Akobian, Zatonskih in Front; Reigning Champs Trail on Rest Day

The show, for the moment, has been stolen. After the bloodiest day yet – eight fought-out decisions across 11 games and another nail-biting escape with a draw by reigning women’s champion Irina Krush – both U.S. Championship races have new frontrunners as the tournaments turn down the home stretch.

Article by Brian Jerauld

Varuzhan Akobian (5/7), the No. 4 seed seeking his first national crown, turned in his third quality win in a row Wednesday, leaving him in sole possession of first place of the 2014 U.S. Championship, unbeaten through seven rounds. Also without defeat is reigning champion Gata Kamsky (4.5/7), who trails in clear second after knocking down previous tournament leader Aleksandr Lenderman. Four players share a tie for third with 4 points.

In the women’s competition, Anna Zatonskih now leads with 5/6 after waiting out Camilla Baginskaite, who hung herself in a 102-move rook-and-knight vs. rook endgame late Wednesday evening. Reigning champion Irina Krush (4.5/6), who had entered the day tied with Zatonskih, lost pace with a draw against Alisa Melekhina after barely making time control for the second day in a row. Krush sits alone in second place, with Iryna Zenyuk (4/6) in clear third.

Both tournaments enjoy a rest day on Thursday.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL)

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL)

Akobian had treaded water with four straight draws through the U.S. Championship’s opening, leading some to question his long-term tournament strategy. The critics have been silenced after his third consecutive victory – two of them with the black pieces, including Wednesday’s impressive stand against Ray Robson.

“I had been trying, but sometimes you can try really hard and it just wasn’t working out,” Akobian said of his drawing start. “In those openings, I was just not getting the positions I like to play.

“But winning as black is very important in this kind of field. You think maybe a draw is a good result, but whenever you have the opportunity, you have to play for a win.”

Akobian found yet another opportunity up front on Wednesday after equalizing early in a Catalan. Robson opened with a surprise, but not much: His 1. d4 may have strayed from his own tradition, but it played right into Akobian’s wheelhouse – a lifelong d4 player.

Robson has already lost twice in these U.S. Championships and 19. Bh3 coupled with 21. Ng5 showed that the 20-year-old was now shifting tournament gears toward aggression, though the attack ultimately left the f3 square weak. After exchanging minor pieces, Akobian picked up a free pawn there with 25…Qxf3.

The advantage was good enough to hold through the endgame, especially after Akobian’s 46…g5 put Robson’s remaining army in a near-state of zugzwang.

Lenderman was looking strong as tournament leader, collecting three wins through the first four rounds, but has since gone ice cold with just a draw over the last three. Not favorable is the schedule: He drew the black pieces against reigning champ Kamsky, and is slated as black again against Alex Onischuck after the rest day. The two are tied in third with 4/6.

On Wednesday, the veteran knocked Lenderman out of preparation early in a King’s Indian Attack, setting up a positional battle early to take the 22-year-old on in the middlegame, later stating: “Once you feel that a guy is in great form, you take a cautious approach. You don’t go in swinging right from the opening.”

The move 11. h4 a5 started sprints up the board from opposing wing pawns, though toward much different results: Lenderman only earned space and a frozen queenside after 12…a4, while Kamsky earned a vicious nail into black’s position with 13. h6.

Kamsky’s 16. Nxd4 aimed to stack black’s d-file, though its opening of the c-file became the focus of Lenderman’s middlegame initiative. By move 30. Kh2, however, the white fortress was looking sharp and the h6 nail dangerous; Lenderman’s weakness on the d-file finally fell at 32. Nxd4.

Kamsky closed with technique, liquidating the minor pieces and relieving the queenside. His pawn advantage turned into a downhill a-file passer.

“Alex has been a hard-working guy, slowly improving over the last four or five years,” Kamsky said of his opponent. “I remember that all of my games with him were really tough, and the way he played here, the way he just took off in the start like that, was no surprise to me. I’m sure he is still going to leave his mark, as long as he doesn’t take these two losses badly. He just has to forget about these games and just start the tournament anew.”

Krush was setting up familiar storylines as leader with 3.5 points through four rounds, but she has struggled to collect draws out of the last two. Just after the now-former leader was forced to race through a complex endgame against Tatev Abrahamyan in round 5, playing the last 10 moves on her clock’s 30-second per-move increment, she found herself in even warmer waters at time control against Alisa Melekhina in round 6.

Melekhina’s Blumenfeld Gambit earned her fantastic play in the opening and complicated matters early, quickly challenging the development – and the clock – of the reigning champion. Krush was late arriving to her castle on move 19, and when she got there, the black army had it well surrounded. 19…g5 threw the kitchen sink.

Both players’ clocks had fallen below 10 minutes with 15 moves until time control, though Krush was under duress. Melekhina’s 26. Rxa4 was the first of two exchange sacrifices – this one admittedly unsound – which proved to be fantastic plays against Krush’s clock: One of her moves was made with just one second remaining.

“I couldn’t see any concrete wins, and I took a big risk with the exchange sacrifice in time trouble,” Melekhina said. “That probably shouldn’t have worked, but I was playing on her time, and in the end I managed to get an advantage. I sacked again, right at the time control.”

Indeed, black’s second sacrifice at 40…Rxh3+ was a bit more sound and left Krush staring at a losing position for the first portion of her bonus time control. Melekhina didn’t have quite enough resources to close in the endgame, however, taking a well-earned half-point by perpetual check.

Today is the players’ rest day, and round 8 of the U.S. Championship and round 7 of the U.S. Women’s Championship will take place tomorrow, May 16, at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET. Follow all the action live at www.uschesschamps.com/live.

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