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Reports Oct 13, 2021 | 3:54 PMby Colin McGourty

US Chess Champs 6: Caruana in free fall

Fabiano Caruana has dropped 15 rating points and is in danger of falling out of the Top 5 after losing a second game in a row, this time to 20-year-old, 2654-rated Sam Sevian. The lead was unchanged after Round 6 of the US Championship as Ray Robson and Aleksandr Lenderman contested a very hard-fought draw, with the only other decisive game seeing Sam Shankland pick up a first win, against John Burke. In the women’s section Ashritha Eswaran and Carissa Yip both won to join Katerina Nemcova in the lead. 

Fabiano Caruana wishing he was somewhere else | photo: Lennart Ootes

You can replay all the games from Round 6 of the US Chess Championship using the selector below. 

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

Fabiano suffers again

Sam Sevian is the latest player to take advantage of Fabiano Caruana's poor form | photo: Lennart Ootes

Fabiano Caruana has simply been unrecognisable so far in this year’s US Chess Championships, with his loss to Sam Sevian making it five games out of six where he’s had a lost position. While he was still escaping with draws the damage was limited, but two losses in a row to 2600 players has left the official world no. 2 on a minus score and with a rating change (-15.4) that reflects the level of his play. 

His suffering hasn’t, of course, gone unnoticed by his opponents, with Sam getting to say something you’d never expect to hear about Caruana.

Even at the start of the tournament he’s been making positional and tactical errors, and going into a game you have to try taking advantage of that, no matter who you’re playing.

If Fabiano, who recently stopped working with his long-term coach Rustam Kasimdzhanov, had targeted preparations for Sam, they went out the window on move 3, when with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Sam went for the Four Knights Variation, something he pointed out he’d never done before with the white pieces. 

“I played a very solid opening and he played d6 for a win, but it’s a very risky move”, Sam said of 8…d6!?, while Fabi then appeared to miss a chance to pick up a pawn on move 12. After 17.f4, Caruana thought for 17 minutes only to push the self-destruct button on his already shaky position.

17…d5? was met by 18.fxg5 Nxg3 19.Qxg3 Qxg5 20.h4 Qg7 21.Qxc7, with Sam summing up:

Obviously d5, he miscalculated something here. I thought Ra5 was the next move for Black. I think d5 just loses a pawn. 

17…Ra5 would have been an improvement, while the computer suggests 17…Bd7 as only slightly better for White. In the game it soon became only a matter of whether Sam would convert his huge advantage in mutual time trouble. 

Sam Sevian has beaten Wesley So before, and now he's added the scalp of world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana | photo: Lennart Ootes

Despite the lack of time, it was easy to imagine that a Caruana in top form would still have survived, since there were chances. For instance, on move 33.

The killer move here was 33.Rfe2! but it was very easy to understand Sam when he commented of 33…Ref8 34.Rxe6! Rf1+, “there was no way I was going for this!” It would take real bravery and laser-sharp calculation to opt for it when down to your last minutes, but it turns out that after 35.Rxf1 gxf1=Q+ 36.Kxf1 Qg1+ 37.Ke2 and e.g. 37…Rg2+ 38.Kf3 Qf2+ the white king is escaping via e4 and d5.

Instead Sam was delighted to be able to get the queens off with 33.Qe5?! Qxe5 34.Rxe5 Bh3 35.Re4, and this is where hope ended for Fabiano.

Sam speculated that his opponent thought of 35…Ref8, saw 36.Re7!, threatening mate on h7, wins on the spot, and didn’t notice the one saving move with the other rook, 35…Rgf8! Black has real threats of putting a rook on f1 and e1, and suddenly only 36.c5 would still pose problems (36…Kg7! is the one response). 

Once again, however, the Fabi we’re witnessing right now isn’t the resourceful, tenacious, incredible calculator we’re used to, and 35…Rxe4? was the last mistake. Sam just had to see clearly that after 36.Bxe4 d3 he could safely play 37.Bxd3! and when 37…Re8 was met by 38.Be2 there were no more tricks. Resignation came on move 42, when Sam forced an exchange of rooks. 

That saw Sevian not Caruana join Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez in the tie for second place on 3.5/6, after the two heavyweights made a quiet draw against each other in Round 6. There was also little to report in Naroditsky 1/2-1/2 Bruzon, a 1st draw for Daniel and a 6th for Lazaro, while Jeffery Xiong missed chances of getting a 2nd win in a row before drawing against Dariusz Swiercz. 

Perhaps predictably, So-Dominguez wasn't a classic | photo: Lennart Ootes

Robson-Lenderman was a fight worthy of the leaders | photo: Lennart Ootes

The remaining draw, Robson-Lenderman, was perhaps the best played game of the round, with both leaders showing impressive preparation, calculation and judgment, and then giving insightful commentary afterwards. 7.Qa4 would have been a tricky move from Ray, if Alex hadn’t been ready!

First of all I have to thank one of my friends, because I remember we were discussing at some point this line, and he just said, yeah, 5.d4 is a dangerous move for White, and I said 5…cxd4 and then 6…f6 the way Carlsen played. “No, there’s Qa4, it’s not so easy!” So he was the first one who told me that… then I have to give credit where it’s due, Stockfish 14!

7…Qb6 was already a novelty. 

Ray’s overwhelming feeling was “not again”.

I wasn’t very happy at all! He out-prepared me as usual. Actually he usually out-prepares me more. This time I had some idea what was happening, and I was White, so it was a little bit easier.

Ray held things together well, and even though Alex did later get an advantage the game eventually fizzled out into a draw. 

Sam Shankland picked up a first win, against John Burke | photo: Lennart Ootes

The day’s one other decisive result saw 2018 US Champion Sam Shankland finally pick up a win, after losing his previous two games. He summed things up:

It’s just been a horrible event all the way through. I just came in really tired. This is like my 7th tournament in a row, and furthermore I’ve had something like six extra Blacks in my last tournaments, so when I saw my pairing, that I got an extra Black here as well, I just wanted to scream. It was getting really frustrating and honestly, an extra Black isn’t even that big a deal in such a long event, but it was just put me in a bad mood, and I’m just playing badly, and this game in particular I think I was completely winning on move 20, and I just blundered a centre pawn, just straight up Nxe4 I missed completely, and if you blunder a central pawn usually you’re supposed to lose the game, but I managed to squeeze it out.

This is the moment:

John Burke’s 18…Nxe4! was what Sam had missed, with 19.dxe4 running into 19…d3+, winning back the piece. From here on, however, things went much better for Sam, starting with finding the best way to continue the game, 19.a4!

A few moves later, after 23.Rhb1, it was John who needed to play precisely. 

Sam and the computer agree that 23…b4! (24.Nxb4 0-0) was much better for Black than the 23…0-0 24.Rxb5 we saw in the game. Sam, who noted he’d spent around 13 days at home since May, wasn’t sure if he was objectively winning in the endgame that followed, but he did a great job of converting his advantage. 

This game I think the endgame actually I played really well. I think I played basically a pretty good game, except for just dropping a pawn on e4 in one move!

Chief Arbiter Chris Bird kept an eye on all the action... | photo: Lennart Ootes

That left the standings as follows with five rounds to go. If Fabiano can get back to top form and string together some wins he’s not out of contention for first, but he’s also only half a point ahead of last place. 

Yip and Eswaran catch the leader

Ashritha Eswaran is co-leader after defeating Megan Lee | photo: Lennart Ootes

Katerina Nemcova raced to 2/2 and has led ever since, after a series of four draws. When asked about that she commented:

Chess is really hard! It’s hard to win a game, and despite making draws I think all the draws were a fight.

In Round 6 two players caught her in the lead: Ashritha Eswaran, who was completely winning against Megan Lee after 15 moves, and Carissa Yip, who was completely lost against Anna Sharevich in 7! 

Carissa explained afterwards that she spent 32 minutes on move 6, couldn’t find a way to play, and ultimately decided, “6…Qa5? looks good enough, I guess. I was praying for the best”. Instead after 7.Bd2 h6?! Black was on the verge of a debacle. 

8.e5! was the way to go for the jugular, while after 8.Nd5?! Qd8 Carissa was right back in the game and went on to outplay her opponent and join a 3-way tie for the lead. Carissa’s next opponent will be 4-time US Women’s Champion Anna Zatonskih, who after three losses finally picked up a win after outplaying Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova in the Grünfeld. 

Carissa Yip was all but lost on move 7, but ended up rejoining the leaders | photo: Lennart Ootes 

Anna, who noted bringing up children in Corona times had left no time for chess, was succint:  

The competition is getting stronger, I’m not getting younger and unfortunately I’m in terrible form here — it’s probably so far my worst tournament ever!

Here are the women’s standings with five rounds to go. 

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

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