23-year-old Yaroslav Zherebukh has joined Wesley So in the US Championship lead after outplaying world no. 3 and defending champion Fabiano Caruana. Elsewhere it was the day of the veterans, with Alexander Shabalov simply needing to remember computer analysis to beat Jeffery Xiong, while Daniel Naroditsky paid a heavy price for taking Gata Kamsky into a Ruy Lopez line the former World Championship Challenger had been playing all his life.
Last year Fabiano Caruana won the US Championship with an unbeaten +6. This year’s tournament has been very different, with a Round 7 disaster knocking Fabi back to 50%:
You can replay the Round 7 commentary below:
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Yaroslav Zherebukh commented “it feels beautiful!” after pulling off a sensational win against the defending champion. The Ukrainian-born player’s previous defining moment in chess had come when he reached Round 4 of the 2011 World Cup by knocking out Pavel Eljanov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, but what he did on Wednesday in St. Louis may already have eclipsed that. It wasn’t just the win, but the style in which it was accomplished.
Fabiano chose the Breyer variation of the Ruy Lopez and a rare option on move 20, with Hikaru Nakamura noting:
Wins are hard to come by… (Caruana’s) trying to play something he doesn’t normally play to get some chances with Black, and he’s gotten himself into a mess.
The middlegame struggle soon began to look a lot like a classic 1980 Tal-Spassky game:
That wasn’t good news for Caruana. The e4-d5 pawn wedge keeps Black’s queenside pieces out of the game and White’s forces are ready to launch an assault on the kingside. The legendary Mikhail Tal also doubled rooks on the f-file, played f4 and (spoiler alert!) went on to sacrifice a piece on h5. You can replay that brilliant tactical game with computer analysis here.
Zherebukh, though, was doing everything he could to avoid tactics, for a couple of reasons. First:
I realised when I play such great players they are like slippery fish – one wrong move and you’re done!
Second, he suffered a shock:
He almost played the disastrous 37.Bxh5?? which would have lost to 37…g5!, trapping the queen. Yaro explained:
I just managed to pull myself together and after that I guess I didn’t give him any single chance… If I don’t see a forced win that ends the game immediately I’m not going to go for any tactics.
He did allow himself one flourish, though, with 39.Bxh5!, a sacrifice Caruana couldn’t accept without worsening his position still further.
It was a remarkably bad situation for a top player to find himself in, and Zherebukh could do almost anything he wanted.
Zherebukh ultimately forced resignation with some manoeuvres with his rooks on the dark squares:
R1f4-Rh4-Rh6 was followed by bringing the queen to h4 to threaten mate on h8. That cost Black an exchange, and when Zherebukh set up the structure with the queen on g5 and rooks on f6 and h6 again Fabiano had seen enough.
He reflected afterwards:
I thought my tournament was taking a turn for the better after the last game (a win vs. Kamsky) but this was a pretty unpleasant surprise.
We’ll add video analysis of this game by GM Pepe Cuenca later today.
Up to this point it hasn’t been an easy event for the top US stars, whose failure to dominate the rest of the field has seem them leak rating points:
Caruana’s struggles in Round 7 were a chance for his rivals to forge ahead as the tournament entered its final stages, but neither could capitalise.
Wesley So felt Ray Robson was wrong to take a pawn on d4, allowing 20…e5!?
It’s a sign of how far computers have come that they suggest Wesley might have been proven wrong to play that if Robson had found the non-materialistic 21.Bf2!, when White’s minor pieces and central pawns threaten to dominate the game. Instead Ray Robson was clearly worse after taking on e5 with the pawn and looked in deep trouble given his clock situation. Wesley So:
More than once he had two or three seconds when he made a move. I didn’t really expect to win on time, but I couldn’t win on the position - I couldn’t quite nail it.
Wesley seemed to miss a chance when he exchanged into an opposite-coloured bishop ending just before the time control.
Hikaru Nakamura, meanwhile, got even less against Sam Shankland. He had an explanation for losing the opening battle:
The first problem is that Sam I think prepared this for Magnus Carlsen in the match against Sergey Karjakin.
Hikaru tried to deviate, but only ended up in a slightly uncomfortable position. After the game he led tributes to an earlier US Champion Arthur Bisguier, who passed away at the age of 87 earlier this week:
There are multiple painful ways to lose a game of chess, and many of them were on display in St. Louis on Wednesday. World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong is a 16-year-old star of the future, but he still needs to work on his openings, as 49-year-old 4-time US Champion Alexander Shabalov showed. Xiong was clearly on his own by around move 9 of a Caro-Kann line that had been used, for instance, by Vladimir Kramnik’s early coach Vitaly Tseshkovsky to beat Boris Spassky back in 1974.
Shabalov suggested move 15 as a moment White might have chosen differently (15.Qf3 instead of 15.f4?!), since the line in the game was forced and simply bad for White. Jeffery’s individual moves can’t be criticised:
Here he played the attractive looking 20.Nf6+, opening up the queen’s path to the a8-rook. Shabalov had this all prepared, though, and responded 20…Bxf6 21.exf6 (21.Qxa8 is initially given as a better option by the computer, but it also loses: 21…Rxf4+ 22.Ke2 b4! and again the king dies in the middle of the board) 21…Qb6!
The key move of the game and again, one Shabalov had seen before. 22.Qxa8 loses to 22…Rxf4+, and despite already being an hour down on the clock Xiong spent 20 minutes trying to find any other option. He came up with 22.f5, but after 22…Bb7 the execution was swift.
It meant Shabalov had followed a good game against Hikaru Nakamura with a first victory, but he was honest about what had taken place:
I can’t take credit for Komodo’s first line… Old people don’t usually remember long lines but that was a long line I remember… I’m happy, but basically I didn’t play today.
In many ways Gata Kamsky’s victory over Daniel Naroditsky
was a similar story. Gata was very happy that his opponent didn’t play the
Marshall but instead went for an old line of the Ruy Lopez:
I guess I got lucky because I don’t think he prepared this line. I played this line extensively in the 90s.
In fact up until move 18 they were following a game Kamsky had played against Eljanov in 2009. Three moves later Naroditsky had blown his position, with 20…Qd7? described as a “terrible move” by Kamsky:
Gata explained that allowed him to play 21.Rad1 with tempo (threatening Nxe5), and soon he had total control of the d5-square. He then went on to follow the Zherebukh school of chess:
I decided to play very conservative, positional chess. No tactics, nothing like yesterday, when I was blundering everything.
As with Zherebukh’s game, however, tactics weren’t entirely absent and there were some beautiful manoeuvres!
White could just recapture the pawn, but 33.b4! Qa7 34.b5 Ra3 35.b6 makes a much better impression! The b-pawn fell on move 43, but by that point it was a simple task to win the game on the kingside.
Varuzhan Akobian could have caught the leaders if he’d won a rook ending a pawn up against Alexander Onischuk, but instead it’s So and Zherebukh who lead after Round 7. Note that another seven players are within a point of the leaders with four rounds still to play:
In the women’s section, meanwhile, we finally got a breather after all 12 games had been decisive in the previous two rounds:
Nazi Paikidze retained her half-point lead, though she had a hard day at the office and admitted she wouldn’t have accepted her own draw offer if she’d been sitting in Anna Sharevich’s position. The big clash Zatonskih-Krush was another tense draw, while the only significant result for the standings at the top was 17-year-old Maggie Feng’s easy win over bottom-placed Emily Nguyen, who drew her first game and has now lost her next six in a row. Maggie is tied with Sabina Foisor for second and has White against Paikidze in the next round.
The main section is full of interesting clashes led, of course, by So-Nakamura. Elsewhere two Round 7 winners play in Shabalov-Kamsky, as do two losers in Caruana-Naroditsky. With four rounds to go it's time for those with ambitions of winning the title to make their move!