata noted afterwards that seeing the young guns reminded him how much he used to fight and work himself:
I look at these guys and I see myself in these guys. There’s no way with my current preparation and energy I can do that… I want to get some rating points, get some money… and also create some good games.
The quickest game of the day was Onischuk-Naroditsky, where a spectacular exchange of blows ended in perpetual check on move 34. The longest, meanwhile, saw World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong fall just short of winning an endgame with Black against Varuzhan Akopian.
The women’s championship witnessed a good start for the youngsters:
Maggie Feng drew 7-time US Champion Irina Krush and afterwards noted it was her first game with Irina since she lost to her in a simul as a 9-year-old. 14-year-old Emily Nguyen safely drew against reigning champion Nazi Paikidze and admitted afterwards, “Honestly my goal coming in was not to get last!”
The only youngster to get comprehensively outplayed was Apurva Virkud, who was pulverised by one of the event’s favourites, Tatev Abrahamyan, in a game reminiscent of So’s win over Shabalov:
Black might survive if not for 21.c4! Qe5 22.Rxb7! Rxb7 23.Nc6! and White wins the d6-bishop with a crushing position.
Tatev as you've never seen her before...
Two games, however, ended dramatically just when they seemed to be heading for a draw. Carissa Yip had played for a win against Sabina-Francesca Foisor, but chose the wrong square for her king on move 62. If it had gone to h6 there was just a draw, but instead she played 62…Kh8?, overlooking a crucial long queen retreat:
63.Qb8+ Rf8 64.Qh2+! Black resigns
That was nothing compared to the following game, though. 4-time US Champion Anna Zatonskih had 15-year-old Jennifer Yu on the ropes in a rook ending, but finally had to concede it was just a draw. Then she decided to make the move 57…Rd1+??, since “I thought it was just an easier way to make a draw”:
The horrible truth dawned on Anna when she saw 58.Kc2! and there’s nothing to do but resign. White is threatening mate with Ra8#, so the rook is lost. A painful start to the event for the top seed in the women’s section!
Round 2 promises to be unmissable, with top billing going to Caruana-Nakamura!
Shankland-So and Xiong-Robson also promise to be intriguing to watch.