The 2015 US Championships are underway in St. Louis, with the eyes of the world on the tournament for two reasons above all others: the exemplary live coverage and the growing rivalry between three-time US Champion Hikaru Nakamura and debutant Wesley So. Both won their first games, although they needed some help from their opponents, with Nakamura describing his game as the worst he’d played in 3-5 months. Six-time Women’s Champion Irina Krush will not claim the $64,000 Fischer prize for a perfect score, after she only scraped a draw in the first round.
Wesley So has come of age in the last year, and not only in the sense that the 21-year-old can now legally drink in the United States. He won the Millionaire Chess Open, ended a period of limbo by finally switching to the US Chess Federation, threw off the shackles of a university degree and moved to the small city of Minnetonka, 8 1/2 hours’ drive north of St. Louis.
He seems like a man who knows his own mind and is utterly determined to succeed, as he explained in a recent interview with Kostya Kavutskiy:
Do you believe you have talent? Decide what you want to do and then go for it. Commit yourself. Turn off the internet, the television, your phone, and all social media addictions and distractions. Take care of your body, your mind and your soul. Even with great sacrifice there are no guarantees you'll make it to the top but without sacrifice, it's a sure thing you won't.
In January at the Tata Steel Tournament in Wijk aan Zee the Philippine finished tied for second and, which brings us to the US Championships, he surged ahead of Hikaru Nakamura to become the top US player on the live rating list. Although Hikaru himself has consistently denied any great sense of rivalry, it looks from the outside as though he refocused to claim back his top stop, dominating the Gibraltar Masters before winning the Zurich Masters. That took him to a career-high position as world no. 3, with both players pushing the 2800 barrier:
the fierce competition help both players, the way Karpov and Kasparov spurred
each other on to new heights? At the very least it’s already meant that Hikaru
Nakamura felt no need to skip the US Chess Championship this time round, while
both players moved up the rating list with their wins in Wednesday’s Round 1:
And that brings us to the games, which, at least for now, didn’t quite live up to the hype. For Nakamura it was almost a repeat of the first round of the Gibraltar Masters. The difference was that there he’d got into a dubious position against 2301-rated WGM Jovana Vojinovic, while here it was potentially more irrevocable: his opponent was 21-year-old 2525-rated Conrad Holt.
Nakamura said afterwards his position was “complicated enough to be playable”, but he was far from happy, and had to rely first on some inaccuracies and then an outright blunder as Conrad writhed in the grip of time trouble:
Holt has just played 25.Nf5??, to which Nakamura replied 25…Ne1! The point, and one very easy to miss with a couple of minutes on your clock, was that 26.Nh4 doesn’t block the threats, since 26…Qg2!! 27.Nxg2 Nf3+ is mate.
A couple of spite checks later Nakamura had won the fastest game of the day, though he wasn't thrilled with his play:
Things never got quite so dramatic for Wesley So, but his
task was made immensely easier by a rush of blood to the head of 19-year-old US
no. 7 Daniel Naroditsky (2640). On move 32 he snatched a pawn on c4, but had
missed a devastating zwischenzug:
After 35.cxd4 and mass exchanges Black may actually be winning the pawn ending, but Wesley So instead went for 35.Nxa5! when the minor pieces are worth more than a rook. Daniel threw in the towel on move 47.
One player we haven’t mentioned yet is the reigning champion, 40-year-old Gata Kamsky. Although apparently now retired from international team chess he’s unlikely to be swept aside by the young guns. In the first game he settled for a quick draw against 23-year-old rising star Sam Shankland. Perhaps that result shouldn’t have surprised anyone — Sam is unbeaten in 66 games now, while Gata’s route to victory in the 2014 US Championship was paved with eight draws. That’s less likely to work this time round, but a draw against the US no. 5 isn’t the worst start.
In other “veteran” news, Alexander Onischuk jettisoned a pawn against Timur Gareev but was in no great danger of losing, while 31-year-old Varuzhan Akobian squeezed out an endgame win against 14-year-old prodigy Sam Sevian. Another youngster got beaten up, as 16-year-old Kayden Troff had failed to do his homework and stumbled into a hopeless endgame against 20-year-old Ray Robson. No-one’s going to make the route to the top easy for talented youngsters with $175,000 at stake!
While we have the strongest US Men’s Championship in a long time, there’s a very notable absentee from the women’s event. Just take a look at the women’s winners for the last 9 years:
Irina Krush, who also won the event in 1998, is playing, but her great rival Anna Zatonskih misses this year’s event.
Anna is rated at exactly the same 2477 Elo as Irina, while Irina’s closest rating rival in this Championship is Nazi Paikidze on 2333, a gap of 144 points. The maths (or "math" as this is a US Championship!) would suggest that if anyone was going to pull off the incredible Fischer feat of winning 11 US Championship games out of 11 — and winning a special $64,000 prize — it would be Irina this year. But the dream didn’t last long...
In fact Irina needed all her guile to avoid losing to
2279-rated Sabina-Francesca Foisor. The move that sent a chill down the 6-time
champion’s spine was 15.a3!, a brilliant zwischenzug that left her a pawn down
for no compensation:
Elsewhere there were surprise wins for Annie Wang and Apurva Virkud, while the one win for a ratings favourite was an “uneven” game between Jennifer Yu and Anna Sharevich, as you can see from the computer evaluation graph:
Just to take a single interesting moment:
Here Anna Sharevich doesn’t have to be too embarrassed about missing the brilliant 39…Rb6!!, when after 40.Qxb6 Qa1+ 41.Kc2 Rc8+ 42.Kd3 Qxb2 Black has regained the rook with lethal threats.
Round 2 of the US Championship promises to be another great show. Nakamura takes on Akobian, Shankland will try to extend his unbeaten streak against So and the youngest player Sevian takes on the oldest, Kamsky! Follow it all live here on chess24 from 20:00 CEST.
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