Ray Robson and 20-year-old debutant John Burke are the early leaders of the US Chess Championship after defeating Daniel Naroditsky and Dariusz Swiercz. The star names struggled, with world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana admitting he had a “lucky break” to avoid losing with the white pieces to Lazaro Bruzon, while Leinier Dominguez was on the brink against Alex Lenderman. 8-time and reigning US Women’s Champion Irina Krush was among four winners in the women’s event.
You can replay all the games from the 2021 US Championship using the selector below.
And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Cristian Chirila and Maurice Ashley.
Of the three top seeds in the 2021 US Championship it was defending champion Wesley So who had the toughest task on paper, playing with the black pieces against 20-year-old 2700-rated Jeffery Xiong. The opening looked spectacular.
This is a heavily debated theoretical line, however, and after 12…g5 most things have been worked out to a draw. Jeffery showed he knew exactly what he was doing and applied some pressure to Wesley, but ultimately the game ended peacefully.
Wesley’s biggest rivals for the US title wouldn’t have things so easy. Fabiano Caruana lost his 2800 rating on the live rating list after a draw against Cuban-born debutant Lazaro Bruzon, but he admitted it could have been much worse.
He summed up:
It was a bad game! That’s clear. There was a bunch of moments when I wasn’t even under pressure, I had plenty of time, they were unforced errors. Once I had equalised again then I played this g3 and that was a big mistake, and the opening of course a number of moves were very questionable. And just generally keeping my king in the centre looks like bad feeling. It wasn’t a good game overall…
Sometimes you have bad games and it’s good when you don’t lose them! The result, a draw, can happen in any game. A loss with White is really upsetting, but a draw… the result itself is not a disaster. Obviously I can’t continue to play like this, but I had a lucky break.
Fabiano’s 11.Nb3?! in an Anti-Berlin was already dubious and when 13…b5! appeared on the board the world no. 2 was regretting not castling a move earlier while he still had the chance. He said he was “still playing ambitiously” at that point.
Fabi didn’t like 14.a3 because of 14.a5, but admitted that might have been better than his 14.f3, which he said was based on blundering something four moves down the line. He was originally planning to play 19.dxc6 Bxb2 20.0-0.
But he’d missed 20…Bxc1! for Lazaro. He explained:
It looks a bit stupid now, but this was kind of a blindspot when I played f3. I thought that I would get two pieces for the rook and it should be pretty decent for White, but after Bxc1 he gets the piece back with a big advantage.
Fabiano instead had to go for 19.0-0 and was in trouble, but he fought tenaciously, and despite making another mistake later (27.g3?!), this time overlooking 30…f6!, he managed to hang on for a very hard-fought draw.
Leinier Dominguez, meanwhile, was in even greater danger against Alex Lenderman, with the critical moment coming after 18…Bf8.
After playing the opening perfectly Lenderman now had to find one killer idea to clinch the game. 19.Bh4!, offering the pawn on d6, should have been devastating, with White then destroying the pawn shield around the black king by taking on f6. The knight c3-knight can come to e4 or d5 and the combined power of the knights and queen against the black king is just too much.
Instead Alex quickly played 19.Qc4!?, which retained an advantage, but allowed Leinier to solve one of his problems — the knight on the rim on a6 — with 19…Nb4! Gradually Leinier was able to fight his way back into the game and hold a draw.
There were just two wins in the open section, with Ray Robson the one player to pick up a full point in convincing style. After defeating Daniel Naroditsky, the 26-year-old commented on playing the US Championship a dozen times already:
It’s tough. I would think having so many opportunities to play I would eventually get one. The problem is the field just gets stronger every year, so it actually becomes more difficult as each year passes… I do believe eventually I’ll be able to win one!
Daniel sprung a surprise by meeting 1.e4 with 1…Nf6, Alekhine's Defence, but the game did nothing to enhance the reputation of that opening, with Ray building up a comfortable space advantage. The writing was on the wall when Ray got to play the d5-pawn break, but a tactical operation by Naroditsky almost worked. The logical continuation would have been 27…Qd3:
Ray said he was “very fortunate” that he would have the only move 28.Qb1! here, when the threat of mate on h7 leaves no options but 28...Qxb1 29.Nxb1 and White is just a piece up. Daniel instead played 27…Rxd2 but Ray methodically won the position an exchange up.
20-year-old John Burke, whose claim to fame is being the youngest player ever to cross 2600, is playing his first US Championship after winning last year’s US Junior Championship (on time in an Armageddon game against Jeffery Xiong). He had an eventful first game when he played 23…f6? against former World Junior Champion Dariusz Swiercz.
“I realised after f6, after a few seconds, that if he just inverted the move-order then I’m basically busted, because I don’t have Qd6”, John said afterwards. 24.axb5! cxb5 (24…axb5 loses to 25.Rxa7+! and some nice geometry with the queen from a3 and rook from e1 hitting the e7-knight) 25.Qa3! simply wins, since the e5-pawn means 25…Qd6 isn’t a possible defence.
Instead after 19 minutes Dariusz played 24.exf6? Rxf6 25.axb5 cxb5 26.Qa3 and now 26…Qd6! not only defended but gave Black a slight edge. The difference in time was the other major factor and John went on to exploit some inaccuracies to pick up a first win. He commented:
I’m glad at least I won one game in this tournament! That’s one goal done, but in general I was trying to stay calm and play well. Normally in first rounds I’m shaky anyway, it takes me a few rounds to get into form, and especially the first time playing here, I was definitely a little nervous, so after f6 I was kicking myself, like how could I blow the game so stupidly in the very first round, but I’m very relieved.
Time would also be a major factor in the women’s section, where there were wins for Irina Krush, Katerina Nemcova, Ashritha Eswaran and Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova.
8-time and defending Champion Irina Krush crashed through in a game where she had a 40-minute advantage over Megan Lee, later pointing out that she hadn’t played an over-the-board game since the 2020 Cairns Cup.
2-time US Champion Nazi Paikidze has the most remarkable story, since her draw against another former champ, Sabina Foisor, was her first FIDE-rated game since she won the US Championship in May 2018.
The most dramatic game of the round, however, saw Tatev Abrahamyan, one of the most experienced US Championship players, play a powerful game against newcomer and former Uzbekistan Women’s Champion Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova.
There were time trouble swings but Tatev was back in complete control when her idea of doubling rooks on the b-file was about to be crowned with success on move 57.
The brute force 57.Rxb7+! Nxb7 58.Rxb7+ Ka6 59.Rxe7 leaves White a bishop and a pawn up… as well as having a mating attack.
Instead Tatev went for 57.Qd2!?, which drew high praise from the commentators as a classy move, but in fact left things much less clear after 57…Nec6 58.Rxa5+ Kb8 59.Rab5 Qf7 and already here 60.a3?, a completely understandable move also suggested by Yasser, suddenly gave up all the advantage (60.Qd1! or any other queen move covering the f1-square is still winning).
What had been missed was 60…Rf2! and suddenly it’s White who’s in real trouble. There was almost no time to spot what was already the only way to even draw: 61.Rxb7+! Nxb7 62.Rxb7+! Kxb7 (62…Qxb7 63.Qxf2) 63.Qb4+!, exploiting the pin of the c6-knight, 63…Kc8 64.Bxc6 and White is comfortable. It would have been a heroic effort to find that whole sequence after suffering such a shock.
Instead after 61.Qxg5 Rxg2 Begim went on to win, though even the decision to resign at the end was debatable.
After 67.Qd6+! and capturing on d2 it turns out Black is lost, but there are still some practical chances. By this stage, however, Tatev may have felt she’d suffered enough!
"We were both so tired!" said Gulrukhbegim in an enjoyable interview afterwards.
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