In the longest and bloodiest round so far at the U.S. Championships, the leaders in both section had a difficult time dealing with the pressure. In the open section, Wesley So fell behind early in the game and had to pull a Houdini escape in his game against Fabiano Caruana. In the Women's section, the reigning champion, Nazi Paikidze, lost a 7 hour game in what was arguably the most dramatic ending we have seen in the history of this championship.
(the full recap)
So vs Caruana was clearly the game everybody had their eyes on, and after a few moves, it seemed like they wouldn’t be watching for long. The players repeated an equal variation of the Berlin endgame and it looked like everything was heading for a quick draw, but that's exactly when things started getting interesting. Fabiano was more confident and slowly outplayed the prudent Wesley.
With precise moves, Fabiano managed to press Wesley to the edge and obtain an almost winning position. That's when the time trouble came to Wesley's aide, as he managed to confuse his opponent and find a witty defensive pattern to save the game. Wesley continues his extraordinary unbeaten streak, while Fabiano continues to trail behind the leaders. With that said, Fabiano's schedule has been much tougher and he will look to cut the deficit in the upcoming rounds.
Nakamura vs Xiong was another very interesting game. Before this game, Hikaru seemed to have Jeffery's number, as he outplayed him quite convincingly in their encounter last year. But things changed since last year, and Jeffery is surely not the same player. He is more confident, has gained plenty of experience, and ultimately has extended his knowledge significantly. Hikaru chose to try a variation of the Giucco Pianno, an opening that has gained a great deal of popularity in the last couple of years. Jeffery was very well prepared though and annihilated white's opening advantage with ease. As soon as things seemed to go black's way, Hikaru pulled the breaks and initiated massive exchanges that quickly lead to a draw.
This was an important psychological victory for the youngest participant, as he is obviously starting to fight tooth and nail against the best of the nation. This young man's dreams are shaping up beautifully.
Akobian vs Naroditsky was an intense battle between the experienced veteran and another youngster with great potential. Akobian was surprised early on by Naroditsky's preparation, and black equalized quickly out of the opening. With confident play, black started to make the better moves, and soon found himself in a winning endgame.
The players fought a long battle but it was Naroditsky who kept his composure until the end and managed to terminate his opponent. A great moral booster for the Stanford student, who is now in shape and ready to make a statement in this year's championship.
U.S. Women’s Championship
Abrahamyan vs Krush was one of the two big battles in the women's section. Tatev has been a constant force in the championship for the past years, and Irina is a player that needs no introduction. Despite last year's poor performance, the 8 time U.S. Women's Champion is still regarded as the main favorite for winning it all. Irina surprised Tatev early on when she decided to abstain from her usual Sicilian response and play an obscure variation of the Caro Kann.
Her decision was clearly inspired, as Tatev started burning time and never really understood her plan entirely. Irina played sensible moves and her strategic advantage piled up quickly. The game transitioned into a Queen & Knight (Irina) vs Queen & Bishop (Tatev) endgame. The collaboration between the Queen and the Knight is well respected, and black soon started creating very unpleasant threats against her opponent’s king. The conversion was only a matter of technique and Irina never let go of her advantage. A great game by Irina, and a cold shower for Tatev, who now has to gather all her strength and bounce back quickly if she wants to stay within striking distance of the leaders.
Paikidze vs Zatonskih was without a doubt the game of the round! The 7 hour thriller kept everybody on the edge of their seats until neither player, nor the commentators or the audience, had a single ounce of energy left. The start of the game saw an almost hypnotized Zatonskih falling behind an hour (1) on the clock in the first 10 moves, and it seemed like Nazi would extend her lead without much difficulty.
She had the better position, the clock advantage, and Zatonskih seemed like she did not have a good night's sleep. But, soon after things started to change. Anna started playing the best moves in order to equalize, and just when the game looked as if it would peter into a draw, Nazi made a huge blunder (27.Nxa7??) that threw her into a lost abyss. But time trouble was already there, and Irina didn't manage to find her way and finish the game before the time control. Instead, she allowed Nazi to survive the attack and transition into a losing endgame. With precise play Anna could have won the endgame easily, and it surely looked that way until a horrible blunder (78...Ke3??) allowed Nazi to sacrifice her knight for the two remaining pawns and enter a Rook + Bishop vs Rook endgame, which is a technical draw.
Nazi defended brilliantly all the way until the 120th move (10 moves before the 50 move rule would have ended the game in a draw) when she made a huge mistake with 122.Ra8??.
This opened the path for a forced win, and with Swiss precision and one last gram of energy, Anna forced Nazi to resign at move 129, one move before Nazi could claim the draw!
The third day of the championship was a bloody and dramatic day, and the title hunt in both sections has officially been fired up! Can't wait for tomorrow's battles!