Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana bounced back with crushing wins in Round 10 of the US Championship, but it was too little too late. The title will be decided between Wesley So, Varuzhan Akobian and Alexander Onischuk, who lead by a full point and all have Black against different opponents in the final round. In the Women’s Championship it’s Nazi Paikidze and Sabina Foisor who lead by a point, after both managed to win tough positions in a thrilling penultimate round.
The glitch in the matrix that saw Caruana and Nakamura both lose in Round 9 had been repaired before Round 10:
You can replay the Round 10 commentary below:
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Don’t wake a sleeping 2800 player! Nakamura and Caruana both came back with a vengeance, though their opponents had a lot to answer for.
Yaroslav Zherebukh had been solidity personified until his victory over Caruana, but since then he’s been wobbling. In Round 10 his decision-making went awry on move 10:
Nakamura’s 9…e6 was a provocation, and although Nakamura said he didn’t think 10.Bxe6!? works, it looks as though it’s at the very least playable for White. Zherebukh’s good options here were to dismiss it quickly and play something else, or, after thinking for 41 minutes as he did, to bite the bullet and go for it. Instead after all that thought he played the insipid 10.c3 and, down on the clock, went on to rush a series of critical decisions in the moves ahead. At astonishing speed he was lost, with 17.Qe2? the losing move (17.Qf4! is no walk in the park, but for instance the 17…Bd6 18.Qg5 Rh5!? 19.Nxh5 Bxh2+ 20.Kh1 Rh8 21.g4! line given by Nakamura is considered equal by computers).
The game ended 17…Bxe3 18.Qxe3 (18.fxe3 doesn’t help: 18…Rxh2! 19.Kxh2 Rh8+ 19.Kg1 Qxg3) 18…Rxh2! 19.Rfd1 (19.Kxh2 Ng4+ forks the queen and king) 19…Rdh8 20.Qxa7 e3! 21.Qxe3 Ng4!
The biggest threat is Black giving check twice on h1 and then mate with the queen on h2, and Zherebukh took the reasonable decision to throw in the towel.
Fabiano Caruana also got back on track quickly after his disaster the day before, of which he commented, “the second half was one of my worse performances ever”. Fabi revealed he was feeling dizzy during the first time pressure stage in that game, and was surprised that he emerged from it two pawns up. He regretted not stopping to eat or rest before going on to play the rest of the game.
In Round 10, however, it was Alexander Shabalov who was left feeling dizzy. After playing a version of the Dragodorf (a hybrid of the Sicilian Najdorf and Dragon) which Caruana diplomatically described as “not the best opening” Shabalov went on to push his pawns so provocatively that by move 17 he was absolutely strategically busted:
There's a gaping hole on f5, the black king is stranded in the centre behind a ruined structure, and all the white pieces are ready to pounce… The rest was child’s play for Fabi.
Barring a miracle – all three leaders lose and they win – it’s all over in terms of the title for Caruana and Nakamura, so let’s look at the games that really mattered in Round 10.
We almost had a dramatic late twist in the sleepy Exchange Slav between Gata Kamsky and Wesley So. Wesley admitted he couldn’t work out what his opponent was playing for, until alarm bells suddenly sounded on move 33:
So had missed what he described as Gata’s “very powerful” 33…h5!, when 34.gxh5 Nf5! would be extremely dangerous for White. Instead Wesley went for 34.Nf3 and ultimately a queen ending a pawn down. It was balanced on a knife edge, with So scaring his fans, for instance, by spending a couple of minutes at one point deciding between a drawing move and the only alternative that led to forced mate, but he managed to hold on for his 66th consecutive unbeaten game.
Co-leader going into the round, Varuzhan Akobian, had a very pleasant ending against Ray Robson and was threatening to take a huge step towards winning the US Championship.
He also fell just short:
His bishop sac is sparkling but also practical. After 41…bxe6 42.Bxb4+ Kxb4 43.Kxd4 there was no threat that White might lose, but on the other hand, all it took was some precision from Ray to hold the draw. He was up to the task.
The man of the moment, though, is Alexander Onischuk, who has now won three games in a row. He beat 16-year-old Jeffery Xiong, whose tournament has gone the other way, with four losses in the last six games. Their Round 10 encounter followed that pattern, with Alexander soon better on the white side of a standard Grünfeld position, while Jeffery blundered a pawn to what looks to have been a simple tactical oversight.
The standings before the final round are therefore as follows:
Curiously, the three leaders all have the black pieces:
On paper Wesley looks like the most likely to score a win, though Naroditsky is yet to lose with White in St. Louis this year. If players are tied for first place we’ll then go into a rapid playoff on Monday.
The Women’s US Championship was the place to go for drama in Round 10, as it often is
Irina Krush was held to a second consecutive draw that leaves her with only a mathematical chance of making a playoff, but the real action took place in two incredible topsy-turvy games between the leaders and their direct challengers.
Nazi Paikidze’s decision to play the sharp Modern Defence against Tatev Abrahamyan’s 1.e4 backfired spectacularly as she ended up down two queenside pawns for no compensation.
Tatev was low on time, though, and began to rush, unnecessarily exchanging pieces and then transforming the game with 29.h4?
Suddenly after 29…Qd4+! 30.Qxd4 Bxd4+ 31.Kh2 Re2 it was Black who had the initiative and was threatening a mating attack, with reinforcements coming on the h-file. The sequence that followed wasn’t entirely forced - 33.Bxd6! might have led to a drawish position where White has 5 pawns (!) for a rook, while computers spot Paikidze’s 34…g4 was a mistake that 35.Re7! could have punished – but the win that followed for Black always looked the likely outcome.
Anna Zatonskih had said the day before that she was planning to try and stay calm and enjoy her chess: “I already won the Championship four times, so I’ll do my best, but if I don’t win I’ll survive”. There was nothing relaxing about her game against Sabina Foisor, though. Although Anna was on top after the opening, her decision to embed her knight in the white position allowed Sabina to unleash some tactical mayhem. Even after things had got somewhat out of control, 31…Rf8 would still have been clearly better for Black, but instead Anna went for 31…Nxf2?
That would have worked if not for 32.Ne5! when after 32…Kxf6 33.Nxc6 Rdd2 Black’s threats are too slow and Sabina could start gobbling up the black position with check after 34.Qxh6+. Seven checks later and Anna had resigned.
That left both Paikidze and Foisor tied on 7/10, with only Krush just about in touching distance.
Both leaders face dangerous but beatable young opponents in the final round, with Paikidze having the advantage of the white pieces:
Whatever happens it’s going to be a noteworthy story. If Nazi Paikidze triumphs she’ll have managed to defend her title against a hugely competitive field despite the stress she felt after the media furore over her decision not to play in the Tehran Women’s World Championship. For Sabina, meanwhile, a first US Championship would be an incredible achievement just three months after the death of her mother, Christina Adela Foisor, at the age of only 49. Christina had qualified to play alongside her daughter in that same Tehran tournament. Sabina said on Saturday, “I made my mum proud so far”. Whatever happens on Sunday that won’t change.