Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana were always the huge favourites to win the 2016 US Championship, but we couldn’t have expected them to demonstrate it quite so dramatically. In Round 1 all three had White and all three won quickly and in style, with So stealing the plaudits for making beating 5-time Champion Gata Kamsky look like child’s play!
There was only a single draw in Round 1 of the main US Championship, and even that was a spectacularly sharp battle between 40-year-old Alexander Onischuk and 15-year-old Jeffery Xiong.
The big guns made their mark early on, though. Let’s take them in order of the speed with which they won:
Gata Kamsky is usually rock solid with the black pieces, but his 21…Kh7? opened him up to a world of pain (21…Nh7 was Wesley and the computer’s recommendation):
Wesley took only five minutes to go for the knight sacrifice 22.Nhf5!, claiming not to have seen it all (“I don’t think I’d be a professional chess player if I calculated everything - I’d get too many headaches!”) but reasoning that at worst he’d end up with two pawns for the piece while Black had a bad bishop on b7. It all went much better than that, and after 22…gxf5 23.Nxf5 Re6 24.Bxh6 Ne8 25.Bg5 Bf6? 26.Bxf6 Qxf6 27.d5 Re7 it turned out 28.g4!! was winning on the spot, as Gata soon realised...
The threat is simply g5, and the rook on e7 will be lost for no compensation at all. Gata limited himself to a few minutes of lamenting his life choices before offering his hand in resignation. Kamsky admitted:
I completely missed this g4-g5 – a one-move blunder and it’s over.
He put the blame for his play partly down to jetlag, after arriving the day before, and hopes to improve as the event goes on. Wesley, meanwhile, isn’t planning to repeat his 10 decisive games in 11 rounds from 2015!
Grandmaster Pepe Cuenca has now analysed the game for us:
Next up was the reigning champion, Hikaru Nakamura.
The only issue Hikaru had against Alex Lenderman was that he couldn’t find a knockout blow in the early middlegame, with the time spent looking meaning his opponent had a significant lead on the clock. That meant little, though, as Nakamura made natural and seemingly simple moves that left Black utterly helpless. The final position speaks for itself, with the black queenside rook and knight having failed to move at all… while White has mate-in-6.
Before the round began Tournament Direct Tony Rich had encouraged players to use the Confessional Booth, but Hikaru Nakamura had something to get off his chest:
First of all, I think I would state quite clearly that I don’t think the confessional box is a good idea. I’m not a fan. I tried it during Norway Chess and also the Sinquefield Cup and, if anything, I think it’s a distraction, because you have to be focussing on the game and when you go into the confessional box you tend to have more normal thoughts that are not related to chess, and I think that’s not a good thing when your mind is thinking about too many things at once. So for me I don’t intend on using the confessional during this tournament.
It’s clear the Confessional is mainly for entertainment and can look out of place when the stakes are high – the announced plan of using it during the Moscow Candidates Tournament was quietly dropped, for instance. On the other hand, it can be fun, which brings us to…
Fabiano was playing his first US Championship since switching from playing for Italy, but he’s of course very familiar with St. Louis and took it in his stride when Varuzhan Akobian completely surprised him by playing the Scandinavian Defence (1.e4 d5). Akobian blitzed out his moves in a line Caruana claimed he last looked at when he was eight years old, but Fabiano was proud of his 8.b3:
In any case I liked my b3-move. It was pretty bespoke!
We learned that Fabiano was happy about that move during the game when he came to the confessional. That wasn’t the purpose of his visit, though:
Afterwards Caruana denied the suggestion he’d lost a bet with his manager, adding, “it was a genuine outpouring of love”. The jury remains out on that one!
Meanwhile, back in the game… Akobian soon sank into ever deeper thinks, until he found himself a pawn down with 30 seconds on his clock and 20 moves to make before the time control. The 30-second increment per move meant that was physically possible, but chesswise it was never going to end well for the Armenian-American. Fabiano played with the pragmatism that characterises the best of the current generation, avoiding tactical solutions, even good ones, when he could simply tighten the screw and wait for his opponent to implode. That happened with 31…Nc7?
Caruana accepted the time had come and played the skewer 32.Nxf7! Qxf7 33.Rg7, when the remaining seven moves weren’t strictly necessary.
The other games were far from so one-sided, though 16-year-old Akshat Chandra managed to get into even worse time trouble than Akobian. It looked as though he might live to tell the tale, but in the run-up to move 40 he exchanged queens only to end up a few moves later in a position where Sam Shankland’s connected queenside passed pawns were all but unstoppable.
The day’s other winner was Ray Robson, who got some praise from Nakamura. When Hikaru was asked if he thought it was a 3-horse race, he replied:
Objectively I would say that I think that’s true. The only player who could shake that up is Ray Robson – he’s quite capable of playing extremely good chess when he’s on form, so he might have a shot, but for the most part there is a reason why three of us are so much higher rated than everyone else, and I think most likely one of us will win.
Ray weathered an opening storm against another 4-time Champion, Alexander Shabalov (now 48), and then found perhaps the move of the round:
42…Ne2!! forced resignation, since 43.Rxc7 runs into the neat 43…Ng1+ 44.Kh4 Nf3+ 45.Kh3 Rxh2 mate.
Surprisingly, the women’s event got off to a much more sober start, with only two decisive games in six.
12-year-old Carissa Yip, the event’s youngest player, got off to a winning start, executing a nice finish to refute her 13-year-old opponent’s desperate last try.
The key game for the ultimate standings, though, was undoubtedly Anna Zatonskih’s grim but ultimately successful defence of a dire position against Nazi Paikidze. Paikidze finished 2nd – and unbeaten – in the 2015 event, and is one of those with a real chance of upsetting the decade-long reign of Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih.
In Round 2 Nakamura has Black against Kamsky, So has Black against Chandra and Caruana has White against Shankland. Needless to say, they’ll all be out to win in an event that may well be decided by how ruthlessly the three superstars bully the rest of the field. Tune in from 8pm CET, as Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley again provide live commentary from the venue. If you missed the first round show you can rewatch it below:
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