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    Monday
    Apr182016

    U.S. Championship, Rounds 3 & 4: Lots of Draws, But Caruana Beats Nakamura to Take the Lead

    In round 3 four of the six games were drawn, and in round 4 it was five of six. The two wins in round 3 saw two of the tailenders lose, both with Black: Varuzhan Akobian to Sam Shankland, and Aleks Lenderman to Alexander Onischuk. Atop the standings it was all draws: Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana drew a 92-mover that never got out of control for either player, while Ray Robson did have some difficulties before securing a draw against Jeffery Xiong.

    That left So, Caruana, and Robson tied for first with 2.5/3, half a point ahead of Hikaru Nakamura, who was unable to defeat bottom seed Akshat Chandra with the white pieces - Chandra simply played very well. The sixth game of the round was a short draw between Alexander Shabalov and Gata Kamsky.

    Round 4 was a drawfest. Shankland-So was a very easy hold for So, and Robson also had no trouble against Akobian thanks to good preparation. Or at least, no trouble until near the end. Robson wanted to push a bit and rejected a repetition, but maybe 35.Nxa6 Rxa3 36.Nc5 Rf3 37.Nd7!! (hoping to play Be4-c6xb5) would give some winning chances. (The knight is immune on account of 38.Bh7+ followed by 39.g8Q#.)

    Onischuk defanged Kamsky's London System for a quick draw, and Lenderman-Xiong also barely made it past move 30. Chandra-Shabalov had a good deal more fight in it, and Chandra was pressing throughout.

    The game of the round, and the game of the tournament so far in terms of its importance for the standings, was Caruana-Nakamura. This was one of the oddest Najdorfs I've seen, going 6.f3 e6 7.Be3 h5 (this is more normal in the ...e5 lines, but it's known here too) 8.a4 (this stops ...b5, of course, but White normally plays Qd2, castles queenside, and tries to whip up an attack on the other side of the board) 8...Nc6 (not a normal "Najdorf" move, but with a4 having been played it makes sense here) 9.Bc4 (a new move in an already rare position), and on it went from there. It's hard to assess such a non-standard variation, but it seems that things only got out of hand for Nakamura after he played 21...Kb8 and more especially 24...Qb4. At one time Caruana had a terrible record with White against the Najdorf Sicilian, and maybe that was part of what motivated Nakamura to give it a shot. If so, it was a misassessment: Caruana seemed very at home in the complications, winning quickly and relatively easily.

    With the win, Caruana moved into clear first in the tournament with 3.5/4, and also moved into second on the live rating list, passing Vladimir Kramnik's 2801 with his 2805.3. Robson and So are half a point behind going into round 5, the last round before the rest day. Here are the pairings:

    • Shabalov (1.5) - Caruana (3.5)
    • So (3) - Akobian (1)
    • Robson (3) - Lenderman (1)
    • Nakamura (2) - Shankland (2.5)
    • Xiong (2) - Kamsky (1.5)
    • Onischuk (2) - Chandra (1)

    Friday
    Apr152016

    U.S. Championship, Round 2: Caruana, So, and Robson Lead with 2/2

    A little stratification took place in round 2 of the U.S. Championship, but not much. Two of the Big Three won, and the honorary fourth won as well while the third member of the triumvirate drew comfortably with Black against a strong rival to keep within half a point. To elaborate...

    Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So won again to stay perfect. Caruana may not have achieved much on the white side of a Winawer French against Sam Shankland, but when the latter opened the queenside with 22...b4 it turned out that Caruana benefited from the open lines. Eventually Black was tied hand and foot, and when the White knight and king sauntered to the queenside Black had to give up. So won with Black against Akshat Chandra, and while it was the logical result overall there was one gigantic "oops!" moment that could have turned everything around. So's 32...Rh1 worked out for him in the end, but it was a blunder. With 33.Rxe6+! fxe6 34.Qxe6+ Kf8 35.Rd3 White's attack would give him a winning material advantage - at least. Chandra missed his chance, and So finished him off in style.

    The third winner, who is also at 2-0, is Ray Robson. Robson won with surprising ease and speed on the white side of a London System, an opening not generally associated with speedy knockouts. When asked after his round 1 victory if the Big Three were indeed the favorites, Hikaru Nakamura agreed, but made a proviso that an on-form Robson could contend as well. So far, he is on form and is contending.

    As for Nakamura himself, he was also involved in a London System, but with the black pieces against Gata Kamsky. Nakamura was well-prepared (as he should be, given Kamsky frequent adoption of the LS), and the game was already a dead draw by the time the 30-move deadline was reached.

    Varuzhan Akobian and Jeffery Xiong didn't even make it to move 30, having repeated moves enough to call it a day after just 27 moves. Finally, Aleks Lenderman and Alex Shabalov drew a wild game, with both sides missing wins along the way.

    Here are the round 3 pairings:

    • So (2) - Caruana (2) (The first meeting of the triumvirate)
    • Xiong (1) - Robson (2)
    • Nakamura (1.5) - Chandra (0)
    • Shankland (1) - Akobian (.5)
    • Shabalov (.5) - Kamsky (.5)
    • Onischuk (.5) - Lenderman (.5)

    Friday
    Apr152016

    This Week's World Chess Column: A Fine Mess in the U.S. Championship

    In this week's World Chess column, I take a look back at the strange case of Reuben Fine and the U.S. Championship. Although Fine was a top ten, maybe even top five player in the world from 1936 to 1944, when he participated in four U.S. Championship tournaments, he didn't manage to win even once. For more, see the column!

    Friday
    Apr152016

    U.S. Championship, Round 1: Favorites Win En Masse

    The 2016 U.S. Championship got off to a rousing start as five of the six games finished with a winner. In every case it was the favorite who won, with the Big Three (Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So) finishing first and the alliteratively named Ray Robson and Sam Shankland rounding things off. Only the Alexander Onischuk - Jeffery Xiong game finished in a draw.

    So's win over Gata Kamsky was brutal and short. So set up an interesting piece sac against the Breyer, and Kamsky either greatly underestimated the danger or missed a tactical point or two along the way. (21...Nh7 had to be played, chasing the knight from h4. White could still put a knight on f5, but it wouldn't be as damaging as in the game.) Whatever the story, the game was over in just 28 moves.

    Nakamura won impressively on the white side of a 5.g3 Semi-Slav against Aleks Lenderman, who succumbed to White's pressure all across the board. As for Caruana, his win over Varuzhan Akobian was equally impressive. Akobian tried to surprise Caruana with 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6, and he probably succeeded. What he didn't succeed in doing was obtaining an advantage, equality, or even a tolerable position out of the opening. White enjoyed a huge initiative when he played 14.f4 and 15.f5, and although Black slowed it down for a while at the cost of a pawn the second wave proved fatal.

    Robson's win with Black against Alex Shabalov was the only Black win of the round. Robson came out of the opening in good shape, but both players thought White had solved his problems after 20.Qa1. Robson realized his original intention, 20...Ne2+ 21.Kh1 c3, didn't work due to 22.Ra2!, and after a search born almost of desperation he found the attractive 20...Bc1!, keeping an advantage. White's position remained tenable for a long time until just after the time control, when Shabalov blundered with 42.Ne8. Shabalov is a very imaginative player and a great tactician, so it is surprising that he missed Robson's reply: 42...Ne2! It is a nice blow, and the point is that after 43.Rxc7 Ng1+ 44.Kh4 Black doesn't play 44...Rxh2+ but 44...Nf3+!, pulling the king back so that 45.Kh3 Rxh2 is mate.

    In the final decisive game, Shankland defeated Akshat Chandra in a long, tough game. Black was under pressure but surviving for a long time, but Shankland finally won a race in a rook ending with majorities on opposite flanks.

    Finally, Onischuk pressed Xiong, but his extra pawn wasn't enough to win the rook ending.

    Round 2 starts in about half an hour, with the following pairings:

    • Caruana (1) - Shankland (1)
    • Kamsky (0) - Nakamura (1)
    • Chandra (0) - So (1)
    • Robson (1) - Onischuk (.5)
    • Akobian (0) - Xiong (.5)
    • Lenderman (0) - Shabalov (0)

    Thursday
    Apr142016

    U.S. Championships Start Today!

    At 1 p.m. local time in St. Louis (= 2 p.m. ET) the U.S. Championships get underway in St. Louis. Both the Championship and the Women's event are 12 player round robins finishing April 25 - April 26 in case of a playoff, and don't forget that after the event, on the 28th and 29th, there will be a blitz event that might include the big three (Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, and Wesley So) and definitely includes none other than Garry Kasparov. (I hope for his sake he has been training hard.)

    The Championship is incredibly strong, with three players in the top 10 (the aforementioned Mssrs. Caruana, Nakamura, and So), and the second tier of Gata Kamsky, Alexander Onischuk, Ray Robson, and Sam Shankland isn't exactly chopped liver. On the Women's side, it looks likely to be another battle to the death between Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, who between them have won the last 10 women's championships. Krush has won the last four, but they've almost always come down to the wire and Zatonskih is the very slightly higher-rated player.

    Here are the first round pairings for the main event: 

    • Fabiano Caruana (2795) - Varuzhan Akobian (2615)
    • Sam Shankland (2656) - Akshat Chandra (2477)
    • Wesley So (2773) - Gata Kamsky (2678)
    • Hikaru Nakamura (2787) - Aleksandr Lenderman (2618)
    • Alexander Shabalov (2528) - Ray Robson (2663)
    • Alexander Onischuk (2664) - Jeffery Xiong (2618) 

    It's a good time to be a fan of U.S. chess! Tournament predictions? Nakamura is the defending champion, and he and Gata Kamsky have won the last seven between them. So only started playing in the U.S. Championship last year and Caruana is a rookie, so the Nakamura-Kamsky streak isn't as relevant as it would otherwise be. My prediction is that Nakamura will win.

    Monday
    Apr112016

    Svidler Interview

    Here's an interview with Peter Svidler. It's not bad, but a good part of the fun is seeing the link to a 1989 video where you can see him and Kramnik as very young teenagers.

    Saturday
    Apr092016

    Another Karjakin Interview

    Here. The headline is "I am not afraid of Magnus!", but that doesn't even rise to the level of "dog bites man". Even if the mere thought of Magnus Carlsen caused him to break into a cold sweat, he's not going to say that he's intimidated in any way. Moreover, while the headline makes it sound as if Karjakin was making a bold proclamation, laying down the psychological gauntlet, the fact is that he said it only after about 27 questions about Carlsen culminating in an assertion from someone else (Daniil Dubov) that he - Karjakin - wasn't afraid of Carlsen. Karjakin simply agreed, without an exclamation point.

    Instead, the really juicy bit, though it's only a possibility and not a settled fact, is that Vladimir Kramnik might end on Karjakin's team. If it happens, that would be a huge boon for Karjakin. Kramnik is on the short list of the world's best-prepared players, and his experience would be invaluable to Karjakin as well. The battles between Kramnik and Carlsen over the years have been good ones, so while a match between the two would have been best a proxy war of sorts wouldn't be a bad substitute. It hasn't happened yet, though, and I suspect that even if it does we won't hear about it until after match, and even then maybe not unless Karjakin wins it.

    Saturday
    Apr092016

    British Chess Magazine, a la the Informant

    This is likeliest to be of interest to my readers in the U.K., but as the British Chess Magazine (BCM) is also available in a download version a broader audience might find it interesting as well. The Informant people have entered into a partnership with the hoary BCM (it goes back to 1881), and the result looks good.

    I received the January 2016 issue, and from a physical standpoint it reminds me of New In Chess before they went to the large pages. The BCM issue is slim - only 66 pages (68 pages if one counts the front and back covers) and the pages are approximately 9" x 6.5". A little small, but the glossy pages and full color throughout create an attractive layout.

    More importantly, the content is excellent - it's a serious chess magazine. The issue centers on the London Chess Classic (LCC) and the associated events, and while there is plenty of text there is very little fluff. GM Luke McShane looks at Magnus Carlsen's path to victory in the LCC, while GM Pentala Harikrishna examines Anish Giri's and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's performances in the same event. (Recall that they tied for first with Carlsen, pre-playoff.) GM Karsten Mueller looks at two Berlin "endgames" from the tournament, after which GM Stuart Conquest offers some general thoughts about the Berlin. (His short article concludes, somewhat incongruously, with a mate in two problem.)

    Moving from the top of the field to the bottom, IM Andrew Martin looks at a couple of losses suffered by tailender Veselin Topalov, and young IM Yang-Fan Zhou surveys the openings from the LCC.

    From there it's on to other UK events. GM David Howell won the British Knockout Champoinship, and he analyzes one win from each of his matches - the semi-final vs. Gawain Jones and the final vs. Nicholas Pert. GM Pert in turn analyzes one of his wins from his semi-final match against Jonathan Hawkins. GM David Smerdon looks at Benjamin Bok's last round victory in the LCC FIDE Open against Alex Lenderman. Had Lenderman won, he'd have taken clear first; instead it was Bok who won the game and tournament victory.

    Nine tactical puzzles follow, and then there's a mini-report on the London Super Rapidplay, won by McShane with 9.5/10. From the same tournament, GM Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant shows her win over Jon Ludwig Hammer. After that are a couple of reports on talented youngsters in the UK, and then a fun article by Informant CEO (and new BCM co-editor) and FM Josip Asik writing about his victory with Hikaru Nakamura in the Pro-Biz Cup after the LCC, defeating teams with Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, and Michael Adams.

    Stylistically and in its content it looks quite good. It isn't designed for novice players, but I think that's probably a good thing. The disparity in strength between entry-level tournament players and strong club players/weak professional makes it very difficult for a magazine to cater to everyone, and BCM doesn't try to. I'd estimate the intended audience as 1800-1900 and up, with persevering types a little lower-rated (but not much!) able to get something if they go through the games carefully. With that caveat, I recommend it to British readers, and readers elsewhere might want to snoop on the magazine as well.

    Friday
    Apr082016

    Informant 127: The 50th Anniversary

    Every year in our lifetimes will be the 50th anniversary of something or other. This year, 2016, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the "Star Trek" franchise, for example, and while the 50th Super Bowl takes place next year the 50th Super Bowl season begins this fall. Former FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman turned 50 in January, and there are some lesser known players who also reach the half-century mark this year. Tigran Petrosian successfully defended his world championship title against Boris Spassky back in 1966, and last but not least, it is also the golden anniversary of the Chess Informant.

    The latest issue is #127 - not exactly a nice, round number - and it exemplifies the blend of traditional Informant sections with newer material. To their credit, the editorial staff is willing to experiment and take risks in each issue, trying to improve it rather than resting on their laurels. Not every issue is as good as its immediate predecessor, but the general trend has been an upward one for some years now, and will likely continue in the right direction.

    Here's a synopsis of the contents of the present issue. First, the core elements are in place: 200 deeply languagelessly annotated games, nine combinations for solving and another nine endgames for solving (unfortunately, the solutions are given on the opposite page rather than overleaf; the publishers should waste a page if necessary to avoid the possibility of readers accidentally or semi-accidentally spotting the solutions). These are all taken from the period covered in the issue, which in this case is from November 2015-February 2016. The issue also begins, as usual, with the winner of the best game and best novelty prizes from the previous volume.

    Those features go back a very long time. More recent but still well-established features are a series of nine studies for solving along with GM Mihail Marin's "Old Wine in New Bottles" column. (This month he looks at the ability of the world's best players, well before Magnus Carlsen was a gleam in his parents' eyes - or in one case before his parents even existed - to persevere to the end, trying to wring out every chance to win a game.)

    Other recurring columnists are Pentala Harikrishna ("The New Romantics"), Emanuel Berg ("Mirroring"), and Karsten Mueller ("Endgame Strategy"). Harikrishna looks a pair of complicated games, one of which remained tense throughout while the other exploded into fireworks; Berg looks at a pair of games in the Portisch/Hook Variation of the Winawer (with ...Qa5-a4), one won by each side; and Mueller investigates 11 endgames from the London Chess Classic.

    Unfortunately, Alexander Morozevich did not write a column for this issue, but among the new columnists Sergei Rublevsky and Ivan Sokolov are strong players and fine analysts in their own right - though not of "Moro's" caliber. (Bring Moro back if you can, guys.) Rublevsky, a Candidate in 2007, writes about 4...Bb4+ against his beloved Scotch, and doesn't think White has much to worry about in that direction. Sokolov writes about the major open tournaments in Qatar and Gibraltar. It should be noted that tournament reports are a common feature in the newest issues of the Informant, giving the periodical a bit of a magazine-like flavor.

    Along those lines, GM Aleksandar Colovic (I'll henceforth scrap the "GM", as all the articles are by grandmasters) writes about the quasi-rapid/quasi-classical tournament in Zurich (won by Hikaru Nakamura) while S. P. Sethuraman and Basssem Amin take a last look or two at the World Cup.

    One final column, before turning to those devoted exclusively to opening theory, is Dragan Solak's article on the king. Rather than uncritically embracing the conventional wisdom about king safety, he notes and informally categorizes different sorts of kings (the "ghost" king, the "chicken" king, the "explorer" king, and so on). The idea is that the king can often take care of itself and occasionally achieve offensive aims, even in situations where one wouldn't expect it.

    Turning to the openings, Vassilios Kotronias's 80-part series on the 2.c3 Sicilian ended in the last issue, and he's probably in a sanatorium somewhere recovering his strength. (Like Morozevich, I hope he will be compelled to return to work very soon!) This time around, there are four articles. Aleksander Delchev writes on the "Snake English" (if you hadn't come across that label before, it applies to 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Nb6 6.e3), Spyridon Kapnisis writes on the Scandinavian (more specifically, the line beginning 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nf3 Bg4 4.Be2 Nc6 5.d4 0-0-0 6.Be3), Milos Pavlovic writes on the main line Marshall (from its beginning[!], after 11.Rxe5 c6), and Aleksandr Mista explores the 5.Qb3 Gruenfeld (more specifically: 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4 Nc6 8.Be2 e5 9.d5 Nd4 10.Nxd4 exd4 11.Qxd4 c6).

    As usual, I recommend it to any and all serious players rated 2000 and up, and wouldn't want to discourage players who are somewhat lower-rated and willing to work from picking up a copy. Below 1800, though, it's probably too tough to be worth it. As usual, I like what I've seen so far, but do think that the issue would be improved by keeping at least one super-GM involved (they had Kasparov for a time and then Morozevich). It would probably help sales, but more than that, it's great to see how a really top player thinks about the game when he's willing to really dig deep and say something substantive to the general public.

    One other, very minor criticism: the cover art looks like a propaganda poster from the bad old Soviet Union (or worse). Hopefully the proud, buff standard bearer won't remain there throughout this, their jubilee year!

    More, including ordering information, here (print/CD) and here (download).

    Friday
    Apr082016

    This Week's World Chess Column: The Resilience of Karjakin and Khalifman

    As those who have watched my various video lecture series over the years are probably aware, I'm a fan not just of what's new in chess, but of the game's history as well. So in my column this week I make reference to Sergey Karjakin's gritty performance in last year's World Cup - without which he wouldn't have made it to the Candidates and a World Championship match with Magnus Carlsen - and use that as a springboard to remember Alexander Khalifman's amazing run to the FIDE (knockout) World Championship title in 1999.