Decline and Fall - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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The chronicling of the Roman empire collapsing was one of the things I vividly remember from my schooldays reading Edward Gibbon’s epic six-volume history book series. Now it’s a tenuous link I’ll grant you, but some are now wondering about the dramatic decline and fall at the 2021 US Championship of another with Italian heritage, Fabiano Caruana, as they witnessed the US #1 crashing to a second successive defeat to a sub-2700 player.

The Saint Louis Chess Club is the ultimate gladiatorial coliseum for chess, one that in the past witnessed Caruana’s finest and most fiercest moment in the game when, in 2014, he dazzled everyone with his spectacular fighting chess start of 7-0 to win the Sinquefield Cup. Back then, he swept the elite-field opposition aside, easily winning the title ahead of Magnus Carlsen, with his unbeaten score of 8½/10, and an off-the-radar 3103 Tournament Performance Rating.

Times have changed, and now an out-of-sorts Caruana is beginning to look very vulnerable and unsure of his once imperious dominance, as he worryingly hesitates at the critical moment in games. He rode his luck somewhat to survive his opening two US Championship games, and after crashing to Daniel Naroditsky in round five, he then crashed to Sam Sevian – the now 20-year-old former prodigy using his big win over Caruana as a platform to jump into the co-lead.

Subsequently, now Caruana is falling further down the standings in the race for the first prize of $50,000 and the 2021 US title, and also on the unofficial live rating list, down to world #3 – and initially 71 points adrift from perennial numero uno Carlsen – as he drops even further behind China’s Ding Liren, and just another slip-up away from possibly plummeting to #7.

But Caruana is nothing if not a fighter, and the top seed stopped the haemorrhaging of points as he fought his way back into contention with a gritty endgame win over co-leader and front-runner Ray Robson in round seven, and he’s now pulled himself back into contention going into the homestretch, a full-point behind the new triumvirate co-leaders of Alex Lenderman, Wesley So and Sevian.

Standings:
1-3. A. Lenderman, W. So, S. Sevian, 4½/7; 4-5. L. Dominguez, R. Robson, 4; 6. Fa. Caruana, 3½; 7-10. D. Swiercz, L. Bruzon, S. Shankland, D. Naroditsky, 3; 11-12. J. Burke, J. Xiong, 2½.

There’s live coverage (daily from 12:50 PM CT daily) of all the action going down the homestretch from the resident top grandmaster commentary team of Yasser Seirawan, Maurice Ashley and Cristian Chirila on uschesschamps.com and on the Saint Louis Chess Club’s YouTube and twitch.tv channels.

GM Sam Sevian – GM Fabiano Caruana
2021 U.S. Championship, (6)
Scotch Four Knights
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Sam Sevian is more normally a Ruy Lopez player with 3.Bb5 – so he definitely has something planned for Caruana. 3…Nf6 4.d4 The Scotch Four Knights is considered something of a drawing weapon in today’s game – and perhaps that’s no bad thing for Sam, as Caruana will have to take risks to try to win to stage a comeback following his defeat in the previous round to Daniel Naroditsky. 4…exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.0-0 d6 A little dangerous, and some pundits began to speculate that Caruana could well have been been thrown by Sam’s sudden switch to the Scotch Four Knights. The reason being is that 8…d6 is not Black’s best here, as the universally accepted way to play is 8…d5 9.exd5 Bg4 10.f3 Bh5 11.Bg5 Qd6 which tends to fizzle out to a draw at top-level, and a line Caruana in the past has normally relied on. But therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare was wont to say, as it is very likely that Caruana deliberately avoided 8…d5 he normally relies on, for the very reason that it is well-known to be a “safe drawing line” – and following his defeat to Naroditsky, the US #1 probably was looking for a more complex position to try to outwit his lesser-rated player. If so, his strategy backfires. 9.Bg5! This has to be the principled move, with the idea being to follow-up with Qf3 if Black doesn’t shunt the bishop. 9…h6 10.Bh4 g5 11.Bg3 Qe7 12.Na4 The ploy is to eventually force off the dark-squared bishop. 12…Ba5? For the second successive game, at the critical moment, Caruana balks at a tactic involving a knight pawn capture. Something really has to be wrong on Planet Fabi when he fails to call Sam’s bluff here with 12…Nxe4! 13.c3 (There’s nothing in the immediate pin on the e-file. After 13.Qe2? Re8 14.c3 Nxg3! 15.Qxe7 Rxe7 16.hxg3 Ba5 Black stands well a pawn to the good and also the bishop-pair) 13…Nxg3 14.hxg3 Ba5 15.Qf3 d5 16.Bc2 Qd6 17.Qd3 Qg6 18.Qxg6+ (If 18.Qe2 Bf5! 19.Bxf5 Qxf5 20.Qh5 Qg6 Black has the better position plus the extra pawn.) 18…fxg6 19.Bxg6 Bg4 20.Rfe1 Kg7 21.Bd3 Rae8 and Black is very marginally better, but nothing that White needs to even begin to worry about; and a draw is the likely result. 13.c3 Bb6 14.Nxb6 axb6 15.Qe2 There’s no denying that Caruana is suffering now, as White is threatening to burst the game wide-open with f4 and possibly e5 for his bishop-pair. Either way, Caruana faces a difficult task plugging the holes. 15…Bg4 16.Qe3 Horses for courses here, as also tempting was 16.f3 Bd7 17.f4 but by playing 16.Qe3, Sam wants the full dramatic effect of playing f4 at once. 16…Nh5 17.f4 d5? Ultimately the decisive game-changer, as with it Sam finds a series of accurate moves to seize what proves to be a decisive initiative. And despite 17…f6 looking awkward, Black just has to stay tight and hope White can’t make a winning breakthrough on the kingside. 18.fxg5! Nxg3 There’s no alternative as 18…Qxg5? 19.Qxg5+ hxg5 20.Bxc7! and White is well on the road to winning. 19.Qxg3 Qxg5 20.h4 Also tempting was 20.exd5 cxd5 21.Rae1 Rxa2 22.Re3! with a promising attack – but Sam opts instead to pick the low hanging fruit of Caruana’s weak pawns. 20…Qg7 21.Qxc7 d4 Caruana’s best shot to stay in the game – but Sam is on top and shows his mettle with a ruthless attack. 22.c4 Rfc8 23.Qd6 c5 24.Rf6 The rook lift looks does look strong and powerful, but on reflection the more modest 24.Rf2 would have saved a tempo! 24…Bh3 25.Rf2 Kh8 26.Qxb6! The pawns are just hanging, so why not? 26…Rg8 27.e5! A very cunning move. 27…Rae8 So what’s wrong with 27…Bxg2, you might well be wondering? Well, losing, for one, after the crushing blow of 28.Rxf7!! 28.Re1 f5 29.Bf1! Now …Bxg2 is a threat, but Sam easily defends that, leaving Caruana clinging to the wreckage of his position. 29…f4 30.Qxc5 f3 31.e6! [see diagram] Equally as cunning as 27.e5!, as the resulting Black pawn on g2 becomes the perfect shield for Sam’s king. 31…fxg2 32.Bd3 Bxe6 33.Qe5! This is the simplest way to win with three connected queenside pawns and two of Black’s remaining pawns, on d4 and g2, also easy targets. 33…Qxe5 34.Rxe5 Bh3 35.Re4 Rxe4 There’s no hope for Black. After 35…Rd8 36.Rf3 Bc8 37.Re7 Rg7 38.Rxg7 Kxg7 39.Rg3+ Kf6 40.Rxg2 is an even easier path to victory. 36.Bxe4 d3 37.Bxd3 Re8 38.Be2 And with no more back-rank tricks left, Caruana just plays out a few more moves to get past the time-control. 38…Kg7 39.a4 Re3 40.a5 Re5 41.b4 Re3 42.Rf3 1-0

 

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