Wesley So drew against Hikaru Nakamura in Round 8 of the US Championship, allowing Varuzhan Akobian to catch him in the lead by bringing Yaroslav Zherebukh crashing back down to earth. Fabiano Caruana also saw his fortunes turn as he crushed Daniel Naroditsky to move within half a point of the leaders with three rounds to go. In the women's section Nazi Paikidze was caught by Sabina Foisor, who beat Emily Nguyen in 73 moves. They meet in Round 9.
After another action-packed round the 2017 US Championships are perfectly poised as we enter the final weekend (click a result to replay the game with computer analysis, or hover over a player to see all of his results so far):
You can replay the Round 8 commentary below:
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The clash of the day, on paper, was So-Nakamura, but the day before Hikaru had talked about how it was a relief to be “playing against a top player and not having to do anything crazy”, since for once a draw, his 7th in a row, wouldn’t mean lost rating points. He would add afterwards that with the tournament so tight, “I have to be somewhat sensible”.
He played the Stonewall Dutch with an early …g5, but both players pointed out afterwards that it was played by Magnus Carlsen last year, “so how bad can it be?”, while it had also been tried by Mikhail Botvinnik against Tigran Petrosian back in 1963. A tense middlegame led to exchanges and the players agreeing a draw as soon as the required 30 moves had been made. Wesley So had few complaints, since he still led the event and had notched up 64 games unbeaten.
Nakamura was having more success on the financial markets:
That draw was Fabiano Caruana’s chance, and he took it, with more than a little help from Daniel Naroditsky.
Daniel played the French and, for the second time in two rounds, failed to make it out of the opening. He had played relatively fast, but there was no papering over the cracks in his position:
14.Nh7+! was forced but good for Caruana. After 14…Rxh7 15.Bxh7 Bb7 16.0-0 Nbc6?! 17.Rab1 Ba6? White had everything he could ask for, but when after the game it was mentioned to Fabiano that Black could have tried to cement his position with 16…Bd5 the world no. 2 felt that would only have delayed the inevitable:
I already assumed I was close to winning. He has a pawn for the exchange, but it’s a doubled c-pawn. I think it should be, objectively at least, much better for White.
In the game Black put up no resistance, though 25…Qd2 at least showed a sense of humour:
Anything but taking the queen and allowing back-rank mate should do the job, and after 26.Rd8+ Naroditsky resigned a few moves later. This back-rank mate threat would, however, be the tactical motif of the day, since it occurred in the other key game.
Caruana also found time to steal Ben Finegold's phone... allegedly!
Varuzhan Akobian squandered winning positions with the black pieces against both Alexander Shabalov and Wesley So, yet he’s still in the joint lead after 8 rounds!
He also played the French against Yaroslav Zherebukh, and came prepared, deviating from Zherebukh’s Round 5 game against Wesley So with 8…Qc7, a move he’d spotted Vladimir Kramnik play in his rapid match against Hou Yifan late last year. For the first time in the US Championship Zherebukh found himself in trouble, and Akobian felt his opponent’s decision on move 15 was essentially the losing one:
15.Bxf6? gave up the bishop pair and saw the white pieces get overrun by the black army. In the final stages both players missed some tricks, but it was Zherebukh who made the final blunder with 27.Rad1? exf3! 28.Rxf4:
28…Rd2! ended the game. The rook can’t be taken without allowing back-rank mate, so the d7-knight is lost.
Another opening debacle saw Alexander Onischuk join the group with Caruana and Nakamura half a point behind the leaders. Ray Robson went pawn grabbing with his queen, but was brought up short by 17.Nc4!
The queen is lost, and after almost half an hour Ray decided to give it up with 17…Nf6 18.Ra3, when he ultimately emerged with a rook and three pawns for the queen. Onischuk was made to play on until move 65 in a queen vs. rook ending, but he commented, “Quite frankly, the rest of the game was quite easy”.
It’s worth noting, though, that the computer spots the brilliant 17…b5! 18.Ra3 Qb4!! when Black would still have had chances of saving the game.
The remaining games in Round 8 saw Alexander Shabalov and Gata Kamsky take a deserved breather with a 32-move Marshall draw. Those players have inflicted the only defeats on Jeffery Xiong in St. Louis, and the 16-year-old finally got a first win on Thursday by outplaying Sam Shankland with the black pieces:
Xiong correctly judged he could set his hanging pawns in motion here with 22…d4!, and just a few moves later Sam had little choice but to give up the exchange on d3 to halt Black’s initiative. It was only a stop-gap measure, though, and eventually Xiong marshalled his forces to weave a mating net.
Shankland was visibly upset after conceding defeat and his post-game interview with Maurice Ashley featured a string of laments:
Jeffery’s always just been a nightmare for me. I’ve had huge positions in all four games… I wish I could convert a good position against him sometime… He doesn’t play like a young player at all, he’s a very grindy guy. I think his best quality by far is his resilience… Maybe if I was better in chess…
He ended on a positive note, though:
I’ll be ready to fight tomorrow with everything I have in me!
The standings with 8 rounds to go include a 4-way tie for 3rd and a 5-way tie for 7th, with at least the first 6 players in with a strong chance of becoming 2017 US Champion:
Excitement is also building in the Women’s US Championship:
Maggie Feng’s fine run continued as the 17-year-old held the reigning US Champion Nazi Paikidize to an easy draw. That made Sabina Foisor favourite to catch her in the lead, since was playing Emily Nguyen, who had suffered six losses in a row. The early stages of that game made it look even more likely, but when Sabina decided to cash in her advantage by winning an exchange it hugely complicated her task. It looked as though Emily would hold on…
…but her fortress finally cracked and she conceded defeat on move 73.
Irina Krush moved back to half a point behind the leaders, though she wasn’t thrilled with her win over Apurva Virkud, who missed several chances to go active and equalise the position before ultimately blundering in time trouble.
Carissa Yip’s dragon only left her burned:
The game of the round, though, was Tatev Abrahamyan’s draw with Jennifer Yu. For a while it looked as though the youngster was going to win losing positions against Krush, Zatonskih and Abrahamyan in the same tournament, since she survived and then found some brilliant moves in the closing stages:
She missed the last winning chance on move 51:
51…b2! would have done it, since it turns out the black king will eventually escape from checks after 52.Rhxe6+. Instead 51…c1=Q was only a draw, after 52.Rxe6+.
In fact, it looked as though there was no escaping another R+B vs. R ending in which Tatev might well come out on top (as Ben Finegold was predicting). Instead, though, Jennifer was given a last chance to get in a trick:
64…a3! 65.Kxb3 Rxd3+ finally brought the game and the round to a close.
In Friday’s Round 9 Paikidze has the white pieces against co-leader Foisor in the women’s section, while the men’s sees Akobian-Caruana, Xiong-So and Nakamura-Onischuk, with every chance of some results that will be crucial to the final standings.