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John Henderson
By John Henderson

The biggest blowout in the double-points counting opening rapid session of the Champions Showdown: The Kings staged at the ever-inventive Saint Louis Chess Club was the one-sided matchup between Fabiano Caruana and India’s Pentala Harikrishna – and it didn’t take long for the US #1 and former world championship challenger to be the first to be crowned king of the Championship Showdown, as he emphatically won his contest with more than a full day to spare in the blitz contest.

Despite the fact that the match was effectively over before the end of the first blitz day, the players were contracted to return the following day to play all the games. And in the end, Caruana continued the hurt by being the big runaway winner, as he crushed Harikrishna by 35½-12½ to take the $36,000 winner’s purse, with the Indian at least going home with the conciliation prize of $24,000 for his efforts. For Caruana, though, the one-sided performance boosted his world ranking standings in both the rapid and blitz live lists.

There was still a lot of play left though in the remaining four matchups – but the one that everyone thought would be a close finish, Hikaru Nakamura vs Jan-Krzysztof Duda, was anything but, as a rampant Nakamura turned in a near blitz blowout performance to beat the young Pole by 29½-18½. Another blitz blowout was Richard Rapport, who completely demolished reigning US champion Sam Shankland.

Wesley So and David Navara had a more evenly matched blitz contest, but So’s advantage from the rapid session was all the comfort zone the US #3 needed to win his match. But full credit to the latest recruit to the US ranks, Leinier Dominguez, as the former Cuban champion fought tenaciously to almost pull off a remarkable comeback in the blitz against Veselin Topalov, only to see the Bulgarian hold out for what turned out to be a nervous victory.

And after the joint success of the 1st Cairns Cup and now the Champions Showdown: The Kings, the next major event on the horizon at the Saint Louis Chess Club will be the US & US Women’s Championships which runs March 18-1 April. Both will be a 12-player round robin featuring many of the home stars from the Cairns Cup and Championship Showdown, with $194,000 and $100,000 respectively in prize money up for grabs.

Final Results:
Nakamura 29½ – 18½ Duda
Caruana 35½ – 12½ Harikrishna
So 28 – 20 Navara
Dominguez 22½-25½ Topalov
Shankland 16½ – 31½ Rapport

Photo: Fabiano Caruana crushed Pentala Harikrishna to be the standout player of the Champions Showdown | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Wesley So – GM David Navara
Champions Showdown Blitz, (6)
Catalan Opening
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 e6 4.0-0 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.d4 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bf4 Bd6 11.Nc3 Bxf4 12.gxf4 It may go against certain conventions in chess by voluntarily doubling the f-pawns early doors, but it is swings and roundabouts, as White, in turn, has a firm grip on the e5-square and – as happens in the game – can utilise the open g-file to attack the Black king. 12…a5 13.e3 Na6 14.Kh1 Nb4 15.Qe2 A nice, strategic retreat from the queen, as So goes all-in with a kingside attack. 15…b6 16.Rg1 Qc8 17.Ne5 Bxg2+ 18.Rxg2 c5 19.Rag1 g6 20.Nb5 Qb7 21.h4! A good multi-purpose move – So not only creates space for the king to safely eradicate itself from the pin down the b7-h1 diagonal, but he also has visions of h4-h5xg6 to crash through the Black defences. 21…cxd4 22.Nxd4 Kh8 23.Ndf3 Rac8 24.Nd4 The game is actually evenly-poised, but with the looming crisis on the kingside, you just have to favour White – and it will take only take Navara to blink for the game to go critical for him. 24…Rfd8 25.Kh2 Rxd4?! And faced with the looming attack, Navara does indeed begin to blink. He was not without resources to stay in the game, and here, better was 25…Qe7! with the threat of playing …Nd7 looking to unmask a discovered attack on h4 to embarrass So’s king. 26.exd4 Rc2 27.Qe3 So’s intentions are clear here: pushing on with f5 to play Qh6  attempting to snare the Black king. 27…Qc7 Navara could well be courting disaster with his king in the corner. His best and safest hope was voluntarily removing the king from the corner with 27…Kg7!? 28.f5 exf5 29.Qg5 Qe4! 30.h5 Nbd5 and Black looks to be safely holding on. 28.f5 You can be forgiven for missing it in the heat of a blitz battle, but the clinical win came with 28.Qf3! Nbd5 29.h5! crashing through, as 29…Nxh5 loses on the spot to 30.Qxh5!! followed by mate on g8. 28…exf5 29.Qh6 Ng8 Not losing per se, but instinctively you wouldn’t wish to entomb your own king for fear of walking into a mate. 30.Qf8 f6?? A move of pure blitz blind panic, as Navara’s flag on his digital clock, was by now metaphorically hanging, and he failed to grasp that he needed the extra bolstering of g6. A pity, as it may well have all fizzled out to a perpetual draw after the correct with 30…Nd3! 31.f4 Nxe5 32.dxe5 Qc4! 33.Rxc2 Qxf4+! 34.Rg3 Qxh4+ – of course, easy to say all this with no nerves about a hanging flag from a computer, as all the engines quickly spot this resource! 31.Rxg6!! [see diagram] Splat! – there’s no way to fend off the mate without a heavy loss of material now. 31…hxg6 32.Rxg6 Rxf2+ 33.Kh3 Rf3+ 34.Nxf3 Qh7 35.Rxf6 Navara’s king and queen are caught in the corner – resignation can’t be far off now. 35…Nd5 36.Rxf5 Ne3 37.Rg5 Qd7+ 1-0 Navara throws in the towel, as after 38.Kg3 Qc7+ 39.Ne5 Nf5+ 40.Qxf5 Black runs out of checks.

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