Shamkir, in Azerbaijan, and the Midwest U.S. city of Saint Louis may well be separated by a continent or two and several time zones, but the games from the two rivalling tournaments – of very contrasting early fortunes – are being eagerly picked apart by hordes of dedicated chess fans and pundits alike, as the marquee attraction in each is title-combatants Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, ahead of their big World Championship match in London in November.
In Shamkir, the 5th Vugar Gashimov Memorial has got off to a very slow start: ‘Giri Perfection’, as Peter Doggers over at Chess.com somewhat teasingly dubbed it, with all 10 games from the first two rounds ending in draws – but many of the games have been hard-fought games, even Carlsen’s round two battle with David Navara, the Czech Republic No.1, going down to the ‘bare kings’.
But if you are looking for spills ’n’ thrills, then the place to find it all is the 2018 U.S. Championship being held – and for the tenth successive year(!) – as ever, at Rex Sinquefield’s Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL), and features the ‘Three Amigos’ of Caruana, the 2016 US champion, Wesley So, the 2017 champion, and Hikaru Nakamura, a four-time past champion.
Defending champion So and Varuzhan Akobian made all the early running with a brace of wins apiece, and they are now the only two players with a perfect score of 2/2, and therefore still eligible for the $64,000 ‘Fischer Prize’; a big bonus prize awarded to any player that can replicate Bobby Fischer’s remarkable feat of winning the 1964 US title with a perfect 11-0 scoreline.
But after a tough opening round draw with the young rising wannabe star, Awonder Liang, Caruana was back to his devastating best form we’ve witnessed over recent months, as he crushed Aleksandr Lenderman with such a powerhouse performance, that it eerily looked if he was channeling Fischer at his best, as the U.S. No.1 and pre-tournament favorite literally pushed his opponent off the board in just 23 moves.
Gashimov Memorial standings:
1-10. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Ding Liren (China), Sergey Karjakin (Russia), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Rauf Mamedov (Azerbaijan), David Navara (Czech Republic) 1/2.
US Championship standings:
1-2. Wesley So, Varuzhan Akobian 2/2; 3-4. Fabiano Caruana, Ray Robson 1.5; 5-7. Jeffrey Xiong, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland 1; 8-11. Awonder Liang, Alek Lenderman, Yarolsav Zherebukh, Zviad Izoria 0.5; 12. Alexander Onischuk 0.
Photo: Fabiano Caruana channels Fischer with a powerhouse performance | © Austen Fuller (CCSCSL)
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Aleksandr Lenderman
US Championship, (2)
French Defence, Winawer variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qa5 7.Bd2 Qa4 8.Qg4 Kf8 9.h4! Herein lies a story. In last year’s US Championship, Caruana-Naroditsky had gone 9.Nf3 b6!? and Black had a reasonable game. And perhaps Lenderman hoped he would be getting this sort of position – but Caruana is nothing if not diligent, and he’s obviously done a lot of work here after his game against Naroditsky, and he’s come up with a standard theme in the Winawer that has to now throw this line for Black into question. 9…Nc6 It’s dangerous to take the pawn, as neither 9…Qxc2 10.Nf3 Ne7 (or even forcing the trade of queens offers any respite. If 10…Qe4+ 11.Qxe4 dxe4 12.Ng5! with a big advantage.) 11.Rc1 Qg6 12.Qh3 h5 13.Ng5! looks particularly appetizing prospects for Black. 10.h5 h6 11.Qd1! Caruana’s early queen sortie, coupled with 9.h4!, has gained him a big space advantage – and now job done, the queen makes a strategic retreat back to defend c2; and with it, more importantly now, serves to embarrass Lenderman’s queen that’s short of suitable retreating squares. 11…cxd4 In view of what now comes, perhaps Lenderman should have tried 11…b6!? with the idea of at least trading the light-squared bishops. White still has a big space advantage, but Black shouldn’t totally collapse here as he does in the game. 12.Nf3 dxc3? Lenderman simply had to try 12…Nge7, when after the rook lift 13.Rh4!, we see the real reason behind Caruana’s early push of h4-h5. 13.Bxc3 g5?! It looks ugly, and that’s because it is ugly – but the reality is that Lenderman has to somehow stop Caruana playing Rh4 that finds the black queen somewhat bereft of squares; and so much so, that some engines were even suggesting the very embarrassing retreat here of 13…Nb8. 14.hxg6 Qe4+ 15.Be2 Qxg6 16.Qd2 Nge7 17.Bd3 Qxg2? Lenderman obviously has a ‘death wish’, as this leads to a very speedy debacle. He’s in a very bad way but had to try and struggle on as best he could with 17…Qg7 where 18.Kf1 and the threat of Rh3-g3 is very strong. 18.Ke2 What’s not to like here? Caruana’s king supports the defense of the Nf3, whilst at the same time, he makes a clear path for his Ra1 to “join the party” by commanding the g-file. 18…Qg4 19.Rh4! [see diagram] Much stronger than Rg1, as White gains a tempo to complete the rook lift Rh1-h4-f4. 19…Qg7 20.Rg1 All the White’s pieces are now joining in on the deadly attack – and with it, Lenderman’s resignation can’t be far off now. 20…Ng6 21.Rf4 This is total domination by the newly-minted World championship challenger. 21…Nce7 22.Bb4 a5 23.Rxg6! Splat! 1-0