- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The kids are gonna be all right.

It may not be fully appreciated, but we are living in a golden age for the U.S. game, with a breadth and depth of chess talent that can stand with any era of the past 150 years.

American GM Fabiano Caruana nearly won the world championship in 2018, the U.S. team took home gold and silver in the past two Olympiads, and newly minted U.S. stars such as the Philippines’ Wesley So and Cuba’s Leinier Dominguez Perez have deepened the domestic talent pool.

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Even better, a new generation of stars looks to keep the good times going, with two young players shining just in the last two weeks.

Texas GM Jeffery Xiong has been the surprise of the 128-player FIDE World Cup knockout tournament, now entering the home stretch in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. With an epic takedown of Polish GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in Round 4 (which took seven games and was decided in a blitz playoff), Xiong, 18, is the lowest seed to make it to the Elite Eight — with a shot at a slot in the 2020 world championship cycle.

Xiong’s biggest win was a Round 3 upset of No. 2 seed GM Anish Giri, eliminating the Dutch star in a tense Game/10 playoff battle. We pick the play up in this Reti Opening from the diagram, where Xiong as Black has sacrificed a pawn for strong pressure on the White king.

The young American proves better in the ensuing tactical clash: 24…b5 25. f5? (missing Black’s idea; it was found later that the unlikely 25. Qh3! is the only way to save the game — e.g. 25…a4 [Nxd5?! 26. Rxf7+! Kxf7 27. Qxh7+ Kf8 28. Qh6+ Kf7 29. Qh7+, and 29…Kf6?? is out because of 30. Nxd5+] 26. Rxf7+! Kxf7 27. Qe6+ Kg7 28. Qe7+ Kg8 29. Qe6+ Kg7 30. Qe7, with a draw. Black is also better after 25. Rb7 Ne4! 26. Nxe4 Rxc2+ 27. Rxc2 Rxc2+ 28. Qxc2 Nxc2 29. N2c3 Ne3 30. Rxb5 Qd4 31. Rxa5 Nd1+ 32. Kc2 Nxc3 33. Nxc3 Qxf4) Rxc3! 26. Nxc3 Rxc3, and now 27. Qxc3 loses the queen to 27…Nc4+.

Xiong takes the game and the match after 27. Qe2 Nc4+ 28. Ka1 Ne5 (White has a rook and pawn for two knights, but his terrible king position spells his doom) 29. fxg6 hxg6 30. Rf1 Qd4 31. Kb1 Nxd5 32. Rd1 Rd3! 33. Rxd3 Nxd3 34. Qxd3 (cxd3 Nc3+) Qxd3 35. Rxf7+ Kxf7 36. cxd3 Nf4, and White resigned a hopeless ending.

It’s not often you see a player start a 10-player invitational with a draw and a loss — including a loss to a top rival with White — and go on to win the event by two full points. So all hail the performance of GM Ray Robson at the recent St. Louis Fall Chess Classic, where a closing kick of six wins and a draw in the last seven round brought him clear first by a wide margin in the Category 16 event earlier this month.

Fans of blocked positions will love Robson’s Round 6 Steinitz French Defense win over veteran GM Varuzhan Akobian, where the timely 18. Nd1 Rf7 19. Ng5! Bxg5 (Rf8 20. Ne3! [Nxe6 Nxb4 21. cxb4 Qxe6 22. Ne3 is less convincing] Nd8 21. g4, with the clear initiative) 20. fxg5 Ne7 21. h4 leaves White with the only potential pawn break on the board.

Already, one could say White’s humble pawn on g2 is the most important asset on the board, the indispensable lever to crack open the game. After a lengthy preparatory phase, including a king walk to the queenside, Robson is ready to strike: 43. Rf1 (every White piece is on an optimal square and the h-file rook’s domination along the sixth rank will soon prove critical) Qe8 44. g4! (finally — Black’s cramped but solid position collapses inexorably) fxg4 45. Bxg4 Be4 46. Qf2, when 46…Nf5 is met by 47. Nxe6+ Nxe6 48. Bxf5 Nxg5 49. Rb6! Bxf5 50. e6!, and the White queen will invade via the h2-b8 diagonal.

With 49. Rxe6 Rxg4, Akobian claims a nominal material edge, but the White invasion can’t be stopped: 50. Qf7 (Qf6! was also very strong) Rg2+ 51. Kc1 Qxf7 (Kd7 52. Rd6+ Kc7 53. Qxe8) 52. Rxf7 Rc2+ 53. Kd1 Rxc3 54. Rfxe7+ Kd8 55. Re8+ Kd7 56. Rce7+, and Black resigns as 56…Kc6 57. Rc8 is mate.

White’s patient breakthrough here was positional play of the highest order against a very experienced opponent.

Robson-Akobian, St. Louis Fall Chess Classic, St. Louis, September 2019

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Qb6 8. Na4 Qa5+ 9. c3 b6 10. Bd2 c4 11. b4 Qa6 12. Be2 Be7 13. O-O O-O 14. Qc2 f5 15. Nb2 b5 16. a4 Nb6 17. a5 Nd7 18. Nd1 Rf7 19. Ng5 Bxg5 20. fxg5 Ne7 21. h4 Bb7 22. Nf2 Qc6 23. Nh3 a6 24. Nf4 Nf8 25. h5 g6 26. Rf2 Bc8 27. Raf1 Bd7 28. g3 Be8 29. Rh2 Rg7 30. Kg2 gxh5 31. Rfh1 Bg6 32. Qd1 Kf7 33. Bxh5 Ke8 34. Bf3 Kd7 35. Qe2 Re8 36. Kf2 Ra8 37. Ke1 Kc7 38. Kd1 Nd7 39. Kc1 Rag8 40. Rh6 Nf8 41. Qg2 Qe8 42. Kb2 Qf7 43. Rf1 Qe8 44. g4 fxg4 45. Bxg4 Be4 46. Qf2 Rxg5 47. Nxe6+ Nxe6 48. Bxg5 Rxg5 49. Rxe6 Rxg4 50. Qf7 Rg2+ 51. Kc1 Qxf7 52. Rxf7 Rc2+ 53. Kd1 Rxc3 54. Rfxe7+ Kd8 55. Re8+ Kd7 56. R6e7+ Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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