Chicago turned out to be Sam Sevian’s “kind of town,” as perhaps the great Frank Sinatra would say. The Holden, Mass. teen prodigy continued his recent hot streak by jumping on a plane for the short hop over to win the 26th Chicago Open at the Westin Chicago North Shore Hotel held over the Memorial Day weekend, as he clinched outright first place ahead of a strong field to capture the title and top prize of $10,300.
It was the second-straight tournament win for Sam, 16. Last week he was the convincing winner of the “C” group of the 2017 Spring Chess Classic in St. Louis and then flew directly to Chicago for his latest triumph. He finished undefeated, top-scoring on 7½/9 to take the title a half point ahead of nearest rivals GM Ilyia Nyzhnyk, GM Josh Friedel and IM Michael Brown.
At 13, Sam famously became the youngest U.S. player ever to become a grandmaster. And there was no looking back for the in-form teenager in Chicago, as he somewhat fortuitously moved into the lead in round six, with what turned out to be a crucial win in one of Bill Goichberg’s Continental Chess Association’s notoriously tough Swiss events, after his opponent, GM Holden Hernandez, overpressed in what was a drawish position and overlooked a winning tactic.
In our previous column, The Wonder of Awonder!, we told how Wisconsin teenager Awonder Liang won the Spring Chess Classic “B” group, and now tantalizingly close to his grandmaster title. Like Sam, Awonder also went directly to Chicago from St. Louis - and although he didn’t win, his final score of 6½/9 proved enough for a third and final norm, and he now becomes the 2nd youngest grandmaster in U.S. history behind Sam Sevian, at 14 years, 1 month, and 20 days.
GM Sam Sevian - GM Holden Hernandez
26th Chicago Open, (6)
Caro-Kann Defence, Advance variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Few lines are as assertive and aggressive as the Advance Variation of the Caro-Kann - just the thing to play if you are looking for a crucial win in a notoriously tough US Swiss Open. 3...Bf5 4.h4 h5 5.Bd3 Bxd3 6.Qxd3 e6 7.Bg5 Be7 8.Nf3 Nh6 9.Nc3 Nf5 10.Ne2 c5 11.dxc5 It looks a little strange voluntarily capturing on c5, but White will look to use the vacated d4 square later for his knight. 11...Qa5+ 12.c3 Qxc5 13.0-0 Bxg5 14.hxg5 g6 Stopping White from playing 15.g6 and 16.Nf4 attacking e6 and g6 with a good game. But Black has fallen a little behind in development, and it is not so easy to consolidate his position by castling safely. 15.b4 Qc7 16.Ned4! The d4 square makes an excellent outpost for the knight, as Black can't take on d4 because, after cxd4, White will boss the c-file with his rooks for a big advantage. 16...Nc6 17.Nxf5 gxf5 18.Rac1! Rd8 The e5-pawn is taboo, as after 18...Nxe5 19.Nxe5 Qxe5 20.Qb5+ Kf8 21.c4! Kg7 22.Rfe1 Qd6 23.cxd5 Qxd5 24.Qxd5 exd5 25.Rc7 White's rooks are going to be very active, what with marauding along the seventh rank and targeting all of Black's weak pawns. 19.Rfe1 Ne7 20.Nd4 I think Sam missed a good practical shot here with 20.c4!? dxc4 21.Rxc4 Rxd3 22.Rxc7 Rd7 23.Rec1 Nd5 24.R7c4! and again Black is in trouble, as it's not easy to develop the rook on h8 without risking the loss of the h5 pawn. But he's the one in the hot seat, so he makes the judgment call of keeping the queens on the board, as castling is still a bit of a risk for his opponent, with the h5-pawn being vulnerable and pressure down the h-file. 20...a6 21.b5 Perhaps a little wiser was 21.a4, as Black has no useful waiting moves, as castling is still a little risky here, and now he will have to come up soon with a constructive plan, most likely 21...Ng6 22.Qe3 leaving Black wondering just how he's easily going to develop the Rh8 without risking the h5-pawn or the safety of his king? 21...Qc4 22.Qd2 Sam realizes his opponent would love to exchange queens here, as then there would be less of pressure to his king and the h5-pawn. 22...Ng6 23.bxa6 bxa6 24.Rb1 0-0!? A very brave decision! Black has taken the gamble that he can now castle because, if White goes after the h5-pawn, he can play ...Rb8 and exchange a set of rooks that'll ease the pressure and less of a chance of being mated down the h-file. And not only that, he'll also have strong pressure on the c3 and a2 pawns. 25.Qd1 Rb8! 26.Qxh5 Rxb1 27.Rxb1 Qxc3 28.Nxe6 Admittedly, visually it appears as if it's a decisive blow - but looks can often be deceptive. 28...Re8! This guarantees instant equality. Of course, Black can't take the knight, as 28...fxe6? 29.Qxg6+ Kh8 30.Qh6+ Kg8 31.Qxe6+ Kh8 32.Qe7! Rc8 33.Rb3 Qc1+ 34.Kh2 Qf4+ 35.Rg3 and White has a decisive advantage. 29.Qh6 Qxe5! Again, Black can't be too hasty in capturing the knight with 29...Rxe6? as 30.Rb8+! is mating. But after 29...Qxe5!, the back-rank mating threats are all covered and now the knight can be taken. 30.Nc5 Qd6 Even better was 30...Qc7! 31.Nd3 Qc2! forcing 32.Rb6 Qxd3 33.Rxg6+ fxg6 34.Qxg6+ Kf8 35.Qf6+ Kg8 36.Qg6+ and a draw by repetition. 31.Nd3 Re4! Suddenly, Black's position has come to life - and he's now threatening ...Rh4 winning the White queen. 32.Qh2 f4?! Black should really have opted here for 32...Qxh2+ 33.Kxh2 Re2 34.a4 Rd2 with an equal position and the draw now looming large on the horizon. But here's the thing about chess, and especially in those notoriously tough weekend Swisses, when you have been under so much pressure for so long, and find yourself unexpectedly back in the game: it's easy to get over-optimistic and believe that the pendulum could have dramatically swung in your favor. And this is likely what happens to Hernandez here, as he overlooks just one little tactic that brings back the reality of a back-rank mating attack. 33.Qh3 Ne5? The last chance was 33...Re8 34.Rb7 Qc6 35.Qd7 Qxd7 36.Rxd7 Re2 with again an equal position and the draw looming. 34.f3! Hernandez probably thought that White had to play 34.Ne1 d4 and things would be a little uncomfortable for his opponent to defend this position - but he's overlooked something. 34...Rc4 Oblivious to what's coming - and perhaps having to also think quickly with a likely time pressure scenario here - Black continues to believe the game has swung in his direction. But there's no hope left now anyway, as the only other option was 34...Nxd3 35.fxe4 dxe4 36.Qc8+ Kg7 37.Rb8 Kg6 38.Qh8 and White has a winning advantage with the Black king exposed to many mating threats. 35.Re1! Oops! Black thought he had the back-rank mating attack covered with his queen protecting b8 - but the knight sacrifice uncovers a deadly rook check on e8. 35...Ng6 There's no hope at all. If 35...Nxd3 36.Re8+ Kg7 37.Qh8+ soon picks up the queen on d6. 36.Re8+ Nf8 37.Qh6! 1-0 Black resigns, as 37...Qxh6 (No better is 37...Rc6 38.Rxf8+! Qxf8 39.Qxc6 winning a piece) 38.gxh6 Rd4 39.Nc5 a5 40.Nd7 wins the knight.