As if Luke Harmon-Vellotti didn’t get enough cake from his sixth-round match versus WFM Sarah Chiang, he got to eat it, too, when Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura helped analyze the game afterward. Report by Brian Jerauld.
During his off day from the Tal Memorial in Russia, America’s No. 1 “called in” to the live stream of the 2013 U.S. Junior Closed Championship – or, more accurately, chatted with commentator GM Ben Finegold – to help evaluate several of Harmon-Vellotti’s lines from his sixth-round match versus Chiang.
And through several variations, he kept coming up with the same suggestion for the 14-year-old pride of Idaho: Resign. Resign. Resign.
But Harmon-Vellotti found light at the end of the darkest of tunnels on Thursday, where a small slip-up by Chiang – perhaps her first of an otherwise fantastic game – allowed him in for a desperate 11th-hour checkmate. The full-point puts Harmon-Vellotti back in clear first with 4.5/6, after a draw for IM Daniel Naroditsky and a loss for Robert Perez, both who shared the lead entering round 6. The day also featured important wins for both IM Kayden Troff, who moves into a second-place tie with Naroditsky at 4/6, and FM Samuel Sevian, whose 2.5 points over the last three rounds have him tied for third at 3.5/6.
Despite the three-way share of the lead on Thursday morning, Harmon-Vellotti looked to have the most comfortable schedule to close the round-robin tournament, with matches still to play against three opponents in the tournament’s lower half of the rankings. But Chiang, struggling in tenth place with just a half point, had clear intentions of spoiling his visit to Saint Louis. As black, she offered an early twist to the Classical Nimzo-Indian to stay hyper-aggressive in the opening, beckoning the white queen out for early harassment.
Though at the expense of a ruined pawn structure, including an isolated c-pawn and pawns stacked on the f-file to expose her king, Chiang’s immediate pressure made Harmon-Vellotti lag behind in time – both on his clock and on the board, where an uncomfortably late castle cost him a pawn at 15. … Bxe2. Chiang mugged another pawn with 22. … Qxb2, creating a downhill passer on the c-file and all but foreshadowing the upset.
Harmon-Vellotti’s only meager attack was to charge ahead with his g- and h-pawns, which did more to expose his already weak king than mount much of an attack. But he sacrificed one – dragging his material disadvantage down even further, now three pawns behind – in a desperate attempt to open the h-file and set up a battery.
And then Chiang slipped. Her clear path to victory was stalled only by the need of a brief safe spot for her king, which she could have found on 32. … Kg8 but instead pushed f5 with thoughts of an escape route. Harmon-Vellotti pounced quickly with a pin, exchange and discovery-filled tactical slam to earn checkmate.
“This was the only game where the opening has done any good for me – he played right into it,” said a dejected Chiang. “I very clearly knew I was better, in a winnable position, and I was just trying to take it one move at a time. But near the end, I thought my way down to six minutes; I should have slowed it down even more. If I had just moved my king back [to g8], he had nothing, and I’m queening.”
Perez shared the lead entering Thursday but faced a grueling road ahead, still with matchups against both Harmon-Vellotti and Naroditsky, as well as the round 6 skirmish with second-place Troff. As black, Perez defended with the Czech Benoni and pushed into an extremely closed board, unaided by an early knight trade with 13. Nxb5 axb5.
Troff did not castle until late in the game, disrupting his kingside option with 9. Rg1 to expedite an attack on the black king. He opened the file with 18. gxd5 gxd5 and followed with 19. Bh4, laying claim to the important f7 square. His knight landed there on the next move, forcing Perez to exchange a rook and avoid the king-queen fork.
But here Perez suffered an oversight, losing his queen to a one-mover for the second time in the tournament, with 22. Rg8+. However, while the exchange for white’s bishop and rook put him even further into material disadvantage, the closed position and a swarm of minor pieces around Perez’ king left the outcome unclear.
“[Perez] had some surprisingly annoying threats with the bishops and the knight,” Troff said. “I was both low on time and in a tough position, where he could still come in with attack. But I decided not to play fast, just take things slowly toward breaking through, not allowing him any crazy positions and to just keep my position solid.”
He was successful. His king found its way into the safe corner, shielded from Perez’s bishops, and then his queen shifted to the open a7-g1 diagonal with 29. Qe3. The move eventually allowed her to slip behind black’s front lines, forcing Perez’s pieces into defense and scooping up pawns to deflate the position.
Sevian has become red hot after a slow start, scoring two points against the tournament’s three leaders, including a full-point in Harmon-Vellotti’s only loss of the tournament in round 4. An impressive and solid win on Thursday over FM Atulya Shetty, who led early but has skidded with just a half-point over the last four rounds, has brought Sevian to 3.5/6 where he lurks in range of the top.
As black, Sevian worked cleanly through an English opening to take advantage of Shetty’s queenside, which was prematurely opened. Looking ready to blow it all open with three major pieces on the b-, c-, and d-files, Sevian instead closed it down, opting to slide his bishops in to the tight position. The result was an impressive display of calculation to earn an exchange, with his white bishop causing the most trouble. Move 21. … Bb3 first chased the white queen from the area, and then a two-move reroute to 23. … Bd3 attacked a rook.
“From the moment I won the exchange, it looked like I was just winning,” Sevian said. “But he made some good moves, and his bishop was so strong. I couldn’t find a way to activate my rooks, so eventually I had to sacrifice a pawn to activate them.”
It worked. Sevian pushed 38. … f4, to which Shetty grabbed the hanging e-pawn, and the board sprang open for Sevian’s major pieces. Shetty’s bishop came off in a trade with the black knight, and Sevian’s rooks applied quick pressure, earning the pawn back with 47. … Qb5. It turned his b-pawn into a passer and, though Shetty did well in exposing the black king with thoughts of a perpetual draw, Sevian worked a clean endgame to see it to promotion.
Though IM Victor Shen has slid to the middle of the pack after a solid start to the tournament, he is still an opponent that no one wants to sit across – including Naroditsky, who found himself immediately uncomfortable as white on Thursday.
Shen’s move of 4. … Qc7 in the Sicilian defense caused Naroditsky – expecting d6 – confusion with the move order and, after an early trade of minor pieces, black found itself in a solid position. White was able to muster up a triple battery on the f-file, but it was on a path to nowhere, and Naroditsky’s minor pieces were tied passively to defense without promise of advance.
When Shen met 20. Qh4 with his own Qh5, in an offer to trade queens that would have left white drowning, Naroditsky jumped at the chance for the perpetual draw.
“[The opening] went horribly,” Naroditsky said. “I’m pretty lucky I was able to get out with a draw so easily and nothing bad happened. I’ve been obviously happy that the two times my opening has gone wrong this tournament, I haven’t been punished for it.”