With seven of 11 rounds in the books, the 2016 Chinese Championship (English language coverage here) is looking like a walk in the park for 16-year-old Wei Yi, whose score of 5.5 points puts him a point and a half clear of his closest pursuers, Zhou Weiqi and Xu Jun. He has been following the old Soviet advice to win with White and draw with Black to perfection: four wins in four white games and three draws in the three black games. I've already annotated his wins from rounds 1, 3, and 5 in my World Chess column this week, and may offer an annotated update to the championship in the next column. Meanwhile, you can check out his win in round 7 over here. One final note: with this latest win Wei Yi has returned to the 2700 club, perhaps without having ever officially fallen out of it.
My column for the World Chess site this week examines some highlights of the first five rounds of the ongoing Chinese Championship, starring Wei Yi. At that point he already led by a full point with 4/5, winning all three of his games with White (all of which are commented in the article) and drawing both efforts with Black. I also take a look at three other interesting games from that event, so there's plenty of entertainment to supplement what's going on in Norway and in the U.S. Championships.
For those curious about one of the United States' top young talents, IM Akshat Chandra has a blog called Quest to GM that's worth checking out. Catch it today; if he upsets Fabiano Caruana tomorrow the surge of interest might crash the server.
Finally, in case the U.S. Championship and Norway Chess aren't enough, the Chinese Championship is also underway. It is the weakest it has been in years, lacking a single 2700 (though former and surely soon to be future 2700 Wei Yi is participating as the top seed) - no Ding Liren, Li Chao, Yu Yangyi, Wang Hao, Wang Yue, or Bu Xiangzhi.
(TWIC coverage here, for those who can't read Chinese and don't want to bother with online translation tools.)
The current trend of starting super-tournaments with blitz events used to determine the pairings is a very good one, and I hope it sticks around. It makes merit rather than luck the basis of color distribution, and it's also a treat for the spectators. (It probably helps the players warm up a bit too.)
On Monday, the Norway Chess super-tournament had their blitz event, and Magnus Carlsen was a runaway train up until the final round. He started with 7.5/8, only giving up a draw to bottom seed and (co-) tailender Nils Grandelius, of all people. He defeated Vladimir Kramnik, Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and all the other stars before suffering a defeat to his personal kryptonite, Anish Giri. Giri lost to Vachier-Lagrave along the way, but was otherwise undefeated and took clear second with 6.5/9. Vachier-Lagrave and Kramnik tied for third-fourth. The former lost to Carlsen and to Veselin Topalov, while Kramnik's only loss was to Carlsen (and he beat Topalov). Finally, Aronian's 50% score was good enough for fifth, making him the last player to be guaranteed an extra game with the white pieces. (Below him, Pentala Harikrishna finished with 4 points, Topalov with 3, Grandelius, Li Chao, and Pavel Eljanov with 2.5.)
Here, then, are the pairings for round 1:
- Kramnik - Grandelius
- Carlsen - Harikrishna
- Vachier-Lagrave - Li Chao
- Giri - Eljanov
- Aronian - Topalov
Round 5 was another bloodthirsty day, with four decisive games out of six - and it should have been five out of six.
Wesley So won with great ease against Varuzhan Akobian on the white side of a Rubinstein French. Black played too passively, and while his position was already unpleasant Akobian's 15...Bc6 followed by 16...Bd5 and 17...Bxg2 was suicidal. The finish was brutal: So sacrificed a knight and a rook to obtain an attack that would lead to mate or a full extra queen, so Akobian resigned on his 24th move.
If Fabiano Caruana had won with Black against Alexander Shabalov, he would have maintained his half-point lead over So. Shabalov hasn't had a good tournament so far, but he stayed solid in this game and kept out of trouble, achieving a draw. The day's other draw was also important for the leading standings. Ray Robson had the white pieces against Aleks Lenderman, and a win would have put him in a three-way tie for first. He should have won, too, but somehow Lenderman managed to save the game. Robson's error in the knight-up endgame was that he was unwilling to let his king do the defensive work against White's a-pawn, believing that Black's king would draw in that case by going after White's kingside pawns. This appears to be inaccurate, while the strategy chosen in the game proved inadequate for victory.
Robson is in clear third, half a point ahead of the day's other winners (in addition to So, that is): Hikaru Nakamura, Jeffery Xiong, and Alexander Onischuk. Nakamura bounced back nicely from yesterday's loss to Caruana, defeating Sam Shankland on the white side of a Two Knights Caro-Kann that morphed into something that resembled a Classical French. Nakamura went for a kingside attack with f4-f5, and while he didn't deliver mate he won material along the way and finally trapped Shankland's knight.
Xiong defeated an out of form Gata Kamsky after the latter blundered. The game had been mostly balanced, with Kamsky having the better chances at times. The decisive moment came when Kamsky played 35...Bxf3?? after thinking for three minutes - more than enough time for even a club player to spot the problem. But everyone has their bad days, and Kamsky somehow failed to see the refutation of his line: 38.Qb2+. (It's possible that he missed that White could subsequently prevent Black from queening, after taking on d8, by playing Qc1 and Re8, but my suspicion is that he missed 38.Qb2+, which is where he resigned.)
Finally, Onischuk defeated Akshat Chandra fairly easily when the latter tried a provocative line against White's 4.Qc2 in the Nimzo-Indian. After the sad undeveloping move 17...Bc8 Chandra was lost, and Onischuk ground out the point without too much trouble.
Tuesday is a rest day, and on Wednesday comes round 6, with the following pairings:
- Akobian (1) - Lenderman (1.5)
- Kamsky (1.5) - Robson (3.5)
- Chandra (1) - Xiong (3)
- Caruana (4) - Onischuk (3)
- Shankland (2.5) - Shabalov (2)
- So (4) - Nakamura (3)
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)
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)
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!
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)