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23 Apr

Rest & Catch Up

The fourth round of the Altibox Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger produced they only round so far with no decisive games, with all five games turning out to be draws - all of which means it was as you were in the standings before the round started, with World Champion Magnus Carlsen still in the sole lead on 3/4, a half point ahead of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Vladimir Kramnik. 

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The World Champion’s opponent, Li Chao of China, went it the game with a headache but found the ideal way to neutralise a symmetrical position down into an easy draw, for more or less an additional rest day before the official first rest day on Saturday. The rest of the field then followed suit; the only player though who really pressed hard for a win being Pentala Harikrishna who faced tail-ender Nils Grandelius, only for the Indian No.2 to find the super tournament newbie to be a very resourceful player.

Round 4
Grandelius draw Harikrishna
Giri draw Aronian
Eljanov draw Topalov
Li Chao draw Carlsen
Vachier-Lagrave draw Kramnik

Standings
1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 3/4; 2-3. Vachier-Lagrave (France), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) 2.5; 4-7. Li Chao (China), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 2; 8-9. Pavel Eljanov (Ukraine), Pentala Harikrishna (India) 1.5; 10. Nils Grandelius (Sweden) 1.

So with not much to report on today from Stavanger, we once again cross the Atlantic to play catch-up with the 2016 US Championship in St Louis, as the top four American players now head into the weekend home stretch in what could well become a tight finish for the title.

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A brace of wins from Hikaru Nakamura put the defending champion right back in contention for the title again following his poor start, as front-runner Fabiano Caruana was held back from extending his lead at the top with two draws. Now going into the final three rounds, Wesley So and Caruana are in the joint lead on 6/8, a half point ahead of Nakamura and Ray Robson.

Photo © | Spectrum Studios (for US Championship)

Standings

1-2. Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So 6/8; 3-4. Ray Robson, Hikaru Nakamura 5.5; 5-6. Alexander Onischuk, Jeffrey Xiong 4.5; 7. Aleksandr Lenderman 3.5; 8-10. Alexander Shabalov, Sam Shankland, Gata Kamsky 3; 11. Varuzhan Akobian 2; 12. Akshat Chandra 1.5

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 IM Jennifer Shahade. You can follow the action live for the dramatic final rounds at www.uschesschamps.com. Play starts daily at 1pm local time.

GM Hikaru Nakamura - GM Varuzhan Akobian
US Championship, (7)
Petroff’s Defence
1.e4 e5 Akobian sidesteps his favourite French Defence, no doubt fearing some big hit in a well-prepared line from Nakamura. However, little did he know he was about to walk into a big minefield. 2.Nf3 Nf6 Before the revival of the Berlin 'Wall' Defence during the Kramnik-Kasparov World Championship match in London in 2000, the Petroff's Defence was the dreaded drawing system Black player's would adopt to thwart aggressive opponents - and it was the chess equivalent of watching paint dry, as I sat through many pre-Berlin super-tournament press rooms in Wijk aan Zee and Linares during the second half of the 1990s. Nowadays, the Petroff is more akin to a Sicilian Najdorf compared to the Berlin! 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Be7 7.0-0 Nc6 8.c4 Nb4 9.Be2 0-0 10.Nc3 Bf5 11.a3 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Nc6 13.Re1 Re8 It's almost as if we were back to circa late 1990s here - this is a well-known and tested variation in the Petroff up to this point. 14.Ra2!? It turns out this rarity was analysed in-depth by Nakamura and Sam Shankland during the 2014 Tromsø Olympiad. And indeed, there was much hilarity as Shankland followed Nakamura into the 'confessional box' in the playing hall. According to Nakamura, in his confessional, Akobian had walked into a 'bomb' he'd analysed with Shankland. But according to Shankland, with a big wink, he claimed that Nakamura had stolen all his analysis! 14...Na5 15.cxd5 Qxd5 16.Rb2 c6 Apparently the best reply here. In Shankland-Robson US Championship 2014, Robson played 16...a6 17.Ne5 Bxa3 18.Bf3 Qd6 19.Rbe2 Bxc1 20.Qxc1 Nc6 21.Qb2 Nxe5 22.Rxe5 Rxe5 23.Rxe5 and White had the better game, though the game was drawn in 30 moves. However, instead of 19.Rbe2, it is claimed that 19.Ra2!? might well yield better prospects for White. 17.Ne5! Occupying e5 with the knight has to be the most problematic move for Black to face in this awkward position. Alternatively, 17.Qa4 Qd8 18.c4 Bf6 19.Be3 b6 worked out well for Black (who went on to win in 52 moves) in Kasimdzhanov-Gelfand, Elista 2007. 17...Bxa3 18.Bf3 Qd6 19.Rbe2 Bxc1 20.Qxc1 Be6 The immediate 20...f6? is hit by 21.Nc4! winning - hence Akobian's 20...Be6. 21.Be4 Rad8?! This seems to me to be the critical position here. Akobian opts to centralize his rooks, perhaps fearful that 21...f6 may fall into some devilish attack from Nakamura. However, this may well be best here, as the knight on e5 becomes a powerful a piece from its dominant outpost. So the question has to be asked: What does White really have here after 21...f6? Not all that much, except for perhaps 'ghosts': 21...f6 22.Qb1 (If the knight retreats, then 22.Nf3 Bf7 forces a mass exchange of rooks on the e-file, and Black has the extra pawn in the ending.) 22...fxe5 23.Bxh7+ Kf8 (This seems to be the best option if Black wants to hold on to any material advantage, as after 23...Kh8 24.Bg6 Nc4 25.Bxe8 Rxe8 26.Qxb7 Bd5 27.dxe5 Qe6 28.f4 a5 29.Rf2! White threatens the pawn push f5 to gain space on the kingside - but long-term, Black's passed a-pawn is going to be a headache to deal with.) 24.dxe5 Qc5 25.Bg6 Kg8 and I can't see what White has here, save for a fight for a draw. 22.Qb1! Now Black can never remove the dominant knight from its superb e5 outpost - and this is the cause of Akobian's downfall. 22...g6 23.f4 c5 Akobian tries to undermine e5. 24.f5 cxd4? Many were critical of this move from Akobian - but perhaps he's already beyond the point of no return after failing to respond properly by immediately kicking Nakamura's knight from e5? Probably he realised that the alternative wasn't all that much better for him, as after: 24...Bb3 Nakamura has the prospects of a big kingside assault looming after: 25.Bd3! Qc7 (If 25...Rf8? Trying to avoid the awkward Nc4! runs into: 26.fxg6 hxg6 27.Re3! with Rg3 coming and a winning attack on Black's king.) 26.Qc1! with the queen heading to h6 with a winning attack. Hmmm...you can imagine what was probably going through Akobian's mind when he suddenly realised what Nakamura was up to. 25.fxe6 Rxe6 26.Nxf7! (See Diagram) Devastating. Akobian was by now probably kicking himself for not having the courage to kick the knight from e5 earlier with 21...f6. 26...Kxf7 27.Bd5 Even more clinical was 27.Qa2! - but Nakamura's move wins just as quickly. 27...Qxd5 28.Rxe6 dxc3 29.R6e5 Qd4+ 30.Kh1 b6 Of course, if it wasn't for the perilous state of Akobian's king - now wandering in the wilderness on f7 - then he would have more than enough material to win the ending. But the prospects of an ending is nothing more than just a wild fantasy here. 31.Qa2+ Kg7 32.Re7+ Kh6 33.Qf7 Nc4 There's no defence. If 33...Rh8 34.Rd7 removes the Black queen from the defence of the important g7 square, and mate comes quickly now. 34...Qc4 35.Qg7+ Kg5 36.Re5+ Kg4 37.Qf6 and mate can't be stopped. 34.Qxh7+ Kg5 35.R7e6 Qd3 36.h4+ Kf4 37.Qh6+ 1-0

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