HAPPY SPRING – IT’S TIME TO RENEW FOR FALL 2019!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s never a dull moment at Rex & Jeanne Sinquefield’s chess Mecca of the Saint Louis Chess Club, where when one big event ends, another invariably starts. Last week we witnessed the dramatic conclusion to the 1st Cairns Cup, the female equivalent of the Sinquefield Cup, with Russia’s Valentina Gunina winning the all-female super-tournament. Now it’s the Champions Showdown: The Kings, with yet another galaxy of stars doing battle at the board.

The Champions Showdown features the five top US players, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, reigning US champion Sam Shankland, and the latest recruit to the Stars and Stripes, the former Cuban champion, Leinier Dominguez, challenging the quintet of Pentala Harikrishna (India), David Navara (Czech Rep.), Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), Richard Rapport (Hungary) and Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria).

The ten face-off in a head-to-head format of exhibition matches with three days of rapid play and two days of blitz play, running February 20-24, at the Saint Louis Chess Club. In the end, $300,000 in prize money will be divided with each winner receiving $36,000 and the opposing player receiving $24,000.

Each round will start at 1 p.m. CST and broadcast live on uschesschamps.com. Fans can follow the usual team of expert commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade, and GM Maurice Ashley each day or visit the Saint Louis Chess Club to catch the action in person.

Match scores (After rapid games 1-4):
Nakamura 4-4 Duda
Caruana 7-1 Harikrishna
So 5-3 Navara
Dominguez 3-5 Topalov
Shankland 1-7 Rapport

Photo: After a deserved rest, Fabiano Caruana returns to action with a stylish first 2019 outing, as he demolishes Pentala Harikrishna in the opening day of the Champions Showdown | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Pentala Harikrishna – GM Fabiano Caruana
Champions Showdown Rapid, (1)
Petrov’s Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Caruana retains faith in the Petrov’s Defence that served him so well through 2018, that included the Candidates and a World Championship Match with Magnus Carlsen. 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bf5 7.0-0 Be7 8.c4 dxc4 9.Bxc4 This shouldn’t cause Black any problems, as White is left with the isolated d-pawn. 9…0-0 10.Re1 Nc6 11.d5 Nb8 12.Nd4 Bg6 13.Nc3 Nd6 14.Bd3 Nd7 15.Bf4 a6 16.Bxg6 hxg6 17.h3 Bf6 18.Rc1 Nb6 19.Nf3 Rc8 Black has all the crucial squares covered, and now the key is to try and trade off as many pieces now to take advantage of the isolated d-pawn. 20.Qb3 Qd7 21.Ne5 Bxe5 22.Bxe5 Rfe8 23.Qb4 On reflection, Harikrishna starts to lose the thread of the game around here and perhaps would have been better opting for 23.Bf4!? Nbc4 24.Qc2 Rxe1+ 25.Rxe1 Re8 26.Rxe8+ Nxe8 27.Qa4! Qxa4 28.Nxa4 and this minor piece ending should just fizzle out to a draw. 23…Nb5 24.Nxb5 Qxb5 25.Qd4 Trading queens right now will just make life easier for Black, as after 25.Qxb5 axb5 the d-pawn is doomed  (If 26.Rcd1?! f6 27.Bc3 Rxe1+ 28.Bxe1 Rd8 the d-pawn is picked off after 29.Ba5 Rxd5 30.Re1 Nc4 31.Bxc7 Nxb2 32.Re8+ Kf7 33.Rb8 Rd1+ 34.Kh2 Rd7! and Black has a winning endgame.) leaving White to only try 26.d6!? 25…Qxd5 26.Bxg7 Qxd4 27.Bxd4 Nd5 There’s nothing really in this position, but Caruana has a couple of small advantages that he builds on, namely his centrally-posted Nd5 and the lack of scope for Harikrishna’s bishop. That alone shouldn’t be enough to win, but you have to admire Caruana’s gritted determination to make more of his position than there is. 28.g3 f6 29.Kg2 Kf7 30.h4 Rxe1 31.Rxe1 c5! It all basically comes down to who can make the most of their pawn majority on opposite wings of the board – and here, it’s Caruana. 32.Be3 b5 33.Kf3 c4 34.Bd2?! This just compounds Harikrishna’s problems, as Caruana simply gets on with rolling his queenside pawns up the board. It would have been better forgetting about the bishop and looking to activate the rook with 34.Rd1! as 34…Nxe3 35.Kxe3 clarifies the position somewhat, as Black no longer has the dominant Nd5 to help push forward the queenside pawns, and the resulting rook and pawn ending should really be an easy draw. 34…b4 35.Rc1 Harikrishna was rightly worried that 35.g4 c3! 36.bxc3 bxc3 37.Bc1 c2 38.a3 Nc3! 39.h5 g5 and there are no easy answers to the looming …Na2. 35…f5 Looking to stop g4 and White pushing forward his kingside pawn majority. 36.g4? Harikrishan has cracked under the relentless pressure from Caruana, and he errs by self-splitting his own kingside pawn majority. His only chance to try for survival was with 36.Ke2 a5 37.a3 Kf6 38.f3 and hanging in here. 36…fxg4+ 37.Kxg4 c3 38.bxc3 bxc3 39.Be1 Rc4+ 40.Kf3 And why not 40.Kg3 defending h4, you might ask? The reason is that 40…Kf6! followed by …Ke5 can’t be stopped, and Black’s king coming into the fray will be the death knell for White. Rather than that, Harikrishna decides to give up the h-pawn in the hope of activating his pieces to try to hang on. 40…Rxh4 41.Ke2 Rh3 42.f3 Rh2+ 43.Kd3 Nb4+! [see diagram] Timely, as the White king can’t capture on c3 due to the knight fork on a2. 44.Kc4 Nxa2 45.Bg3 Rg2 Hard to see with little time left on the clock, but more clinical was 45…Rb2! depriving White of Ra1, and ideas of …c2 when the rook moves, and if White tries Bf4 to cover the queening square, then …Rb4+ picks off the bishop. That said, the rook ending with the extra pawns is just a technical win, and that was arguably the clearest win Caruana most likely saw and immediately headed for. 46.Ra1 Rxg3 47.Rxa2 Rxf3 The enormity of White’s problems is that you can even remove the a6- and c3-pawns here, and Black still has a winning R+P ending, namely the famous Lucena position, where – with the White king cut-off from the g-file – Black simply builds a bridge to queen the pawn. 48.Kd4 g5 49.Rxa6 g4 50.Ke4 c2 51.Ra1 Kf6 52.Rc1 Rf2 0-1 Harikrishna resigns, as 53.Ke3 g3 and there’s no way to prevent one of the two pawns from queening.

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