In a gripping finale to the 2019 United States Chess Championship being held at its ‘spiritual home’ of the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club, it all went down to the wire of the final round with three of the tops seeds, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and debutant Leinier Dominguez all tied at the start of the day in first place on 7/10 – and with it, the coveted U.S. title and $50,000 first prize up for grabs for anyone who was going to make a brave move in the final round.
And with Caruana being held to a draw by 2018 U.S. champions Sam Shankland, and Dominguez’s game against Timur Gareev looking to be ever-steadily heading in the same direction, four-time U.S. champion Nakamura was rewarded for his plucky decision to “go for it” from the outset with his provocative choice of opening, as he out-manoeuvred and then outplayed Jeffrey Xiong in a complex struggle to grab the vital title-winning victory.
Nakamura finished undefeated on 8/11 to snatch the title by a half point ahead of Caruana and Dominguez. It also signals a resurgence in Nakamura’s form of late, as it follows hard on the heels of his December overall victory in the Grand Chess Tour. And now with his win in Saint Louis, Nakamura has jumped five places on the unofficial live ratings to become the new U.S. #2 behind Caruana, and on the cusp of once again entering into the World’s Top-10.
And its a high-five in more than one way for Nakamura, as he’s now tied in the U.S. Championship Roll of Honor with Larry Evans and Gata Kamsky with five national titles apiece – and now just one title shy of emulating “Mr Six-Time” Walter Browne, and on the horizon, bitter rivals and joint-record holders Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer with eight titles.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. Women’s’ Championship, teenage sensation Jennifer Yu ripped up the field with a dramatic breakthrough performance as she won the first of what could possibly be many, many more U.S. titles with the luxury of a round to spare. She sealed the deal by beating closest rival and four-time champion Anna Zatonskih in the penultimate round – and she didn’t rest on her laurels there with a final round draw! Yu ended as she started with another win to take the crown and $25,000 first prize with her phenomenal unbeaten score of 10/11(!) for a TPR of 2678 and a gain of nearly 100 rating points in the process. Not bad going for a 17-year-old!
1. H. Nakamura 8/11; 2-3. L. Dominguez, F. Caruana 7½; 4-5. W. So, S. Sevian 6; 6. S. Shankland 5½; 7-8. J. Xiong, A. Laing 5; 9-11. A. Lenderman, V. Akobian, T. Gareev 4; 12. R. Robson 3½.
U.S. Women’s Championship:
1. J. Yu 10/11; 2-3. T. Abrahamyan, A. Zatonskih 7½; 4. A. Wang 7; 5-7. A. Sharevich, I. Krush, A. Eswaran 5; 8. C. Yip 4½; 9-11. M. Feng, S. Foiser, A. Gorti 4; 12. E. Nguyen 2½.
Photo: Sam Shankland passes the torch as he congratulates new U.S. Champion Hikaru Nakamura | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Jeffrey Xiong – GM Hikaru Nakamura
U.S. Championship, (11)
1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 g6 The Leningrad Dutch, a hybrid between the Dutch and the King’s Indian Defence, is an old Nakamura favourite and a good provocative choice for Black if he’s looking to complicate matters and needing to win. 4.g3 Bg7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.d5 Na5 9.b3 c5 The main line of the Leningrad Dutch looks almost like the King’s Indian Panno variation. The only drawback is the big hole on e6. 10.Bb2 a6 11.Ng5 Rb8 12.Qd3 Qe8 13.Nd1 b5 14.Qd2 Nb7 15.Ne3 Nd8 16.Nh3 Bd7 17.Rad1 b4 18.Qc2 a5 19.Nf4 a4 20.h4 Ra8 21.Qb1 Ra6 22.Bf3 Qf7 23.Neg2?! Hard to be judgmental, but I think around here, Xiong started to show signs that he was beginning to lose the thread of the game – and with it, Nakamura seizes the initiative. It’s clear Xiong seems to be over-protecting against a possible …Bh6 – but instead, I think I would be looking at clearing the lines to contest the a-file, and possibly 23.Qc2!? and if 23…Bh6, only now play 24.Neg2 so that 24…Ng4 is well met by 25.Nh3 Ne5 26.Ngf4 and White has possibilities of Kg2, Ng5 and Rh1 and the makings of a good kingside attack. As it works out, Xiong gets outplayed and left with no coherent plan as Nakamura exploits the opening of the queenside. 23…Ng4 24.Bxg4 fxg4 25.e4 Bxb2! Nakamura is quick to spot that he can force a good endgame scenario with White’s queenside now compromised and vulnerable to invasion. 26.Qxb2 Qg7 27.Qxg7+ Forced, otherwise 27.Qc2 Nf7! and the knight coming to e5 will be like a giant octopus, with its tentacles reaching all over White’s vulnerable position. 27…Kxg7 28.e5 Again, stopping …Nf7-e5 is crucial – and this is the best way to do it. But in doing so, it opens up new lines for Nakamura to exploit White’s queenside. 28…Bf5! It’s going to be tough now to defend b3 after Black doubles rooks on the a-file and then follows up with a timely …axb3. The only thing Xiong can do now is to seek exchanges that might help to keep him in the game. 29.exd6 exd6 30.Rfe1 Nf7 31.Re7?! A critical position, and again, Xiong makes a serious misstep. He had the right idea, but his only chance of survival was to follow up with 31.Ne6+! Bxe6 32.dxe6 Ne5 33.Kf1 Nf3 34.Re3 and with Nf4 coming to support e6 (and possibly hop into d5), White looks to be ok here. And if Black tries for 34…Nd4 35.Nf4 axb3 36.axb3 Re8 37.Kg2 Ra3 38.Rb1 both sides have weaknesses that have to be protected against, and that cancels out either side trying to force an unlikely win. 31…Kf6 32.Rb7? One mistake begets another, and Xiong’s time pressure starts to take its toll. The only survival chances now were with 32.Re6+! Bxe6 33.dxe6 Ne5 34.Nd5+ Kg7 35.e7 Nf3+ 36.Kf1 Rc8 37.Nge3 and while Black has a material advantage and a little edge, though this is a double-edged and dangerous position, and equally I can see Black could well stumble into losing – but this was the sort of murky play Nakamura was willing to gamble with in order to win. 32…axb3 33.axb3 Rfa8 There’s nothing Xiong can do now, as Nakamura can’t be stopped from infiltrating on the queenside. 34.Ne3 Ra1 35.Kf1 Ne5 36.Rxa1 Rxa1+ 37.Ke2 Nf3! To compound matters for Xiong, he now has to be careful he doesn’t walk into a mating net. 38.Nxf5 Forced now; but with it, White’s queenside pawns are more vulnerable – and the mating net threats still remain, as Nakamura’s king now comes into the fray. 38…Kxf5 39.Ke3 Re1+ 40.Kd3 Ne5+ 41.Kd2 Xiong is caught between a rock and a hard place – if he defends the queenside pawns with 41.Kc2 Rf1 42.Nd3 Ke4! (It would have been wishful hoping for someone like Nakamura to err with 42…Nxd3? 43.Kxd3 and the position is only a draw.) 43.Nxe5 Rxf2+ 44.Kc1 Kxe5 45.Rxh7 Rf3 and Black will win the endgame on the kingside. 41…Ra1 42.Ne6 h6 43.Rb6 Admittedly, it does look like Xiong might have good saving chances here – but Nakamura has it all worked out. 43…Ra3 44.Kc2 Ra2+ 45.Kd1 Nd3 46.Rxd6 Nxf2+ 47.Ke1 Nd3+ 48.Kd1 Ke4! [see diagram] Something has to give now, as the mounting mating threats from the rook, knight and king soon forces home the win. 49.Nc7 Nf2+ 50.Ke1 Kd3 51.Rxg6 Ne4 52.Kf1 Nxg3+ 53.Kg1 Ne2+ 54.Kh1 Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. If 54.Kf1 Ke3 55.Re6+ Kf3 56.Rf6+ Nf4 White is either going to be mated with the rook, knight and king going to g1, or going to e1 and mated by the g-pawn queening! 54…Ke3 The mating threats now clears a path to queen the g-pawn – and by now Nakamura is in his element with a fifth US Championship within his grasp. 55.Rf6 Ra1+ 56.Kg2 Rg1+ 57.Kh2 g3+ 58.Kh3 Rh1+ 0-1 Xiong resigns, faced with the mating choices of 59.Kg4 (Or even 59.Kg2 Rh2+ 60.Kf1 g2+ 61.Ke1 Rh1+ 62.Rf1 Rxf1#) 59…g2 60.Kf5 Nd4+ 61.Ke5 g1Q etc.