The youngest and strongest U.S. Chess Championship in history has just crossed the midway point at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, and the event has already seen enough drama to vie as one of the most-exciting U.S. Championships in history, as well.
After six games in the 12-player round-robin tournament, alone in front is the No. 1 seed and pre-tournament favorite, Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who has scored three victories and three draws to earn 4.5/6 points.
During the event, Nakamura has been oscillating between the World’s Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the live ranking lists, boosted with every victory and dragged down again with each draw.
In clear second is Webster University student GM Ray Robson, scoring 4/6 and trailing Nakamura by just a half-point. The two head toward their critical matchup this weekend, with Robson taking the White pieces against Nakamura in the penultimate round 10 on April 11.
Running simultaneously is the U.S. Women’s Championship, with a shocking twist: Six-time, reigning U.S. Women’s Champion GM Irina Krush — once the favorite, but now maybe not so much — is in second place, a full point behind the leader. Racing out in first is WGM Katerina Nemcova, another member of the powerhouse Webster University chess team. Nemcova sits in clear first at 5/6, with four wins and two draws — and two checkmates already delivered on the board. Nemcova is attributing her stellar play thus far to high-level opening preparation and, perhaps more important, an immunity to making blunders:
“I feel very well, I’m really happy the way I’m playing the opening, the preparation works,” Nemcova said after her Round 6 win on Tuesday. “I get everything I want in the game — and then opponents give me a piece, or they blunder.”
Several key matchups between favorites have already occurred. Last weekend, Nakamura faced his two closest rivals back-to-back — reigning U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky and fellow World Top-Tenner Wesley So — and came away with a draw in each. Both games, however, could have easily seen a different outcome.
Against Kamsky, Nakamura played brilliantly and held a huge advantage for most of the game — right up until he fumbled the full point away with a misstep at the last possible moment of the game. One round later, Nakamura went toe-to-toe with his newest American rival, but overlooked a tactic at the critical moment and allowed So into a favorable endgame with an extra pawn. Nakamura gritted his teeth and buckled down, however, finding the correct defense and saving the draw — and likely a bit of face, as well.
Wesley So, the event’s No. 2 seed and the player most thought would give Nakamura a run for his money, has had his own share of ups and downs. After winning his first two games, So shockingly fell to the youngest Grandmaster in U.S. history, the tournament’s wildcard Sam Sevian, who is just 14 years old. The result was a boon for Sevian’s rapidly growing legacy, prompting commentators to compare the youngster to former prodigies Bobby Fischer and reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen. So's troubles continued with another loss in round six, painfully spoiling a winning position against his former Webster roommate Robson.
Since Nakamura is leading and considered the strongest player in the field, all the pressure will be on him to maintain his form and continue scoring victories. Even a draw (and especially a loss) will give serious chances for his competitors to catch pace in the standings. Hopeful of that is Robson, perhaps playing the best chess of his life — his only loss of the event coming by the hands of Kamsky.
And, despite his rocky start, So is still within striking distance just a point behind, and is without a doubt strong enough to string together several victories in a row. Also worth mentioning is 2006 champion GM Alexander Onischuk, a player who has remained ranked among the World’s Top-100 players for more than 20 years. Onischuk hasn’t lost yet this week and won a fine technical game against Kamsky on Tuesday. He is tied with So in third place.
On the women’s side, all eyes will be watching Krush’s recovery and if Nemcova can hold her lead. Nemcova collected 3/3 points against the field’s lowest three seeds and will face stiffer competition in the second half -- while Krush faces just the opposite. With three games to come against those low seeds, Krush could hit the finale weekend with solid momentum -- setting up an epic last-round blowout with Nemcova in the last round on Sunday.
U.S. Chess Championship action can be followed live each day beginning at 1 p.m. on www.uschesschamps.com, where the world-class team of GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade, and GM Maurice Ashley provides play-by-play commentary. Spectators are also welcome to visit the club to witness the games in-person in the Central West End, with live commentary from GM Ben Finegold and GM Alejandro Ramirez next door at the brand-new Kingside Diner.
Kostya Kavutskiy is a FIDE chess master and a former player on the Lindenwood chess team. As a chess journalist, Kostya writes for Chess Life and Chess.com, and recently co-authored a book titled “Modernized: The Open Sicilian.” He is the director of marketing for Metropolitan Chess Inc. in Los Angeles, and is back in St. Louis as the event journalist for the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships.