Photo: Lennart Ootes
Halfway through the 2020 US Chess Championship, where a 5/6 score is not even good enough for clear second.
To this point, GMs Ray Robson and Jeffery Xiong have each turned in championship-worthy performances, both tallying four wins and two draws against Americas top chess players. But if worrying about one hot opponent wasnt enough, both of their efforts are still just second best: GM Wesley So has set a blistering pace to the event, solely in front with 5.5/6 after opening the tournament with five straight wins.
The three players have absolutely left the rest of Americas top chess players behind, including reigning champion GM Hikaru Nakamura, tied for a respectable fourth place in the standings yet sitting a stunning 2.5 points off leader So. The event has quickly turned into feast-or-famine, as four players remain without a victory after six rounds.
courtesy SLCC / uschesschamps.com
This years championship event is being held online as a 12-player round-robin tournament, featuring three games per day with a Rapid G/25+5 timecontrol and a $150,000 prize. And if Sos perfect 3-0 start to the event on Monday could have been attributed in part to a few fortunate mistakes by his opponents, his dominance over this field was far-more convincing on Tuesday.
So extended his winning streak to five games and had even pulled a full point ahead of Robson and Xiong in the standings, before the Minnesota super-GM's pace was slowed by a draw to GMLeinierDominguez in the sixth round. In Tuesdays opening fourth round,Sosteamrolled 2018 US Champion Sam Shankland in a wildNimzothat, at 20 moves into the game, saw Shankland ahead by a full rook, according to the board but alarmingly behind, according to the engines.
In exchange for that rook at 20. Bxa8, Shankland found his bishop forgotten on a8 andan absolutely nakedking left behind on its starting square. And Sos ensuing attack was surgical, without even the need of recapture: He passed on a one-move knight fork to win back the rook, instead attacking in the other direction with 21. Ng2+ and then settling into an important outpost with Nf4. Shankland desperately tried to throw his d-pawn passer up the board, but So chased the white king to its doom with impressive queen-and-knight teamwork.
So followed up with more heavy lifting in the fifth round against GM Dariusz Swiercz, where he dominated this Grunfeld right from the start, pushing his heavily occupied center into a crushing assault on the kingside castle and a complete collapse of the black defense. The last player to start 5-0 in a U.S. Championship invitational was Bobby Fischer in his historic 11-0 run of the 1963-64 event.
courtesy SLCC / uschesschamps.com
Despite Sos muscle, Robson just may be the shiniest player in this years championship event. After handing in a couple brilliancies in the first day of play, the 25-year-old was dazzling again on Tuesday. Robsons trademark time pressure seemed to have no effect on his tactical prowess, as he dispatched Swiercz with some major-piece tricks while playing off the increment in round 4, and then went beast-mode in a frantic endgame against GM SamSevianin the sixth round.
There, Robson applied heavy pressure down the c-file in a Kings Indian that blew up into a wide-open center, otherwise occupied by all four knights.Sevians32. Rc1 lit the fuse, bringing Robsons queen sac for a rook and knight, and kicking off an increment-fueled race of an endgame.
It would have been a real shame if I had lost this game at the end, because I was still winning and I was even ahead on time for most of the game, Robson said. I know Sam, hes incredibly tricky, and in blitz hes really, really strong. Even when he has a bad position, he always finds a way to wriggle out and come back, win the game or flag his opponent.SoI knew even when I had a winning position that he was going to try every single trick, and he almost got me.
While the three tournament leaders raced away from the pack on Tuesday, there was one other unlikely player who kept pace on the day. Coming from last place after an 0-3 start to the event, the fields youngest player GMAwonderLiang was outstanding in his second day of play. Playing off his invitation as last years U.S. Junior champion, the 17-year-old scored 2.5/3 on Tuesday, including back-to-back wins over GM Alejandro Ramirez and a huge round 6 upset over Nakamura.
This was just the understanding that I have nothing to lose. Im just going to try, and maybe not just hold my own, but try and win as many games as I can, Liang said. Its not just about drawing games, or just holding against the top players, but actually trying to beat them. If you do that, youre going to end up taking some hits and taking some losses, which I probably will later in the tournament, but then you get to play some great games like this.
courtesy SLCC / uschesschamps.com
In Tuesdays final game, Nakamura an early favorite to win this years crown though now sitting with just one win across six rounds seemed prepared to confuse his young opponent in a Caro-Kann, though 12. Nf1? as well as 15. d4 did not carry the intended effect. Soon, Liangs king was perfectly cozy on the kingside while his rook battery invaded the f-file. At its worst moment, the game saw Nakamura playing 30. e5 and then 31. c5, officially putting the bad in bad bishop.
It was almost impossible not to win this position, Liang said. Ive certainly botched my fair share of winning positions so far this tournament, but his bishop was just boxed in by his own pawns, the light-squared domination ... not even from a perspective of winning the game, just aesthetically my position was so nice, everything was just going right this game.
The 2020 US Chess Championship continues with rounds 7-9 on Wednesday, with first moves kicking off at 1:00 p.m. central. Spectators may watch the games along with expert commentary by GMs YasserSeirawanand Maurice Ashley, along with WGM JenniferShahadeon uschesschamps.com or of the SLCC YouTube andTwitchTVchannels.
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