18 Apr

The Rivals

The US Chess Championship has thrown up more than its fair share of compelling rivalries over the years. The great competition in US chess at the beginning of the 20th century pitted Frank Marshall against Harry Nelson Pillsbury.  And if it is vitriol and physically coming to blows you are after, then look no further than the bitter rivalries that arose in the 1930s between the feisty Sammy Reshevsky and Reueben Fine and in the 1950s between Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer.


And today’s great American rivalry in the arena of the US Championship now pits returning star Fabiano Capuana, 23, who was Miami-born and Brooklyn-raised, but played for Italy for almost a decade, against current reigning US Champion Hikaru Nakamura, 28.

Databases indicate their first game was in 2004 at the Manhattan’s Marshall Chess Club. Since then, they’ve met over the board more than 30 times, with Nakamura having the better record. But the pendulum is now firmly swung over to the younger Caruana, who is now seen as being the only realistic chance of becoming the first American since Bobby Fischer to contest for the world crown.

Caruana’s bravado performance at the recent Moscow Candidates Tournament showed he’s the one in the ascendancy and Nakamura, with his poor performance and advancing age, to be the one on the wane. And remarkably, as the two sat down to play each other in round four of the 2016 US Championship at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, this was the first time these two rivals had met in a US Championship clash.


The win for Caruana not only makes him the big favourite to capture his first US title on his debut, but also at the same time allowed him to leapfrog Russian. ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik to become the new world No.2 behind World Champion Magnus Carlsen on the unofficial live rating list.

Photo © | Spectrum Studios (for US Championship)

This is the eighth year now that the US Championship is being held at Rex Sinquefield’s CCSCSL. There’s also one of the best and slickest productions in online chess coverage of a major event available, with daily live commentary being spearheaded by their established team of GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice “Madden” Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade. You can follow the action live each round at www.uschesschamps.com. Play starts daily at 1pm local time.


1. GM Fabiano Caruana 3.5/4; 2-3. GM Wesley So, GM Ray Robson 3; 4. GM Sam Shankland 2.5; 5-7. GM Jeffrey Xiong, GM Alexander Onischuk, GM Hikaru Nakamura 2; 8-9. GM Gata Kamsky, GM Alexander Shabalov 1.5; 10-12. GM Varuzhan Akobian, GM Aleksander Lenderman and IM Akshat Chandra 1.

GM Fabiano Caruana - GM Hikaru Nakamura
US Championship, (4)
Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f3 e6 7.Be3 h5 8.a4 Nc6 9.Bc4 Move 9 in a mainline Sicilian, and already we are in unchartered waters with a sort of ersatz Sozin with the addition on each side of the extra moves of a4 and h5. But who can make the use of the extra moves? 9...Qc7 10.Qe2 Be7 11.0-0 Ne5 [Also an option was 11...Na5 - but Nakamura was probably fearful that Caruana would simply play 12.Bd3 and following up with Nb3. At least from e5, the knight is occupying a central outpost and stops the idea of White preserving the bishop with Bd3. 12.Bb3 Bd7 13.f4 Moving the f-pawn twice in the opening looks like a panic measure for Caruana - but the facts dictate this was his best chance, as he couldn't allow Nakamura to achieve instant equality by playing ...Rc8 and ...Nc4 with an easy game. Drastic measures are now needed, and kudos to Caruana for being brave enough to immediately make the correct strategy switch. 13...Neg4 14.Kh1 Nxe3 15.Qxe3 Qc5! A good, thematic Sicilian move - Nakamura pins the knight and queen as he activates his queen on the dark-squares. 16.Rad1 g6?! This not only loooks wrong but is wrong. If Sicilian gurus Fischer and Kasparov taught us anything, it was that you have to play energetically with Black in the Sicilian, and you need to go with the cut an thrust of it. Instead, the engines were asking for 16...0-0-0 to protect the king, connect the rooks and defend the bishop on d7 (there could be discovered attacks down the d-file after ideas from White of e5). But the human instinct was also asking for the sharp - and somewhat forcing - continuation of 16...Ng4!? 17.Qd3 Bf6 (The safer option is 17...Rd8 18.h3 Nf6 19.Rfe1 0-0 20.Qf3! Where White, with more space, has a slight edge.) 18.e5! dxe5 19.Nxe6! Bxe6 20.Bxe6 It's complicated and double-edged, but as typical in such sharp variations in the Sicilian, it often leads to a mass exchange of pieces and an easing of the pressure. 20...Rd8 21.Bd7+ Kf8 22.Qf3 Qc7 23.Bf5 (No better is 23.Bxg4 hxg4 24.Rxd8+ Bxd8! 25.Qxg4 Rh4! And again, when the dust settles, the game is petering out to a draw. 26.Qe2 Rxf4) 23...exf4 24.Nd5 Qe5! 25.Nxf6 Rxd1 26.Rxd1 Nxf6 27.Qxb7 Qxf5 28.Rd8+ Ne8 29.Qb4+ Kg8 30.Rxe8+ Kh7 31.Qe4 Qxe4 32.Rxe4 Rd8 33.Kg1 Rd2 34.Rc4 and a draw soon coming. 17.Qe2! 0-0-0 18.f5! The ersatz Sozin bishop now comes to life with the b3-f7 diagonal opening up. 18...e5 19.Nf3 gxf5 20.Ng5 f4 Nakamura's only chance to stay in the game. A wrong move now, and he's a goner as all of White's minor pieces will suddenly spring to life. 21.Rd3! Not only getting the rook out of the threatened ...Bg4 pin, but also threatening Nd5 and Rc3. 21...Kb8 Yes, the Rc3 threat is also spooking Nakamura - but can he generate enough compensation now for the loss of material? 22.Nxf7 h4 23.Nxh8 Rxh8 24.Qf2 Qb4? [A bad blunder in a difficult position.  Instead, 24...Qa5! would have offered greater resistance for Black, as now 25.Nd5 isn't an option because of: 25...Nxe4! 26.Qb6 (26.Qe2?? Ng3+! 27.hxg3 hxg3+ 28.Kg1 Qd8! and White is going to get mated) 26...Bd8! winning. Instead, White would have to play 25.Qe1 and it looks as if Black could well have enough compensation to save the game. The error of going to b4 soon rebounds on Nakamura. 25.Nd5! (See Diagram) 25...Nxd5 26.Bxd5 Bxa4 Bad, but at least it stops the big White threat of Rb3 for now. 27.Ra3! But now Caruana finds this, threatening simply c3 and b3 winning the bishop.  Nakamura is busted. 27...h3 28.c3 Qb5 29.b3 Bh4 30.bxa4 Qd3 31.g3 1-0 Caruana is simply a whole rook to the better here, so no surprises then that Nakamura resigns.

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