Wesley So is now the sole leader of the US Championship after winning the only decisive game in Round 4. He rejected a draw against Alexander Onischuk and was richly rewarded, while Hikaru Nakamura won the opening battle but not the war against Gata Kamsky, and Fabiano Caruana risked losing a better position to Jeffery Xiong. In the women’s section five players now lead after Irina Krush stumbled into a lost position against 15-year-old Jennifer Yu, who has now beaten the two tournament favourites in the first four rounds.
It was Wesley So’s day in St. Louis:
You can replay the day’s live commentary below:
Wesley So took charge in St. Louis by scoring another impressive victory against one of the “veteran” competitors. 41-year-old Alexander Onischuk did little wrong in the opening and in fact both players agreed that objectively it would have been right for White to take a draw by repetition on move 26. Wesley So commented, “today I took a huge risk but fortunately it paid off”. The game turned three moves later:
Here after 29…Qxb2?! 30.Nxb2 Rb3?! 31.Nc4 Wesley had solved his problems and his coordinated forces proved too much for Onischuk. Instead Black could have maintained the tension with 29…Rc8!, a move So jokingly called “the move of the year” in his post-match commentary. Black would be a full piece down after 30.Bxd3 Qxd3, but White is tied down and the a4-knight is completely out of the game.
Wesley played down how he finished off the game, saying, “I’d like to thank the lord for the win. It wasn’t a pretty win, but…” At times it was pretty, though:
Here 40.g6! gave the knight an outpost, and after hxg6 41.Ng5 Wesley had an overwhelming advantage.
The London System was once considered innocuous and Gata Kamsky’s decision to play it an eccentricity. Lately, however, the rest of the world has come round to Gata's way of thinking, and in Round 4 Gata got to play a system he’s been playing for 30 years against one of the world’s top players. He’d prepared a novelty in a fashionable line, but it didn’t have the desired effect:
I thought I’m going to surprise Hikaru, and then he was blitzing all these moves!
15.Qd2 was as far as Gata’s preparation had gone...
...but here Nakamura immediately returned the sacrificed pawn with 15…d4! and Kamsky knew he was in a fight for survival. He pulled it off with accurate play, despite Nakamura also rejecting a repetition. Hikaru was somewhat disappointed that he’d had to use a line he’d prepared a week earlier:
I kind of was thinking it might be an idea to use against Wesley in the Grand Chess Tour, in a rapid event.
It would have been harder to defuse at rapid time controls.
Fabiano Caruana, meanwhile, outwitted 16-year-old Jeffery Xiong in an Anti-Berlin, with the youngster commenting:
Usually when you play these guys when your analysis ends theirs just starts.
Caruana built up a big positional advantage that looked set to become decisive when Jeffery blundered a pawn advance:
Caruana took the chance to play 30.b5+!, when the pawn can’t be taken due to the simple 30…Kxb5 31.Rd5+. After 30…Kd7 31.b6 Bb8 Black was balancing on the brink of defeat. Caruana expected his opponent’s position to collapse at some point, but it never did:
Maurice Ashley: Is this kid the real deal?
Fabiano Caruana: Yeah, I think so. He’s really resourceful. He’ll be a top player for sure.
In fact a few moves later Xiong had solved his problems and felt his active pieces gave him a winning position. It was Caruana’s turn to defend, but he proved up to the task.
Both players have started the tournament with four draws and are a full point behind the leader, but they can also be satisfied with that outcome. Jeffery Xiong has survived playing Nakamura and Caruana with Black, while in Nakamura, So, Xiong and Shankland you can argue that reigning champion Fabiano has already played his top four rivals. Now he needs to rack up some points against the remaining seven players!
After three losses in a row Alexander Shabalov finally got a draw in St. Louis, but not in the manner you’d expect. Rather than playing solidly he went for a wild attack against Varuzhan Akobian, explaining afterwards that his attempts to defend slightly worse positions had ended painfully against So and Zherebukh. Objectively he should have ended with a fourth loss in a row, but Akobian rejected the chance to take a sacrificed piece until it was too late:
The g5-knight has been en prise for five moves, but finally it got to go out in style with 26.Nxf7! Qe6 27.Nc5! Bxc5 28.Bxd5 Qxd5 29.Nxh6+ and the white queen gave perpetual check on g6 and h6.
Elsewhere Shankland-Zherebukh was a short but sharp 16-move draw by repetition, while Naroditsky-Robson saw Daniel play the 6.Nb3 line that Mateusz Bartel popularised last year. Robson did his thing - thinking for 40 minutes on move 14 - and lived to regret it when he missed a winning move with his time about to run out:
29…Ne3! was the clincher, while the players instead agreed to a draw after 29…Qxf2 30.Rxf2 bxc3.
The standings therefore feature a clear leader – Wesley So, who is unbeaten in 60 games and 13.5 points behind Magnus Carlsen on the live rating list.
Irina Krush’s stay as sole leader was cut short immediately in the Women’s Championship:
The women’s section featured some enjoyable tactical bloodbaths, with huge swings in most of the games. For instance, Nazi Paikidze bounced straight back with a win when her king on g8 finally found a refuge… on c2!
Debutant Maggie Feng found a nice finish against Sabina-Francesca Foisor (the only player in either section not to draw a game so far) and the youngest player of the event, Carissa Yip, got her first win with a sacrificial Sicilian attack.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of that game, though, was where Emily Nguyen could have turned the tables!
22…Bd5!! aims to block the d5-square so Be6+ and Bb3 won’t stop the attack on the queenside. After 23.Rxd5 Qb4! there are still defences for White to try, but objectively Black is absolutely winning. In the game Emily played 22…Rxf8 and was soon overrun.
The crucial game of the day, though, was about strategy. First Irina Krush confidently built up a huge position with dominant central pawns, then she carelessly liquidated into an ending she simply assumed would be better for her. The critical factor ended up being the black queenside pawns:
Black simply needs to drag the white king away from the queening squares: 46…Bxd4! 47.Bxf5 b3! 48.axb3 a3! and Irina Krush resigned since she couldn't stop the a-pawn.
The meant that 15-year-old Jennifer Yu has now beaten Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih in the first four rounds to become joint leader of the event. That’s remarkable, though it’s worth noting that in 2016 she drew Irina in Round 9 and then beat Anna in Round 10! Jennifer is joined by Krush, Feng, Paikidze and also Anna Zatonskih at the top - the latter drew despite a puzzling half an hour spent on her first four moves.
Round 5 is the last round before the long tournament’s only rest day, and will see what’s likely to be the theme of the remainder of the event: the top trio of So (vs. Zherebukh), Nakamura (Naroditsky) and Caruana (Onischuk) trying to beat players they outrate by 150 points or more.