The US Team at the World Cup - And Then There Were Three
By GM Ian Rogers   
September 16, 2015
GM Wesley So, on to round three of the World Cup,  Photo Cathy Rogers
For chessplayers brought up on the collegiate atmosphere of round-robins and Swiss systems, the World Cup is a peculiarly lonely and tense tournament.

One day you are eating with friends, the next day they (or you) are flying home and you eat alone.

Even during the down time it is impossible to look too far ahead - at any moment you might be booking a flight home. Conversation with a player who has lost the first of a two game match is like treading on eggshells - the most innocuous comment about the weather or hotel can be taken the wrong way, as if you are saying "Well, you won't be enjoying this for much longer!"

Only two rounds have been completed in Baku and 75% of the players are going home or are there already. The big names eliminated include Levon Aronian and Boris Gelfand, as well as 6 of the 9 US players who started the tournament.

The three US survivors are also the three home players in the recent Sinquefield Cup - Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So. (In fact 7 of the 8 Sinquefield Cup players who travelled to Baku have survived to round 3.)

Nakamura had the difficult job of taking on his teammate Sam Shankland, and was forced to work hard before winning 2.5-1.5 by taking the second tiebreaking rapid game.

The first three games between the pair were rather disappointing, all drawn by move 25 with Shankland successfully shutting down Nakamura but failing to press successfully in the first rapid game.

GM Sam Shankland vs GM Hikaru Nakamura, Photo Cathy Rogers

Then came the decisive game of the match, a weird English Opening leading to the following position:

Baku World Cup

Round 2 Game 4
White: H.Nakamura
Black: S.Shankland


Nakamura's last move was 20.Bd2-b4 but immediately after he made the move he saw Shankland's strong reply

and realized that Black was fine. The game continued
21.Qf4 Bh6 22.Qh4 Bg5 23.Qh3+ f5 24.Qg2 Qxg2+ 25.Kxg2 Rhe8 26.Rb2

Here Black could sit tight with a draw highly likely, but he decided to liquidate bishops, a decision criticised by Nakamura after the game.
26...Be7?! 27.Bxe7 Rxe7 28.Ra1

Remarkably, Nakamura regarded this endgame as winning for White, thanks to Black's two weaknesses on d4 and a7 being more of a problem that the e2 and b5 pawns.
28...Re5 29.Ra4 Rd5 30.h4 Kd6 31.Rc4 Re8 32.Kf3 Re7 33.Ra4 b6 34.Rc4 Rc7 35.Rxc7 Kxc7 36.Kf4!

This is the key for White - his active king.
36...Kb7 37.Kg5 Rd6 38.Ra2 a5?!
At 10 seconds per move, activity is usually a priority, but here it would have been wiser to wait with 38...Kb8 and only break with 39...a5 after White starts his king walk to f7 with 39.Kh6.
39.bxa6+ Ka7 40.Kf4! Re6 41.e3 dxe3 42.fxe3 b5 43.e4! fxe4 44.dxe4 b4 45.e5 b3 46.Rb2 Rb6 47.e6 Rxe6 48.Rxb3 Kxa6 49.Kg5
Now White's only task is to attack the g6 pawn in such a way that a counter against the g3 pawn is not possible.
49...Ka7 50.Rf3 Rb6 51.Kh6! Kb7 52.Rf7+!

53.Rg7 will follow, winning both Black pawns.

Wesley So became one of only two players in the tournament - Pavel Eljanov is the other - to maintain a perfect 4-0 score, beating Hungary's Casba Balogh twice.

The match was as good as decided when So outplayed Balogh with Black in their first encounter.

Baku World Cup
Round 2 Game 1
White: C.Balogh
Black: W.So


The players could be forgiven for agreeing a draw here but So finds a Carlsen-like long term plan which builds up unbearable pressure on White's d pawn.
35...Kf7! 36.Rdd1 Ke8 37.Rd2 Kd7 38.Rff2 Kc7 39.Rf1 Kb6 40.Rdd1 Kc5

Part one completed - two White pieces are now tied to the d pawn.
41.Rd2 R6f7 42.Rdd1 Ng8! 43.Rd2 Nf6 44.Rh1 Rh7 45.Rdd1 Rfh8
Part two done - Black is ready for ...h5.
46.Rh2 h5 47.gxh5 Rxh5 48.Rxh5 Rxh5 49.Rd2 Rh8 50.Rd1 Rg8 51.Rd2
In retrospect 51.g4, here or earlier, was a wiser choice, though eventually ...e4 will set plenty of problems for White.
51...e4 52.fxe4
Now everything runs like clockwork for Black. 52.Nf5, setting up various knight fork tricks, would have kept the game alive.
52...Nxe4 53.Rd4 Nf6 54.Ng4

Desperation, but 54...Re8-e5 was coming.
54...Nxg4 55.Rxg4 Re8! 56.Kf3 Re5 57.Re4 Rf5+ 58.Kg4 Rf2!

Strangely, it is the fall of the b pawn, not the d pawn, which causes White's position to collapse.
59.Kxg5 Rxb2 60.g4 Rb3 61.Re3 Rxa3 62.Kf6 Ra1 63.Rf3 a3 64.g5 Rg1 65.Rf2 b4 66.cxb4+ Kxb4 67.Ke6 Kb3 0-1

A positional tour de force by So.

Fabiano Caruana, playing against local favourite Rauf Mamedov, also needed to work exceptionally hard to win the first game of his second round match with Black.

Baku World Cup

Round 2 Game 1
White: R.Mamedov
Black: F.Caruana


The time control has been reached and the position would be roughly equal with any normal waiting move such as 41.Rdb1. However Mamedov decides to go for the h3 pawn, not realising how precarious his position on the other flank will become.
41.Qf1? Qc5! 42.c3
Hardly the move White wanted to play but after 42.Qe2 Rb4! is hard to meet while 42.Qf2 walks into 42...Rxd3! (and 42...f5!, intending 43.gxf5 Rxd3 44.Rbxd3 Qxf2, is even stronger)
42...R4d6 43.d4
There is no other way to prevent 43...Qe3.
43...exd4 44.c4 d3! 45.Rbxd3 Rxd3 46.Rxd3 Rxd3 47.Qxd3 Qb4!

Avoiding any perpetual checks and forcing White backwards when the rest is easy for Caruana.
48.Qf1 Qxa5 49.c5 Qc3 50.Qxh3 Kg7 51.Nc8 Qxc5 52.Qf1 Qf8 53.Na7 Qd6 54.Qf2 b4 55.h4 b3 56.Nb5 cxb5 57.Qa7+ Kg6 0-1

Unlike So, Caruana had some problems against a determined Mamedov in the second game but hung on to win the match 1.5-0.5

The unluckiest member of the US delegation was undoubtedly Alexander Onischuk who won the first game against super-GM Sergey Karjakin but then failed to hold a tenable opposite coloured bishops endgame in the second game.

Having allowed his opponent to force tiebreakers, the rapid games were never likely to be easy for Onischuk. However after two exciting draws in the first set of rapid games, it was only a huge blunder in the fifth game that finally broke Onischuk's spirit and he lost the match 2-4.

Baku World Cup
Round 2 Game 1
White: A.Onsichuk
Black: S.Karjakin
Opening: Queen's Indian Defence

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Ba6 5.b3 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Be7 7.Bg2 c6 8.Bc3 d5 9.Ne5 Nfd7 10.Nxd7 Nxd7 11.Nd2 0-0 12.0-0 Rc8 13.e4 c5 14.exd5 exd5 15.Bxd5!?

This variation of the Queen's Indian has been trendy for decades but Onischuk's 15th move move has hardly been tried, White almost invariably preferring 15.dxc5 dxc4 16.c6 when for a time the theoretical battle centred around the crazy line 16...cxb3 17.Re1 b2 18.Bxb2 Nc5 19.Nc4 Bxc4 20.Qg4 Bg5 21.Qxc4 Nd3 22.Be5 Nxe1 23.Rxe1 Bf6 24.Bxf6 Qxf6 25.c7. (The assessment of the final position swung back and forth between dead drawn and huge advantage for White.)
15...Nf6 16.Bg2 cxd4 17.Bb2 b5 18.Rc1 Bb4
Reasonable, but 18...Qd7 will probably be Black's first choice in future games.
19.cxb5 Rxc1 20.Bxc1 Bxb5 21.Nc4 Re8?!
Now Black drifts into a surprisingly difficult position. 21...d3!?  was double-edged but playable,
22.Qd3! Bc3 23.Rd1 Nd7 24.Qf5! Bxc4 25.bxc4 Re5 26.Qf3 Qe8 27.Bf4 Rc5 28.Qb7 Nf6 29.Bf1!

Probably only now did Karjakin realise that something had gone badly wrong. Black's d pawn is not going anywhere and Black has worries on the queenside.
29...Qd7 30.Rb1 g5
Hardly desirable but after a normal move such as 30...h6 White continues 31.Qa8+ Rc8 32.Rb8 Rxb8 33.Qxb8+ Kh7 34.c5 and the c pawn cannot be stopped. The poor position of the c3 bishop is particularly evident in these and similar lines.
31.Qb8+ Kg7 32.Be5 Qf5 33.Rb5! Rxb5 34.cxb5 Qe6 35.a4 h5 36.Qc7 h4 37.Bc4 Ba5 38.Bxe6 Bxc7 39.Bxc7 fxe6 40.Be5


After 40...d3 41.Kf1, Black is doomed.

Baku World Cup
Round 2 Game 5
White: S.Karjakin
Black: A.Onsichuk

In regaining a pawn Black has had his rook caught offside and it takes some time to reroute. Onischuk, not surprisingly, decides to  hurry with the rook rescue mission, though 28...b5!? was also fine.
28...h5 29.a4 Rh6 30.Bg5 Rh8 31.Ra1 Ra8 32.c4

At first sight Black has reason to be nervous with White preparing to bring up his king and keep the Black knight tied to the b6 pawn. However Onischuk calculates a forcing sequence which solves all his problems.
32...b5! 33.a5 bxc4 34.dxc4 c5! 35.b5! Nb6! 36.Rc1!
Diamond cut diamond. It seems that the a5 pawn is secure, but Onischuk has seen further...
36...Rxa5! 37.Bd8 Nxc4! 38.Bxa5
The best chance since after 38...Rxc4 Rxb5, Black's connected pawns on the queenside will roll quickly.
38...Nxa5 39.Rc3 d5??

An awful mistake, simply blundering the c5 pawn. After 39...c4, with 40...d5 (or perhaps first 40...h4) to follow, Black has nothing to fear.
40.Rxc5 dxe4 41.b6 Nb3 42.Rc7 Na5 43.Rxg7 1-0

The round 3 pairings for the surviving Americans (in bold) are:

Nakamura v Nepomniachtchi (RUS)
v Kovalyov (CAN)
So v Le (VIE)

Nakamura's match-up against the strongest Ian in the world will be the US Champion's toughest assignment to date, whereas Caruana has been paired against the lowest rated player left in the competition.

So's pairing looks like a lyric from The Sound of Music. Rapid and blitz chess are among the young Vietnamese star's favourite things, so So will want to finish the match in the classical games.

World Cup games begin at 6am AEST and may be followed live via