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Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Akobian, Zatonskih Create Space; 2014 U.S. Women’s Title On the Line
By Brian Jerauld
SAINT LOUIS (May 17, 2014) — Rest days are meant for relaxation and preparation, a chance to collect one’s self and focus on the finish line. It’s a time to tighten up your stride for the home stretch.
But nobody got the memo in Saint Louis.
The 2014 U.S. Championships, hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, returned from its break for one of the most chaos-driven rounds since the tournament began. In an afternoon that began with Camilla Baginskaite’s instant resignation after a touch-move snafu on move 15, picking up her a-pawn out-of-order instead of first tending to her double-attacked knight, the majority of Friday’s games followed a similar theme of head-scratching play amidst bruising back-and-forth drama.
Timur Gareev and Alejandro Ramirez settled on a fairy-tale draw that featured a two-pawn gambit in the opening, a crushing pendulum-swing of an attack in the middlegame and a magic recovery in the endgame. Tatev Abrahamyan fell horribly behind early in a Grunfeld, yet outmuscled Viktorija Ni in an endgame to win back her half-point.
But despite the methods, both U.S. Championship leaders, Var Akobian (6/8) and Anna Zatonskih (6/7), increased their respective leads entering the final weekend while their closest chasers fell away.
Irina Krush (5/7) struggled to her third consecutive draw, falling a full point behind Zatonskih and setting up a do-or-die match for Saturday afternoon, another chapter in the duo’s epic decade-long rivalry. Akobian gained ground after reigning U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky was fearlessly attacked to a draw by U.S. Junior champion Daniel Naroditsky.
None of America’s 22 best players made better use of their rest day than Aleksandr Lenderman. Lenderman was the early leader of the U.S. Championship, but he was headed in the wrong direction with just a draw over the last three rounds after suffering a shocking loss to Sam Shankland in round 6, and then getting rolled by Kamsky the following afternoon. The promise of the black pieces against bend-but-never-break Alex Onischuk loomed large through a rainy rest day.
But Lenderman found a reset button.
“My approach was to try and completely forget about what happened through the first half of the tournament,” Lenderman said. “Approach like it is a new tournament. (Onischuk) never loses – but he does sometimes … it could happen, and I figured today he’s going to try and battle against me because I lost two games in a row. He was going to try and pressure me, so I knew I would get more chances than maybe I would normally get; and I was pretty optimistic that if I had a good mindset, then I would have my chances.”
Onischuk enjoyed an advantage out of the Nimzo-Indian opening, but went wrong after battle opened up on the c4 square. White picked up a pawn at 17. Bxc4, albeit a moment too late: His 15. Rfd1 seemed one patient move too many. Black used the extra time to bring in another knight to help the battle at c4, and when it finally opened up, the white queen lay prone to several pins. Instead of alleviating the position, Onischuk just mistakenly defended it with the error 21. Rac1 and was instantly losing. Lenderman’s 21…b5 attacked the knight; 23…bxc4 won it.
White pushed on into an endgame, hoping to find play from a connected passer on the d-file, but
Lenderman left no hope on the table: 38. Qb6 was another error pounced on immediately by white, this one promising to lose his queen to an eventual skewer.
Akobian’s schedule had looked a bit more favorable, returning after the rest day on a three-win streak and with the white pieces against Sergey Erenberg, who was winless in his first U.S. Championship at -2. Still, the 31-year-old had tricks prepared to throw the tournament leader out of his comfort level early.
“(Erenberg) surprised me – like all my opponents have been – playing an opponent he doesn’t usually play,” Akobian said. “He played the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, which I had looked at a little bit, but it wasn’t anything deep because it was not his opening.”
Akobian was enjoying a small lead out of the opening, including an annoying pawn advanced on e5 and a battery on the open c-file. Akobian’s 24. Bxa7 seemed to allow equalization, a trade that relieved some of the pressure against black, but it did not last for long: Erenberg passed on the chance to trade queens, misjudging the threat of white’s passed a-pawn.
“The crucial moment was (30.) Qb6,” Akobian said. “He had to exchange queens and go for this endgame that had some drawing chances — but it was very unpleasant. So, in time trouble, he went Qc3 and missed this very strong Qd8-Qd1, protecting the rook and pushing the passed pawn. I think it was probably lost at that point.”
A round earlier Alisa Melekhina had refused to just roll over and surrender her half-point to tournament-leader Irina Krush, instead pushing the reigning champion to the brink just to find a draw. Melekhina came with the same intent on Friday, this time against Zatonskih — though this time the leader powered through where Krush could not.
Melekhina repeated the same line she had used in round 2 against Sabina Foisor, a personalized gambit that sacrificed a central pawn at 8…Nxd4. Last week, it had worked to bring Melekhina into a winning endgame; on Friday, Zatonskih was waiting.
“I know she likes to give up pawns,” Zatonskih said of Melekhina’s penchant for early sacrifices. “I considered some different gambits on the day off, and I prepared some analyzed work with some rare variations, some gambits. But with so many lines, I wasn’t sure if she would repeat it.”
Melekhina did not receive much compensation for the pawn, perhaps a slight lead on development and some small initiative in chasing a black queen out of position. She did enjoy a lodged e-pawn and opened up more lanes with 21. Rxd5, though the clearance only provided Zatonskih’s bishop with devastating control of the a8-h1 diagonal – and white with no light-squared bishop to protect it. White’s greed to recover the pawn from the early gambit was punished after 24. Rf4, a threat on black’s stacked pawn ignored after 24…Rc2, relatively pinning white’s bishop.
The white army was soon uncoordinated, and Zatonskih eventually collected both of white’s queenside pawns to join her third from the gambit. Black easily leaned on the straightforward advantage, liquidating the major pieces and allowing its bonus pawns to win the game.
The Women’s field has collectively put a stop to Krush’s stomping of it, her last three opponents putting up more than enough fight to keep their half-point out of the reigning champion’s clutches. Not helping her chances toward another title was uncharacteristically sub-par play against Sabina Foisor on Friday.
“I made a horrible move right out of the opening – an awful move (15…Bxd5),” Krush said. “After that, it’s almost resignable in so many ways. Just a very bad position. It was an uphill struggle from that point on.”
Indeed, Krush sweated through her third-consecutive game, worse when Foisor’s 22. Qg6+ jammed the black king into the corner. Middlegame liquidation only served to help white’s advantage, until Foisor opted out of a queen trade, choosing instead to seek victory with her best piece.
Black struggled to mount a coordinated attack, however, and the board equalized as time trouble hit both players. By move 52, both were playing on increment, causing Foisor to miss some chances down the stretch that may have brought victory. She instead bailed out to an opposite-colored bishop endgame.
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