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Reports Oct 19, 2021 | 3:11 PMby Colin McGourty

US Chess Champs 11: Caruana miss means 3-way playoff

Quick draws for Wesley So and Sam Sevian meant that Fabiano Caruana could complete a fairytale US Chess Championship comeback if he beat Sam Shankland in the final round. When Sam gave up his queen based on what he later admitted was a miscalculation glory beckoned for Fabi, but in the end he had to scramble to make a draw, which means a 3-way rapid playoff for 1st on Tuesday. Meanwhile the Women’s Championship is over, with Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova edging out Irina Krush for 2nd place after Irina fell to Tatev Abrahamyan.

It would have been fitting if Caruana had won the title in style with a 4.5/5 finish, but it wasn't to be | photo: Lennart Ootes

You can replay all the games from the 2021 US Chess Championship using the selector below.

And here’s the Round 11 commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Cristian Chirila and Maurice Ashley. 

Caruana just misses out

Daniel Naroditsky & Sam Sevian may have had a lot to talk about, but not when it came to their game | photo: Lennart Ootes

The way the final round of the US Chess Championship started couldn’t have gone better for Fabiano Caruana. The first game to end saw his co-leader Sam Sevian take a 13-move draw with the black pieces against Daniel Naroditsky. 

Daniel, who finished on 4.5/11 in a tie for 10th place, was apologetic:

I want to apologise to all the fans and you guys. I hate it when people do that, not sarcastically, it’s not what I want to do, but yesterday’s game particularly [a loss to Sam Shankland] was very back-breaking. I should have drawn it, but I’ve been getting more exhausted throughout the tournament. I know it’s a crappy excuse, but I figured I’d play e4, if Sam wanted to play he sometimes plays the French, so I thought, ok, if he plays the French I’m not going to take on d5, we’re going to play a game, if he plays Nf6 instead of Bc5 it’s going to be a game, but if he plays Bc5 I figured I’d make a draw. 

I really didn’t want to lose the last game of the tournament. I think overall there were ups and downs in this event, I have some games I’m really proud of, but again obviously this is not something I want to do, but I was tired and I really didn’t want to end the tournament on two losses, so I decided to go for it. 

Sam would have won the US Championship if he’d won the game, but he didn’t want to switch his approach in the final round.

First of all, before the tournament my plan was to play very solid with Black, and I didn’t really want to make an adjustment for the last round specifically. Even against John Burke, I played my lines in the Italian, it was an interesting game back and forth. And Daniel’s been playing very enterprising openings in pretty much every game, so I definitely didn’t expect this to happen, but ok… Obviously I’m hoping that the two leaders I’m tied with don’t win, and it really doesn’t matter if it’s a 2-way tie or a 10-way tie. At the end of the day I just want to be in the playoff. 

It was an approach that would ultimately be successful, with So-Robson the next crucial game to end in a draw. Both players had gone into the game with chances of winning the title, but Ray, needing to beat Wesley with Black, understandably felt that his opportunities had come earlier in the tournament. He summed up the last game with, “He played a super-solid line — there was not really anything I could do in terms of trying to fight for a win”.

Wesley So's four draws at the end almost cost him any hope of defending his title, but now he's in the playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes

The onus to play for win was on world no. 6 Wesley So, who with White against a player he outrated by over 100 points seemed to have a great chance to win his 3rd US Chess Championship. As he explained, however, he hadn’t been feeling ambitious before the game.

I wasn’t thinking of the points at all. I was just very fatigued and very tired. I think I’ve been playing non-stop pretty much the last three months, because we had these tournaments in Saint Louis, and also in between those I had these online tournaments, which are very tough. You play the best players in the world and then you have to wake up every day at seven in the morning for 9-10 days, so I think I’ve been pretty much playing non-stop and considering how badly I’m playing the tournament I just wanted to finish it. I’ve been blundering left and right the last couple of games, didn’t see the wins and all that, so clearly something is wrong, so I need to work harder on my chess, but the good thing is after this tournament I won’t have any over-the-board. 

Wesley noted that he wasn’t playing the Grand Swiss that’s supposed to start in Riga, Latvia on October 27th, with a total of around 170 players across the Open and Women’s events. 

I’ve fallen for the same trick before. I played in Isle of Man, the Grand Swiss, two years ago, but opens are hard, because you play all these 2600s and then they play very solidly, they’re happy with a draw with both colours, pretty much, so it’s very difficult. Last time I played for two hard weeks, a very difficult tournament, and I think I earned 1500 bucks for that, so I’d have been better staying at home. There’s the two Candidates spots, but at the same time, there are 120 players. Also I think at this point I’m pretty much tired and going there with no preparation will lead to disaster. 

It looks as though Wesley might be in luck, however, since a COVID lockdown in Latvia from October 21st onwards makes the tournament impossible to hold — at least unless FIDE can negotiate an exclusion with the local authorities.  

Caruana-Shankland made up for the lack of action in the other games of the leaders | photo: Lennart Ootes

Fabiano Caruana is planning to play in Riga, but first he had his eyes set on the goal of winning a 2nd US Chess Championship, a goal that had seemed highly unlikely when he lost to Daniel Naroditsky and Sam Sevian to start with 2.5/6. He’d fought back with three wins in the next four games, however, and was given a golden opportunity to win the tournament outright when his co-leaders drew in the final round. Fabiano knew he could complete a fantastic fightback in style if he beat Sam Shankland. 

I thought it was a great situation. I also thought I had a very pleasant position. Something went wrong in the opening for him.

The game was a thriller, with Sam going for a dramatic choice just when he seemed on the verge of equalising.


34…c5 seems to have been the way to play for a draw, but Sam commented of that move:

It’s a little uncomfortable and I’m tired. I could imagine an accident happening!

Instead he went for the bold queen sacrifice 34…Qxe5!?

Fabiano said he’d been expecting the move and “thought it was very natural”, but Sam admitted he’d simply felt it was much better than it was. After 35.dxe5 Rxd3 36.Qa7 Be1 37.Qxb7 his initial plan had been the “very powerful move to keep his king in the kill zone” 37…Rf8, expecting 38.Qxc6 Rxg3+ 39.Kh2 Rf4 40.Qxe6+ Kh7 “and White resigns”.


Sam explained:

I just completely missed 41.Rg2!, and after Rg2 I can resign! Once I realised that I was like, “well, there goes my queen!”

Sam was correct about needing to resign after 41.Rg2, but it also turns out 41.Qe7 there draws, while 38.Qe7! immediately after 37…Rf8 would be much better for White.

It was intense right to the end | photo: Lennart Ootes

In the game Sam switched to 37…Rxg3+ and in fact managed to get very decent counterplay, with Fabi noting of the play that followed, “30 minutes for the second time control in this position is not really enough, to be honest!”

It became fiendishly difficult, with 45.Rd1!? instead of 45.e6! seemingly inaccurate, but Sam was probably correct to note that the position after the “correct” move was “massively unclear — his king is going to be wandering forever, and I’ve got passers”. What’s clear is that the position after 45.Rd1 c4! was no better.

If it was Black to move the only move 48…Bg3, followed by 49.e6!, would strongly favour White, while in the game it was Fabi to move, and after 46.e6 Rg3 Black seems to have things under control. In fact all three outcomes at some point became possible.


Fabiano said of his 53.f7!? (instead of 53.Rd8!) here, “I don’t know why I played f7, to be honest”, describing what followed as “a slightly dangerous rook endgame, although it’s a draw”. Fabi ultimately went on to prove it. 

Sam summed up:

It was just wild at the end. I didn’t play a great tournament, but at least I played an interesting game in the last round.

When asked if he was going to Riga now he shot back, “No, I’m going home!”, with the 2018 US Chess Champion noting that he’d spent just 13 days at home since May.

For Fabi, meanwhile, a playoff beckoned on Tuesday, with the only question being how many players it would involve. Potentially there could have been five, but Leinier Dominguez, who ended the tournament unbeaten, couldn’t find a way to win a promising position against Dariusz Swiercz.

Alex Lenderman would have joined the playoff with a win, but he had to fight to draw | photo: Lennart Ootes

Alex Lenderman, who was the other player who could join the tie with a win, in fact had to fight for six hours and 127 moves to avoid becoming Lazaro Bruzon’s only victim of the tournament. He managed, but that meant we had a 3-way tie for first. It's also notable that 20-year-old John Burke finished in a creditable 8th place, after both beginning and ending his tournament with wins — he took down Jeffery Xiong in 24 moves in the final round.



The playoff on Tuesday will start as a 3-player round-robin where each player has 10 minutes, with a 2-second increment per move. If players are still tied for first they switch to 3+2 blitz, while if still tied we may get Armageddon.

Tokhirjonova snatches 2nd place

Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova won the battle for 2nd place... with a draw, after Irina Krush lost | photo: Lennart Ootes

Carissa Yip had won the Women’s US Chess Championship with a round to spare, so that the real tension in the final round was how the other podium places would finish. Ultimately it looked as follows (you can click on any game in this crosstable to open it with computer analysis): 

The final round was full of drama, with Carissa Yip needing all her resourcefulness to avoid the mild anti-climax of ending with a loss. Katerina Nemcova found some brilliant moves.


24…Ne3! was completely crushing, but in the end Carissa managed to escape. She commented afterwards that she’d switched to concentrating on her college application essays. Katerina also revealed an academic focus when asked when her next tournament would be: “Next tournament is writing my dissertation!” 

The battle for 2nd place looked almost like one that no-one wanted to win. Tatev Abrahamyan won a 3rd game in a row to spoil Irina Krush’s chances, commenting:

It feels amazing! It’s my first time beating her with Black. I think she’s beaten me with the white pieces every single time.

The complicated game turned on a tricky moment after 33…Re2.


After 34.Bc1? Rxg2+ 35.Kxg2 Re1! there was no way to save the white bishop and Tatev went on to win comfortably. Neither player had spotted it, but in fact 34.Ba1! would still have held onto the piece, since after 34…Rxg2+ 35.Kxg2 Re1 White can save the day with 36.a3!

The only other win of the final day saw Ashritha Eswaran join the tie for 4th place by tricking Sabina Foisor at the end. 35.Qf3?? was a very natural move, but with a fatal flaw.


35…Re3! 36.Qxe3 f4+! won the queen and the game. 

Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova started well against Thalia Cervantes, but then got into trouble and almost missed out on clear 2nd place before finally scraping a draw in 74 moves. The former Uzbekistan Women’s Champion had made a great debut in the US Chess Championship.


So the Women’s US Championship is over, but the most important events in the overall US Championship are still ahead of us. Will Wesley manage to defend his trophy and claim a 3rd title? Will Caruana claim his second? Or will Sam Sevian surprise us all by taking a 1st US title?

Follow all the action from 13:00 in Saint Louis, which is 14:00 ET and 20:00 CEST.

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