US Championship 2017 – So or Who?
Things have happened since my last post but one thing remained constant – So still leads.
Let’s start with Caruana, arguably the strangest story in St. Louis. Immediately after beating Kamsky and going to +1 he was routed by Zherebukh in the next round. I must say that his choice of the Breyer Spanish didn’t inspire confidence – I somehow felt that the position didn’t suit him. And he was simply outplayed, a rare thing to see a 2600-rated player to outplay a 2800-rated player.
In the next round, as if nothing happened, Caruana destroyed Naroditsky, whose French didn’t survive until move 15. He was back in contention and he produced a fine effort with Black to outplay one of the leaders, Akobian. It is notable that against players he tried to beat with Black Caruana’s reply to 1 d4 was 1…d6. He did it against Onischuk in Round 5 (when he didn’t take his chances in a favourable rook endgame), but now things looked quite good for a long time.
It is possible to explain what happened in this game, I tried to do it in the comments, but I find it impossible to understand how such a thing can happen to a world-class player like Caruana. Slight inaccuracies and bigger mistakes in a position that is technically winning for such a long time is not what I would expect of a 2800-rated player. It has plagued Caruana before too (his missed wins at the Candidates being the most painful ones), he seems not to be able to overcome desperate resistance. It is definitely something he needs to work on seriously as it appears to be his only glaring weakness.
Another favourite to blow his chances was Nakamura. If Caruana can regret his missed winning chances then Nakamura can regret his failure to create them. In the 7 draws in a row that preceeded his loss he never got any winning chances, an unbelievable occurrence for a player of his stature. In the derby against So in Round 8 play was balanced throughout, as So couldn’t create anything in the Closed System of the Catalan that Nakamura chose. Against Onischuk’s rock-solid QGD Nakamura quickly started going forward. But the QGD is an opening that can successfully absorb White’s pressure and give chances to Black on the counterattack, which is what happened in the game. But it was Nakamura’s fault because he finally created winning chances with his aggressive play. Move 32 was critical.
All this favoured So – he basically got rid of the most direct rivals. While it is true that Akobian’s win over Caruana made him equal first with So, I still find it difficult to see him win the tournament – one of his last 2 opponents is Nakamura.
So added one more win in the last 3 games. It was a brilliant combination against the youngest participant Xiong, who now has 0.5/4 with White in this tournament!
A wonderful game by So, showing a difference in class. Beating strong players with such confidence and dare I say, easily, is a mark that only the world-beaters have.
With two rounds to go So has Naroditsky and Kamsky to play while Akobian has Nakamura and Robson. Anything is possible, but I would still bet on So.