What a round! Wesley So played an exquisite piece and then queen sacrifice to beat Jeffery Xiong while his rivals Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana were undone by Alexander Onischuk and Varuzhan Akobian. Fabi in particular somehow contrived to lose a position where he was up two connected passed pawns. Elsewhere there were also wild games that on another day would have gripped our attention, as Ray Robson and Daniel Naroditsky blew huge advantages.
One of the most amazing days of chess we’ve seen in a long time took place in St. Louis on Friday:
You can replay the Round 9 commentary below:
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We have to start with Wesley So’s win against World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong, which, with more than a hint of understatement, Wesley summed up with, “I think it’s a good game”. Azeri Grandmaster Rauf Mamedov put it a little differently:
While German International Master Nikolas Lubbe was just trying to fathom the depth of the game:
Check it out with video commentary by Spanish Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca:
That was Wesley So’s 65th game unbeaten (he can end the tournament by matching MVL’s 67 game unbeaten streak from last year), but he was more focused on ending a drawing streak of four games. He also tried to buoy up his opponent:
I’d like to thank the Lord for a win because before this game I didn’t have great expectations… Jeffery is a good kid, he’s really talented. He only started playing chess like seven years ago. These losses will help him to learn and get better.
When it was mentioned that the game was reminiscent of Wesley’s crushing of Garry Kasparov in a blitz game in the Ultimate Blitz at the end of last year’s Championship, Wesley joked:
I’m really sad we don’t have that blitz thing this year – where’s Garry when you need him!
If we did have it, though, the format of having the Top 3 finishers taking on Garry might not have worked out as well as it did in 2016, since Nakamura and Caruana both crashed and burned.
The frustration of seven draws in a row seems to have told on Hikaru Nakamura, since from early on in his game against Alexander Onischuk he began to throw the kitchen sink at his opponent. Pawns were sacrificed one after another, though it could still have been happily ever after for Hikaru if not for his choice on move 33:
He needed to play the immediate 33.Qe5!, but instead went for the tempting 33.Nxd5!?. The knight can’t be captured because of the threat of a queen fork on e5 in many lines, but Onischuk found 33…Qg7!, hitting b2, when after 34.Nc3 Qxf7 Black had two extra pawns, and although Nakamura had some compensation it was clear he was in for a tough fight ahead.
By move 43 those two pawns had been reduced to one, and it seemed as though Nakamura was winning the fight. His time began to run out, though, with the lack of an extra time control at move 60 a factor. The other factor was Onischuk’s exceptional technique, which he’d demonstrated to save and gain half points in previous rounds. Resignation came on move 75, with the f-pawn set to cost White a piece and the game:
Onischuk also had a good line in understatement when he commented, “It was an eventful game”!
While that game was simply the kind of thing that can happen when a top player is pressing hard for a win, the Akobian-Caruana encounter defied belief, though time trouble is perhaps the closest you can get to a rational explanation. Both players were very short on time when Fabiano Caruana first seized the initiative on move 31:
31…a4! was a fine spot, since 32.bxa4 loses immediately to 32…Nc4!. Fabiano would go on to bluff Akobian a few moves later and by the time the players reached the time control he had two extra connected passed pawns and was heading into the final two rounds of the US Open only half a point behind Wesley So.
Then, as Akobian put it, “a miracle happened”. His first inkling that the game wasn’t over came from the way Fabiano was playing:
He was taking a lot of time for some reason. I figured maybe it’s not so straightforward a win.
Then the first objective chess reason for hope came after he played 50.Rb1:
50...c4! is the best move, since 51.Nd4 looks good but is met by 51…Qc5!, with the point that White can’t take on b6 since Rd1+ would then win the queen. Instead, though, Caruana played 50…Qe6, when 51.Nc7! left Akobian winning the b6-pawn. Black was still better, of course, but it was understandable that Fabi failed to convert his advantage while playing on increments.
Disaster struck, though, on move 76, when Caruana fatefully pushed his f-pawn:
There was no time for either player to think, but Varuzhan instantly saw the winning 77.Qa7+. He said it took him a little longer to realise 77…Kh8 simply loses to 78.Nf7+ Kg8 79.Nh6+ or 78…Kg7 79.Nd6+, winning the queen. In the game there followed 77…Kh6 78.Ng4+ Kg5 79.Qxh7, and, just like that, Varuzhan Akobian was leading the tournament alongside Wesley So!
Caruana and Nakamura's woes are reflected in the live rating list, with Kramnik, MVL, Anand and Karjakin all moving up:
There may be other consequences:
On any other day the highlight of Round 9 might have been the other games, since apart from the Berlin draw in Kamsky-Shankland we got two crazy Sicilians.
Yaroslav Zherebukh thought afterwards he’d been in his preparation until move 22 of his game against Ray Robson, but he couldn’t recall it. A couple of moves later he made a decision he described as “horrible”:
24. ... 0-0?! Somehow it worked out ok in the end, with Zherebukh remarking, “For some reason the possibility I could lose the game never crossed my mind!” He also talked about how the loss the day before had affected him:
I was devastated. I took a lot of consolation from close people to me… and three whiskey shots as well!
That game was almost normal compared to Daniel Naroditsky blowing a position where he had Alexander Shabalov’s king stranded in the middle of the board and an advantage the computer evaluated at +5.70.
Daniel almost lost it, while the final drawing sequence of almost all only moves for both sides sums up the game (it’s Shabalov to play with Black):
51…Rxb3! 52.Nxf6! c3! 53.Nh5+! Kg8! 54.Rg1+! Bg6! 55.Rxg6+! hxg6 56. Nf6+ Kg7 57.Nh5+ and a draw by repetition.
Remarkably, therefore, Caruana and Nakamura are all but out of contention for winning the 2017 US Championship, with three players apart from So above them:
The Women’s Championship simply couldn’t compete with that drama, but a draw between the leaders Nazi Paikidze and Sabina Foisor and wins for Anna Zatonskih and Tatev Abrahamyan set the tournament up perfectly for the final two rounds. Irina Krush might have joined Paikidze and Foisor in the lead, but couldn’t convert an extra pawn against Carissa Yip.
The final two rounds of the US Championship on Saturday and Sunday (with potential tiebreaks on Monday) promise to be thrilling. Wesley So is the obvious favourite (Kamsky with White, Naroditsky with Black), since unless he loses a game he can no longer be caught by Caruana or Nakamura. Now, though, we have to look at less familiar rivals – Akobian (Robson with White, Nakamura with Black) and Onischuk (Xiong with White, Kamsky with Black). Could we get a shock US Champion?