Reports Oct 27, 2020 | 11:49 AMby Colin McGourty

US Chess Champs Day 1: Wesley So on 100%

Wesley So rode his luck at times to storm to a perfect 3/3 after Day 1 of the 2020 US Chess Championship, while defending champion Hikaru Nakamura was left frustrated on 1.5/3 after starting with three draws. It was a good day for 19-year-olds, with Jeffery Xiong in joint second place with Ray Robson on 2.5/3, while Sam Sevian is the only other player on a plus score after he took down one of the favourites, Leinier Dominguez.

Wesley So admitted there were some dicey moments against Awonder Liang! 

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

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

A slow start for Hikaru

Defending Champion Hikaru Nakamura is the big favourite to win the US Championship for a 6th time, since this year the event is being held as an on-line rapid tournament (25 minutes + a 5-second increment per move), but he didn’t get off to a flying start. He had Black in two of his first three games, and found himself defending the infamous Berlin Endgame against both Leinier Dominguez and Sam Sevian.

Sam in particular got some real chances after playing 17.Nf6+! here after a 6-minute think, though both games were drawn.

That could have been the basis of a good day at the office if Hikaru had beaten Aleksandr Lenderman with White, and after 13.f5! things were looking promising.

It got crazy later on, however, with Hikaru visibly shocked by 19…Rd6!?

After 20.Qxf5 Qxf5 21.Rxf5 Nh6! Hikaru could still have won the ensuing endgame, but it was a narrow path that he didn't stay on for long, even if Lenderman was forced to defend until move 144!

Wesley So stakes his claim

That slow start for Hikaru was a chance for another favourite to step up, and it was Wesley So who took advantage. That it might be his day was clear in Round 1 when Lenderman couldn’t defend a theoretically drawn endgame.

As the tablebases show, he could have drawn here by putting the bishop on any square on the f1-a6 diagonal except the one he put it on, 92…Bb5? After 93.c6! (93.Kb6 also wins) there was no stopping Wesley queening one of the pawns and winning the game.

Wesley won a powerful game against Alejandro Ramirez in Round 2, but then again rode his luck against 17-year-old Awonder Liang in the final round of the day. 12.Nf3? invited trouble:   

Wesley explained:

The last game was very topsy-turvy, as can be expected from this f3 Caro-Kann. In fact, just looking at my game briefly in the last round, the computer says I was lost at a couple of points. 12.Nf3? was a very bad move, because I played too quickly. I should play Qd2 first, instead of Nf3, and then I just thought White had a large advantage here, because his dark squares are very weak and his pawn on g6 is undesirable. After 12…Qe3+! I couldn’t really bear myself to play a slightly worse or equal endgame after 13.Ne2 Bb5! - I think Black just has no chances to lose. So I thought Awonder had 0/2 today, so I’ll just sacrifice a pawn and see what happens, but it could have turned out pretty badly!

It’s great news for Wesley’s fans that he’s willing to take some risks, since risk aversion is perhaps his biggest weakness, but after 13.Qe2?! Qxf4 things rapidly began to fall apart. 18…Qg7! instead of 18…g5!? would have been very strong, while the last clear chance for Black to win was after 27.Rxe6?

Simply 27…Ref8! leaves White in a hopeless situation, with Ne3 threatened, while an exchange of queens would leave the f-pawn unstoppable. Instead after 27…Rxe6? 28.Nxe6! White was no worse and it was ultimately Awonder who cracked in an endgame where both sides had separated passed pawns on opposite sides of the board. 49…Kh6? set up a tactical idea:

50.Ng4+! is the most direct way to exploit the white rook and black king both being on the 6th rank, with the point that 50…Nxg4 runs into 51.c7+ and the c-pawn queens. Wesley’s 50.Nd7! was a variation on that theme, with Awonder’s desperate 50…h3 51.Nxf6 h2 refuted by 52.Ng4+, when the h-pawn had been stopped.

“I got my revenge today!” said Wesley, who recalled the last game he played against Awonder in the final round of the 2019 US Championship, when the kid won with Black to end an unbeaten US Championship streak of Wesley's that had stretched to over 40 games.

Wesley revealed afterwards that his US Championship preparation had involved some sparring games with a 5-second increment, but that wasn’t his main preparation.

In general I think playing bullet or 3:0 is a good way to practice your speed, because I also actually watch Hikaru on Twitch and that seems to be all he does, day in, day out!

A youthful chasing pack

Jeffery Xiong turns 20 the day after the US Championship ends, so that it’s already time to convert his promise into concrete results. The 2016 World Junior Champion is doing a decent job of that, having entered the 2700 club, and he began the US Championship in fine form. He scored a convincing win over Awonder Liang in Round 1, drew comfortably with Black against Sam Shankland, and then navigated the complications better to win a spectacular game against Darius Swiercz. 19…Nf3+!? took Darek 10 minutes.

Jeffery commented afterwards:

I might have just blundered this Nf3. I don’t know if it’s that good for Black or anything, but it certainly looked good when he played it, but fortunately I think after Nf3 it’s not so easy for him to start any attack, because his pawn on g2 is kind of a nice shield for my king. It felt like White was actually easier to navigate here.

It was a very unusual position with both players having a pawn shield on the g-file…

…but Jeffery correctly calculated a path to victory.

Jeffery is joined on 2.5/3 by Ray Robson, who punished Awonder Liang for a reckless pawn grab in Game 2 and then scored a beautiful win over Sam Shankland in the final round of the day. 20…a3? (20…b3!) was a losing move, allowing Ray to unleash 21.e5!

There’s suddenly no good defence against the threat of Qh6, while the attempt to run with 21…Kf8 22.exf6 Ke8 was met by the elegant slow move 23.b3! With the queenside stabilised, Black is totally powerless to stop White capturing the h-pawn and advancing his kingside pawns to victory.

Just half a point behind is 19-year-old Sam Sevian, who picked up the biggest scalp of the day to defeat the usually rock solid Leinier Dominguez. 30.Nc5? was a mistake.

Sam pounced with 30…Nb6! and Leinier could only save his rook at the cost of the a4-pawn, making Black’s a-pawn a game-winning monster. Sam mentioned afterwards, “my last Junior day was really good”, and in fact he won his last four games of the US Junior Championship. Despite a couple of weeks in between, he kept up that momentum and had chances to win against both Swiercz and Nakamura.

That meant that after Day 1 of the 2020 US Championships the standings are as follows:

On Day 2 Hikaru will be out for blood as he faces Ramirez, Moradiabadi and Liang, while Wesley has a tough day with Black against both Shankland and Dominguez. Watch all the action live from 19:00 CEST here on chess24!

See also:

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