US Chess Champs 8-9: Caruana back in the hunt

Fabiano Caruana moved to within just half a point of the leaders with two rounds of the US Chess Championships to go after defeating Dariusz Swiercz in Round 9, while his key rivals only drew. Wesley So missed a great chance to take the sole lead by beating Daniel Naroditsky, while Leinier Dominguez was a whisker away from defeating Ray Robson and joining leaders So, Sam Sevian and Alex Lenderman. The Women’s Championship is much clearer, with Carissa Yip leading Irina Krush by a full point after powering to a 4th win in a row. 

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

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

When Fabiano Caruana lost to Daniel Naroditsky and Sam Sevian in consecutive rounds the last thing on his mind was winning the tournament. It wasn’t just that he’d moved to a minus score, but he admitted himself that he should have scored less from the preceding games, where he’d been lost at some point in all but one. 

Since then, however, Fabiano has been back to something approaching his best. He beat Ray Robson with a fine endgame sacrifice, then drew against Jeffery Xiong with the black pieces in Round 8, when six draws meant that he didn’t lose any ground on the leaders. Then in Round 9 Fabi managed to score the only win among those competing for tournament victory.

“It’s probably the first moment in the tournament when it feels like I have some sort of shot,” said Fabi, after defeating Dariusz Swiercz.

As Fabi explains, he wasn’t expecting his opponent’s opening but turned out to know more of the nuances, even if 10.Nd3 makes an unusual impression. 

Here 10…Ba5?! looked like a mistake, with Fabi and the computers expecting 10…Bf8, but it was only after 11.0-0 c6 12.e3 d6?! (“a very pleasant surprise”), instead of 12…d5!, that White looked clearly on the path to victory.

When Dariusz later did push his pawn to d5, Fabiano wasn’t sure if it was a pawn sacrifice or blunder, but White remained in control, and apart from one slip (34…Bxh5! might have been a shock), Fabi smoothly went on to convert his advantage, with the posting of a knight on g7 a nice touch. 

“It’s not a completely unknown pattern”, said Caruana, who liked how his knight completely restricted the black king. At the end of the game it left g7 for f5, and then jumped to d6 to finish things off.

Here White shouldn’t try to be too brilliant, since 44…Qxf3 45.Nf7+?? Qxf7 is only a draw, but simply 45.Bxf3 leaves mate-in-8 on the board. Fabi didn’t need to demonstrate that, since Dariusz resigned in the above position.

That win took Fabiano to within just half a point of the leaders, since there were draws in Lenderman-Shankland, Burke-Sevian, and, most notably, in So-Naroditsky. Wesley So was frustrated afterwards, since he sensed this had been his moment to stake a huge claim for overall victory. 

I thought I just missed a very good chance to win today, and probably the tournament, so that’s life.

Wesley was right about the missed chances, but he’d also briefly been living dangerously, with 14.g3?! walking into a great move.

14…0-0-0! took advantage of the fact that 15.gxf4? exf4 would leave White in huge trouble — the king in the centre leaves no good way of saving material. 

Instead after 15.Nd5 Bxd5?! (15…Qd7! poses far more problems) 16.exd5 the position was roughly level, though Daniel again went astray and on move 24 Wesley could have taken a big step towards a vital win.

24.Nxd6! Rxd6 25.Qe4! and 25…Rxd5+ is just one check. White would have been a strong favourite to win, but instead after 24.Be3 Rhe8 25.Nxd6 Rxd6 26.Bxa7+ Kxa7 27.Qa4+ Wesley repeated moves for a draw. He summed up:

Daniel’s a very good player, a very tricky player, but at the same time I had very good chances — I just blew it.

Wesley is still as well-placed as anyone to win the tournament, however, with his final two games against fellow leader Sam Sevian and then Ray Robson — not his most dangerous opponents, on paper, but as he commented:

In the US Championship paper doesn’t mean anything, I think. Rating is not such a big deal, it’s all about form and consistency, and also the way you treat the tournament psychologically, and your flow. Your flow in the tournament needs to be very consistent.

The only winner other than Fabi in Round 9 was 20-year-old Jeffery Xiong, who found a nice finish against Lazaro Bruzon. Overall, however, he’s disappointed with how the event is going:

I was thinking about it on the rest day yesterday and I think when I come here to play in the US Championship I’ve always struggled. Actually I think the first year was maybe my best result, and I only scored 50%, but otherwise after that I was always in a minus… Here I was hoping, ok, maybe this is the year that I turn things around, but I dropped three in a row very, very early, so it’s been an uphill climb after that.

Jeffery is currently on -1, but the lead this year is a mere +2, which has left six players absolutely in contention for 1st place with two rounds to go.

One of those is Leinier Dominguez, who could have joined Wesley So and co. in first place. He seemed to be cruising against Ray Robson, but things were far from easy.

Here he played 30.Re1 and later commented:

I thought that Re1 was very natural and somehow all my pieces look really well-placed and his king is weak, so I thought that it should be winning here, but maybe it wasn’t. 

It turns out the way to win was 30.Bf7+, but it was far from easy to envisage how that move simplifies into an ending a pawn up that White should be able to convert.

So it was a miss for Leinier, but with Xiong and Swiercz to play he still has real chances of claiming this year’s US title. Here are the standings after Round 9.

Carissa Yip storms on

If the Open Championship is too close to call, the Women’s Championship is looking like a 2-horse race, and then only just. Carissa Yip played fast and well as she blew Sabina Foisor away in Round 8, and then in Round 9 it was more of the same as she overpowered Ashritha Eswaran.

After some tense early stages, 22.d5! Bxd5? 23.Nc3! was the start of completely one-way traffic. Carissa played fast, natural moves and never gave her opponent another chance.

That was the 18-year-old’s 4th win in a row, something she hadn’t imagined when she went down without a fight against Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova in Round 5.

I didn’t expect to win all my games after that bad loss. I was kind of like, damn, I played like a 1900 out here, I’ll be lucky to not lose any points in this tournaments, but I think I managed to turn it around. 

Begim lost immediately after beating Carissa, but now after defeating Eswaran and Paikidze in consecutive rounds she’s moved up to third place, before in the penultimate round she faces the player she shares that place with, Katerina Nemcova. 

Katerina suffered her first defeat of the event against Irina Krush in Round 9, with the 8-time US Women’s Champion the one player within a point of Carissa. Katerina met 1.c4 with 1…f5, with Irina later commenting:

Of course I was surprised by the move 1…f5 — that was the intention! It would be hard not to be surprised by a move your opponent has never played before, so I think she did manage to surprise me there. 

Irina went on to have a very comfortable game, however, until she got to pin Katerina’s knight near the end.

It’s not every day you get this dominating kind of pin in a simple position, and I knew this position was winning.

Katerina simply gave up the piece shortly afterwards, and there was no way back.

That leaves the standings looking as follows, with Carissa able to win the tournament with a round to spare if she can outscore Irina in the penultimate round.

Follow all the action from 13:00 in Saint Louis, which is 14:00 ET and 20:00 CEST: Open | Women

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