Reports Apr 19, 2018 | 10:41 AMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 1: So wins as Naka and Fabi struggle

Wesley So thanked the Lord “because wins don’t come often for me nowadays” as he beat Yaroslav Zherebukh with Black to get his US Championship defence off to a good start. The other stars struggled and drew, with 15-year-old Awonder Liang giving as good as he got against Fabiano Caruana, while Hikaru Nakamura seemed worse with White by move 10 against Ray Robson. Varuzhan Akobian grabbed the day’s other win against Alexander Onischuk, while Nazi Paikidze starred in the women’s championship with a fine demolition of Jennifer Yu.

Wesley So got back to winning ways in St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

You can replay the first day’s action in the live commentary by Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley, including post-game interviews with most of the players:

You can replay all the games using the selector below – click a result to open the game with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all his results and pairings:

Awonder Liang ½-½ Fabiano Caruana

Awonder Liang wasn't going to be overawed by Carlsen's next challenger | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

Fabiano Caruana returned to St. Louis as the conquering hero after his exploits in the Candidates Tournament and the GRENKE Chess Classic, and playing a 15-year-old debutant might have seemed ideal for easing his way back into the US chess scene. Awonder Liang wasn’t going to be a pushover, though. He pointed out he only started playing chess when the St. Louis Chess Club was founded, while gaining the grandmaster title at the age of 14 years, 1 month and 20 days made him the 11th youngest grandmaster in history (Wesley needed 8 days more, while Fabiano needed another 10 months).

He’s matured more in the year since, and told Maurice Ashley afterwards:

Going into the game I didn’t really know what to expect, but I think it was better this way that I was playing him in the first round. It’s kind of like ripping a band-aid. You don’t really have to worry about it anymore for the rest of the tournament.

After Fabiano had made the Petroff seem like a killer weapon for Black in recent tournaments he decided it was time to switch to the Sicilian, though with 3.Bb5 Awonder avoided the sharpest lines. By move 22 Caruana said he was getting “very optimistic”, but he’d missed his opponent’s 27th move:

27.Ra2! is a weird-looking move, but it has the very concrete threat of playing Qa1 and exchanging off queens. Fabiano averted that with 27…Qh6 28.Ng5 Rad8 and here after Awonder’s 29.Nxe6 the game more or less uneventfully ended in a draw, though only after a nervy phase of mutual time trouble.

Instead Caruana felt that his opponent could have “played more ambitiously” with 29.Qc1!, when one point he demonstrated is that 29…f6 runs into 30.Qxf4! fxg5 31.Rxg5 and the threat of Rg8+ winning the queen means Black has to take desperate measures to avoid defeat:

Caruana summed up, “I was impressed with his play today – no serious mistakes”. He said he’d already started “mentally preparing for the match” with Magnus Carlsen, but the best quotes on that match came in the post-game interviews with the other players.

Hikaru Nakamura shared his theory that Magnus hadn’t taken Sergey Karjakin seriously and that “it didn’t feel like he was completely there”.

I think it’s going to be a very interesting match… I think a lot’s going to depend on Magnus and I want to say how seriously he takes the match, because I felt that if you look at the past, in some of the matches, his matches against Anand, he took them very seriously, I thought, he prepared very hard, and the outcomes were very good for him, whereas the match against Sergey I felt that he really thought it was going to be a bit of a cakewalk. So then when he played the match it was incredibly close and in some ways he was lucky not to lose that match, so I think a lot depends on how Magnus approaches the match, but I think certainly if Fabiano plays like he did in the Sinquefield Cup a few years ago then he’ll have chances.

When Hikaru was asked to put a number on that it was a shocker:

I think probably I’d put it around 75-80% for Magnus. I would actually put it lower, probably more like 65-70%, except for the fact that I think Fabiano has absolutely no chance if it goes to tiebreaks, so for that reason I’d put it closer to 75-80.

No-one was more shocked than Wesley So, who commented:

He’s not very patriotic – maybe he’s Norwegian! 80%. Seriously, if you’re unbiased, if you’re just an ordinary spectator, then 80% is too high, because when Fabi’s in good form he plays really well. If he arrives in the match in bad form, if he plays like he did in Wijk, then maybe Hikaru is right, but if both of them are in good form, then 60:40.

Hikaru Nakamura doesn't rate Caruana's chances | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Hikaru Nakamura was commenting after a difficult draw against Ray Robson, where he admitted to having “a bit of a haze” and confusing the move-order in a Scotch. It was already critical by move 11:

Here Nakamura played 12.Bd2 and drew in 33 moves, though he felt his opponent missed a chance to play for more with 15…d5 instead of 15…d6. In the diagram position Hikaru said that “on another day” he would have played 12.Kd1!? with White getting fast development in exchange for the obvious weakening of his king position. He explained why he didn’t, though:

Something like this would have been very, very interesting, I think, but it’s kind of the first round and you don’t want to do something stupid, blunder a tactic and just lose in 20 moves with White!

Nakamura was disappointed, but noted it’s a long tournament, and summed up, “It’s not like I’m expecting someone to go 11 and 0, because no-one’s going to go 11 and 0!” That’s good news for Rex Sinquefield, who in that case won’t have to write any checks for the $64,000 Bobby Fischer prize!

Yaroslav Zherebukh 0-1 Wesley So

Wesley So looking slick | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Wesley So got off to the worst possible start in the Candidates Tournament as he lost his first two games, but when he beat Levon Aronian in Round 7 it seemed a comeback might be on the cards. Those hopes were cruelly dashed in the very next round as he lost a drawish ending against Sergey Karjakin and seemed to lose all ambition. He went on to draw the remaining seven games. He told Maurice Ashley, while praising Caruana:

I think looking back I didn’t really have much chance to win the Candidates a few months ago. It’s just my level of preparation and my experience was not enough yet. Hopefully it will be one day.

It was therefore very welcome to get off to a winning start in St. Louis, and he half-quipped:

Finally it’s a very good start and I’d like to thank the Lord, of course, because wins don’t come often for me nowadays! I don’t know when’s the next time I’m going to win a game again.

The game was another 3.Bb5 Sicilian in which Zherebukh was doing fine for a while, but Wesley noted that his opponent began to drift and the 21…b5! break turned the tables in Black’s favour. A few moves later there was a chance to play a brilliancy:

24…Nf5!! and if 25.exf5 there’s 25…Nd5!, when the threat of capturing on e3 and playing Bd4 means White has nothing better than to give up the a1-rook. Wesley So’s first reaction was “what!?” when that was pointed out to him, and when he’d seen how strong it was he joked, “that’s why I’m only no. 7 in the world!” (though the win took him above Nakamura into 6th on the live list!)

There was no harm done, though, since after 24…cxb4 the position was tough for Zherebukh to navigate in time trouble, and after 25.Qxb4 Nd7 26.Kh1? (26.Ra2!) 26…Nc2! it was essentially over. 53…Kg7! was a nice final touch that persuaded Yaroslav to resign:

Black gets out of the pin and is ready to play g5 next move, but what about the h4-pawn? Well, it turns out that 54.Nxh4 runs into 54…e5!, with the threat of simply playing e4 next move, when the knight is trapped and can be picked up at will.

Lenderman-Shankland: no-one said it was going to be easy... | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

The other two draws were Lenderman ½-½ Shankland, the fastest and least eventful game of the day, and Xiong ½-½ Izoria, the day’s longest game, in which 17-year-old Jeffery Xiong couldn’t quite convert an extra pawn against Zviad Izoria:

57…g4! was a nice clear-cut way to draw. After 58.Kxc7?? gxf3 Black would even win, while 58.fxg4 runs into 58…Bxg3! and the black king picks up the remaining pawns. In the game there was a variation on that with 58.f4 Bxf4! and all pawns had been eliminated four moves later.

That leaves the only other win of the day:

Alexander Onischuk 0-1 Varuzhan Akobian

Alexander Onischuk made a playoff against Wesley So in the 2017 US Championship and was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame on the eve of the event, but this wasn’t to be his day. It wasn’t the fault of the opening or early middlegame, since as Wesley commented, “today he was simply much better, and then he lost”.

Akobian delivers the winning blow | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Varuzhan Akobian is a very dangerous counterattacking player, though, and he was already comfortable with his position when he managed to sacrifice an exchange to relieve the pressure. The game eventually came down to a nice trick after Onischuk tried to solve his problems with 25.Re2? (25.f3! Bxf3 26.Rd7! was roughly equal):

25…Bxe2 26.Nxe2 or 25…Nxc3 26.Rxd2 are roughly equal, but Akobian spotted 25.d1=Q+! It turns out Black simply ends up a piece up after 26.Rxd1 Nxc3, when the white rooks are both attacked by both Black’s minor pieces. Onischuk resigned, with Akobian noting afterwards this was his first classical win against his good friend.

Paikidze off to a great start

Tatev Abrahamyan assesses the competition | photo: Austin Fuller, official website

The women’s section also only saw two decisive results:

That was less because of solid play than first day nerves, though, since Anna Zatonskih, Irina Krush and Dorsa Derakhshani all missed big winning chances. Defending Champion Sabina-Francesca Foisor boldly sacrificed two pawns for compensation against Tatev Abrahamyan, and although objectively it might not quite have been enough it worked out in practice in a sharp 29-move draw. 15-year-old Annie Wang beat 17-year-old Maggie Feng in a tricky ending, but by far the game of the day – in both sections – was Nazi Paikidze’s demolition of 16-year-old rising star Jennifer Yu.

Yu-Paikidze was the game of the day | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Paikidze had already blown the white position wide open with 8…b5! and here took the chance to do more damange:

12…Nxf2! 13.gxf5 Nxh1. White’s only hope was to gradually round up and eliminate that knight on h1, but a well-timed g5 pawn sacrifice ensured the knight didn’t die in vain. Paikidze then kept her cool in her opponent’s time trouble to finish off the game with powerful chess.

There was a shock afterwards when Maurice asked her if she’d been preparing hard for the event:

To be honest, no – I’ve been busy with a lot of things. The last tournament I played was in June last year, so I was a bit worried I would be rusty!

In Round 2 of the US Championship So, Caruana and Nakamura all have White against players they outrate by over a hundred Elo points, so it’s a fair bet they’re all going to be out for blood! Follow all the action live from 13:00 CDT (20:00 CEST), with live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24.   

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