Nakamura Closes the Gap; Zatonskih Catches the Leaders

by GM Cristian Chirila

The tournament is heating up and the players are starting to feel the pressure, the effect of lowered energy, and the stress that the championship rounds are bringing to the table. There are two leaders in the U.S. Championship and a three way tie in U.S. Women’s Championship. Nakamura is making a strong comeback and he is now only half a point behind the leaders. The women’s section is catching fire as Anna Zatonskih wins a beautiful game and caught Paikidze and Abrahamyan at the top!

Let’s analyze this exciting round and see where we stand as we enter the last three rounds of this dramatic event.

2016 U.S. Championship

Caruana vs. Robson ½- ½

Fabiano was coming into round eight as the clear favorite, and his final rounds schedule suggests him as the main favorite to strip Naka off his title. One last big test that he had to pass was the Robson exam.

Unfortunately for him, Ray came off guns blazing and used an incredible preparation to equalize and ultimately force Fabiano to go for a sacrifice that led to a perpetual. Let’s give this game a closer look and get a clear idea of how you can outprepare a 2800!

So vs. Onischuk ½- ½

Wesley chose to test Onischuk in the same line Caruana defeated him just a couple of round ago. Onischuk boldly accepted the challenge and repeated the same move, he probably had some serious improvement over his previous loss, and So decided to deviate first by playing 8.d4. Onischuk knew the variation and did not stumble in his way to an inferior, but holdable endgame. Wesley never really had a chance for a serious advantage and misses his chance to surpass Caruana in the standings and become the sole leader of the tournament.

Shankland vs. Xiong ½- ½

This was a fairly uneventful game between the revenge seeking Shankland and one of the biggest sensation of the tournament, the young Jeffery Xiong (who has yet to taste defeat). As much as Shankland wanted to win, he also knew that his form is not at its peak and will not be a wise decision to go all-in against an ice cold Xiong that would penalize any inaccuracy. In an attempt to keep things down low and hopefully take out Xiong out of his preparation, Shankland opted for the Trompovsky, an opening that has not been seen in the U.S. Championship very often. Xiong played one of Kramnik’s main weapons, a strategically sound option that allows White to get a better structure in exchange for the bishop pair.

I myself played this line a few times as Black and never had any problems to prove the dynamic prospect of my bishops. The exchange spinning wheel made a natural appearance and the pieces started falling off the board at the speed of light. By move 30 there were only one pair of light pieces left on the board, the players agreed to a draw soon after the time control.

Akobian vs. Kamsky ½ - ½

Akobian and Kamsky both have had subpar events but this was one game to prove that it was everything a fluke, and their class had to be respected under any circumstances. Akobian chose a rare line in the KID by playing 6.g4!? Black had quite an interesting idea of combating White’s peculiar set-up with a combined attack in the center and on the queenside. Var managed to contain Black’s initiative and obtained a strategically better position, unfortunately for his he left himself little time and had to complete the last 20 moves in less than 2 minutes. Var should have taken the sacrifice with 17.Bg4! after which extreme complications arise, but they all seem to end up favorably for him. Instead he chose a more dull approach that did not paid off. Kamsky showed his resilient nature and the game ended after the 50th move.

Chandra vs. Lenderman 0-1

Lenderman showed why he is one of the most theoretically feared guy in the field. He wisely chose a Sicilian offbeat line that transitioned into a Pirc type of structure with the one improvement for Black that the White square bishop gets out and the “c” pawns are off the board, which gives his the important c6 square for the knight. Black easily equalized and was even better, but suddenly he chose the wrong plan and in three moves he was already almost losing.  

Luckily for Lenderman, Chandra is not in best shape and could not find the win starting after 33.Qe5! followed by Bxc5 sacrificing the piece and completely destroying Black’s king shelter. Instead, the National Junior champ allowed his opponent to get back into the game and event obtain a superior knights endgame. Lenderman had a dangerous passed pawn on the “b” file, and in Chandra’s second time trouble he managed to promote the pawn and get his first win of the tournament.

Nakamura vs. Shabalov 1-0

Nakamura obtained an important advantage out of the opening but failed to spot a few resources and allowed Black to get back into the game. In the ensuing materially unbalanced position, Nakamura managed to outsmart his opponent and place enough pressure that he would ultimately crack. Let’s give this game a closer look and see where both these players could have improved their performance.

Here are the standings after round 8:


2016 U.S. Women’s Championship

Abrahamyan vs. Krush ½ - ½

This battle was definitely the crucial one going into round 8 of the U.S. Women’s Championship as two of the three leaders were fighting against each other to maintain the edge over their competition. The game started quite badly for Tatev who quickly got into a worse position against the defending champ. Irina started her slow grind and looked as if she will be emerging victorious from this “championship” round.

The structural advantage and piece domination should have been decisive for Krush but ultimately she erred badly by playing a series of moves that diminished her advantage to the point where she actually felt endangered by Tatev’s initiative. If White would have played 40.Bf8! it is not clear whether Black would have been able to survive in the ensuing endgame. Draw and Tatev must be relieved to escape Krush’s torturous program.

Game annotation by GM Robert Hess.

Paikidze vs. Nemcova ½ - ½

Paikidze was looking to take the sole lead going into the final 3, Nemcova on the other hand was surely not complacent with a draw and would have liked to get the full point in order to start eyeing the top spots.

Nazi chose to follow the main lines this time around and picked the Catalan as her weapon of choice, but Nemcova appeared to be the better prepared player. Despite the opening failure, Nazi slowly started to outplay her opponent but failed to capitalize on her technique when she missed 26.Nxc6! Even after the game continuation, Nazi was still better and should have tortured her opponent for a longer time. Instead she chose a dubious plan and failed to spot Black’s cute 49…Rxc6! A move that sealed the draw and kept the standings up top unchanged.

Eswaran vs. Zatonskih 0-1

A French on the board. Zatonskih came very well prepared to this game and managed to fully equalize as soon as move 10. She had enough dynamics in the position to balanced her isolated pawn on the “d” file and soon her opponent decided to give a pawn in order to activate her forces. Unfortunately for White, this was not a very witty sacrifice and Zatonskih quickly increased her advantage through a series of well timed tactics. Anna accurately converted her gains and Eswaran will once again have to go back to the drawing board and try to salvage her mediocre event.

Zatonskih on the other hand maintains her high tempo and joint the leading pack with three more round to go.

Yip vs. Foisor 0-1

Sabina is slowly getting in her groove! After a slow start and a few disappointing performances she now seems like a new player and ready to climb the standings latter.

Carissa is coming off a couple of loses and seems to have slowed down after her furious start. If the Berlin is nowhere to be see these days, the French is making an appearance every round, generally in more than one game. The players followed one of the main lines of the 3.Nd2 French but Sabina seemed to have outprepared her younger opponent and equalized skillfully out of the opening. Sabina tried to complicate matter but her younger opponent managed to maintain the balance and even threaten to get an advantageous position. Unfortunately for her, it was Sabina who found a nice pawn sacrifice with 25…e3! which unleashed the dynamics of her pieces and placed Carissa under tremendous pressure. The youngster was not able to hold and blundered badly with 32.Rad1 which allowed Sabina to pin the knight decisively and win a full piece. Soon after, it was game over!

Bykovtsev vs. Gorti 0-1

The two juniors decided to play one of the sharpest line of the, you guessed it, French defense (self-proclaimed most popular opening of the U.S. Championships). It was Akshita who presumably forgot her preparation and played the dubious 17…Qf6 but in such a complex position is difficult to harshly condemn a natural looking move just because the engines don’t like it.

Agata’s 19.h4 was a difficult move to understand, as is closing the queen’s path back home, and so were her following moves. Akshita quickly finished her development and started a vicious pawn storm in the center, while keeping the opponent’s queen entrapped on the h file. Agata could not find an active plan and had to resign when her opponent’s second queen made an appearance on the board.

Yu vs. Melekhina 1-0

When you lose a game in an open tournament you usually go back to the drawing board and play an accessible opponent that will allow you to come back and restore your confidence. That is not the case in the U.S. Championships when every round you are playing the best players in the country. This has been the case for Alisa’s decline and has been quite heartbreaking to witness. Jennifer chose to start the game with 1.c4 and the players soon entered a topical line of the English opening in which White maneuvers their pieces in order to take advantage of the weakened d5 square. Alisa must have been inspired by Nemcova’s previous game in which she started an early attack with h4-h5, but this time around Jennifer knew what to expect and prepared her game plan thoroughly. Alisa took some bad decisions, in particular recapturing on e5 with the f pawn, which allowed her opponent to obtain a large advantage. Despite that, Jennifer did not handle the complications well and blundered with 23.Nd7?? This could have been a turning point for Alisa’s tournament but she failed to play the winning move 23…Rxf1! Instead she played a losing move and had to resign only a few moves later. Another disappointing result for Alisa who has played very decent games so far but failed to give her best during the critical moments.

We are entering the final three rounds of this exciting event and the battles are starting to heat up. Leaders will fight tooth and nail for this prestigious title, and the main benefiters of that will be the eagerly awaiting fans! Here are the matchups for Round 9: