Reports Apr 28, 2018 | 12:16 PMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 8-9: Shankland & Wang shock leaders

Sam Shankland is leading the 2018 US Chess Championship by half a point with just two rounds to go, and if anything it could have been better. He was close to pulling off a shock win over Hikaru Nakamura in Round 8, while in Round 9 Nakamura missed a great chance to beat 2nd placed Fabiano Caruana and salvage something from a terrible event. In the women’s section 15-year-old Annie Wang is even closer to a stunning triumph since she leads 2nd placed Nazi Paikidze by a full point.

Can Sam and Annie hold on to give us shock 2018 US Chess Champions? | photos: Lennart Ootes, official website 

You can replay all the 2018 US Championship open section 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:

Shankland on the verge of greatness

Since 2009 the US Championship has been won only by superstars: Hikaru Nakamura (3 times), Gata Kamsky (4 times) and once each by Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So. 26-year-old Sam Shankland now has a wonderful chance of barging his way into that club. His rating performance of 2853 so far in the event has taken him to 2693 and no. 50 on the live rating list:

More importantly, though, it’s taken him into a half-point lead with just two rounds of the US Championship to go, and his opponents for the final rounds, Alexander Onischuk and Awonder Liang, are currently last and second last. As he put it himself:

If I play my best chess I’ll probably win, and if I don’t, I probably won’t. It’s that simple! I’ve got two very, very strong players behind me that will be coming really hard in their final games… I have it within my power, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Sam Shankland more than held his own against Hikaru Nakamura | photo: Austin Fuller, official website 

The strange thing is it could easily have been better for Shankland. In Round 8 Hikaru Nakamura opened with 1.b3 in an attempt to kickstart a tournament where he’d drawn six games and then lost to Zviad Izoria. It backfired badly, with Black building up a powerful attack with natural moves:

Form is temporary and class is permanent, though, and Hikaru showed great tenacity when he was on the ropes. Shankland called him “a very resourceful defender”, adding “he resisted as well as I thought he reasonably could”. The last chance to play for something more came after 34.Rd6:

After 34…Qf4!? 35.Rxc6! Qxb4 36.Qd5+ the game ended in a draw. The computer recommends 34…Rf6!?, but Sam thought it was insanely dangerous to allow his king to be chased around by 35.Rd8+ Kf7 36.Qb3+, and whatever the objective evaluation of the position you can see his point!

Watch Sam Shankland talking about that game (and go forwards or back for the full Round 8 commentary):

Elsewhere events went Sam’s way in Round 8, with a quiet draw in So-Caruana and only Aleksandr Lenderman hinting at joining the race by winning a second game in a row, this time against Awonder Liang. 

Things aren't clicking for Wesley So - after getting nothing against Caruana he spoilt a great chance to beat Varuzhan Akobian in the next round | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Spoiler alert: Lenderman nearly made it three in a row to become a serious challenger, but he spoilt a winning position against Ray Robson in Round 9. Fortune is currently on Ray’s side, since in by the far the longest game of Round 8 he ended up demonstrating the bishop and knight mate against Varuzhan Akobian:

And that came after Akobian made an incorrect claim for a draw by 3-fold repetition earlier.

Back to the Shankland story, though. He commented after drawing against Nakamura:

Wesley and Fabiano still have to play Hikaru, and I’m counting on him to be my hero! I’m certainly rooting for him in the rest of the event.

Nakamura's opening, and stare, were of top quality, but he let Fabi escape and now has not even a mathematical chance of winning the title - he could actually still end in last place | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Nakamura nearly did give Shankland a huge boost, despite the Berlin Defence he played against Caruana in Round 9 not initially promising much. Fabiano wasn’t in the mood to head for a draw and played the Anti-Berlin, only to run into some interesting preparation:

He just out-prepared me and I was completely busted out of the opening!

The early key moment was after the instantly played 14…Nd7:

Fabiano explained:

I was just so tempted to play 15.Nxg7 - 15…Bxg7 16.f5 Qd6 17.Qh5 - but I couldn’t quite make it work after 17…h6.

17.f6!? might be a better try. It seems White is no worse, but in the game Black was immediately better after 15.Ng3!? f6. Caruana soon wasn’t enjoying his day at all, commenting, “my position just stays unpleasant whatever I do - it just can’t ever get better!” He decided he needed to get active to avoid a slow suffocation, but it didn’t work out as planned, until ultimately the whole game came down to one moment after 46.Re1:

The win involved two temporary piece sacrifices by Black, but it turns out both players had seen it! 46…Qxe4!! 47.Qxe4 Bxe4 48.Rxe4 Nxb2 49.Ke2 Nxc4! 50.Bc3 b2 51.Bxb2 Nxb2 52.Nd2:

Instead after 46…Rd8? 47.h4!? h6?! (47…Qxe4!? here as well was dangerous) 48.hxg5 hxg6 49.Kg3 Rd7 50.Qh2 the players drew by repetition. 

It was yet more disappointment for Nakamura, while a relieved Caruana talked to Maurice Ashley after the game:

That draw gave Shankland the chance to take the sole lead, and he got there, in the end! At first it looked like a remarkably easy day at the office after Yaroslav Zherebukh seemed to miss 20.Nd1! completely:

The threat is simply to win a piece with 21.Nf2, which is what happened in the game after Yaro came up with nothing better than 20…Qf7 after a 32-minute think. Instead 20…f4! promised real counterplay. 

It was a rollercoaster, but Shankland beat Zherebukh for a vital win | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

After winning a piece Sam confessed that he “relaxed a bit” and went on to make a couple of serious blunders that could have cost him the game, but Zherebukh blundered last.

The standings going into the last two rounds look as follows:

Caruana, whose final opponents are Zherebukh and Onischuk, looks like the most dangerous threat to Sam, though Wesley So might still wake up and defend his title – his last two opponents are Robson and a certain Nakamura.

Annie Wang keeps on flying

Annie Wang grabbed a huge win over Irina Krush | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

There’s been mayhem in the women’s event, with 10 decisive games in Rounds 8 and 9, but 15-year-old Annie Wang has seemed the calmest player around as she continues to lead by a full point with 7.5/9. 

The crucial battle was in Round 8, where it seemed her dream run might finally come to an end against 7-time Champion Irina Krush:

42…Rc5! 43.Qb4 Ra8 and Black is winning, but Irina thought she’d spotted a more beautiful win: 42…Rxc4? 43.bxc4 Rb8 44.Qd5 and here 44…Nf6 would be winning…

…if not for the move Irina had missed, 45.Qxd6!, when the b8-rook is attacked so Black isn’t able to win material. The game was roughly balanced after 44...Rb2, but Irina was shaken and Annie was ruthless as she found the best continuations to pull off a priceless win:

The Round 9 encounter was the chance for Nazi Paikidze to close the one-point gap with a win, but instead it was Annie Wang with Black who was slightly better in the final position. 

If Annie Wang is nervous, she's not showing it yet | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Paikidze commented, “If I was Black I would keep playing, probably”, but Annie couldn’t see a way to convert. The game and tournament positions meant both players hesitated to claim the draw by repetition at the end - repeating once more than strictly necessary - but finally it was over.

That left the standings as follows with two rounds to go:

Annie plays Anna Zatonskih with White then Sabina Foisor with Black, and a draw in either game will leave Nazi Paikidze as the only player who can catch her. Paikidze has Black against Tatev Abrahamyan then White against Rusudan Goletiani.

Both sections could potentially be decided in Saturday’s penultimate round, so don’t miss all the action from 13:00 CDT (20:00 CEST), with live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24.   

See also:

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