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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The United States Chess Championship is regarded as one of history’s most storied national championships – and the latest pandemic-hit edition this strange year is being played online, though magnanimously still sponsored and supported by billionaire patron Rex Sinquefield and his always-innovative Saint Louis Chess Club, with twelve of the country’s top players vying all this week for the $150,000 prize fund and coveted title officially first won by Jackson Showalter in 1891.

Earlier this month, title contests were staged for girls, under-20 juniors, over-50 seniors and women, staged on the Lichess platform with a more online-friendly rapid time control (G/25 + 5) with three rounds per day, as we’ve also witnessed during the entertaining lockdown period Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour

Two hugely popular standout results saw Joel Benjamin and Irina Krush overcoming their own health battles with Covid-19 to pick-up the senior and women’s titles. For Krush, it proved to be her eighth title, and for Benjamin, a place in the record books now, having come ‘through the ranks’ by winning all three major titles of US junior, US national champion and now US senior champion.

But all eyes are firmly on the big one, the national championship. The pandemic has allowed defending five-time champion Hikaru Nakamura to hold on to his coveted title for an additional six months or so, while the late cancellation of the postponed Candidates Tournament – that was due to resume in Yekaterinburg on 1 November – means that the world #2 and 2016 US champion, Fabiano Caruana, is the one noticeable top player missing from the all-star line-up.

Bobby Fischer is the player most synonymous with the history of the US championship, most notably his 1963/64 win when he swept the opposition to record a perfect score of 11/11 – and against top grandmaster-level opposition. In the past, in ‘normal times’ of the intense over-the-board battle for the biggest prize in US chess, Sinquefield initiated a special bonus Fischer Memorial Prize of $64,000 to any player who could emulate his hero’s perfect score.

Naturally, the Fischer Memorial Prize wasn’t in-play this time due to the US Championship being played online and with a quicker rapid time-control – a pity really, because it would have added to the tension of the tournament as Wesley So got off to a blistering Fischer-like start by winning his first five games(!), the first to do so since Fischer in 1963/64.  So’s amazing run though came to an end in round six, as he was held to a draw by Leinier Dominguez.

But the damage has already been done, and with So’s big early lead meaning that he’s closing in on a second US title to add to his previous 2017 US Championship win. So now goes into today’s fourth and final day a full point ahead of his young gun nearest rivals, Jeffery Xiong and Ray Robson.

Standings:
1. Wesley So, 8/9; 2-3. Jeffery Xiong, Ray Robson, 7; 4-5. Leinier Dominguez, Sam Shankland, 4.5; 6-8. Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Sevian, Awonder Liang, 4; 9-10. Dariusz Swiercz, Alex Lenderman, 3; 11-12. Alejandro Ramirez, Elshan Moradiabadi 2.5.

GM Sam Shankland – GM Wesley So
US Championship, (4)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Sämisch variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 The Sämisch variation is something of a rare bird at this level of chess, as it is a very aggressive – almost caveman-like – line where White dares to compromise his own pawn structure early on, perhaps even sacrificing a pawn or two just to open up as many lines as possible to attack Black’s king. It comes with a great risk though, because if the attack backfires, any endgame scenario can often be to Black’s advantage – and sometimes, such as in today’s game, the disaster might not even see you reach to the endgame! 4…d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ This is the whole raison d’être to the Sämisch: Black has to inflict as much structural damage to White’s pawns as early as he can. 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 By far the most popular recapture – but there’s nothing wrong with 7…exd5 which is favoured by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who used it in one of his key wins against Vishy Anand in 2013 to capture the title from the Indian. 8.dxc5 Qa5 9.e4 Ne7 10.Be3 0-0 Wesley So is just looking after the basics, getting his king to safety and developing his pieces, figuring out that he’ll easily pick-off one of the loose queenside pawns. 11.Qb3 Qc7 12.Bb5 The bishop move into nowhere is based on the fact that the bishop has to be developed somewhere, this being as a good as square as any, with Bc4 or Bd3 likely to see …Nb8-d7xc5 with a good game. 12…e5 Shankland’s big idea was 12…Nd7 13.Bxd7 Bxd7 14.Ne2 and ask how Black was going to win his pawn back. But So now sidesteps this to activate his light-squared bishop. 13.Ne2 Be6 14.c4 This is just a tad over-ambitious for Shankland…but then again, Sam has never been one who didn’t like to push the envelope from time to time! The safe option looks to be 14.Bc4 Bxc4 15.Qxc4 Nd7 which will pick-up the c5-pawn after 16.0-0 Rac8 17.a4 Nxc5 and now 18.Rfb1 b6 with the prospects of a balanced endgame. 14…Nbc6 15.Nc3 Na5 16.Qb4 Yes, it definitely seems as if Sam has walked into a potential minefield. It was not too late to retreat with 16.Qc2 a6! 17.Nd5 Nxd5 18.cxd5 axb5 19.dxe6 fxe6 although having the wonderful c4 outpost for his knight, coupled with White’s weak a-pawn, promises Black the better long-term prospects. 16…Nec6! Now Sam has to be very careful, as one wrong move and he’s going to be in a world of hurt. 17.Qa4 The obvious 17.Bxc6 is going to be answered by 17…bxc6! covering the knight getting to d5 or b5, and also now into the mix comes …Rab8 with a big advantage for Black. 17…a6 18.Bxc6 Nxc4! Unfortunately for Shankland, all the tactics are now swinging So’s way – and big-time. 19.Bxb7 Nxe3 20.Bxa8 Qxc5! The main problem for Shankland is that his king is now caught in the razor wire of no-man’s land. 21.Nd5 Nxg2+? The only misstep from So the whole game – the clinical kill was the other way with 21…Nc2+! 22.Kd2 (This is the only try. If 22.Ke2? Bxd5! 23.Bxd5 Qe3+ 24.Kd1 Qd3+ 25.Kc1 Nxa1 and the White king will be soon snared.) 22…Nxa1 23.Rxa1 Qf2+ 24.Kd3 Rxa8 25.Qc6 Rd8 and it is hard to see how White can survive with his king caught in the middle of the board, and Black’s queen able to pick off all the kingside pawns – and especially more so when you realise that 26.Qc7?? walks right into 26…Rxd5+!! 27.exd5 Bf5+ 28.Kc4 Qc2+ winning the queen. 22.Kf1 Nf4 23.Qc6 Sam is finding all the right moves to stay in the game – but it is not so easy with the time constraints and a difficult position to defend. 23…Qa5 Now So decides he’s going to push the envelope, as the accurate move was 23…Qd4! 24.Qc3 Bh3+ 25.Ke1 Ng2+ 26.Ke2 Nf4+ 27.Ke1 Ng2+ 28.Ke2 Nf4+ etc and a perpetual. 24.Rd1?? And So’s gamble pays off as Sam capitulates under the pressure. The only way to survive was with 24.Ra2! just stopping …Qd2 and protecting the second rank, and now 24…Bh3+ 25.Kf2 Qd8! a strategical queen retreat, always the hardest to play in chess, the point being the threat of …Qh4+ and …Qg5 keeping the pressure on the White king. The engine will tell you White is better, but in reality, it is not easy trying to defend this position with the loose king and Black’s menacingly-placed and active pieces. 24…Bxd5 25.exd5 Qxa3 The combination of the queen and knight prove lethal for White. 26.d6 Qb2! [see diagram] Now suddenly the second rank is vulnerable, which wouldn’t have happened if Sam had played Ra2, as noted above. 27.Qe4 Qg2+ 28.Ke1 Qxh1+ 29.Kd2 Qxh2+ Sam’s king now takes the walk of shame up the board. 30.Kc3 Ne2+ 31.Kc4 Nd4 32.d7 Qa2+ 33.Kc5 If 33.Kc3 Nb5+ 34.Kd3 Qb3+ 35.Kd2 Nc3 and a big material advantage. 33…Qa3+ 34.Kb6 Qb3+ 0-1 Sam resigns, faced with the forced king-hunt mate of 35.Ka7 Qb8+ 36.Kxa6 Qb5+ 37.Ka7 Qa5+ 38.Kb7 Qxa8+ 39.Kb6 Rb8+ 40.Kc5 Qa3+ 41.Kc4 Qb3+ 42.Kc5 Qb4+ 43.Kd5 Rb5#

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