Reports Apr 25, 2018 | 12:46 AMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 6: Fabi is back but Shankland leads

Fabiano Caruana was back in business in Round 6 of the US Championship as he lived dangerously to beat Ray Robson with Black. His rivals Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura seemed to miss chances as they only drew, while Sam Shankland snatched the sole lead by beating co-leader Varuzhan Akobian in a game he later described as “absolutely disgraceful”. There’s also a surprise sole leader in the women’s section, as 15-year-old Annie Wang beat Dorsa Derakhshani to reach a brilliant 5/6.

How much does Sam Shankland want to win the US Championship? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura had White in Round 6, but it was two players with Black who grabbed important wins:

Caruana bounces back

Fabiano had two shaky games, but he got back on track against Ray Robson | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Fabiano Caruana won three games with the black pieces in both the Berlin Candidates and the GRENKE Chess Classic, with half of the wins coming in the Petroff. That opening was notorious as the main means of playing for a draw with Black against 1.e4 until Kramnik introduced us to the joys of the Berlin Defence, but Caruana and his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov now seem to have refined it into a lethal weapon full of unpleasant surprises for Fabi’s opponents. Ray Robson was the first of them to face it in this year’s US Championship, and 13…Bf5!? was a novelty given some disguise by Caruana’s improvised one the day before against Sam Shankland:


Robson correctly took the proffered pawn with 14.Bxd5 cxd5 15.Qxd5, though Black had compensation in the form of the bishop pair. Fabiano explained his reasoning:

The thing is I knew about this position, and I knew that I could play 13…Be6 with pretty much an equal position, which I’d analysed a bit, and I knew that 13…Bf5 is a playable move, but I hadn’t really analysed it… It helps when you know that the position is drawn, and also his task is more difficult. I have some knowledge of the position, so it gives me some edge. Maybe he thought I was playing stupid variations in every game! It wasn’t a complete gamble – I knew the position was ok for me.

Five games to go before Fabiano can finally take a month's break before Altibox Norway Chess | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Caruana continued to pose problems and push Robson into time trouble, while he was shocked by the young American’s choice on move 25:


I thought 25.a4!? was already such a psychotic move! I can’t imagine ever opening my king up like that… There must be something better than a4. It doesn’t stop b5, and it’s just so risky.

After 25…h6 26.Rd1 Qg4 27.Rd2 the move 27…b5!? did indeed appear on the board, and although Fabiano explained it was “played a little bit intuitively” it wasn’t intended as the gamble it looked if you checked the computer evaluation: “I just thought I would have an enormous attack”. Ray trusted his opponent, though, and after 28.axb5 axb5 he didn’t pick up the pawn:


Instead of 29.Qxb5!, when after Fabiano’s intended 29…f6 30.Bd6 there’s no immediate killer blow to justify the 2-pawn deficit, Ray went for 29.Qd1?!, and after 29…Qd7 30.f5? Bg5! Black was winning. The ending was slick, as Ray Robson was caught in a fatal pin:


35…b4! carried the threat of b3+, deflecting the king and winning the d3-rook, while after 36.cxb4 Rc8+! 37.Kb3 Qe6+ 38.Rd5 Rd8 the new pin was even more lethal. The game ended 39.Kc4 Qc6+ White resigns (40.Kd4 was just one of those typical DGT errors when trying to signal a result by placing the kings)

Fabiano commented:

This is exactly what I needed, especially before a rest day… The last two games were not good, either one of them. This was maybe not a perfect game, but definitely a step up.

Watch the full interview (and the rest of the Round 6 show):

Nakamura and So struggle

Fabiano moved level with Wesley So again, after Wesley was held to a fourth draw in a row after starting with two wins, while Nakamura is a point behind after drawing all six of his games so far. In Round 6 both Top 10 stars seemed to miss a chance with the white pieces at almost the same time, in positions with identical pieces.


Wesley played 14.Nf5!? and was if anything slightly worse as the game soon fizzled out into a draw. Instead 14.Nxe6! was the way to fight for a win, although it’s understandable So might have been wary of entering the complications after 14…Bxe3 15.Nxg7+ (forced) 15…Kf8 16.e5!. It was more clear-cut in Nakamura’s game – Hikaru played 19.Rxb4?! Bxg2 20.Rf4 Qc6 and although he emerged a pawn up the opposite-coloured bishop position was soon drawn. Instead either 19.Nc4! or 19.Nb3! would be close to winning, with White emerging with two minor pieces for a rook in the main line.

Why didn’t Nakamura play that after an 8-minute think?

Somehow I just missed this move… Somehow I’m just not seeing things in this event, unfortunately.


Shankland takes the lead

Sam Shankland closing in for the kill | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Nakamura wasn’t the player most disappointed with his game afterwards, though, since that title goes to the new leader, Sam Shankland! Varuzhan Akobian felt he was playing well with the white pieces, until he failed to play the powerful 20.Rfc1:

I’m just second-guessing. If it was a blitz game I would play it immediately. I was over-thinking…

That was just the prelude to an even worse failure to go with his instincts:


In this position with 25.Rxf7!, or a move later with 25.dxc5 bxc5 26.Rxf7!, Akobian could have picked up a pawn, which he again said he saw immediately. Instead he spent a full 18 minutes on move 25, and 10 on the next two, as some potential complications persuaded him not to take on f7 and instead pick 25.dxc5 bxc5 26.Qb5?! Rfb8 27.Qd3 Qe5 28.Rxc5? Qxb2, when he was already in trouble on the board as well as in serious time trouble. It was a bad combination, and Shankland went on to win smoothly.

Less prayer, better clock handling? | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

It perhaps helped Shankland that during the game he was simply unaware of the tactic with taking on f7, though he was shocked by it afterwards – especially as it hadn’t occurred to him while Varuzhan was thinking for 18 minutes. He opened the post-game interview by telling Maurice Ashley, “This game I think was absolutely disgraceful!”

In any case, Sam is now leading Caruana and So by half a point, and Nakamura by a full 1.5 points, with five rounds of the 2018 US Championships to go:


Annie Wang takes the sole lead

Annie Wang still has to do school homework during the event | photo: Spectrum Studios, official website 

The women’s Sam Shankland is 15-year-old Annie Wang, though Annie doesn’t exude quite the same intensity, is quick to smile, and had a nice line in understatement when she commented of her 5/6, “I’m doing better than I expected!”

In Round 6 she ground down Dorsa Derakhshani in an ending a pawn up, while Nazi Paikidze, the co-leader before the round, was held to a draw by Maggie Feng – the only draw of the women’s section:

Few can master the Shankland stare, but Anna Zatonskih tried | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

The other critical game for the standings was 7-time champion Irina Krush beating her arch-rival and 4-time champion Anna Zatonskih. The final stages were brutal:


36…Qxc5+! 37.Rxc5 e3! 38.Nf1 e2 39.Rxe2 Rxe2 40.Rxf5 Rd1! White resigns

That brought Irina up to third place, a point behind the leader:


In Round 7 Shankland-So and Caruana-Akobian will be crucial for the tournament standings, while Izoria-Nakamura will be another case of Nakamura having to push for a win with Black in order to compete for first place and avoid more rating losses. 

Follow all the action 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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