Well, it’s finally here! The US Chess Championships start under way this week, and with Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So competing among the best players in the country, I’m looking forward to this tournament more than Norway Chess.
Here’s the field:
Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Sam Shankland, Ray Robson, Gata Kamsky, Varuzhan Akobian, Alexander Onischuk, Aleksander Lenderman, Jeffrey Xiong, Alexander Shabalov, and Akshat Chandra.
So where to begin? Let’s start with the former World Championship Candidates Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura.
Nakamura, the defending US Champion, may feel like he has the most to prove given a mediocre finish at the Candidates Tournament last month. While his even score drew criticism, I think given his -2 start, his performance was more of a sign of strength than a weakness.
I’m a little more concerned about Caruana. While he fell just short of getting the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship, he missed a lot of winning opportunities – in particular against Topalov – which ultimately cost him the event. This is a field that won’t forgive Caruana, and without much time to prepare for his opponents I’m curious to see how he’ll finish. Remember last year’s Millionaire Open? Caruana fans, you have your warning.
Without an appearance at the Candidates Tournament, Wesley So might be the most prepared player for this event. Still a top ten caliber player, So will want to avenge his disappointing showing last year by walking away from St. Louis a US Champion. There’s still a considerable gap between him and the likes of Nakamura and Caruana, but I fully expect him to bounce back.
If there’s one dark horse contender, it’s Ray Robson. In last year’s event, the Webster student placed second, only a half point behind Nakamura. Recently coming off a Final Four win, Robson should surprise again if he can keep the momentum going.
The best chess player in the world right now is Hikaru Nakamura. Forget the household names – Carlsen, Anand, Caruana, and Kramnik, chess is changing, and so are the best players.
But why isn’t the American capturing any real attention when it comes to discussions of the next World Champion? Nakamura has been called the “Player of the Year” by many, claiming either 1st or 2nd in each event he’s played in this year (excluding the World Cup). While top performances in the FIDE Grand Prix, Gibraltar, Millionaire Chess, and the Grand Chess Tour have propelled Nakamura to the top, his success has yet to lend itself to the one result he wants most: a win over Magnus Carlsen.
While this one fact separates players like Fabiano Caruana and Vaseline Topalov from Nakamura, it doesn’t detract from his quality and consistency. Let’s look at some games.
A truly inspiring performance from Nakamura, as he took a slight advantage over the world’s youngest grandmaster and made the conversion seem effortless. Hikaru’s energetic play covers all openings, 1. e4, 1. d4, and the English, making him impossible to prepare for. For the second game today, I was tempted to put in Nakamura’s win over Anand from the recent Sinquefield Cup, as he left a powerful impression on me during his interview about older players, specifically Vishy:
Vishy is of course a quite bit older than most other players so unfortunately for him he made a mistake at the critical moment…
–Hikaru Nakamura after Round 1 of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup
This is something which I think Kramnik is struggling through too – its just harder to compete on the highest levels as an older player. If this alone is a reason for why they make mistakes, then younger players do have some sort of stamina advantage. While that game was interesting, it was mostly equal until Anand played f7-f5 too early and fell apart in the endgame, so it wasn’t the most exciting.
With Wesley So’s recent switch to the United States, its not too hard to imagine seeing So v. Nakamura becoming a regular rivalry to determine the best American player. That being said, the most exciting game between them may have already happened at this summer’s Sinqufield Cup. Where Nakamura beat So in a dynamic King’s Indian. With So’s incredible victory against Ding Liren at the Bilbao Chess Masters earlier this week in the same line of the King’s Indian, I thought that gave this game the nod.
I’ve been really inspired by Hikaru’s play as of late, and even though he’s had some disappointing games, he has been the most consistent players this calendar year. Only one hurdle remains for the American – the Word Championship. He’ll have to beat Magnus, not just in one sitting, but an entire match. With the way he’s been playing as of late, I would put my bet on him to get the job done.
As some of you may know, the World Blitz Chess Championships in Berlin were last week, in which Magnus Carlsen failed to defend his title, making way for Russian Grandmaster Alexander Grischuk to take the throne. In what was a rough day for the World Chess Champion, he further proved that he is mortal:
While Magnus is considered to be one of chess history’s best players, he definitely has been sliding this year. The FIDE Grand Chess Tour proved to be the beginning of his unwinding, first in his home country, Norway Chess, and then again in St. Louis at the Sinquefield Cup. Even with his 14/21 score at the World Blitz Championships, Carlsen was a full 1.5 points behind Alexander Grischuk, finishing 6th and falling from 1st to 2nd in the world blitz standings. With only a few months to go before the Candidates Tournament in March, Magnus’ time to get out his slump is limited, and the London Chess Classic, the last leg of the Grand Prix, will be a big indicator as to his progression.