It doesn’t get any more exciting than this, as the race for the coveted United States Championship title heats up going down the home stretch at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club, with the four tournament top seeds of Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, and newcomer Leinier Dominguez, all assert their authority over the field by putting together a series of timely “must-win” games going into what’s now set to be a dramatic and tense final weekend of the competition.
In the only decisive win of round 8, five-time Cuban champion Dominguez beat rising star Sam Sevian to join Nakamura in the co-lead. And in what turned out to be a bloodthirsty round 9, Dominguez kept his winning run going by also beating another rising star in Awonder Liang – and that spurred Nakamura into action to keep pace with the dogged Cuban, as the four-time U.S. champion turned in a typically exciting Nakamura-like win over Ray Robson.
Dominguez and Nakamura now lead on 6½/9 – and all eyes will be on what potentially could be a championship title-deciding encounter between the two leaders in the penultimate round! But hard on their heels, and just a half point behind there ominously lurks world #2 Caruana, who beat Varuzhan Akobian and is now back in with a shot at a second title; as does So, though despite a little off the pace, with his takedown of Aleks Lenderman.
In the U.S. Women’s Championship, the home stretch is developing into an intriguing two-horse race of the generations, as teenager Jennifer Yu, in a breathtaking breakout performance, holds onto to the sole lead, just a half point ahead of four-time champion Anna Zatonskih – and those two runaway title combatants are also set for a dramatic penultimate round clash that could well decide the final outcome.
It was a Bruce Lee-like case of “Enter the Dragon” in one of the highlights of Round 9, as co-leader Nakamura adopted a ninja strategy to catch Robson by surprise in a relatively new line in chess theory. When 10…Rb8!? hit the chess scene at the turn of the twenty-first century, it quickly proved to be an interesting divergence to the deeply-analysed 10…Rc8 followed by Ne5-c4 that was played, almost automatically, in thousands of games up till then.
But it wasn’t invented by a Chinese player, as many might have thought with its moniker. Belgium Fide Master Luc Henris, who was living in China with his Chinese wife, christened the variation the ‘Chinese Dragon’ when he wrote a ground-breaking article about it for New In Chess Yearbook 62. At that time there were few games available, so he had to create most of the analysis himself – and when it was published, the line soon became popular, as it avoided all the more heavily analysed Dragon lines.
1-2. L. Dominguez, H. Nakamura 6½/9; 3. F. Caruana 6; 4. W. So 5½; 5. S. Sevian 5; 6-7. J. Xiong, S. Shankland 4½; 8-10. R. Robson, A. Lenderman, A. Liang 3½; 11-12. V. Akobian, T. Gareev 2½.
U.S. Women’s Championship:
1. J. Yu 8/9; 2. A. Zatonskih 7½; 3. T. Abrahamyan 6; 4. A. Wang 5½; 5. C. Yip 4½; 6. M. Feng 4; 7-9. A. Sharevich, I. Krush, A. Eswaran 3½; 10. S. Foisor 3; 11-12. A. Gorti, E. Nguyen 2½.
Photo: Nakamura’s Dragon breathes fire in an exciting “must-win” game | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Ray Robson – GM Hikaru Nakamura
U.S. Championship, (9)
Sicilian Dragon, Yugoslav Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 One early touted refutation to the Chinese Dragon was to switch the move order and play 10.h4 instead of 10.0-0-0 – but curiously, few players have taken to testing this out. 10…Rb8!? The Chinese Dragon, which is very similar in many ways to Leonid Stein’s idea from the 1960s of 10…Qb8!? However, the Chinese Dragon is more resilient, and the obvious idea behind 10…Rb8 is to push the b-pawn and attack on the b-file, whether White dares to take the sacrificed b5-pawn or not. 11.Bb3 Na5 12.Bh6 Bxh6 13.Qxh6 b5 14.Nd5 Nxb3+ 15.Nxb3 e5 16.Nxf6+ Qxf6 17.h4 Robson follows the Bobby Fischer method for slaying the Dragon from his timeless tome My 60 Memorable Games, as he annotated his win over Bent Larsen (Portoroz Interzonal, 1958) with the memorable simple explanation of his winning plan being to “pry open the h-file, sac, sac… mate!” Alternatively, Robson could just pile the pressure on the d-pawn with 17.Rd3 Rb6 18.Rhd1 but after 18…b4! 19.Qd2 Bb5 (Better than 19…Be6 20.Rxd6 Rxd6 21.Qxd6 Qf4+ 22.Qd2 Qxh2 as a little awkward now is 23.Nc5! Bc8 where White’s pieces are better placed.) 20.Rxd6 Rxd6 21.Qxd6 Qf4+ 22.Kb1 Qxh2 Black looks to be OK here, as White’s kingside pawns will lack protection. 17…Rb6 18.h5 It worked for Fischer, but not for Robson, as Nakamura has all his bases more than covered – and Robson soon realises there’s not only nothing in the attack but that Nakamura now has the attacking resources, as he successfully re-positions his pieces. 18…Qe7! 19.hxg6 fxg6 20.Qe3 Be6 21.Rhf1 Robson falls into a bad plan as he attempts to switch to another attack. 21…Rc6! White has nothing now, and Nakamura gains the upper-hand as he very skilfully switches from defence to attack. 22.f4?! After abandoning the h-file, Robson tries to open a new line of attack – but with the time wasted, Nakamura now seizes the initiative. 22…Qc7 23.Rd2 a5 Nakamura’s attack is coming quickly, and now Robson is the one who has to defend his king. 24.Kb1 a4 25.Nc1 b4 26.Rdf2 exf4 27.Rxf4 The full switch from defence to attack is complete, as Robson’s doubled rooks on the f-file prove no match for the ‘heavy furniture’ Nakamura has now amassed on the c-file. 27…Rc8 28.Rf6 Rxc2! 29.Rxe6 Qc4 30.Ref6 Robson has designs on Qh6 and mating on f8 – but there’s the little matter of Nakamura’s attack that hits first. 30…a3! [see diagram] Nakamura’s attack is crashing through regardless, and Robson has to resort to desperate measures to avoid his king being caught in the crossfire. 31.bxa3 The only way to fight on, as 31.b3? quickly goes down in flames to 31…Rb2+ 32.Ka1 Rb1+!! 33.Kxb1 Qc2+ 34.Ka1 Qb2#. 31…bxa3 32.Qxa3 Rxc1+ 33.Rxc1 Qxe4+ 34.Kb2 Robson has just managed to keep his head above the water – but for how much longer? 34…Qe5+ 35.Rc3 Rb8+ You need to be a little careful converting the win, as it’s not too clear after 35…Qxf6 36.Qb3+ as Black has to be wary of where to put the king, as the wrong square makes all the difference between winning and potentially the game being a draw: 36…Kh8! (Going for the “easy endgame win” with the extra pawn and 36…Kf8?! only draws after 37.a4! Qe5 38.Kc2 Rxc3+ 39.Qxc3 Qxc3+ 40.Kxc3 Ke7 41.Kc4 Kd7 42.Kd5 h5 43.a5 h4 44.a6 Kc7 45.a7 Kb7 46.Kxd6 g5 47.Ke5 and the king just gets back in the nick of time to draw.) 37.a4 Qd4! Now if 38.Kc2 Ra8 39.Rf3 d5 Black will soon be picking up the a-pawn, but he will have to proceed with care, as it is far from being an easy win here. 36.Kc2? A better saving try was 36.Ka1! Qxf6 37.Qc1 d5 38.Qd2 d4 39.Rb3 Rc8 40.Rd3 and White is not completely lost quite yet – but it really does go against human nature to want to voluntarily pin your king in the corner of the board. 36…Qxf6 37.Rf3 Qd4 The difference now is that Robson’s king is wandering around in no man’s land and susceptible to being hit. 38.Rb3 Qe4+ 39.Kc1 Qe1+ 40.Kc2 Qe2+ 41.Kb1 Qd1+ It’s always the case immediately after you make the time control at move 40: you sit back, more relaxed, and there’s no adrenalin rush that would perhaps give you the incentive to seek the killer blow. It’s academic anyway, and we can’t be too judgmental of Nakamura in this position, as he wins in a few more moves anyway, but the clinical 41…Qd3+!! wins on the spot, as 42.Kb2 Qd2+ 43.Ka1 Qe1+ 44.Kb2 Rc8 45.Rc3 Qd2+ picks off the rook. 42.Qc1 Rxb3+ 43.axb3 Qxb3+ And academic also, but this time trading down to the king and pawn ending with 43…Qxc1+ 44.Kxc1 Kf7 45.Kd2 Ke6 46.Kd3 Kd5 does win. 44.Ka1 Qa4+ 45.Kb2 Qb5+ 46.Ka1 Qc5 47.Qd2 h5 Nakamura simply has too many pawns and a nicely placed queen that dominates the middle of the board – so there’s no danger of the Q+P ending being a draw. 48.Kb1 Kg7 49.Qb2+ Qe5 50.Qb7+ Kh6 Worse now for Robson, Nakamura has found a safe haven from the checks – the end is going to come sooner rather than later. 51.Kc1 d5 52.Kd1 Qe4 53.Qb2 Kg5 54.Qd2+ Kg4 55.Qh6 g5 0-1