US Championship 2017
“If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” These were the words of famous violinist Jascha Heifetz and they perfectly describe how an elite performer feels about his daily routine and its connection to results.
From what we see at the US Championship it seems that Gata Kamsky hasn’t practiced in years. A chess prodigy and a workaholic in the late 1980s until his retirement in 1996, nowadays he relies only on his talent. This is seen not only in the approach to the openings (all sorts of London Systems, O’Kelly Sicilians (2…a6) and bunker Slavs) but also in the general strategy he employs, typical of “retired” strong players: get away from theory and try to outplay the young and inexperienced in the middlegame and endgame. If that strategy had a chance of working in the past, nowadays it is a different story. First, the young are not inexperienced (thanks to computers they can quickly gain knowledge) and second, the young are strong in all phases of the game, mostly because of their superior calculation. And calculation is the first thing that suffers when you stop practicing.
The cracks started to appear as early as Round 2. A one-move blunder for a former World number 2 is a shocking thing to see (and also perhaps a bit comforting for the rest of us).
In Round 3 Kamsky’s preparation was far from impressive, but he got a decent position against Robson. Then he miscalculated and his queen was in danger, so he had to give up a pawn. He then got drawing chances which he didn’t take. Definitely not the character of play of the old Kamsky I admired in the 90s! He was merciless then: he beat Salov, Anand, Kramnik and Short in matches, to mention only the strongest ones.
Then perhaps a small revival happened, he played well to draw with Nakamura and beat US’s brightest hope Jeffery Xiong in a very long game. And then this happened:
This was Caruana’s first win after 5 draws in the first 5 rounds. He had the better of it in both games against his main rivals, Nakamura and So, but couldn’t convert. In Round 1 he was close to losing to Shankland and he was first winning then close to losing against Xiong. In Round 5 he couldn’t make the better rook endgame count against Onischuk. A bit unstable tournament for Caruna so far, but he got going and is only half a point behind the leader So.
So is leading with +2, but he was in danger of losing on more than one occasion, which is twice as more than we’re used to seeing him. He effectively dispatched of Shabalov in Round 1 and his best game so far was his win against Onischuk in Round 4.
So’s risk-taking could have turned sour had Akobian been more precise in their Round 6 encounter, but he could only find the draw.
So’s unbeaten run continues, but for how long?
The third favourite Nakamura seems a bit subdued. He started with a fine Black win in Round 1 against Robson but from then on he made only draws. He couldn’t obtain any chances against Naroditsky and Shabalov, people he is expected to beat. I found his following comment quite revealing: “If you have chances that’s all you can ask for in modern chess… If I was expected to beat 2650s every day I should be 2900.” These words show that Nakamura doesn’t put pressure on himself to beat the weaker players, something he was an expert in when coming through the ranks (remember 1 e4 e5 2 Qh5?) Is this a lack of ambition, energy, perspective? I have the impression that Nakamura used to feel like the king of the USA before So and Caruana arrived. After their arrival he kind of withdrew and doesn’t seem to show the same hunger to win and beat everybody as before. Maybe he’s wary of their presence, he knows that he’s not the king anymore. He tried to give Caruana a fight at last year’s US Championship and was beaten badly. He also lost a crucial game to Caruana at the Candidates. Their last game before this year’s championship was a spectacular win for Caruana after a queen sacrifice in the Najdorf. Against So it is a similar story – he hasn’t beaten him since 2015 and he only made one draw out of their last 3 games, their last game was practically a miniature, with Nakamura blundering on move 13. Still, he is in contention and if given a chance I am sure he will take it.
There are still 5 more rounds to play and with only half a point difference between So and the rest (Caruana, Nakamura, Naroditsky, Akobian and Zherebukh) the tournament is wide open. Round 7 is currently under way and at the moment of writing Shabalov destroyed Xiong with black in 26 moves while Caruana seems to be in trouble against Zherebukh. Should be exciting until the end!