It got a little messy at the end, but the players playing the best chess took home the American Cup and the American Women’s Cup at the all-star U.S. knockout event last week at the Saint Louis Chess Club.
GM Hikaru Nakamura defeated GM Wesley So in a four-game rapid playoff in their third match of the event — Nakamura sent So to the Elimination Bracket with 1½-½ preliminary match win and So returned the favor with a 2-0 victory in the pairing of the winners of the champions and elimination brackets — to claim the Cup.
On the women’s side, GM Irina Krush made it two for two in the two-year-old event, defeating rising 13-year-old star FM Alice Lee in the preliminary round and again in the bracket championship, but only after suffering her first classical game to Lee on the way to clinching the title 2½-1½.
One of Nakamura’s best efforts came in his match against strong GM Leinier Dominguez Perez in the preliminary rounds. The win assured Nakamura of a favorable seeding in the Champions’ Bracket when the playoffs began. Nakamura as Black scores a psychological win right off the bat, surprising his opponent with the Kalashnikov Sicilian and then getting a solid middle game when White backs off from the supersharp but theoretically recommended 11. g4!
But Nakamura later admitted he “lost the thread” of the ensuing, hard-to-evaluate position, with Black’s two knights battling White’s two bishops for positional superiority. White’s 22. Bxe3 Nf5 23. Ra7!? was perhaps too subtle, since grabbing the pawn on offer with 23. Rxb5 Qc3 24. Rxb8 Rxb8 25. Bh3 makes Black work just to recover the pawn and maintain equality.
Things get even murkier on 29. Bh3 Nd4!? (Nakamura spent an ocean of time on 29 … Ne7, trying to evaluate lines like the scary-looking 30. Bxf6+ Kxf6 31. f4 Qa7+ 32. Kh1 exf4 33. Qc3+ Kg5 34. gxf4+ Kh6, though it looks like a draw on 35. Qh8! (Qf6? Qf2! wins for Black) Qe3! 36. Rg1 Nf5 37. Bxf5 Qf3+ 38. Rg2 Qf1+ with a perpetual) 30. c3 Nc2 (eyeing the strong c4-post via a3) 31. Qf3?! (White starts to get in trouble as his clock ticks down; sturdier was 31. Bf1 Na3 32. Bxf6+ Kxf6 33. Rd2 Rxd2 34. Qxd2 Qc7 35. Qc1 Nc4 36. h4, with equality) Ng8 32. Bf1 Ra3 33. Bc1 Rb3 34. Qe4? (losing a pawn; 34. Qd3 Nxb4 35. Qd2 Na6 36. Qc2 Nc5 37. Be3 b4 38. cxb4 Rxb4 39, Bxc5 dxc5 40. Qxc5 again keeps the balance) Rxc3 35. Bb2 Nf6! 36. Qh4 (Qe2 Rc8) Rb3 37. Bc1 Ng8 38. Qd8 Qe7 39. Qa5 Nd4, and Black is up material with all his pieces nicely anchored.
White defends stubbornly, but his hopes of deploying his bishop pair are undermined when a nice exchange sacrifice decides the game: 43. Qxb5 Qb2!? (already here 43 … Rxe3! 44. fxe3 Nh6 puts White on the ropes) 44. Qa6 Nf6 45. h3 h5! (setting up the knockout blow) 46. Kf1 Qe6 47. Kg2? (see diagram; the last hope of fighting on looks to be 47. Qa1, trading off the fearsome Black queen) Rxe3! 48. fxe3 h4 49. gxh4 (preferring a quick death, but no better was 49. Bxf3 Qxg3+ 50. Kf1 exf3 51. Rd2 Ne4 52. Rc2 Qxh3+ 53. Ke1 Qg3+ 54. Kf1 f2 and wins) Qh2+, and White resigned just ahead of 50. Kf1 Qg1 mate.
Krush seized the early lead in her decisive playoff with Lee, using both offense and defense against her young opponent.
Despite the stakes and the opponent, Lee does not appear intimidated — she sacrifices a pawn as Black on Move 4 and forces Krush to weather a nasty-looking kingside pawn storm of her castled king. Lee offers up a second pawn with 20. Rfc1 Qf6!? 21. Qxd5, and the Black invaders reach the ramparts of the White fortress on 21 … g3 22. Qf3!? (Be4 h3 23. Nxg3 is also possible) Bg4 23. Qf1 Bxe2 24, Bxe2 h3. But it turns out White can hold — just barely — using one of Lee’s own pawns as a critical shield.
Thus: 25. Bf3 hxg2+ 26. Bxg2 gxh2 27. Qf3! 27. Rg6 28. Rc2 Rdg8 29. Be1!, and Black’s g-file pressure is neutralized while her pawn on h2 provides nice shelter for Krush’s king. The bigger problem for Black is that, with her attack stalled, White is ready to launch one of her own.
White’s flank attack proves far more potent on 31. b4 Bd6 32. a4! f6 (obviously not 32. Bxb4?? 33. Bxb4 Nxb4 34. Qxb7 mate, but Black now has no good shelter from the coming storm) 33. b5 Ba3 34. bxc6 Rxg2 (a desperate attempt at a diversion, since 34 … Bxc1 35. c7+ Kc8 36. Qxb7+ Kd7 37. c8=Q+ Kd6, and White has her choice of multiple mates) 35. Rxg2 Rxg2 36. c7+ Kc8 37. Qxg2 Bxc1 — Black emerges just a pawn down, but Krush has things well in hand.
Black’s exposed king and loose bishop prove her undoing on 38. Qg8+ Kxc7 (Kd7 39. c8=Q+ is even worse) 39. Qc4+, picking off the unfortunate bishop on c1. Black’s queen gets in a few free checks, but after 46. Ke1 f5 47. Qc5 Qg3+ 48. Kd1, the White king will find safe harbor on the queenside and Black will be just a piece and a pawn down; Lee resigned.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Dominguez Perez — Nakamura, American Cup, St. Louis, March 2023
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e5 5. Nb5 d6 6. N1c3 a6 7. Na3 Be6 8. Nc4 Rb8 9. Nd5 Bxd5 10. exd5 Nce7 11. g3 b5 12. Ne3 g6 13. a4 Nf6 14. axb5 axb5 15. Bg2 Bh6 16. O-O O-O 17. Qd3 Nd7 18. Bd2 Nc5 19. Qe2 Qc7 20. b4 Nd7 21. Ra5 Bxe3 22. Bxe3 Nf5 23. Ra7 Rb7 24. Rxb7 Qxb7 25. Bd2 Ra8 26. Qd3 Ra2 27. Rd1 Nf6 28. Bg5 Kg7 29. Bh3 Nd4 30. c3 Nc2 31. Qf3 Ng8 32. Bf1 Ra3 33. Bc1 Rb3 34. Qe4 Rxc3 35. Bb2 Nf6 36. Qh4 Rb3 37. Bc1 Ng8 38. Qd8 Qe7 39. Qa5 Nd4 40. Be3 Nf3+ 41. Kg2 Qf6 42. Be2 e4 43. Qxb5 Qb2 44. Qa6 Nf6 45. h3 h5 46. Kf1 Qe5 47. Kg2 Rxe3 48. fxe3 h4 49. gxh4 Qh2+ White resigns.
Krush — Lee, American Women’s Cup, St. Louis, March 2023
1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 e4 4. Ng5 c6 5. Ngxe4 Nxe4 6. Nxe4 d5 7. cxd5 cxd5 8. Ng3 h5 9. e3 h4 10. Bb5+ Nc6 11. Ne2 Bd6 12. O-O Qf6 13. f3 Bd7 14. d4 O-O-O 15. Bd2 Bc7 16. Bd3 Qd6 17. f4 g5 18. Qb3 Rhg8 19. Kh1 g4 20. Rfc1 Qf6 21. Qxd5 g3 22. Qf3 Bg4 23. Qf1 Bxe2 24. Bxe2 h3 25. Bf3 hxg2+ 26. Bxg2 gxh2 27. Qf3 Rg6 28. Rc2 Rdg8 29. Be1 Kb8 30. Rac1 Qf5 31. b4 Bd6 32. a4 f6 33. b5 Ba3 34. bxc6 Rxg2 35. Rxg2 Rxg2 36. c7+ Kc8 37. Qxg2 Bxc1 38. Qg8+ Kxc7 39. Qc4+ Kd7 40. Qxc1 Qh3 41. Bd2 Qf3+ 42. Kxh2 Qf2+ 43. Kh1 Qf3+ 44. Kg1 Qg3+ 45. Kf1 Qf3+ 46. Ke1 f5 47. Qc4 Qg3+ 48. Kd1 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David R. Sands can be reached at email@example.com.
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