U.S. Championships – Round 1 Recap

The U.S. Championships and the U.S. Women’s Championships began with the first round on March 29.  Last year’s edition ended with Fabiano Caruana taking the title for the first time in as many chances in the U.S. Championships, while Nazi Paikidze took home the trophy for the U.S. Women’s Championships.  This year, Wesley So enters as the favorite once again by rating, with Caruana trailing in close second, and Nakamura behind him.  Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush enter as favorites in the Women’s edition, with Zatonskih ahead by 7 rating points on paper.  Considering that both of the favorites for this year were not the winners of last year, this should make for a good tournament. The tournament itself is being held at the Chess Club is St. Louis, Missouri, as it has been every year prior.  The scheduled event is supposed to extend from March 29 up to and including April 10.

Right away, there were games of interest and some fascinating decisions taken by players in the first round itself. Wesley So continued his tear by completely dominating Alexander Shabalov as White in what started out as a reverse London System.  Before Black was able to soundly complete his development, So launched his kingside pawns and grabbed Black’s “London” bishop.  In addition, White was able to kick around Black’s knights, preventing the king from castling into safety for several more moves.  In general, this game was a perfect example of striking before the opponent has consolidated his position out of the opening, as our own David Brodsky had written about here.  With White’s active pieces and Black’s suffocated pieces on the queenside coupled with the king still stuck in the center, White gained an advantage fairly early (as early as move 16) and the evaluation never fell below +0.50 for the rest of the game.

Ray Robson, pitted against Hikaru Nakamura as White, faced a different kind of game altogether.  Reduced to very low levels of time on the clock early, Robson struggled to keep the game even while virtually blitzing out most of the remaining portion of the game.  Robson spent 42 minutes on move 13 and 22 minutes on move 15; these two moves combined took up more than 2/3 of the entire clock time!  By move 20, White was reduced to the single digits, and consequently, Black began to build up a steady advantage by capitalizing on White’s inaccuracies from time trouble.  Black had gained a material advantage by move 30 and eventually won in a very nice Bishop + 3 Pawns vs. Rook endgame.

There were some interesting games in the Women’s section as well, starting with the game between Jennifer Yu, our very own author at Chess^Summit, and Anna Zatonskih, a four-time U.S. Women’s Champion at this tournament.  Zatonskih gained a position advantage early in the game, amounting to a little over -2 at one point when Jennifer blundered, but Zatonskih missed the opportunity.  On move 39, after Bxf5, 39. … Rxf5! Followed by Qe4, eyeing the weak squares on the queenside, would have sealed the deal.  Instead, Jennifer escaped into an even endgame that was supposed to be drawn.  Most of the pawns were traded until the players reached this position:

Figure 1: Yu – Zatonskih, position after 57. d6

This endgame is still drawn, but with the move 57. d6 sets a trap for Black.  The move itself does not compromise White’s drawing chances, so this was a good practical decision, and Black fell for it.  With 57. d6, Rd1+ seemingly picks up the far-advanced pawn with no questions asked.  However, after 58. Kc2, Black must have realized with horror that she fell into the trap.

Figure 2: Yu – Zatonskih, position after 58. Kc2

Suddenly, White’s King attacks the rook on d1 while cutting off the Black king from an escape square.  This threatens mate via Ra8#, and Black is lost.  Congratulations to Jennifer for a hard-fought win in round 1, and I wish her luck in the rest of her rounds!

With many interesting games in round 1 itself, the rest of tournament is guaranteed to contain much more.  I, certainly, can’t wait to check back in the upcoming days to find more interesting results.  Good luck to all of the players in the tournament, especially Jennifer!  And, as always, thanks for reading and see you next time.

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