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Reports Apr 21, 2018 | 2:43 PMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 3: Caruana hits the front, again

Fabiano Caruana is just unstoppable nowadays, and with a 2nd win in a row has joined Wesley So and Varuzhan Akobian in the US Championship lead. The task of all the Big 3 was to win with the black pieces against weaker opposition, but only Fabiano managed, as Wesley So and particularly Hikaru Nakamura survived scares to draw. In the end it was Yaroslav Zherebukh and Sam Shankland who picked up the day’s other wins, while in the women’s section all but one game was decisive as Nazi Paikidze and Annie Wang took the lead.

Caruana beat Xiong to join the US Championship leaders after 3 rounds | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

There were three decisive games in the open section in Round 3 – click on a result to open the game with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all his results or pairings:

Replay the day’s action with commentary by Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley:

Winning with Black

The player with Black had the higher rating in all six games in the open section on Friday, and both tournament and rating logic meant that the star names felt they had to play for a win. Hence the openings…

Hikaru Nakamura took perhaps the most common “must-win” approach to his game against Aleksandr Onischuk, starting with d6 and g6. He said afterwards:

Alex was on 0/2, he’d lost both his games, so I had to do something… Probably what I did was too extravagant - I got into a lot of trouble. I was very lucky not to lose.

Three draws so far for Nakamura | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Onischuk showed glimpses of why he’d made it into the World Chess Hall of Fame when he forced Nakamura to make a tough choice after 19.c5!, a move Hikaru admitted to missing:


19…Be6!? was a radical approach, and after 20.Bxc6 Rb8 21.Qa4 Nh5!? 22.Kf2! Qc7 the situation was already critical:


Nakamura summed up:

I lost the thread and I was probably just lost. 22…Bf3 and I can just resign, basically, with the idea of c6.

After 22.Bf3 it’s worth pointing out 22…dxc5 isn’t an option due to 23.Be5!. In the game, though, Onischuk clarified the situation immediately with 23.cxd6!? Qxd6 24.Bxa7, but although he had an extra pawn and initially thought he was “totally winning”, Nakamura was able to organise enough counterplay against the black king to hold. Alex commented:

Not only he’s a great player, but he’s also resilient. To beat him you really have to play 40-45 great moves!

Defending Champion Wesley So wasn't too disappointed that his chance of the Bobby Fischer prize for 11/11 had gone | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Wesley So was another player who lamented the resistance put up by his opponent. He played the French Defence against 15-year-old Awonder Liang and got a pawn to d3 by move 12, but although at times his opponent seemed to be in trouble Wesley was frustrated:

I was hoping he’d make some mistake because of his time trouble, but it never came.

In fact it was Wesley who played carelessly in the ending and might have been in real trouble if his opponent had shown a bit more precision:


31.f3! here, to stop Ne4 and prepare the king’s advance into the centre, might really have tested Black. Instead after 31.h4!? Ne4! 32.Bf3!? Nc5! the danger had passed and the game fizzled out to a draw.

Awonder Liang has now held both Caruana and So to a draw, saying he just suffered a "brain freeze" when he blundered against Akobian in Round 2 | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Fabiano Caruana has specialised in winning with Black in recent months, and his weapon of choice against 17-year-old Jeffery Xiong was the Benoni. He said he’d worked on the line, “back in the day”, for the 2016 Candidates, but admitted to being on his own by move 10. Nevertheless, he soon found a way to create fire on board by racing his f-pawn down the board:


It was obviously double-edged, with play continuing 13.0-0 fxe3 14.Nde4 exf2+ 15.Kh1. Jeffery went on to round up the f-pawn, but when the dust had settled he was a pawn down against the World Championship challenger, and while he had some compensation there was clearly a long and difficult struggle ahead.

Fabiano Caruana has closed the gap to Magnus Carlsen to under 20 rating points | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

The end was accelerated by a choice on move 35:


Fabiano described 35.Nb5+! as “absolutely necessary”, and had correctly concluded he’d have nothing better than retreating his king with 35…Kd7. Other moves run into tactical issues, including 35…Kc5? 36.b4! and the black king is suddenly exposed. Instead Jeffery played 35.Re3? and it proved to be just a matter of time before Caruana went on to convert his advantage and catch the leaders.

Sam Shankland commented afterwards about his elite rivals, "They’re also human being, they can make mistakes, they can die!" We assume he meant on the chessboard... | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Caruana wasn’t the only higher-rated player to win with Black, since Sam Shankland emerged from a quiet couple of rounds (he said he’d “been a bit under the weather”) to beat Zviad Izoria. The final blow was nice:


34…Bc6! provoked resignation. Clearly the bishop can't be taken, while after 35.Rxd4 Bxf3 the d1-square is covered so the rook can’t retreat to defend the b1-bishop. If 35.Qe2 then after 35…Qh4! the threat of mate on h1 destroys White’s coordination.

The easy draw against Nakamura the round before seemed to inspire Zherebukh | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That was a fine finish, but the most attractive finish of the day came in Zherebukh-Robson. 44…a3 at first glance seems to give Black some chances of queening the a-pawn and saving the game:


Yaro coolly played 45.Kxa5!, though, and after 45…a2 46.Kb6 a1=Q Black has an extra queen with the white pawns still three tempi short of promoting… but Black is totally helpless. Play continued 47.c6 Ke8 48.c7 and Black resigned three moves later.

Zherebukh is now back to 50%, where he’s joined by Nakamura, while Caruana, So and Akobian are the early leaders:


Four leaders become two

Nazi Paikidze earlier revealed she's focused on starting a business rather than chess, but so far she's on track to repeat her 2016 US Championship success | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Meanwhile in the women’s section there was more mayhem, with all but one game decisive. 

Of the four leaders going into the day, Nazi Paikidze and Annie Wang both won again, Anna Zatonskih was held to a draw, and Irina Krush stumbled to a dramatic loss to Anna Sharevich. Irina knew it was going to be a long day when she made “natural” moves that left her balanced on the edge of a precipice by move 7:


It turns out the threats of Bb5+, Nfg5 and taking on f7 are so serious that Black has to take drastic action, with Irina going for 7…Bd6 8.Bb5+ Ke7. She summed up afterwards:

I wasn’t dreaming about putting my king on e7 on move 7! Obviously I was not careful in my move order - I just didn’t expect something so bad to happen in the opening…

She put up a good fight after that, though, and was dreaming of taking the initiative herself until worse things then began to happen. Anna’s kingside attack suddenly became unstoppable, and she got the chance to unleash the beautiful and absolutely crushing 38.Re5!!

38…fxe5 39.Rf1+ is mate-in-3, and while the commentators lamented that after 38…Qc6 Anna played 39.Rh5 instead of the “more aesthetic” 39.Rg5, it made absolutely no difference. In fact Irina sportingly allowed the game to end 39…Rd5 40.Qh8+ Ng8 41.Ng6+ Kf7 42.Qh7#

While Nazi Paikidze took the lead by outplaying Dorsa Derakhshani in a more or less smooth game, 15-year-old Annie Wang joined her in a rollercoaster of an encounter:


Annie said afterwards she saw 35.Bxg7! and was sure she was dead lost, as she would have been after 35…Kxg7 36.Qb2+! and the black king’s days are numbered. In fact 35.Rg4! Bf8 36.Bxg7! Bxg7 37.Qb2! is even stronger. Rusudan Golletiani instead played the meek 35.Bg2? (35.Be6! was another winning move), and Annie, euphoric about surviving that scare, soon seized the initiative and went on to win. 

Annie Wang, the youngest player in either section, is also a co-leader | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

After three rounds the women’s standings look as follows:


Round 4 is another of those rounds when the Big 3 all have White, and you have to fear for Izoria (vs. Caruana), Lenderman (vs. So) and Liang (vs. Nakamura). From a spectator’s perspective, though, it should be a lot of fun! 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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