|Akobian Joins Lenderman in Championship Lead|
|By Brian Jerauld|
|May 14, 2014|
SAINT LOUIS (May 14, 2014) -- Now the fists are flying - though nobody is coming out of the pile.|
Despite a slow, draw-filled start, the U.S. Championship heated up as it passed its halfway point, with Tuesday’s sixth round featuring another day of bloodshed to shake up the standings. Aleksandr Lenderman, who had raced out to an early lead with three wins through the first four rounds, has now been slowed to a crawl with just a half point over the last two. Sam Shankland issued the frontrunner his first loss of the tournament on Tuesday, while Varuzhan Akobian (4/6) turned in his second quality win in a row to catch pace with Lenderman on top.
Tied for third a half-point behind the leaders are Gata Kamsky and Alex Onishuck (3.5/6), who stayed unbeaten after a straightforward 32-move draw; and five other players trail in a logjam with 3 points apiece. Ray Robson and Josh Friedel both won on Tuesday to join the cluster, while Timur Gareev suffered his second consecutive loss.
Meanwhile, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Championship - previously showing no shortage of decisions - had its closest round of balance yet. Anna Zatonskih turned in the lone win of the day over Ashritha Eswaran, gaining a half point on the rest of the field with all draws. Combined with tournament leader Irina Krush’s nailbiting escape with a draw from Tatev Abrahamyan, Zatonskih has now caught back up with the leading pace. Abrahamyan (3/5) trails by a point in clear third.
Lenderman’s method of operations through the first portion of the 2014 U.S. Championships had been formed around well-prepared openings, confidently played and designed to surprise - which made it all the more obvious that things had gone wrong early on Tuesday.
Lenderman was rocked back into his seat just after the day began, tentatively progressing through the opening after being the first to admit that Shankland’s 2...e6 - the first time ever played by his opponent - had completely destroyed his preparation.
“Normally Sam plays the Grunfeld, maybe the Slav - he has never started with this particular move order,” Lenderman said. “I still had ambitions to maybe outplay my opponent later on, in equal position, but he just kept finding all these good moves, creating problems for me out of nowhere.”
Lenderman spent considerable time thinking about his third move, and proceeded to tiptoe through the opening with caution. Meanwhile, Shankland was rapidly showcasing his brand-new line: 9...Qa5 was played instantly, sending Lenderman into the tank for the second time in the game. His response, 10. Rd1, was weak and let black in on an early attack that scattered white’s queenside. Both the isolated a- and c-pawns later became objects of black’s desire.
Akobian had played through four balanced draws through the tournament’s start, but for the second day in a row squeezed out a full point from his opponents’ slightly worse positions. The imbalance came early on Tuesday, after both sides looked to be thrown into fresh territory in the game’s opening moves: Akobian spent 20 minutes thinking on his response to 3...dxc4, and Alejandro Ramirez put time in after 5. a4. His 7...c5 allowed Akobian the edge on development.
White’s bishop pair stayed menacing through the middlegame, while the kingside pawns put a cramp on the black castle. Akobian’s 42. f5 was an interesting idea that allowed a backwards pawn, but did well in freezing several black pieces in the area - but 46...g5+ was a surprise that kept Ramirez fighting for another 40 moves.
“I had a big advantage and was just trying to find a way to win, but I missed this g5 move in the endgame - I thought he was just resigning afterward, actually,” Akobian said. “Maybe I should have played h4 earlier to prevent this idea, I think I had time to do that. But even after g5, f6 was very weak, so I think I was always in control.”
While g5 bought Ramirez some extra time, it created a backwards pawn of black’s own, a weakness that stayed the focus through the rest of the endgame. 49...Rxe4 offered the exchange sacrifice, bailing out and seeking compensation in the form of a fortress. It almost came.
Zatonskih had slipped out of a first-place tie with Krush after Monday’s draw with Viktorija Ni, leaving her desperate for the full point in Tuesday’s match against Eswaran - the lowest-rated player in the field and 500 points Zatonskih’s inferior. But where some competitors have quietly grumbled about the lack of preparation material available for the 13-year-old -- she has no games in the database -- Zatonskih pulled out an old-school trick in the French defense that her young competitor was unlikely to have prepped herself.
“In the opening, I played (5.) Be7 - it was an opening I played many years ago,” Zatonskih said. “Of course, I play so many openings that (Eswaran) probably didn’t prepare this line - my last game was 12 years ago, maybe more. I think she was not aware of what was going on in this variation; she got, almost from the opening, a slightly worse position.”
The surprise brought some early swapping of minor pieces, with 9. Qd2 and subsequent queenside castling slowing up white’s opening. Eswaran’s 19. Qc7 was a hasty push inside, immediately dropping her g-pawn with threats of back-rank mate. Also proving to drive her backwards was 32. b4, met immediately by a5 to crack open the white king’s protection. Eswaran soon after lost her bishop to a skewer at 37...Qb1+.
Tournament leader Krush broke her first sweat of the tournament, as third-seed Abrahamyan made the reigning champion frantically work just to see the time control on Tuesday. The round five matchup featured more of a positional struggle rather than the tactical slugfest the two have created in the past, and both players had just six minutes of clock left with 15 moves left before the bonus.
Krush caught the worst of it, playing on increment after 30...Kh7 at a pivotal point in the game that demanded much calculation. She dropped a pawn with 35. Rxb5, though played accurately - and quickly - enough down the stretch to make control and defuse the situation to a draw.
For a complete replay of all the games, click here. Round 5 of the U.S. Women’s Championship and Round 6 of the U.S. Championship begins today at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET. Catch all the action live at www.uschesschamps.com/live.