Article by FM Mike Klein
After two rounds of play at the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship, only one player out of 22 remains with an unblemished record. Defending champion IM Anna Zatonskih continued her unparallelled recent success at the event by beating WGM Camilla Baginskaite. No other player in either tournament could string together a second win in a row. A large swath of men are all tied at 1.5/2 in the U.S. Championship.
Zatonskih’s choice of the Nimzo-Indian Defense led to a cluster of pawns in the center. But what began as a stable maneuvering game quickly gave way to open files and diagonals. Zatonskih faced two menacing bishops, but she neutralized their combined power by trading one set, then took control of the open e-file. Baginskaite’s 18. Rf3 should have been immediately punished by 18…Nc2 with twin threats of 19…Nxa1 and 19…Re1+, winning the queen.
“I’m still experiencing jet lag,” Zatonskih said. She traveled from her home in Germany to attempt to defend her title. Although she is up a half point on her closest competition, Zatonskih pointed out that three of her toughest games will be in the final three rounds. “I have a very tough finish,” she said. “I have to save some energy.”
It seemed to most that she would have company at 2/2, as 2005 champion IM Rusudan Goletiani took a dominating position down to the wire. However, short of time, she overpressed, first losing her a-pawn, then allowing a crucial knight invasion to seal her own king’s fate. WGM Sabina Foisor benefited to score her first win.
Second-seeded IM Irina Krush could not keep pace, as she could only draw with FM Alisa Melekhina. Like their matchup at last year’s championship, Melekhina diverged from her usual Sicilian Alapin to play the Moscow Variation. Unlike last year, she went with an immediate 6. d4 instead of preparing it with 6. c3. “I was looking to play something more aggressive,” Melekhina said. “I feel like theory is my weakness, and I just wanted a playable position. I feel like she might overextend; she’s the higher-rated player.”
After losing a string of games at the outset last year, Melekhina has now opened this year with two draws to women she lost to last year, Krush and WIM Iryna Zenyuk. “I’m content. Last year I lost to both Irinas.”
Zenyuk used the Benko Gambit to win against WIM Viktorija Ni. Much like WGM Tatev Abrahamyan’s round one game, Zenyuk’s queen’s rook infiltrated the b-file in the Benko. Then followed her queen, which delivered the decisive triple fork of Ni’s rook and two bishops. Zenyuk stands at 1.5/2 and is off to one of her best starts in the event.
Abrahamyan sacrificed a center pawn on d5 to open lines for her light-squared bishop, then attacked on the light squares. Coupled with her methodical g-pawn plodding up the board and resting on the seventh rank, WFM Alena Kats could not resist the buffeting. Kats is still seeking her first points of the tournament.
“My bishop is just dominating the whole position,” Abrahamyan said. “It’s a pretty standard line in the Najdorf.” She was more pleased with her effort today as opposed to the erratic game yesterday, when her opponent missed a crushing queen invasion. Abrahamyan is playing in her first tournament in two months, which for her is a longer layoff than normal.
In the U.S. Championship, everyone now has a pocked record, leaving a collection of players leading with 1.5/2. Defending champion GM Gata Kamsky surprised everyone with the exceedingly rare 2…b6 in the Sicilian Defense. While he had played it before online, Kamsky decided only at the last minute to essay it over the board. “It’s fun to play away from theory on the second move,” Kamsky said.
His opponent, GM Ray Robson, was not aware of Kamsky’s Internet repertoire, but was unfazed by the choice. He reasoned that if he played normally he should not be worse against such an obscure choice.
In the post-game analysis, Kamsky marveled at Robson’s analytical celerity. “This guy is really good at tactics,” Kamsky said. After 24…Ra8, Kamsky said he initially did not see Robson’s king oscillation between b1 and c1, which is the only way to hold the draw. The last try for an advantage was 24…Bxe4, which simultaneously wins a pawn and brings a much-needed piece to the defense of Kamsky’s king.
GM Hikaru Nakamura, widely considered Kamsky’s biggest hurdle to winning three championships in a row, also drew. GM Alejandro Ramirez had his pressure on f7 quickly rebuffed, then scrambled after Nakamura’s knight infiltrated to the center. “I kind of underestimated his position,” Ramirez said. “After …Nd4 my position sucked … my time management was atrocious.”
Now with better prospects, Nakamura spent a lot of time prior to 27…f5, believing that his opponent could unearth the inventive resource 28. Qd1 Re7 29. exf5 Rxe1 30. Qxe1 Bxg2 31. Bxd4, followed by a queen invasion on e6 to hold the balance by either continuously checking or grabbing a handful of pawns.
During the game, Ramirez assumed Nakamura had something up his sleeve in the variation, and instead pitched the exchange to reduce the pressure. It worked, as his dark-square pressure was enough to prise Nakamura’s king out in the open for a draw by repetition.
Also on 1.5/2 is GM Robert Hess, who bided his time in an uncomfortable position against GM Yasser Seirawan until the tactic 18…Rxg4 appeared. Hess presumed Seirawan simply overlooked the pin to the rook on h1. While still not without pressure, the worse was then behind him. “I misplayed the opening as per usual,” Hess said. “I didn’t remember the line very well.” Seirawan’s loss was his second in a row.
GM Gregory Kaidanov also has a win and a draw, as his active pieces created too many problems for the luckless GM Alex Stripunsky. Kaidanov’s bishops, knights and rook harassed the enemy queen relentlessly unless she had to be given up. Kaidanov later offered his own queen in return to achieve the notorious outside passed pawn, which duly marched to victory.
GM Varuzhan Akobian used nearly all of his time in the opening, at one point only keeping six minutes with a 30-second increment for the next 23 moves. “I made all logical moves – in principle it should be better for me,” a frustrated Akobain said. “I’m not happy with my play today.”
GM Yury Shulman tried all he could to keep the position complicated to stress Akobian, but had to settle for a static position that allowed his opponent to make easy choices and hold the draw. The split point also gets Akobian to 1.5/2.
In the day’s only battle of first-round winners, GMs Alex Onsichuk and Alex Lenderman played an exciting draw that also got them both to 1.5/2.
The lack of perfection means that no player will win the $64,000 Fischer prize for a perfect score. Fischer was the only person to achieve the feat, scoring a perfect 11-0 in 1963.
Round three begins tomorrow at 1 p.m. Central, 2 p.m. Eastern. Tune in to www.uschesschamps.com for live commentary from WGM Jennifer Shahade and the club’s GM-in-Residence, Ben Finegold. Pairings for round three can be found at www.uschesshcamps.com/standings-and-games.