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Nakamura Pulls Ahead, So Stumbles in Saint Louis Print E-mail
By Kostya Kavutskiy   
April 9, 2015
GMs Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura, Photo Lennart Ootes

Thursday's eighth round was an important day for the standings of the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships, with GM Hikaru Nakamura (6/8) taking clear first after his win over GM Kayden Troff. GM Ray Robson, who shared the lead with Nakamura entering the day, was unable to create any winning chances for himself and dropped into second place after his draw with GM Sam Shankland. Meanwhile GM Wesley So flew too close to the sun yet again, losing his third game of the tournament after sacrificing a piece in the opening against a well-prepared GM Conrad Holt.

In the Women's Championship, WGM Katerina Nemcova (6.5/8) could not pose any problems for WGM Sabina Foisor, falling worse at one point before finding her way to a draw. The half-point allowed reigning Women's champion GM Irina Krush to close the gap, with her victory over FM Alisa Melekhina pulling her within a half-point of the lead.

Sticking with his strategy of playing for a win with both colors, Nakamura chose the risky Benoni Defense against Troff, bringing a fight for control over critical kingside squares. Nakamura's novelty 14...g5 was quite interesting, taking control of the f4-square while giving up f5.


"I got exactly what I wanted," Nakamura said. "I think I was simply better, and then I started playing a lot of mickey-mouse type moves -- being an idiot for no reason."

Specifically, Nakamura stated unhappiness with 17...g4, later preferring 17...Qg7 instead, correctly showing that, if Troff had found 21.Re2, then White would have stood better.

In the post-game interview with GM Maurice Ashley,  Nakamura was especially critical of his own play, indicating that he is somewhat lucky to be winning so many games: "Well I wouldn't have the score I have if I was playing against certain other players, let me put it that way."

Shankland surprised Robson with the French Defense, obtaining seemingly promising attacking chances on the queenside against Robson's king. However he couldn't find a way to break through and, after a series of trades, agreed to a draw in an equal queen-and-pawn endgame.

"I went into this game looking for a fight," said the always ambitious Shankland. "Ray is leading the tournament. I got a sharp-ish position, but he was just too solid."

Now trailing Nakamura by a half-point, Robson weighed realistic chances for the title.

"I still think it's [Nakamura's] tournament," Robson said. "I'm going to play him [Saturday, Round 10], so if I want to win, that game's going to be very important."

GM Wesley So's chances at his first American title look dim after his third loss of the tournament, on Thursday to GM Conrad Holt. In the ever-popular Russian System against the Grunfeld Defense (5.Qb3), Wesley found himself caught in some home preparation by Holt, eventually forced to sacrifice an exchange for two pawns and dynamic play. While the silicon beast thought So had enough compensation, he wasn't able to prove it over the board, erring with 20...b5 and dropping another pawn. The 2014 U.S. Open Champion Holt had few problems converting his decisive material advantage.

Finally scoring his first win of the tournament was GM Timur Gareev, who went all-out against GM Sam Sevian-sacrificing his b2-pawn in the sharp Trompowsky Attack in order to get a lead in development.


"The way I built up the game was pretty adventurous, but not really solid," Gareev said. "I was playing in the spirit of the gambit."

In particular, the advance 15.e5 followed by 16.d6! -- a sacrifice of two more pawns to blow up the position -- was quite favorable for Gareev, who fully activated his pieces and launched a catastrophic attack.

"I think 20.f5 was the last move that takes away all the chances from him," Gareev said.

In the women's section, WGM Katerina Nemcova finally slowed down as she failed to put any pressure on Foisor, trading queens early to reach an equal endgame. After the game Nemcova seemed unfazed, and maintained that her last-round pairing with Krush would be the decisive game of the tournament.

"That will be very interesting, that's a very nice pairing," said Nemcova, with a smile.

Gaining ground on Nemcova was Krush, who played a model game on the Black side of the Alapin Variation of the Sicilian (2.c3) against FM Alisa Melekhina. After the opening, Melekhina had certain attacking chances on the kingside, planting her bishop aggressively with 16.Bf6. But Krush defended well, first pressuring White's weakened queenside and then sacrificing an exchange with 21...Nxe5 to fully neutralize White's initiative.

"I thought it was a good practical decision to change the nature of the position," Krush said.

Indeed, Krush was then able to seize control of the center and dominate the position, until Melekhina blundered with 30.Qe3, losing her extra exchange and eventually the game.


The game between WGM Tatev Abrahamyan and IM Nazí Paikidze, two players still in contention for the Women's title, was interesting. In the Classical Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense, Paikidze deviated from theory early with 11...a5, an advance aimed at harassing White's queenside. After both players castled on opposite sides of the board, they started throwing their pawns forward, racing toward the enemy king. The first critical moment came when, instead of recapturing a pawn in the center, Abrahamyan played 21.g5, threatening to open up Black's kingside.


"I thought I had good play, but I didn't see anything decisive," Abrahamyan said. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I thought the complications were good for me."

The enterprising shot prompted Paikidze to sacrifice a knight though, within a few moves, it was clear that she would receive only vague attacking chances in return. Abrahamyan played well, trading toward a queen endgame with an extra knight, but spent too much time looking for a concrete win. She couldn't convert.

In a likely winning position, Abrahamyan allowed repetition and the game was drawn. Her reasoning was practical: "I had just seconds left so I didn't want to risk or blunder something. I thought her pawns were moving [forward], and I didn't see how to make progress."

After this fortunate save, Paikidze remains in third place with 5/8, trailing the leader Nemcova by 1.5 points. With her in third is IM Rusudan Goletiani, who defeated WIM Annie Wang on Thursday.

Round 9 begins Friday, April 10 at 1:00 p.m. CDT. Tune in to www.uschesschamps.com/live to follow play-by-play commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Ben Finegold and GM Maurice Ashley.

Find photos and annotated games by GM Josh Friedel on the official site.