John Henderson
By John Henderson

The natural order of things is now beginning to be restored at the top of the ongoing United States Chess Championship(s) being held at its now ‘spiritual home’ of the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club. After a storming start, Texas teenager Jeffrey Xiong was brought back down to earth again with the setback of a brace of loses to Ray Robson and Fabiano Caruana in rounds four and six respectively – and making their move now are some of the more established stars of the US Chess scene.

Setting the pace is the four-time U.S. champion and 2018 Grand Chess Tour victor, Hikaru Nakamura, who ruthlessly exploited some weak play that led to ‘Blindfold King’ Timur Gareev cracking under the relentless pressure. Nakamura, who last won the title in 2015, is undefeated on 4/6, a half point ahead of a strong chasing pack as the tournament now reaches its midpoint.

Also in the mix is the pre-tournament favourite and 2016 U.S. champion Caruana, who with his defeat of Xiong, was probably relieved to be on the move once again, especially after the defeated title-challenger was mercilessly trolled on Twitter by Magnus Carlsen! After starting with four draws and going 26 games (one loss to Peter Leko, recently in the Bundesliga) without a win, Caruana was hit by the world champion’s cold tweet: ‘When your win-less streak matches your age.’

Joining Caruana in the chasing pack is five-time Cuban national champion and U.S. Championship debutant Leinier Dominguez, Wesley So, the 2017 U.S. Champion, and 18-year-old Sam Sevian from Boston, who still holds the record of the youngest-ever U.S. grandmaster, achieved in 2014 at the age of 13 years, 10 months and 27 days.

The youngest U.S. champion was, of course, Bobby Fischer, at the age of 14 in 1957/58 – and he had a win ration that would have had no danger of being trolled by his Norwegian successor. In 1963/64, in the sixth of his record-equalling eight U.S. Championship title wins (shared with bitter-rival Sammy Reshevsky), Fischer famously turned in a perfect score of 11/0! Saint Louis Chess Club pay tribute each year to that remarkable feat by offering a bonus $64,000 ‘Fischer prize’ open for any player to win either of the U.S. Championship or U.S. Women’s titles with a perfect score.

All eyes were on 17-year-old Jennifer Yu, who stormed into the lead in the Women’s Championship with four straight wins that also included the takedown of top seed and seven-time champion Irina Krush, to be the last contestant left standing on a perfect score. But the $64,000 ‘Fischer prize’ remains safe for another year, as unfortunately, the Ashburn, VA teenager’s winning run came to halt as she was held to a draw in round five by Annie Wang. But Yu is back to her winning ways with a round six win over Maggie Feng, and she now holds a half point lead over four-time champion Anna Zatonskih.

U.S. Championship: 1. H. Nakamura 4/6; 2-5. L. Dominguez, F. Caruana, W. So, S. Sevian 3½; 6-8. R. Robson, A. Lenderman, J. Xiong, 3; 9-10. S. Shankland, A. Liang 2½; 11-12. V. Akobian, T. Gareev 2.

U.S. Women’s Championship: 1. J. Yu 5½/6; 2. A. Zatonskih 5; 3. T. Abrahamyan 4½; 4. A. Wang 4; 5. C. Yip 3½; 6. A. Gorti 2½; 7-10. A. Eswaran, S. Foiser, M. Feng, I. Krush 2; 11-12. E. Nguyen, A. Sharevich 1½.

Photo: The in-form Hikaru Nakamura is looking to add to his U.S. Championship title-haul | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Hikaru Nakamura – GM Timur Gareev
U.S. Championship, (6)
Queen’s Pawn Opening
1.Nf3 c5 2.g3 g6 3.c3 Nakamura has a fondness for ‘freestyle openings’ such as this, keeping it simple and also leaving his options open for something like a King’s Indian Attack or perhaps a QP Fianchetto with d4. 3…d5 4.Bg2 Nf6 5.d4 We have, in effect, simply transposed into a the super-solid Schlechter Slav/Grunfeld in reverse. 5…Nbd7 6.Ne5 An important move in the Schlechter Slav, as the knight can’t be taken for now due to the pressure on the d-pawn – and here, with colours reversed, Nakamura keeps up the pressure with the extra move. 6…Qb6 7.dxc5 Qxc5 8.Nd3 Qc7 9.Qa4 Bg7 Bossing the centre with 9…e5 has its drawbacks, as after 10.Bg5 Black’s d5 is coming under a lot of strain. 10.Bf4! The script for the rest of the game is all around Nakamura denying Gareev the opportunity to properly protect his d5-pawn. 10…Qd8 No better was 10…Qc6 as after 11.Qa3! it all suddenly gets a tad awkward for Black, as he’s denied castling rights for now due to the unprotected e7-pawn. From here, given free rein, White will complete his development with Nd2 and 0-0, and then look to put a rook on the c-file to open the game up with c4. 11.0-0 0-0 12.Nd2 Nb6 13.Qb3 The trouble Gareev has – and Nakamura ruthlessly exploits now – is that if he plays …e6 to protect d5, then potentially his light-squared bishop could be locked-in behind the pawns. But meanwhile, he also just can’t sit on the position and wait for Nakamura to put his rooks on c1 and d1 to blow the game open. 13…Bg4 14.Rfe1 Qc8 Gareev has at least got his bishop developed – but now he still can’t protect d5 with …e6, as he may well trap his own bishop. 15.Qb4 Re8 16.a4! Nakamura has a nagging little edge here due to his space advantage and better-developed pieces – and boy, just watch how, with some simple moves, he turns that little edge into a decisive edge, as Gareev cracks. 16…Nbd7 17.Ne5 a5 18.Qb5 Nxe5 19.Bxe5 Bd7 The only move now, as 19…e6? walks right into 20.f3! Bf5 21.g4 and the bishop lost. 20.Qd3 Bc6 21.Qd4 Qf5 Gareev finds himself being squeezed in a tough position, and perhaps now he should have gone for 21…Nh5 22.Bxg7 Nxg7 23.e4 where Nakamura is only slightly better due to his better-placed pieces and his queenside pawn majority. A decision he soon comes to regret. 22.Nf1 Rad8? Gareev will only come to rue this move – it’s a major mistake that only serves to show how weak and vulnerable his queenside really is. His only hope was to try and stay competitive by risking long-term structural damage with a crippled pawn structure after 22…Bh6!? 23.Bxf6 (It’s a mistake to play 23.f4? as Black now stands better after 23…Ng4!) 23…exf6 24.e3 Qc2! where White certainly has some pawn weaknesses he can exploit in the endgame if there’s a mass exchange of pieces – but Black at least here has some active counterplay with his bishop-pair and the intruding queen. 23.b4! [see diagram] The queenside pawns rolling up the board ends the game surprisingly quickly now, as Gareev’s position simply implodes. 23…Qc8 24.Ne3 b6 25.Red1 Ba8 26.b5 The immediate 26.Rac1 was stronger – but by now, there’s no stopping Nakamura steamrolling his way through Gareev’s weaknesses. 26…h5 27.Rac1 Bf8 28.Bxf6 exf6 29.Qxb6 Re6 It may well have been marginally the lesser of two evils, but equally, there’s nothing for Gareev in 29…Bc5 30.Qxf6 Rxe3 31.fxe3 Bxe3+ as after 32.Kh1 Bxc1 33.Rxc1 Re8 34.Rf1! Qc7 35.e3! Bb7 (The point is that 35…Rxe3? gets hit by 36.c4 Re6 37.Qf4 forcing the trade of queens with a completely won ending.) 36.Qd4 and White has consolidated and will win the ending with little difficulty. 30.Qxa5 Bc5 31.Nxd5 Call me cynical, but if it wasn’t for those three extra queenside pawns, Black may well have been OK here! 31…Rde8 32.e3 Kg7 33.Qc7 1-0


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