Reports Oct 28, 2020 | 11:07 AMby Colin McGourty

US Chess Champs Day 2: Awonder shocks Nakamura

17-year-old Awonder Liang said “it’s probably one of the best games I’ve ever played” as he beat Hikaru Nakamura in dominant style to leave the reigning champion’s chances of retaining his title hanging by a thread. Hikaru, with just one win so far, is now a full 2.5 points behind Wesley So with 5 rounds to go after Wesley beat Sam Shankland and Dariusz Swiercz to move to 5.5/6. The gap at the top is still just half a point, however, since Jeffery Xiong and Ray Robson both continued their brilliant runs.

Awonder Liang on his aggressive approach and beating Nakamura: "You’re going to end up taking some hits and taking some losses, which I probably will later in the tournament, but then you get to play some great games like this!"

You can replay all the games from the 2020 US Chess Championship using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary, including interviews with Ray Robson, Awonder Liang and Wesley So.

Awonder leaves Nakamura adrift

With Wesley So on fire in this year’s US Championship, Hikaru Nakamura needed to put his foot on the gas after drawing all three of his games on Day 1. It looked like that might happen after the 5-time Champion was gifted a perfect opportunity in the first round of the day. This position had been seen at least five times before, including in Karjakin-Mamedyarov from the 2009 Nalchik FIDE Grand Prix.


Shakhriyar and everyone else had correctly replied 10…Nd7!, but here Alejandro Ramirez thought for over two minutes before playing the losing 10…dxc3? 11.exf6

Alejandro spent another 4 minutes deciding there was nothing better than 11…gxf6, and after 12.0-0 Hikaru duly went on to win, though not as convincingly as he could have done. Hikaru is playing from a new location provided by the esports organisation TSM and doesn’t entirely seem to have settled in yet!

Hikaru then had the worse side of a draw against Elshan Moradiabadi. Meanwhile Awonder Liang was on the comeback trail after losing all three games on Day 1. He reasoned, “I have nothing to lose and I’m just going to try and maybe not just hold my own but actually try and win as many games as I can”. The 17-year-old came painfully close in the first round of the day, when he let Alex Lenderman escape.


69.Rd8+! Rf8 70.Ne8! Kh8 (the next best move allows mate-in-2) 71.Rd4 Rxf8 72.Kf7! threatens mate-in-1 and wins the black rook and the game. Instead after 69.Nf7? Rg4+! Lenderman was able to reach the drawn Rook vs. Rook + Knight endgame.

Awonder was at least on the scoreboard, and he notched a first win in the next round in an insane slugfest against Ramirez. His win with Black was deserved, but anything could have happened.


Here Awonder could win with 41…Bxf6! 42.Rxg7 and not Bxg7 but the zwischenzug 42…Bxe5!. Instead after 41…Rd6? it was Alejandro’s chance to clinch a win with 42.Rxe7! Qxe7 43.Nxg6+! hxg6 44.Qh4+ and mate next move.

Instead 42.Nc4? Rdd8 saw Awonder go on to win.

That set up Nakamura-Liang, with Hikaru clearly out to win at all costs. His young opponent felt that was an understandable approach.

I think it’s quite logical, especially after yesterday when I started 0/3, and I saw that he’s been making some draws in the tournament. I guess as one of the weaker players, or apparently one of the weaker players, it’s logical for him to go after me and try and get me!

There was less logic to Hikaru’s moves, however, as he came up with a strange plan in the following position.


It began 12.Nf1!?, with the knight routed to c4 and the g-pawn flung up the board to g6, but the time that took allowed Awonder to gain a total grip on the position. He commented:

This whole Nf1 and g4 didn’t make a lot of sense when I already have c5 and Nc6, especially Nc6, which is not always a move you get to have in these lines, and I’m just hitting the centre. It didn’t really feel like what he was doing made a lot of sense, but I think we’re all pretty familiar with Hikaru’s attacking skills and all that, so I was still a little bit on the edge here, but his position was not really that sound at all. His king’s not safe in the centre and he can’t castle queenside, because of Qxa2, and otherwise he can’t really generate an attack with only a handful of pieces. He really needs to be able to bring his rooks in.

It was soon an absolutely dream position for Black:


At that point I realised it’s almost impossible not to win this game. I’ve certainly botched my fair share of winning positions so far in this tournament, but his bishop was just boxed in by his own pawns and the light-squared domination was just… not even from a perspective of winning the game, but just aesthetically, my position was so nice that everything was just going right this game.

There was no way back, with Awonder sealing a fine win in 57 moves.

“Whatever way you slice it, it’s probably one of the best games I’ve ever played!” he said afterwards.

Wesley So almost perfect, but the fight goes on

World no. 14 Leinier Dominguez is having an even worse time than Hikaru (4 draws, 2 losses), making it a perfect chance for world no. 8 Wesley So to win his second US title. He continued his winning streak on Tuesday by starting the day with a stunning victory over Sam Shankland. It wasn’t flawless – he admitted he’d missed that 23.Qc6! defended as 23…Qd4 24.Qc3! would only be a draw – but when given a second chance he made no mistake.


25…Qxa3!! and despite White being a rook up there’s no defence. 26.d6 covered the f3-pawn, but 26…Qb2! renewed the threat of mate-in-2 on either e2 or g2. After 27.Qe4 Qg2+, and picking up the rook on h1, Wesley was finally up material as well as hunting down the white king.

That was followed by a 6th win in a row, with Dariusz Swiercz unlucky to run into a Grünfeld novelty.


As Wesley pointed out, Magnus Carlsen had played 12.Be2 here, against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final of the chess24 Legends of Chess, while other top players (Giri, Ding Liren, Vidit) had tried 12.Bxc5. Instead Wesley played the new 12.Bd3 and felt his opponent’s 12…Nd7 (instead of 12…c4) was already an inaccuracy, allowing White to play 13.c4 himself. Dariusz needed to at least try and unbalance things by doubling White’s f-pawns when he had the chance, since in the game Wesley moved his knight, pushed his f-pawn and won with ease.

It seems no-one had started an invitational US Championship with even 4 wins in a row since Bobby Fischer...

...but the chances of matching Bobby’s perfect 11/11 had gone when Wesley played the Berlin and took a 29-move draw against Leinier Dominguez in Round 6. +5 after six rounds was hardly a bad outcome, but in a way Wesley would live to regret his choice: “To have two people chasing me only half a point behind is very disappointing!”

Wesley So's brilliant 5.5/6 only gives him a half-point lead

One half of the chasing pack is 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong, who punished a miscalculation to beat Leinier Dominguez in the first game of the day and then inflicted a crushing first loss on Elshan Moradiabadi in the last. The other half is Ray Robson, who lamented:

I’m basically doing as well as I possibly can and I’m still behind Wesley and tied with Jeffery and I still have to play both of them!

His first win of the day was a nice tactics puzzle after Dariusz Swiercz played 35.Qc7?


35…Qf2! exploited the weak back rank (36.Rxf2 Re1+ 37.Rf1 Rxf1#)  to win the game. After 36.Rg1 Re1! White was able to give checks to manoeuvre his queen to g3, but Ray just swapped off the queens and rooks to reach a won pawn ending.

Ray then drew against Dominguez before winning a true slugfest against Sam Sevian. He gave up his queen for an overwhelming attack, but there were some more-than-shaky moments! 38…Ke8? (38…Kg7!) could have cost the game.


After the amazing 39.Nf5!! it turns out White is giving mate with his queen and rook. Play instead continued 39.Qe5? Rf3+! 40.Ka4 b5+?


In the game after 41.Ka5? Ra3+! 42.Kxb5 Ray’s plan worked out as he was able to queen the f-pawn with check and win the game. He admitted afterwards, however, that his other plan after 41.Qxb5+! had been to play 41…Kxe7? “and run”, but it could have been a short run, since 42.Qe5+ is mate-in-4! Instead after 41…Kf8 or 41…Kf7 Black can draw, but in the end, although Ray confessed, “he almost got me!”, we were left with two players just half a point behind Wesley!


Hikaru Nakamura still has to play all three players above him, starting with Xiong-Nakamura in Round 7, so that you certainly can’t rule him out just yet. Whatever happens, it’s going to a fascinating race on the final two days.

Watch all the action live from 19:00 CEST here on chess24!

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