Hikaru Nakamura held a draw a pawn down against Fabiano Caruana in Round 2 of the US Chess Championship after a sharp opening battle in St. Louis. Their co-star Wesley So failed to capitalise, since he trapped Sam Shankland’s bishop but couldn’t prevent a draw by perpetual check. The decisive games featured meltdowns by veterans Gata Kamsky and Alexander Shabalov. In the women’s section an eventful round saw favourites Paikidze, Krush and Abrahamyan take the lead, while Anna Zatonskih also bounced back after her horror loss the day before.
From the bare results you might judge Round 2 of the US Championship to have been quiet, but it was anything but:
You can replay the commentary with Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley below:
The first sign we were in for some adventures was Daniel Naroditsky’s 6.h4!? against Yaroslav Zherebukh’s Najdorf:
According to our Opening Tree (in the tabs below the live board) it’s not a novelty, but still only the 24th most common move in one of the most explored positions in chess!
A move once played by Magnus Carlsen’s chief second Peter Heine Nielsen can’t be all bad, but Daniel went on to show a remarkable disregard for the established principles of positional chess. It looked as though he’d pay a high price for leaving his king stranded in the middle of the board with no pawn cover, but somehow Zherebukh missed the killer blows and a draw followed in 66 moves.
That game could perhaps be excused by the enthusiasm of youth, but how could you explain Shabalov-Onischuk?
Approaching the time control Shabalov was apparently better, but you could see he was extremely nervous, and Onischuk felt his opponent “completely lost control” and made inexplicable moves. It was soon game over, with Onischuk’s tripled c-pawns a conveyor-belt of new queens that Shabalov would be unable to match:
Onischuk pointed out it was funny that he’d “untripled” his c-pawns and then again tripled them before the end!
Two more of the older players in the tournament also played a wild game, but in this case it seemed we were just heading for a sharp draw after an exchange of tactical blows. This is the critical position:
Kamsky could now play 22.Qxd3 (expected by his opponent) or 22.Qe4, and Black can’t play 22…gxf6? due to mate after 23.Qg6+!. Instead, though, he thought for under 4 minutes before playing the losing 22.Bxd8??. If Black just recaptured the bishop nothing would be happening, but instead Akobian blitzed out 22…Qxc4! when White is simply losing a piece.
A crestfallen Gata Kamsky appeared for the post-game interview with Maurice Ashley, but did his best to get away from it without uttering any words and just nodding his head. When pressed he offered, “It just happened” and, “I’m starting to lose sight of the position”. Chess is cruel!
Xiong-Robson was the day’s only quiet draw, which leaves us with:
Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura have played 34 classical games, with Hikaru holding a slight lead of six wins to four. They still retain the capacity to surprise each other, though. Nakamura played a closed Sicilian line that Pavel Eljanov had tried against Caruana in the 2016 Olympiad. Fabiano won that game, but not because of the opening, and claimed to forget his preparation: “I never remember this line, so maybe I should stop repeating it!”
Nakamura identified the first critical moment as coming after 15.Re2:
He’d only been expecting the computer’s first line of 15.Qxc6!?, but realised at the board that would be very tough for a human opponent to play. Caruana felt his move was one the computer might underestimate, since he sacs pawns for the initiative, though if Nakamura underestimated it there was no repeat of the epic fail in their London Chess Classic game last year.
Nakamura used up 44 minutes contemplating the computer’s first line of 15…f4!?, but eventually settled on 15…Bc8. Hikaru identified the next key moment as coming after 22.Qe3:
He commented, “I bet the computer’s going to say 22…Kf7 and Black holds, but over the board it looks very scary”. The computer does indeed say that, but Caruana was also relishing that position since Black is almost entirely unable to move and it’s just a question of whether White can crank up the pressure enough to win.
Hikaru instead played 22…Bf7, entering an endgame, but admitted, “for some reason I thought this was just an easy draw, but it’s not”. Nakamura took a bold decision on move 35:
35…g5!? offered up a pawn to simplify the position, though both players thought Caruana missed a chance to torture his opponent for longer when he allowed the queenside pawns to be exchanged, leading to a draw on move 58. Maurice Ashley asked Caruana if it was important for him to made a key rival struggle at the board, provoking the quote of the day:
My intention is not to make my opponents suffer, it’s to beat them!
Shankland-So featured one of the most drawish lines of the already notoriously drawish Berlin Defence, but both players conspired to liven things up.
So tempted Shankland to win a very poisoned pawn on move 14, before trapping Sam’s bishop on h6 on move 27. White was just in time to save it, though, and found a neat way to force the draw:
33.Bxg5! Rxg5 34.Qxh7+ Rg7 35.Qh5+ and White gave perpetual check.
That draw against one of the event’s stronger players was a decent result for Wesley So, whose unbeaten streak stretched to 58 games. It also gave him some time to rest before he takes on Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces in Round 3.
After two rounds we therefore have four players in the lead in the open section, with no-one any longer in with a chance of winning the $64,000 prize for a Fischeresque 11/11!
The same holds true in the women’s event, though it was a day of the favourites:
Reigning Champion Nazi Paikidze scored an impressive win over Katerina Nemcova, Tatev Abrahamyan limited the damage to a draw by perpetual check against the dangerous young Carissa Yip and Anna Zatonskih made up for the previous day’s horror show by blowing debutant Emily Nguyen off the board.
Anna explained afterwards she was very surprised her opponent played so
fast until 15.h4 – “You have to have a sense of danger!”:
Here Emily thought for 38 minutes, but it’s already too late to stop Anna’s attack crashing through.
Anna revealed her trick to recover after her blunder the day before:
I didn’t drink alcohol for three years and yesterday I drank a glass and a half of wine!
She also went running for an hour and a half, but we’re not sure if that had the same medicinal value!
The last game to finish was a rollercoaster, with Sabina-Francesca Foisor having real chances to beat Irina Krush but then letting her advantage slip and collapsing on move 58:
Black can force a perpetual check after various moves (57…Kc3, 57…Nf3, 57…Nc4) but after letting her clock run down to under 10 seconds Sabina went for "none of the above" with 57…f4?, when after 58.Nxg6! the f-pawn could easily be stopped and Irina’s h and g-pawns were poised to win the game. That left Paikidze, Krush and Abrahamyan leading with 1.5/2.
In Round 3 the top four seeds are paired against each other in the So-Caruana and Nakamura-Xiong encounters. Hikaru noted he knows more about Jeffery Xiong than most of his rivals since his trainer is from Dallas, Xiong’s early stomping ground. He also said of the 16-year-old World Junior Champion:
Of the juniors who are up and coming, he’s significantly better than the others.