US Chess Champs Day 2: Awonder shocks Nakamura

17-year-old Awonder Liang said “it’s probably one of the
best games I’ve ever played” as he beat Hikaru Nakamura in dominant style to
leave the reigning champion’s chances of retaining his title hanging by a
thread. Hikaru, with just one win so far, is now a full 2.5 points behind
Wesley So with 5 rounds to go after Wesley beat Sam Shankland and Dariusz
Swiercz to move to 5.5/6. The gap at the top is still just half a point, however,
since Jeffery Xiong and Ray Robson both continued their brilliant runs.

You can replay all the games from the 2020 US Chess
Championship using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary, including interviews
with Ray Robson, Awonder Liang and Wesley So.

Awonder leaves Nakamura adrift

With Wesley So on fire in this year’s US Championship,
Hikaru Nakamura needed to put his foot on the gas after drawing all three of
his games on Day 1. It looked like that might happen after the 5-time Champion
was gifted a perfect opportunity in the first round of the day. This position
had been seen at least five times before, including in Karjakin-Mamedyarov from the 2009 Nalchik FIDE Grand Prix.

Shakhriyar and everyone else had correctly replied 10…Nd7!, but here Alejandro
Ramirez thought for over two minutes before playing the losing 10…dxc3? 11.exf6

Alejandro spent another 4 minutes deciding there was nothing
better than 11…gxf6, and after 12.0-0 Hikaru duly went on to win, though not as
convincingly as he could have done. Hikaru is playing from a new location
provided by the esports organisation TSM and doesn’t entirely seem to have
settled in yet!

Hikaru then had the worse side of a draw against Elshan
Moradiabadi. Meanwhile Awonder Liang was on the comeback trail after losing all
three games on Day 1. He reasoned, “I have nothing to lose and I’m just going
to try and maybe not just hold my own but actually try and win as many games as
I can”. The 17-year-old came painfully close in the first round of the day,
when he let Alex Lenderman escape.

69.Rd8+! Rf8 70.Ne8! Kh8 (the next best move allows mate-in-2)
71.Rd4 Rxf8 72.Kf7! threatens mate-in-1 and wins the black rook and the game.
Instead after 69.Nf7? Rg4+! Lenderman was able to reach the drawn Rook vs. Rook
+ Knight endgame.

Awonder was at least on the scoreboard, and he notched a
first win in the next round in an insane slugfest against Ramirez. His win with
Black was deserved, but anything could have happened.

Here Awonder could win with 41…Bxf6! 42.Rxg7 and not Bxg7
but the zwischenzug 42…Bxe5!. Instead after 41…Rd6? it was Alejandro’s chance
to clinch a win with 42.Rxe7! Qxe7 43.Nxg6+! hxg6 44.Qh4+ and mate next move.

Instead 42.Nc4? Rdd8 saw Awonder go on to win.

That set up Nakamura-Liang, with Hikaru clearly out to win
at all costs. His young opponent felt that was an understandable approach.

I think it’s quite logical, especially after yesterday when
I started 0/3, and I saw that he’s been making some draws in the tournament. I
guess as one of the weaker players, or apparently one of the weaker players, it’s
logical for him to go after me and try and get me!

There was less logic to Hikaru’s moves, however, as he came
up with a strange plan in the following position.

It began 12.Nf1!?, with the knight routed to c4 and the
g-pawn flung up the board to g6, but the time that took allowed Awonder to gain
a total grip on the position. He commented:

This whole Nf1 and g4 didn’t make a lot of sense when I
already have c5 and Nc6, especially Nc6, which is not always a move you get to
have in these lines, and I’m just hitting the centre. It didn’t really feel
like what he was doing made a lot of sense, but I think we’re all pretty
familiar with Hikaru’s attacking skills and all that, so I was still a little
bit on the edge here, but his position was not really that sound at all. His
king’s not safe in the centre and he can’t castle queenside, because of Qxa2,
and otherwise he can’t really generate an attack with only a handful of pieces.
He really needs to be able to bring his rooks in.

It was soon an absolutely dream position for Black:

At that point I realised it’s almost impossible not to win
this game. I’ve certainly botched my fair share of winning positions so far in
this tournament, but his bishop was just boxed in by his own pawns and the
light-squared domination was just… not even from a perspective of winning the
game, but just aesthetically, my position was so nice that everything was just
going right this game.

There was no way back, with Awonder sealing a fine win in 57 moves.

“Whatever way you slice it, it’s probably one of the best
games I’ve ever played!” he said afterwards.

Wesley So almost perfect, but the fight goes on

World no. 14 Leinier Dominguez is having an even worse time
than Hikaru (4 draws, 2 losses), making it a perfect chance for world no. 8
Wesley So to win his second US title. He continued his winning streak on Tuesday
by starting the day with a stunning victory over Sam Shankland. It wasn’t
flawless – he admitted he’d missed that 23.Qc6! defended as 23…Qd4 24.Qc3!
would only be a draw – but when given a second chance he made no mistake.

25…Qxa3!! and despite White being a rook up there’s no
defence. 26.d6 covered the f3-pawn, but 26…Qb2! renewed the threat of mate-in-2 on
either e2 or g2. After 27.Qe4 Qg2+, and picking up the rook on h1, Wesley was
finally up material as well as hunting down the white king.

That was followed by a 6th win in a row, with Dariusz
Swiercz unlucky to run into a Grünfeld novelty.

As Wesley pointed out, Magnus Carlsen had played 12.Be2
here, against
Ian Nepomniachtchi in the final of the chess24 Legends of Chess
, while
other top players (Giri, Ding Liren, Vidit) had tried 12.Bxc5. Instead Wesley
played the new 12.Bd3 and felt his opponent’s 12…Nd7 (instead of 12…c4) was
already an inaccuracy, allowing White to play 13.c4 himself. Dariusz needed to
at least try and unbalance things by doubling White’s f-pawns when he had the
chance, since in the game Wesley moved his knight, pushed his f-pawn and won with ease.

It seems no-one had started an invitational US Championship
with even 4 wins in a row since Bobby Fischer…

…but the chances of matching
Bobby’s perfect 11/11 had gone when Wesley played the Berlin and took a 29-move
draw against Leinier Dominguez in Round 6. +5 after six rounds was hardly a bad
outcome, but in a way Wesley would live to regret his choice: “To have two people
chasing me only half a point behind is very disappointing!”

One half of the chasing pack is 19-year-old Jeffery Xiong,
who punished a miscalculation to beat Leinier Dominguez in the first game of
the day and then inflicted a crushing first loss on Elshan Moradiabadi in the
last. The other half is Ray Robson, who lamented:

I’m basically doing as well as I possibly can and I’m still
behind Wesley and tied with Jeffery and I still have to play both of them!

His first win of the day was a nice tactics puzzle after
Dariusz Swiercz played 35.Qc7?

35…Qf2! exploited the weak back rank (36.Rxf2 Re1+ 37.Rf1 Rxf1#)  to win the game. After
36.Rg1 Re1! White was able to give checks to manoeuvre his queen to g3, but Ray
just swapped off the queens and rooks to reach a won pawn ending.

Ray then drew against Dominguez before winning a true
slugfest against Sam Sevian. He gave up his queen for an overwhelming attack,
but there were some more-than-shaky moments! 38…Ke8? (38…Kg7!) could have cost
the game.

After the amazing 39.Nf5!! it turns out White is giving mate
with his queen and rook. Play instead continued 39.Qe5? Rf3+! 40.Ka4 b5+?

In the game after 41.Ka5? Ra3+! 42.Kxb5 Ray’s plan worked
out as he was able to queen the f-pawn with check and win the game. He admitted
afterwards, however, that his other plan after 41.Qxb5+! had been to play 41…Kxe7? “and
run”, but it could have been a short run, since 42.Qe5+ is mate-in-4! Instead
after 41…Kf8 or 41…Kf7 Black can draw, but in the end, although Ray confessed, “he
almost got me!”, we were left with two players just half a point behind Wesley!

Hikaru Nakamura still has to play all three players above
him, starting with Xiong-Nakamura in Round 7, so that you certainly can’t rule
him out just yet. Whatever happens, it’s going to a fascinating race on the
final two days.

Watch all the action live from 19:00 CEST here on

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