Favorites Lead, Upsets Highlight First Round of 2015 U.S. Championships

GM Ray Robson, who just won his third straight collegiate national championship with Webster University, is off to a winning start at the 2015 U.S. Championship. // Photo by Kevin Duggin, Spectrum Studios

By FM Kostya Kavutskiy

As expected, the first round of the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship did not disappoint when it came to excitement, upsets -- and even a few blunders.

Wednesday’s earliest game-to-watch was GM Conrad Holt versus GM Hikaru Nakamura. Both players stuck to their traditional guns, as Nakamura played his beloved King’s Indian Defense, while Holt played 6.h3, steering into a line that he has played for several years and with which he has achieved numerous successes.

Holt was able to achieve an opening advantage, forcing Nakamura to sacrifice a pawn with 14…Nf6, which turned the game extremely sharp. After the game Hikaru noted that 14…Nf6 was a critical move, but added, “I have a feeling I didn’t play it correctly, because I was much worse at some point.”

Indeed, by move 21 Holt held an extra pawn and a clear advantage, as Black’s pieces were quite awkwardly placed. Unfortunately, Holt was also left with little time -- around ten minutes to make twenty moves -- which Nakamura later noted was very difficult in such a complex position.

Time pressure  led Holt to play an ill-conceived plan, beginning with Bf1 and missing the unusual shot 25…Ne1! Nakamura surmised that Holt probably thought he could retreat his knight with 26.Nh4, protecting against Black’s threats, but missed the gorgeous 26…Qg2+!! 27.Nxg2 Nf3#.

In the post-mortem with GM Maurice Ashley, Nakamura spoke frankly about his disappointing play, saying ”If I play like this, I’m not going to win the championship.”

Conrad Holt vs. Hikaru Nakamura Annotations by GM Josh Friedel


The other early favorite, GM Wesley So in his first-ever U.S. Championship match, also produced an interesting game in his victory over GM Daniel Naroditsky. After a somewhat unusual Saemisch Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense (4.f3), So consolidated his huge space advantage with the move 11.Ra2! But the early advantage was spoiled, with Naroditsky equalizing in a complex endgame -- though Naroditsky spoiled his own chances of holding with the move 32…Nxc4. Either a serious blunder or a gross misjudgment, the move allowed So to win two pieces for the rook, and eventually his first game.

Wesley So vs. Daniel Naroditsky Annotations by GM Josh Friedel


Other U.S. Championship results from the first round include GM Var Akobian’s win over GM Sam Sevian, where Akobian earned a small advantage and a protected, passed d-pawn from the early middlegame. Sevian was able to take the game into an equal endgame, but was slowly outplayed by his more-experienced opponent.

GM Ray Robson was also victorious over GM Kayden Troff, after achieving a complex endgame with two bishops versus a rook, and multiple passed pawns for both sides. The two bishops proved superior and Robson converted smoothly. The games between reigning U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky and GM Sam Shankland, as well as GM Alexander Onischuk and GM Timur Gareev, finished in draws without many chances for either player.

The U.S. Women’s Championship was no less turbulent, as reigning champion GM Irina Krush found herself seriously worse -- even “strategically lost” according to GM Alejandro Ramirez, providing live commentary onsite in Saint Louis. Krush, however, the only GM in the 2015 Women’s field, was able to defend with grit, and saved the nearly lost game.

Sabina Foisor vs. Irina Krush Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

One of the other favorites in the field, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan went for the attack against 12-year-old WIM Annie Wang, though blundered terribly with 25.Rxf6? The misstep allowed Wang to win the exchange after 25…Bc5 and to convert with the Black pieces. In the round’s post-mortem interview with Ashley, Annie stayed humble, saying “I felt really lucky.”

Tatev Abrahamyan vs. Annie Wang Annotations by GM Josh Friedel


Upsets continued as NM Apurva Virkud, like Wang also playing in her first U.S. Women’s Championship, seized the initiative with Black, then slowly and steadily steered into a winning endgame against FM Alisa Melekhina, eventually earning the win.

The other decisive result in the women’s section was nearly another upset, as WGM Anna Sharevich sacrificed two pawns in the opening against WFM Jennifer Yu -- though failed to get any real compensation, and only providing Yu a decisive material advantage. Nerves, however, got the best of the 13-year-old Yu, as she played too modestly and allowed Sharevich to mix things up. Sharevich eventually found a winning attack using Black’s queen and two rooks.

Things stayed relatively equal in the game WIM Viktoria Ni vs. IM Nazi Paikidze, and the players repeated moves in the middlegame when neither side could make much progress. However in one of the last games to finish of the day, WGM Katerina Nemcova was up a pawn and had a winning endgame for many moves against IM Rusudan Goletiani, but was ultimately unable to collect the full point.

After just one round many players have already lost their chance to claim the $64,000 Fischer Bonus prize, given to anyone who scores 11-0, including the arguable favorite to win it -- GM Krush.


The action continues Thursday, April 2 at 1:00 p.m. CDT, Saint Louis time. Tune in to www.uschesschamps.com/live to follow the online coverage of GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade, and GM Maurice Ashley, bringing play-by-play commentary for all twelve games in the round.