American Cup: Nakamura and Krush win champions’ brackets

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
3/23/2023 – Hikaru Nakamura and Irina Krush emerged victorious in the champions’ brackets of the open and women’s sections of the American Cup. Both multiple US champions won their matches in tiebreaks. Nakamura got the better of Wesley So by a 4-2 score, while Krush defeated Alice Lee more quickly, by a 3-1 score. In the elimination brackets, Levon Aronian and Nazi Paikidze remain in contention in each of the two sections. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

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All about nerves

Both champions’ brackets at the American Cup saw nerves playing a central role in Wednesday’s matches. Wesley So misplayed better positions against Hikaru Nakamura in the first set of tiebreakers before completely losing the thread in the second set of blitz games. Meanwhile, Alice Lee crumbled under pressure in the two rapid games she played against Irina Krush, uncharacteristically missing tactical ideas even while in the driver’s seat.

Nakamura and Krush thus won the champions’ brackets, getting bonus prizes of $10,000 and $5,000 respectively. They have not won the events yet, however, as they will face the winner of the elimination brackets in matches starting Friday. Both will get a rest day and a second chance in case they lose those matches, as per the rules of the double-elimination format.

Before the grand finals, So and Lee will face the players who won their matches in the elimination bracket on Wednesday — i.e. Levon Aronian and Nazi Paikidze. Aronian knocked out Leinier Dominguez in the open, while Paikidze eliminated Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova in the women’s.

American Chess Cup 2023

Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Collin Graham got to play the first move in the Wesley So v Hikaru Nakamura match | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Nakamura 4 - 2 So

Following the pair of draws in the classical portion of the match, So obtained a clear advantage with white after playing remarkable chess in the first 25-minute game of the playoffs.


The commentators could not quite understand why So did not play the winning 47.Rxf7 here, when his active army is sure to break all of Black’s defences shortly. So’s 47.Rc7 did not give away all his advantage, but allowed Nakamura to create counterplay after grabbing the b-pawn with the knight (via a check from d3).

Soon enough, however, Black did manage to equalize, and the same hesitation shown by So in the diagrammed position above prompted him to blunder the game away in a drawn position with rook and knight against rook and pawn.


Even rook and knight versus rook leads to a draw in almost all cases, and surely So could have held this position with White had he not been so eager to end the game at once — 100.Rxe6+ was a gift for Nakamura. After 100...Kxe6 101.Kg6 Rd1, Black easily stops the passed pawn thanks to his active king on the e-file.

Although So played better than his opponent in the early stages of the game, it was Nakamura’s nerves of steel which gave him the victory, a factor that would turn out to be decisive later on as well.

So, in fact, won the next game on-demand, again outplaying Nakamura in the early middlegame. However, in the 5-minute games that followed, Nakamura was clearly stronger when the position heated up and a steady hand was needed to play the most critical lines in sharp situations. The famed streamer won two games in a row to secure a spot in the tournament’s grand final.


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Hikaru Nakamura

Fully focused — Hikaru Nakamura | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Nakamura’s recap: “Dear YouTube, the Bongcloud works!”

Aronian 1½ - ½ Dominguez

Two Saint Louis residents — who are also good friends — faced off in the elimination bracket. Aronian, who came from knocking out 2022 winner Fabiano Caruana in style, won the first game with white after getting a couple of extra pawns in an endgame with rooks and bishops of opposite colours.


Engines give white only a slight edge in this position, despite the two extra pawns. However, defending this in a rapid game against a player as resourceful as Aronian was never going to be easy for Dominguez. Aronian had to work hard, but finally managed to get a 59-move win.

A draw in the second game means the ever-dangerous Aronian is still in contention for overall tournament victory.


Levon Aronian

Levon Aronian | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

American Chess Cup 2023

Krush 3 - 1 Lee

For a second year in a row, Krush and Lee faced off in the final match of the champions’ bracket. Two draws in classical games were followed by a rapid game in which a materially balanced position with a symmetrical pawn structure seemed to be heading to a draw.


Here Lee needed to be a bit careful and play 43.Kg3 instead of immediately grabbing the pawn with 43.Rxa6. In the game, after 43...Nf4+ 44.Kh2 Nxg2 there is only one move that keeps the balance for White.


Again 45.Kg3 is the way to go — and again the youngster overplayed her hand by going for queenside activity with 45.Ra8.

Krush went on to grab the h-pawn immediately and gobbled up the e and f-pawns later on, as White’s passer on the a-file turned out not to be a real threat to her opponent. In the end, Krush sacrificed her knight for that pawn, and swiftly pushed her four connected passers to get ahead on the scoreboard.

(Note that in the first diagram, after 43.Kg3 Nf4 White has 44.Bf2, defending her g-pawn.)

Lee went all-in with black in the rematch, but it was Krush who managed to break through with an attack on the kingside. The 8-time US women’s champion was visibly relieved after beating her young-yet-fierce opponent.


Alice Lee, Irina Krush

In action — Alice Lee and Irina Krush | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

Paikidze 2 - 0 Tokhirjonova

Much like Krush, Paikidze scored back-to-back wins on Wednesday. In the second game against Tokhirjonova, the Georgian-American IM found a lethal pawn check after her rival blundered in a double-edged, open position.


41...Ke7 fails to 42.d6+ with a discovered attack against the black queen. Paikidze found the pawn push and secured match victory.


Nazi Paikidze, Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova

Nazi Paikidze knocked out Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club / Lennart Ootes

American Chess Cup 2023


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.