Reports Apr 26, 2016 | 2:28 PMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 10-11: Caruana & Paikidze triumph

Fabiano Caruana has won the US Chess Championship by a full point after scoring an unbeaten +6. Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura drew their final games to ensure they finished in joint second place, qualifying for an 18-round blitz tournament with Garry Kasparov that takes place on Thursday and Friday. Nazi Paikidze’s win in the US Women’s Championship was more dramatic, with pre-round leader Tatev Abrahamyan losing to 15-year-old Ashritha Eswaran, while Paikidze beat Irina Krush with Black.

Alexandra Wiener makes Lawrence Trent jealous as she congratulates Caruana on his US triumph | photo: Lennart Ootes

The Fabiano Caruana show

It was close to a perfect tournament for Fabiano Caruana! The nearest he came to trouble was what he described as “one weak moment” against Gata Kamsky in the penultimate round, when he admitted to getting “slowly outplayed, which doesn’t happen that often”.

With 36…Be6! Kamsky could have tortured his opponent, but after 36…Bxd7 it turned out the rook ending with an outside passed pawn was a theoretical draw.

Gata Kamsky may be one of the few players ever to have worked as hard on chess as Fabiano | photo: Lennart Ootes

In the final round Fabiano had Black against Akshat Chandra, who was languishing on 1.5/10 at the bottom of the table. 

As the football cliche goes, it was men against boys in the last round... | photo: Lennart Ootes 

The 16-year-old built up a decent position, but the difference in chess class was evident after Caruana's 18…bxc3:

Maurice Ashley was talking up the huge danger Black was now in, since White could play 19.Rad1 Qc6 20.Bxf7+!, but Caruana revealed afterwards he’d spent the 13 minutes he did on the pawn capture because he’d seen this line – and much further into the position that follows - evaluating it as only slightly worse for Black. The main thing was that it would be very complex for his opponent to play.

Whether he missed or rejected that line, Akshat went for 19.bxc3, when he got slowly outplayed by Caruana. Chandra’s time trouble helped, but a watching Garry Kasparov added, “it’s also about the quality of moves!” Fabiano confirmed his status as “Mr Confessional” by visiting twice during the one game. The second time was memorable:

Caruana uttered a single phrase: "Yep, I’m pretty sure I’m winning!"

Afterwards Caruana revealed how important the victory was for him, even agreeing that it made up for his near miss in the Moscow Candidates Tournament:

Of course the Candidates was also extremely important for me, but I would say this tournament was massively important and I really came in wanting to win the title. I’m not sure if it’s my biggest achievement to date, but probably one of the wins I’m most satisfied with.

Caruana earned $50,000, and fittingly the win returned him to the no. 2 spot on the live rating list (at least until Carlsen-Kramnik tomorrow!), with his status as US no. 1 set in stone for now. 

Garry Kasparov shared that view, explaining that Caruana’s more solid style and consistency meant he remains the best US hope for a World Chess Champion.

Fabiano takes congratulations on the streets of St. Louis | photo: Lennart Ootes

Second place was taken by Wesley So, who came close to beating Aleksandr Lenderman in the final round. Ultimately that miss made no difference to the standings, and Wesley was satisfied with his unbeaten +4 score:

Last year I played twice in St. Louis and it didn’t go so well, as you all know. I played the US Championships and the Sinquefield Cup and lost four games in each. This time I decided to play more solidly!

Wesley So finally ended his St. Louis curse, though he fell just short of first place | photo: Lennart Ootes

Hikaru Nakamura finished level on points with So, with his chances of defending his US Championship title torpedoed by his loss to Caruana in Round 4 (after admitting that a draw with Akshat Chandra in Round 3 had put him “on tilt”). He put up a good fight, scoring 5.5/7 in the remaining rounds, though in the last-round pairing he was relatively happy to take an uneventful Berlin Wall draw with Black against Ray Robson. 

Whaddya gonna do? | photo: Lennart Ootes

That kept Ray back in fourth place, with an unbeaten +3 score:

Could Nakamura have gone for more?

Maybe if there wasn’t the added incentive to play for the Top 3...

Chess fans around the world can be very grateful for Nakamura’s pragmatism, since if he’d lost it would have been Ray Robson who sneaked into the Ultimate Blitz Challenge with Garry Kasparov, where Caruana and So will now join Nakamura in taking on arguably the greatest chess player of all time.

The format for the event is to have three round-robins per day on Thursday and Friday, which appears to mean Caruana, So and Nakamura will each play no less than six games against Garry Kasparov – and each other – meaning 18 games per player in total! The time control is the curious American system where players have 5 minutes but instead of an increment there’s a 3-second delay before the time starts counting down after a move is made. The prize fund is $50,000, with $20,000 for first, and then $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000 for the remaining places. Garry says he’ll donate his prizes to support the US Olympiad team.

Garry Kasparov in the St. Louis Chess Club studio during the final round of the main (?) event - he was happy Nakamura qualified, since he wanted to challenge "one of the best blitz players in the world" | photo: Lennart Ootes

So what can we expect? Well, Kasparov noted the opposition is “tougher this year”, though he said last year's victim Nigel Short will be watching. Garry has lost weight in his preparation for the event, but can he compete with Top 10 players at the age of 53?

Wesley So joked, “I hope he’ll be a little rusty!”, while Hikaru thought it might help to clarify the hotly-debated subject of progress in chess i.e. the theory that “players are just simply better than the previous generation”. It sounded as though Nakamura thinks that may be true. In any case, a battle of the generations and a clash of different eras awaits!

You'll be able to follow the Ultimate Blitz Challenge live here on chess24.

Paikidze triumphs against the odds

Nazi Paikidze: "I feel like I'm in a dream!" | photo: Lennart Ootes

If the Open event ended more or less as we expected, the women’s tournament finished with high drama. The penultimate round was already a sensation, with the 10-year domination of Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush coming to an end. They both needed to win to stay in the title hunt, but 14-year-old Jennifer Yu recovered from a losing position to beat Anna. The same story was repeated, even more spectacularly, as 12-year-old Carissa Yip handed Krush, the winner for the last four years in a row, her first defeat in the 2016 Championship. 

Carissa Yip ended the hopes of a 5th consecutive title for Irina Krush | photo: Lennart Ootes

Carissa also did it with a beautiful final move:

53.Rg5!! The bishop can no longer come to d5 to stop the pawn’s advance, while 53…Kxg5 54.f7! also of course wins.

That left only Tatev Abrahamyan and Nazi Paikidze in with a chance of the title, with Tatev leading by half a point before the final round. She faced the easier task, but 15-year-old Ashritha Eswaran struck another blow for youth by smoothly dismantling her 28-year-old opponent’s Najdorf.

Once more Tatev Abrahamyan came within touching distance of the title, only for it to slip away | photo: Lennart Ootes

That meant a draw for Paikidze would be enough to force a playoff, while a win would give her the tournament outright. The problem was that she had Black against the top seed and defending champion Irina Krush. She would later explain her approach:

Coming to the game I just wanted to go all-in, and I was not happy with the opening because we got such a positional position and she was better. I was pretty disappointed, but then as soon as I got the chance to complicate the position I didn’t even think about it. I just went for it… it was just intuition!

17…b5! proved inspired, and by move 25 Paikidze had an overwhelming position:

Her 25…Ne3 was good, but 25…Nd3!! was even better, though afterwards she explained that she didn’t want to take the risk of somehow getting mated after 26.Bxd5+ and the white queen or rook ending up on the h-file.

There was a lot more drama to come, as she explained at the start of the post-game interview:

I’m still shaky, I cannot believe this happened! Sorry, this is going to be a very emotional interview, probably. I feel like I’m in a dream, because coming to this game I knew the chances of me winning with Black and Tatev losing were extremely small. And then I got a good position and I probably was winning somewhere before, and I missed it probably somewhere, and then I looked at Tatev’s game and she resigns, and I almost freaked out! It was like I just blew my game, probably, and then I had to calm down and win it again. It’s all just crazy.

The moment that Abrahamyan has resigned and Paikidze realises a win would give her the title | photo: Lennart Ootes

Even at the end Irina seemed to have some chances of setting up a fortress with two rooks and a bishop against a queen and rook, but Paikidze kept her cool to win her first US Chess Championship. She absolutely deserves it, since she’s now gone through the 2015 US Championship (she finished 2nd) and this one without suffering a single loss.

Paikidze later credited her husband with being the one person who really believed she could do it | photo: Lennart Ootes

The women’s final standings were as follows:

You can replay all the final day drama below:

So we don’t have a tiebreak day in the US Championships for a change, giving everyone concerned some time to recuperate before what’s set to be one of the chess events of the year. We’ll of course be covering Garry Kasparov’s return to top-level competitive chess live this Thursday from the same time of 20:00 CEST. Don’t even think about missing it!

See also:

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