Reports Apr 5, 2017 | 11:40 AMby Colin McGourty

US Championship 6: So’s close shave

Wesley So came within a move or two of defeat against Varuzhan Akobian but escaped with a draw that extended his unbeaten streak to 62 games and kept him as sole leader of the US Championship with five rounds to go. Fabiano Caruana got his first win of the 2017 event after a shocker from Gata Kamsky, while Hikaru Nakamura could only draw against the struggling Alexander Shabalov. Defending Champion Nazi Paikidze is now sole leader of the Women’s Championship after beating Irina Krush for an incredible 3rd US Championship in a row.

Varuzhan Akobian nearly became the only man other than Magnus Carlsen to beat Wesley So in classical chess in 9 months | photo: Lennart Ootes

Onischuk-Zherebukh and Naroditsky-Xiong were relatively quiet draws, but the remaining games were full of action!

You can replay the Round 6 commentary below:

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Wesley balances on the brink

Nakamura and Akobian look on as Wesley So faces a real challenge | photo: Lennart Ootes

Games between Varuzhan Akobian and Wesley So at the US Championship tend to be noteworthy! On move 6 in 2015 Akobian pointed out that his opponent was making notes during the game, and although they were only hints such as “use your time!” Wesley suffered a forfeit loss. In 2016 he got a measure of “revenge” by winning a 24-move miniature against the same opponent. This year it looked like we might be heading the same way when Akobian, playing Black, followed a razor-sharp line in which White sacrifices a pawn on g6 and has been scoring heavily. However, he’d clearly come prepared and played the novelty (12…Bg4), and then, when Wesley played 14.Rg3!? he found the most challenging reply 14…g5!

So himself half-joked afterwards, “I was happy to get my pawn back!” and more seriously explained that he was taking on deliberate risks to try and win games against a tough field:

The point is I’m looking for another win… and then I get all these complicated positions that turn out to be worse for me.

The key moment early on in the game arrived when Wesley played 18.Qb3 and, after 16 minutes' thought, Akobian replied with 18…N8h7. The big test of White’s setup was instead 18…Bd6! 19.Ne5 Bxe5 20.dxe5, when both players had underestimated the power of 20…Qf5!!

If White plays 21.exf6?? or captures on b7 then Black has mate-in-7 after 21…Qd3!. Maurice Ashley speculated that Akobian was worried about 21.f3, when the only win is the knight retreat 21…N6d7, but in fact Varuzhan admitted he’d simply forgotten White can’t castle!

With the move in the game phase one was over, and after a strong exchange sacrifice it seemed that Wesley was the one with better chances of playing for a win, especially since his opponent was in serious time trouble. Instead, though, it was So who cracked and was in real danger of ending his unbeaten streak on 61:

Akobian had seen the strong 31…Ng1!, while the computer’s 31…Qc2+! seems to be a forced win, but instead he teased us by sliding his queen one square short with 31…Qd3? He thought he was simply winning, but it turned out the white king can escape and in the end it was Akobian who had to force perpetual check so as not to risk ending up worse.

Caruana joins Nakamura in second place

If So had lost he would have been caught by defending US Champion Fabiano Caruana, who finally got his first win of the 2017 event. On this occasion, though, it was all about Gata Kamsky. 

Fabiano Caruana finally ended his drawing streak | photo: Spectrum Studios

The 5-time Champion had already gone badly wrong with 15…h6? and his 16…Be6?? all but threw in the towel:

You don’t need to be the world no. 3 to spot 17.Nxa6!, when 17…Rxa6 would of course walk into 18.Bxb5+, winning the rook. The worst part was that Fabiano delayed that move 10 minutes, with Gata left prowling the venue in obvious self-disgust. He had no choice but to stumble on as if it was all part of a master plan with 17…0-0 18.Nb4 f5, but as Caruana explained, while usually a tempo might be worth a pawn in such positions, in this case the a-pawn was absolutely crucial to the position. The game only finally ended on move 40, but the result was never in any doubt.

Hikaru Nakamura had a difficult day against the tournament's underdog | photo: Austin Fuller

Before the day started Hikaru Nakamura seemed a huge favourite to get a win, since he was playing Alexander Shabalov, who had already suffered four defeats. However, Shabalov described Nakamura’s play as “super-passive” and had soon built up an imposing position:

This might have been the moment to strike, when White can unleash his rooks with the pawn sacrifice 26.c5! dxc5 27.b5! – it would have been absolutely in Shabalov’s style and he said afterwards that he’d seen the idea. He felt, though, that it was too early, “the idea was going nowhere” and that it was better to make some nothing moves (starting with 26.Bf2) to get closer to the time control first. He admitted that 9 times out of 10 he would have played the sacrifice immediately, but, “If you have this score in a tournament like this, you think twice!”

The hesitation arguably wasn’t critical, but when he played Na5 one move too late Nakamura was able to seize the initiative and win a pawn. Surprisingly, though, Hikaru then let that advantage slip away in turn (Shabalov recommended 34…Qxc6 instead of the weakening 34…bxc6) and the position was level, or even better for White, when a draw was agreed on move 42.

Sam Shankland got his first win since returning from the jungle | photo: Austin Fuller

The day’s other decisive game in the overall US Championship was a first win for Sam Shankland, who made Ray Robson pay for some more time trouble brinkmanship. The finale saw one of the most famous motifs (see e.g. Vishy Anand talking about it) in chess:

41.Qh8+! Kxh8 42.Nf7+ Kg8 43.Nxd6. In this case it doesn’t even win a pawn, but the position after 43…Ba6 44.Be4 is absolutely overwhelming for White, with resignation following a few moves later.

Sam noted afterwards that it was not only his first victory of the event (“It’s like a miracle that it happened”), but also his first win over Ray Robson in classical chess. That left both players on 50%, with the full standings as follows:

Paikidze does it again

All six games ended decisively in the women’s event for a second round in a row:

The only win for Black came in the day’s most important encounter. Nazi Paikidze now has three wins in a row after her 129-move loss to Anna Zatonskih, but more remarkably she’s beaten Irina Krush in their last three US Championship encounters, despite having Black in the last two. 

Nazi Paikidze's dominance over her biggest rival continues | photo: Lennart Ootes

Perhaps it’s all about how much Irina wants to win. She had been doing well and rejected her opponent’s draw. Then, instead of the strong 37.e4!, she played the one-move blunder 37.Nge4?? (“I lost my vigilance”)

37…Nxa2! simply picked up a pawn. White still had excellent drawing chances, but Irina’s bad day at the office continued as she soon swapped off knights into a hopeless rook ending and then resigned when Paikidze converted that into a simple pawn ending.

Sabina-Francesca Foisor is yet to draw a game in the 2017 US Women's Championship | photo: Austin Fuller

While Nazi Paikidze is now back in the sole lead, in sole second place is Sabina Foisor, who has been living and dying by the sword in St. Louis, with all decisive games. Her game once more featured a dramatic tactical denouement after Tatev Abrahamyan played 34…Qxd4:

After 35.Qxa8, Black wouldn’t take the bishop but would instead play 35…Qd3+, picking up the b1-rook with a draw. Sabina had no interest in a draw, though, and instead played 35.Qxc7+! Kg6 36.Rb7! when there was no defence against the mating threats.

Carissa Yip beat 4-time US Women's Champion Anna Zatonskih and, when Maurice asked her how she felt, replied "I'm ok with it!" | photo: Austin Fuller

The standings in the women’s US Championship are as follows:

In the Women’s event Round 7 sees the classic Zatonskih-Krush clash, while the top trio in the overall Championship face tricky but winnable games: Robson-So, Zherebukh-Caruana and Nakamura-Shankland. 

Don’t miss all the action from 20:00 CEST onwards here on chess24: US Champs | Women's US Champs  You can also watch all the action for free in our mobile apps:


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