Caruana and So Go Into the Rest Day as Co-Leaders
Round five of the 2016 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship has been the bloody war we have all been waiting for. The players were looking to go into the rest day with a win in their pocket, and the fans watching all over the world were the happy recipients of an entertaining chess day. We had enticing battles in both sections, with Wesley battling his nemesis from last year, Varuzhan Akobian. Also, the two favorites for the title in the Women’s section, Krush and Zatonskih, had to once again face each other! We were in for a treat and the players made sure we were not going to leave the stands without a satisfied smile on our faces.
2016 U.S. Championship
Shabalov vs. Caruana ½ - ½
The game between the leader—Caruana—and one of the most enthralling players of the tournament was certainly an important one to follow. White opened with 1.Nf3, and the game transition into a Fianchetto Grunfeld-Slav variation. It is well-known that White only gets a slight edge but not much more than that. Caruana was first to deviate with 11…Nb8?!, and it looked as if White might have gotten something to work with. Shabalov should have played 16.Rfd1 after which Black would have had problems proving equality. The game continuation was tame and the pieces started to come off the board quickly. In the ensuing endgame, none of the players really got close to obtaining an edge and a draw was agreed soon after.
So vs. Akobian 1-0
Akobian chose to face Wesley’s 1.e4 with the French but was soon in trouble after failing, once again, to make his homework. I am amazed at the lack of opening preparation the American “veteran” is showing. Let’s see what Grandmaster Hess thinks about this wild encounter!
Nakamura vs. Shankland 1-0
Nakamura was coming into round five after a terrible performance in round four and has surely sharpened his sword going into this fight. He was facing one of the best prepared players in the tournament, and this aspect certainly played a major role when crafting his strategy at home. He surprised his opponent by choosing a rather rare line of the Caro Cann, and soon obtained a favorable middlegame position with a potentially decisive attack on the kingside. The American champion did not let his guard down and played a great attacking game to finish his opponent off and climb up the standings list.
Xiong vs. Kamsky 1-0
This was an incredible game to follow! A sharp battle that ended up in an unexpected meltdown from the five-time U.S. Champion and newest U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductee, Gata Kamsky. Xiong once again proved that he is a difficult guy to prepare against and opened the game with 1.e4, not the same choice as in his game against Robson. Kamsky replied with the Alekhine, almost a unicorn opening at top level and surely not something that his young opponent expected. Black was better prepared and obtained an almost winning position position after 13 moves. He could have cemented his advantage with 15…Qh4! Even top players can blunder and the game continuation was nowhere as powerful which allowed Xiong to get back into the game. When you allow a hungry lion to survive, don’t be surprised if you will turn from his hunter into his prey. The game continued to be balanced until Black committed an unpardonable mistake with 35…Bxf3?? This unexplainable move simply blundered a piece and a disappointed Kamsky soon resigned. What an incredible turn of events that proves even top players are prone to huge blunders.
Onischuk vs. Chandra 1-0
The young Chandra has had a subpar event so far—missing a lot of chances and revealing some important holes in his game along the way. The last few rounds he proved that his participation in the U.S. Championship is no fluke and managed to hold Nakamura to a draw and pressure Shabalov almost to the breaking point. Unfortunately for him, his play today was poor and Onischuk is not a player who misses given opportunities. The youngster was surprised after 9.Qd2! and started playing some very suspicious moves afterwards. By move 18 he was already in deep trouble and Onischuk transitioned into a completely winning endgame that he converted without difficulties. Chandra now heads back to the drawing board to make some serious adjustments during the rest day if he wants to improve his results going into the second part of the championship.
Robson vs. Lenderman ½ - ½
A wild game this was! The game had a slow start with Robson opting for the popular hybrid setup starting with Nf3-g3-Bg2—delaying his decision of pushing any of the central pawns. He followed with a d4-c4 setup and the game quickly ended in a position only found in one other game in history: Vachier vs. Sokolov, which ended in a draw. Lenderman was the first one to deviate with 11…Nf6 but Robson’s familiarity with the position allowed him to obtain a massive advantage.Black was feeling the pressure on the queenside and erred when he played 19…c5?, a move that Robson immediately punished with a very precise attack. White entered a completely winning endgame with a piece up but seemed hypnotized and spent almost all his time calculating ghost variations when he could have easily stopped any sort of counterplay with 44.Nc2! after which the Lenderman would have been forced to throw the towel. White had plenty of chances to finish the game even after his miss, but as if he was under a spell, he avoided all of the potentially winning moves and allowed Black to escape with a draw. This slip leaves Caruana and So as the co-leaders of the tournament and might prove extremely important in the title contention.
2016 U.S. Women’s Championship
Krush vs. Zatonskih ½ - ½
It was the game of the tournament in the U.S. Women’s Championship—no doubt about that. But as it often happens when the top two contenders meet, a need for security surfaces and the players don’t take the necessary risks. The history between these two players is well known, and a quick draw was surely not something that anybody would have bet on. Being in the room with both of these contenders, you can feel the tension they bring to the table when facing one another. The players entered the exchange variations of the QGD, which is currently considered to be harmless for Black. That assessment was accurately proved in round five and after 15.Bxg6?! and it was clear that White was pleased with the status quo. The two rivals played a long game but the balanced was never disturbed and an uneventful draw was agreed at move 70.
Paikidze vs. Yu 1-0
Paikidze was tied for the lead going into this round, and she certainly came to the game with a clear plan. She had to do everything in her power to get the victory and hopefully break the tie for first place going into the free day, and that’s exactly what she did! Let’s give this game a closer look as it is one of the most influential game of the round in terms of standings.
Nemcova vs. Abrahamyan ½ - ½
Both these players had something to prove. Nemcova was coming off a few difficult rounds, while Tatev surely knew that every single lost half point will count at the end. Nemcova, who is a student at Webster, the powerhouse in collegiate chess, came well-prepared into this game and chose the fairly out of fashion 4.Nge2. Tatev was well-prepared and chose the most critical line with 4…Nc6. This move has the best score in the database and is probably the best option when trying to prove White’s suspicious setup. Abrahamyan did not have any difficulties neutralizing White’s opening advantage and the players agreed to an uneventful draw at move 32.
Yip vs. Bykovtsev 0-1
This was surely one of the highlights of the round in the women’s section. Carissa Yip was trying to make a comeback after her difficult loss against Yu, and Bykovtsev was surely looking to revenge her loss against the defending champion, Irina Krush. The players started with a Sicilian and quickly turned into a complex tactical melee that seemed to favor White. However, as with most Sicilian positions, the assessment was never certain. Bykovtsev erred with 16…h6?!, opening up the game on the side where she had the apparent disadvantage. The young Yip was eager to penalize her opponent’s lack of patience but did not find the strong 20.Nd2 which would have killed all Black’s counterplay and offer White a free hand on the kingside. The combative Yip did not go for the repetition with 37.Rd6 and instead chose to continue the game with 37.b3!? Unfortunately for Yip, she lost control of the position and blundered badly with 39.Re3 which allowed her opponent to simplify the position and enter a winning endgame. Bykovtsev showed her flawless technique and did not allow her young opponent back in the game. Both ladies now stand at 50%.
Foisor vs. Eswaran ½ - ½
This game started awfully for the young Eswaran, and ended in terrible fashion for Foisor. The players entered the Classical variation of the Queen’s Indian, and immediately after the theory ended Eswaran blundered with 13…Nd7?. Sabina took advantage of her opponent’s clumsiness and enjoyed a massive advantage for the rest of the game. It was a heartbreaking finale when Foisor failed to convert a completely winning endgame and blundered her advantage with 61.Kh3?? instead of 61.Kf3! which would have certainly finished the game. The rest day can’t come at a better time for these women as they are looking to recuperate and come back stronger in the second half of the tournament.
Melekhina vs. Gorti 0-1
A very balanced game ended in another upsetting loss for Melekhina. Black had a good French but she did not play accurately and Melekhina managed to amass a slight middlegame advantage. Unfortunately for her, the lack of form once again creeped in and, after a series of inaccurate moves, it was her who was fighting for survival. Gorti knew that such chances don’t come often in these type of tournaments and carefully converted her advantageous endgame into a full point.