Dating back to 1851 – coincidently also the year of the world’s first international chess tournament held in London – and with the oldest trophy in international sport, the America’s Cup is regarded as the pinnacle of the yachting world. Now comes the American Cup, the newest event in international chess, and the latest innovation from Rex Sinquefield’s always-creative Saint Louis Chess Club.
It’s an exciting new tournament with $300,000 in prize money and a twist, as it featured hybrid double-elimination bracket with a slightly confusing format. Normally in a knockout tournament it’s one mistake and you’re heading home, but here the first-round winners progress to a “Champions Bracket”, and the losers went into an “Elimination Bracket” (contested over a 25min+10 sec rapid matches) – and only those who lost in the elimination bracket got knocked out of the tournament.
And like the US Championship, there were separate brackets, with the American Cup having an “open” A group (which only had male players) and a women’s B group playing in parallel to the marquee event. Group A had a stellar all-US field, with the only notable absentee being Hikaru Nakamura, who presumably turned down his invitation to better prepare himself for the Candidates Tournament in Madrid that starts next month.
Group A: Levon Aronian (2785), Fabiano Caruana (2781), Wesley So (2778), Leinier Dominguez (2756), Sam Shankland (2709), Sam Sevian (2693), Jeffery Xiong (2685), and Ray Robson (2681).
Group B: Irina Krush (2421), Anna Zatonskih (2393), Stavroula Tsolakidou (2359), Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova (2335), Katerina Nemcova (2335), Alice Lee (2334), Tatev Abrahamyan (2311) and Ruiyang Yan (2283).
With an unbeaten performance, Caruana gave himself the ideal ‘warm-up’ ahead of mid-June’s Candidates Tournament, beating in succession Xiong, Sevian, Dominguez and then Aronian in the final to capture the inaugural title and $50,000 first prize. Likewise Krush dominated in the women’s group, with the eight-time US Women’s Champion defeating Yan, Tokhirjonova and Lee and then back-from-the-dead 12-year-old Lee once again in the final to take the title and $25,000 first prize.
For Caruana, the key game in the final proved to be a dramatic table-turner over Aronian, as the latest recruit to the Stars and Stripes rehabilitated one of his old favourites against the English Opening that was first played half a century ago in 1972 by its creator, Viktor Korchnoi.
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Levon Aronian
American Cup Championship, (4)
English Opening, Four Knights
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 Nd4!? A relatively rare sideline that is an old favourite of Aronian. It doesn’t promise much for either side, based on 5.Nxd4 exd4 6.Nd5 Nxd5 7.cxd5 Bc5 and both sides will be stymied due to the symmetrical position and quadruple d-pawns. 5.Bg2 Nxf3+ 6.Bxf3 Bc5 7.d3 0-0 8.0-0 a5!?N A new twist from Aronian, and clearly better than 8…h6 that’s normally played here. 9.Bg2 c6 10.Bd2 d6 11.a3 Be6 12.Qc2 h6 13.Na4 The more natural, English Opening-type move was 13.Rab1 and looking to expand on the queenside with b4. What Caruana played, just offered Aronian a little added edge in the position with his better bishop-pair. 13…Ba7 14.c5 This was Caruana’s plan, looking to remove the attacking potential of Aronian’s bishop-pair. 14…dxc5 15.Nxc5 Bxc5 16.Qxc5 Bd5 17.f3 A provocative call from Caruana, who is looking to complicate matters rather than the simple solution of 17.Bxd5 Qxd5 18.Qxd5 Nxd5 (It’s bad to recapture with the pawn, as 18…cxd5?! 19.Rfc1! and with Rc7 looming, White’s rooks and bishop become very active and can easily harass Black’s pawns.) 19.Rfc1 Rfd8 20.Rc5 a4 21.Rac1 f6 and it is difficult for either side to make any progress with the lack of pawn breaks. 17…a4 18.e4 Nd7 Black just stands slightly better, due to White’s backward d-pawn. 19.Qe3 Bb3 20.f4 Caruana continues to push the envelope, as most here would probably have resolved the problem with the backward d-pawn with 20.d4 exd4 21.Qxd4 Ne5 22.Qxd8 Rfxd8 23.Bc3 Nc4 24.Rfe1 and following up with Rac1, Bf1 and Kf2 and equality. 20…Qb6 This looked like the key moment in the game, where Aronian began to let his position drift a little. Better looked like the big clamp on the backward d-pawn with 20…c5!? 21.fxe5 (Worse was 21.Bc3?! Qe7 22.Bh3 Rfd8 23.Bxd7 Rxd7! 24.Bxe5 Rad8 25.Rac1 f6 26.Bc3 Rxd3 and Black is in command with the domination of the d-file and also ready to expand his queenside pawn majority with …b5.) 21…Nxe5 22.Bc3 (Not 22.Qxc5? Nxd3 23.Qe3 Nxb2 and Black has a winning position.) 22…Qe7 23.d4 cxd4 24.Qxd4 Rfe8 and with …Rad8 coming, Black has the better position with the centralised rooks and dominant knight on e5. 21.Qxb6 Nxb6 22.Rac1 Rfd8 23.Rf3 Suddenly with the bishop-pair, Caruana’s gamble looks to be paying off for him, as his position begins to spring to life. 23…Nd7 24.Bh3! Be6 That’s quite a concession that Aronian has to make, as within just a few moves, his position starts to rapidly deteriorate. 25.Bxe6 fxe6 26.Kf2 c5 It’s too late now to clamp down on the backward d-pawn, as White’s pieces are all active now. 27.Ke2 b6 28.Bc3 Rac8 29.Rff1 Caruana could grab a pawn with 29.Bxe5 Nxe5 30.fxe5 but after 30…Rd4! the fear would have been that he would have been tied down defending the backward d-pawn and not enough to convert the win. 29…Rf8 30.Ke3 Rc7? Aronian seems to have lost the plot and ultimately the game! After 30…exf4+ 31.gxf4 Nf6 32.Rg1 Kf7! White stands better but there’s not much to bite on for converting for a win. 31.fxe5 Rxf1 32.Rxf1 Nb8 33.d4! Who knows, but perhaps it was just as simple as Aronian missing this possibility that opens the endgame up to Caruana’s advantage? 33…cxd4+ 34.Bxd4 Rc2 If 34…Nc6 35.Rc1! b5 36.Rc5 Kf7 37.Bc3 and the b-pawn falls, and with it the game. 35.Rd1 Nc6 36.Bc3! [see diagram] The h-pawn is meaningless, as White’s rook comes to d6 and set to hoover up all of Black’s weak pawns on e6, b6 and a4. 36…Rxh2 37.Rd6 Na5 It’s not a good sign when Aronian tries the desperate measure of putting the knight on the rim to try to save the game. 38.Kf3 Even stronger and more accurate was 38.Rd4! and the a- and b-pawns will quickly fall. 38…Kf7 No better was 38…Nc4 39.Rxe6 Rc2 40.Re7! Nxb2 41.Bd4 Kf8 42.Rb7 Nd3 43.e6 and Black has to worry about mating threats and the possibility of the e-pawn queening. 39.Rxb6 Nc4 40.Rb7+ Ke8 Either way, Aronian is a dead man walking now. If 40…Kf8 41.Rb4 Nd2+ 42.Ke3 Nf1+ 43.Kd3 Nxg3 44.Rxa4 Ne2 45.Bb4+ Ke8 46.Ra8+ Kd7 47.Ra7+ Kc6 48.Kc4! Rh4 49.Ra6+ Kd7 50.Rd6+ Kc7 51.Rxe6 and White will quickly clear-up after 51…Rxe4+ 52.Kd5! Rd4+ 53.Kc5 Rd1 54.Re7+ etc. 41.Rxg7 Nxb2 42.Bb4 Kd8 43.Re7 When the e6-pawn falls, Aronian’s resignation will not be all that far behind it. 43…Nc4 44.Rxe6 h5 45.Bd6 h4 46.Rg6 Rh3 There’s no hope, as even the best continuation with 46…hxg3 47.Rg8+ Kd7 48.Rg7+ Ke8 49.Kxg3 Re2 50.Re7+ Kd8 51.Kf4! Rf2+ 52.Kg4 Rd2 53.Kf5! Nxd6+ 54.exd6 Rxd6 55.Ra7 and the ending of R+2 v R is a relatively simple technical win. 47.Rg8+ Kd7 48.Rg7+ Ke8 49.Rc7 Rxg3+ 50.Kf4 Nxd6 51.exd6 Rxa3 52.Kf5! Aronian may have established material equality, but also now the sting in the tail is that no stopping White’s mating threats with K, R with d- and e-pawns snaring the Black king. 52…Rg3 53.e5 1-0