US Chess Champs 4: Robson leads as So lets Caruana escape

Ray Robson is the sole leader of the US Chess Championships on the first rest day after defeating Jeffery Xiong to move to 3/4. He could have been joined by Wesley So, but on his 28th birthday the defending champion decided to play it safe rather than push for a win against world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. Leinier Dominguez beat Sam Shankland to join Wesley, Fabi and Sam Sevian in a 5-man chasing pack. In the women’s section 18-year-old Carissa Yip now co-leads with Katerina Nemcova after 8-time Champion Irina Krush blundered a piece on move 21. 

You can replay all the games from the 2021 US Chess Championships using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Cristian Chirila and Maurice Ashley. 

A birthday miss for Wesley So

The big heavyweight clash of the day, two-time Champion Wesley So vs. 2016 Champion Fabiano Caruana, had soon left the frequently trodden path.

White had a space advantage, but on move 11 Fabiano found a nice way to seize the initiative, at the cost of a pawn.

11…b5! was a move Fabi said he “discovered over the board today”, when Yasser asked how he’d come up with it, with the world no. 2 explaining, “b5 was more a try to equalise without playing a long, protracted game”. 

When Fabi inflicted doubled f-pawns on Wesley as well, he was beginning to get chances for more, but the players and computer agreed that Black blundered on move 18.

18…f5!, the move Caruana originally planned and which Wesley expected, was promising for Black, though both players felt it should probably end in a draw. Instead Fabiano went for 18…e5?!, later confessing, “I don’t even know how to explain my thought process!”

After 19.dxe5 Re6 we had the critical position of the game.

If White does nothing the rook will swing to h6 next move and Black is winning, but it turns out White has a defence… and more! Fabi was shocked to see the computer evaluation, “I saw the computer says, “I resign”, which wouldn’t have been great!”. He elaborated:

I wanted to play f5 and then I got attracted to this e5 idea, and I’m kind of shocked that it’s so bad, although now that I think about it, it is an incredibly anti-positional move, but I thought the tactics would work out for me, and they don’t! There’s multiple problems, which shows how far off the mark I was.

Neither player had spotted the absolute killer move, 20.Rd1!, with Wesley noting that you had to have seen the whole line: 20…Rh6 21.Kf1 Nxe3+ 22.fxe3 Qxh2 and now the only move 23.Ke1! (since after the natural 23.Be4 Black is on top after 23…Rh3!). 

In this position the black attack is over, with the king ready to escape, or the bishop to come to f1 or e2 to block checks. 

Both players had at least seen the computer’s second best move, 20.Rg1!?, however, with Wesley pointing out that after 20…dxe5 21.Qc2 g6 the computer doesn’t give White such a clear advantage, if you leave it running for a long time. Fabiano, meanwhile, admitted that he realised too late that his originally intended 20.Rg1 Rh6 was bad for him after 21.Kf1, so that he was indeed planning 20..dxe5. 

In a practical game anything might have happened, but instead we got an amnesty, with Wesley playing 20.exd6. He said he initially thought it was winning, with the point that Be5 is suddenly possible to defend the kingside, but by the time he played it he’d realised that 20…Qg5+! by Fabi would mean a draw. The game ended 21.Kh1 Qh5! 22.Qb2 Qxf3+ and there was no escaping checks from f3 and g4. 

Fabiano had perhaps been saved by his opponent’s 28th birthday! Wesley explained:

The last thing I want to do is play chess on my birthday. Very glad tomorrow is a rest day, so also that’s one of the reasons why I decided to play it a bit safe today, because the last thing you want is to lose on your birthday. 

Caruana breathed a sigh of relief:

I can consider myself pretty fortunate overall. From the positions I had in this tournament, I think I extracted the absolute maximum. I couldn’t have gotten any more points! I could have easily scored -2 in this tournament from the positions I had, so yeah, I was pretty lucky so far. e5 is a terrible move, I’m kind of ashamed I played it. I don’t really know how to explain it!

That meant that Ray Robson was able to take the sole lead in the tournament with a win over an out-of-sorts Jeffery Xiong. The 20-year-old went for a risky opening that Magnus had been among those to try, but landed only in a very tricky endgame.

Ray said afterwards that he only considered 20…Kd6 and 20…Kf6 (the move he felt might be slightly better) for his opponent, while he thought 20…Kd8 “a big mistake”. The computer in fact considers it the strongest move in the position, though that perhaps tells you more about how dangerous the position is for Black.

21.d6! locked Black down, but it seems that after 21…a5 22.Bd3 Jeffery might have avoided the worst with 22…Ba6! Instead after 22…Rb8? 23.Rab1 there was no way back, and things escalated incredibly quickly until Black resigned just five moves later. 

There’s no stopping Ba6 and Rc8, and Xiong had to concede a 3rd loss in a row. Ray Robson has two wins and two draws for 3/4, though he pointed out afterwards he had a very good chance to beat both Sams, Shankland and Sevian, and make it 4/4. 

The second biggest clash of the day was Shankland-Dominguez, which looked likely to end in a 4th draw for both players until Leinier managed to trick Sam and won a pawn. “These knight endgames are very dangerous when you’re down material,” he said, and ultimately Leinier converted with a well-timed knight sacrifice.  

53…Nxg3! would have been winning after 54.Nxg3 d3! 55.Nf1 g3 and the two pawns are too powerful, though some precision is still required. Sam rejected the sacrifice with 54.Nd2, but resigned a move later in a hopeless position. 

The other winner of Round 4 was Aleksandr Lenderman, who managed to get Daniel Naroditsky out of book on move 5 and later took over before correctly grabbing a pawn on move 30.

30…Bxa3! was met by 31.b4, but 31…Rc8! 32.Nd1 a5! ensured the bishop wasn’t getting trapped. The game stretched to move 74, with Daniel applying pressure on the clock, but Alex made no mistake. He pointed out afterwards that he could have scored more, given he’d missed a clear win against Leinier Dominguez in the first round.

The remaining games were drawn, including Sam Sevian being unable to convert an extra pawn against Dariusz Swiercz in a 110-move encounter, so that the standings look as follows on the rest day.

Carissa Yip accepts a gift

8-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush made the very rare choice, for her, of playing the Caro-Kann in the crucial Round 4 match-up against 18-year-old Carissa Yip. The youngster explained afterwards why she went for e5 on move 3:

I thought I’ll just play e5 for fun, because I haven’t really played it before and I was hoping that since I haven’t seen Irina play it before she wouldn’t really know what to do either, and we’d just get out of book, and I think that’s what happened.

When queens were exchanged Carissa had the advantage, but there was a long game ahead until 21…Nb4?? appeared on the board. 

Carissa took almost three minutes to reply, but not because she hadn’t seen the winning idea.

At first I thought I hallucinated something. I was like, is Rd4 really even winning, so I had to take a few minutes to kind of double check everything, but it’s a very pleasant thing when your opponent just blunders and you don’t have to fight it out for another two hours.

Carissa went for 22.Rxc8+ Rxc8 23.Rd4 and Irina resigned. Did Carissa feel sorry for her opponent?

I’ve got a lot of homework to do! Had to finish up quickly here.

That gave Carissa a share of the lead with Katerina Nemcova, who missed some chances in a draw against Nazi Paikidze. There were fighting games everywhere, but the only other decisive result was Sabina Foisor coming back from two losses in a row to inflict a third loss of the tournament on Tatev Abrahamyan. 

It was a topsy-turvy game, but Sabina found a star move after 27…Rb8?

28.Qb1! leaves Black only bad choices. 28…Bd5 runs into 29.c4!, with d5 to follow, and Black gets steamrollered off the board. Tatev instead went for 28…c4, but that left the b3-bishop as a glorified pawn and White with a huge advantage. The rest of the game wasn’t entirely smooth, but Sabina went on to win an opposite-coloured bishop endgame.

That leaves a youthful look to the top of the standings going into the rest day. 18-year-old Carissa Yip and 30-year-old Katerina Nemcova are closely followed by 18-year old Thalia Cervantes and 20-year-old Ashritha Eswaran. 

The action resumes on Monday from 13:00 in Saint Louis, which is 14:00 ET and 20:00 CEST: Open | Women

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