Reports Mar 30, 2019 | 11:41 AMby Colin McGourty

US Chess Champs 8-9: Big guns take over

Hikaru Nakamura and Leinier Dominguez are joint leaders going into their head-to-head clash in the penultimate round of the 2019 US Chess Championship. They both won in Round 9, as did all three other 2700+ players, meaning that Fabiano Caruana is still only half a point behind, while at one point back Wesley So also can’t be ruled out of contention. In the US Women’s Championship Anna Zatonskih cut the gap to Jennifer Yu to half a point before they also meet in Round 10. No-one else can now win the women’s event.

Fabiano Caruana won again in Round 9, but so did Nakamura, Dominguez, So and Shankland | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

After a dramatic Round 7 of the US Chess Championship Round 8 was a quiet affair, with the big match-ups Nakamura-Shankland and Caruana-So ending in draws, though it seemed as though Wesley So could have tortured Fabiano if he’d played more accurately in the run-up to the time control. In fact the only decisive game of the round was a crucial one, as US Chess Championship debutant Leinier Dominguez ground out a win over Sam Sevian in a rook ending that began as a probable draw. That took Dominguez level with Hikaru Nakamura in the lead.

Round 9, however, was the day on which the star names in the championship asserted their dominance over the rest of the field:

Hikaru Nakamura felt that with Dominguez facing Awonder Liang and Timur Gareev in the last three rounds he had to beat Ray Robson here... and it was mission accomplished! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

There were some brutal wins. Nakamura said he gambled as he repeated a line of the Sicilian Dragon that had already featured in a couple of Ray Robson’s games, and despite the dragon bishop getting exchanged off early he went on to build up a powerful attack. The time to cash in came after 28.Rf6:

28…Rxc2! 29.Rxe6 Qc4 (29…a3 immediately also works) 30.Ref6 a3! and there was no stopping Nakamura, who felt he played “almost perfectly”. You can watch him talk about the game, and see interviews with most of the other players, below:

Leinier Dominguez kept up the pace, though, grabbing a third win in a row, this time against Awonder Liang. A tactical trick by Awonder in the early middlegame only resulted in the loss of a pawn, and ultimately Dominguez converted in style:

50…Kf7 would run into 51.Rxe6! Kxe6 52.Bxf8, but in the game 30…Rdxd6 51.Nxd6 Rxd6 52.a6! was no better. Awonder chose not to give up his rook immediately on a6, but it was clear allowing Dominguez to queen his pawn was also doomed to fail.

Dominguez beat the youngest player in the field, Awonder Liang | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Just half a point behind the two leaders is Fabiano Caruana, whose trolling at the hands of Magnus Carlsen now seems a distant memory. Magnus went on to win three games in four in Wijk aan Zee this year after setting a record for the number of draws in a row, and Fabiano has now done the same in St. Louis after starting with five draws (and a total of 27 classical games in a row without a win).   

“I kind of expected a big fight, that’s why I picked the Dutch”, said Caruana of meeting 1.d4 with 1…f5 against Varuzhan Akobian, and he noted that the game turned on his opponent’s choice on move 9:

This was a calculated risk by Fabiano, but the computer thinks his planned 9.gxf5! Qxb2!? would have been snacking on a poisoned pawn. We never got to see how that would have played out, since Varuzhan went for 9.Na4?!, which Caruana described as “just wrong”. Soon Black was on top, and, although Fabi didn’t find all the best moves, in mutual time trouble he went for an ending where he correctly evaluated that he’d have a big advantage. Akobian has now lost four games in five, and didn’t put up much resistance.

Wesley So and Varuzhan Akobian | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

Wesley So beat Aleksandr Lenderman in a similarly chaotic game for a second win of the event after six draws in a row. That means his chances haven’t entirely gone, though he knows he’ll be trailing by at least half a point going into the final round.

Timur Gareyev has had some good moments in St. Louis, but he's suffered 5 losses and finds himself in last place | photo: Justin Kellar, official website

The wins for the 2700 players were completed by Sam Shankland, whose opponent Timur Gareyev was already in deep trouble by move 7. Here’s the position after 9.a3:

The bishop isn’t lost for nothing, since Black had 9…Bc5 10.dxc5 e4, but when the dust settled Sam was two pawns up. He eventually went on to win in 78 moves, with Timur not quite able to eliminate all the pawns for a drawn Rook vs. Rook + Knight ending.

In Round 8 Shankland held Nakamura to a draw | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

That was the first win of the tournament for the defending champion, and Sam lamented afterwards that it was, “easier to say what went right” than what went wrong, since from the very start things had gone against him. He mentioned that he’d planned his schedule to have a free month before the US Championship, but then it was moved forward to accommodate the Grand Chess Tour and he ended up a playing a string of events in a row.

Sam can still finish with a respectable result, but defending his title is now a mathematical impossibility:

The women’s tournament is now officially a two-horse race after third placed Tatev Abrahamyan was unable to convert an advantage against leader Jennifer Yu in Round 9.

So near yet so far for Tatev Abrahamyan, who is still in third place but now 2 points behind with no chance of winning the title | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Jennifer has 8 points, while Anna Zatonskih is again just half a point behind after becoming the first player to beat Annie Wang since Sabina Foisor in the last round of last year’s event (a result that meant Annie entered a playoff with Nazi Paikidze that she went on to lose). Anna correctly judged that this pawn ending would be very tough for White to hold due to Black’s potential to create an outside passed pawn on the kingside:

The tournament couldn’t be better set up, since Anna Zatonskih now has White against Jennifer Yu in the penultimate round. If Jennifer can win she’ll be the US Women’s Champion with a round to spare, but any other result will mean the tension continues into the final round.

Anna Zatonskih, like Hikaru Nakamura, would win a 5th US Chess Championship title if she wins her last two games | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

It’s a similar story in the overall US Championship, where Nakamura has White against Dominguez in the penultimate round. In this case, however, more players are involved, with Caruana noting that his game against Lenderman is “pretty much a must win”. 

Don’t miss all the action from 13:00 local time, 19:00 CET live here on chess24: Open | Women

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