Hikaru Nakamura is the 2019 US Chess Champion

by Antonio Pereira
4/1/2019 – Four years after getting his fourth national title, Hikaru Nakamura became the clear winner of the 2019 US Chess Championship. He defeated Jeffery Xiong with the black pieces, while Leinier Dominguez and Fabiano Caruana — who were tied at the top with him after ten rounds — only added half points to their tallies. It was an exciting final day at the Saint Louis Chess Club, as at some point it seemed like Dominguez would also get a win against Timur Gareyev. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Hikaru's fifth

Not so long ago Hikaru Nakamura was the clear number one in US chess, but the inclusion of Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and now Leinier Dominguez to the federation made it increasingly difficult to claim that spot. However, after a 2018 without much to celebrate in classical chess, Nakamura managed to get clear first at the strongest ever edition of the national championship.

He took home $50,000 and added almost fifteen points to his rating, reaching number 11 in the live ratings list after having stalled at number 16 in previous months.

Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland

The latest two US champions sharing a laugh | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Results of Round 11

 

It was a three-horse race when the round began, and the first one to finish his game was Fabiano Caruana, who could not create enough play with the black pieces against 2018 champion Sam Shankland.  This was not a surprise for Nakamura, who mentioned in the post-game interview that he expected this to happen — he was almost certain, on the other hand, that Leinier Dominguez would win.

Shankland demonstrated he was happy with the overall result of the event, congratulating his long-time comrade on Twitter:

Fabiano Caruana, Sam Shankland

Three players were in the fight for first when the round began | Photo: Lennart Ootes

By the time Sam and Fabiano signed the draw, all eyes were put on Leinier Dominguez v Timur Gareyev, as the prediction made by both Caruana and Nakamura seemed to be about to be confirmed — Leinier did get a large advantage with the white pieces. After having gotten the upper hand, however, the Cuban-born GM missed a big opportunity:

 

Try your own variations on the diagram above!

White's 26.fxe5 was not the most challenging, as the computers were screaming for 26.f5, going for a kingside attack. Leinier said afterwards that he had seen the idea but that after 26...♞g5 27.♔g2 ♞f7 28.f6 g6 he could not see a clear way to continue. Thus, he decided to go for the capture on e5, which also looked good. And he was right, as White still was the one putting pressure afterwards in the game. 

When the players reached the time control, White was a piece up, but Black had a pawn on b2 in return:

 

A difficult technical task awaited Dominguez, who had precisely made the most of these sort of small advantages throughout the tournament. 

Gareyev found the right defensive manoeuvres, however, and the draw was signed after 77 moves. White was still a piece up, but the black king was active and controlled the knight's entrance squares, while also threatening to capture the all-important h-pawn:

 

Leinier had a great tournament, especially taking into account the fact that he had not played a classical chess tournament for over two years. He shared second place with Fabiano Caruana and took home $25,000.

Leinier Dominguez

The hiatus did not hurt Leinier's chess strength | Photo: Lennart Ootes

A few minutes prior to Leinier and Timur finally agreeing to a draw, Nakamura had already signed the scoresheet of his eleventh round game against Jeffery Xiong with 0-1 as a result. He later confessed that he had prepared mostly for 1.e4. Against 1.d4 he chose an old weapon of his, the Dutch Defence, aware of the fact that Xiong usually does not feel very comfortable in these structures.

By move 30, Black already had an edge, but at that point Jeffery threw away an opportunity to muddy the waters:

 

Instead of 32.b7, Xiong could have gone for 32.♖e6+, giving up the exchange but also getting a strong passed pawn on e6. After the text, however, Hikaru got a strong initiative and never looked back until getting the coveted win in 58 moves. 

 

Resignation came after 55...a1+ 56.g2 g1+ 57.h2 g3+ 58.h3 h1+ (58...h5 was mate-in-seven) and White has more than enough reasons to give up at this point.

Jeffery Xiong, Hikaru Nakamura

Keeping an eye... | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Hikaru talked to Maurice Ashley afterwards. When asked about his bad run in classical chess, he pointed out that he felt things could have gone a different way had he found the right moves at some very particular critical moments. This triumph, therefore, is very important for him, as he managed to get crucial victories when he felt he was in must-win situations — Hikaru particularly mentions his games against Robson, Akobian and, of course, Xiong, all wins with the black pieces.

A key factor, according to the champion, was the big support he received from the Twitch community. Hikaru has lately become a regular feature in the streaming world — a whole new way to approach chess improvement? 


Interview with Hikaru Nakamura


Final standings

 

All games

 

Jennifer Yu cannot stop winning

The 2019 Women's US Champion continued her absolutely astounding run after having secured the title with a round to spare. Jennifer took down Carissa Yip to wrap up her performance in Saint Louis with nine wins and two draws, while also getting a 2½-point lead over her closest rivals. Yu already has the three norms required to become an IM and will be looking to increase her rating in order to get the title (she gained around a hundred rating points in this event).

It was a dream tournament for Jennifer | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Second place in the Women's was shared between Tatev Abrahamyan and Anna Zatonskih, after the latter was defeated for a second day in a row, this time against Sabina Foisor. A royal fork gave Sabina the victory:

 

35.xf6+ xf6 36.d5+ and Black resigned. The fact that, despite finishing with two losses, she managed to tie for second place goes to show how strong Zatonskih's play had been in the first nine rounds.

Tatev Abrahamyan ended up tied for second | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Results of Round 11

 

Final standings

 

All games

 

Links




Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/4/2019 11:32
@ lajosarpad, it is not true that "tournaments with only top players, having around the same strength is encouraging risk-free play." The players are so good that it is almost impossible to get an advantage, despite players trying. In the process of trying to get an unbalanced position, one would have to weaken their position substantially, which makes a loss more likely than a win. Maybe this is what you mean by "encouraging risk-free play." But it has nothing to do with a player's will to win, it is just the nature of the cards that are dealt and how good players are today (substantially because of opening theory). Players really have no choice.

I was not referring to a specific world championship, which can use a variety of methods for tiebreaks and have or have not draw odds, but I am saying that players are so good today that classical chess only (without blitz, rapid, or draw odds) cannot reliably distinguish between top players. Even if you used a "first to x wins" world championship, where x could be from 5-10, or even based on a mathematical formula, you could have matches lasting for many months. Everyone should admit that this is the problem. How to solve it is up to debate, whether by draw odds, rapid/blitz tiebreaks, or some other mechanism. But I do not find any of these solutions satisfying, because take a look at tournaments with only the elite. Much of the chess has become staid, and then you get some blitz or rapid tiebreak. How can draw odds be instituted into a tournament? Must tournament organizers invite weaker players to make sure there is some number of decisive games?
willyrobinson willyrobinson 4/4/2019 11:19
Thanks KevinC, really appreciate it - w
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/4/2019 12:02
@fgkdjlkag

I absolutely have no problem with seeing many draws or even grandmaster draws. I view chess as a peaceful war and I think the players are fighting for themselves. I value their freedom to play however they like more than the expectation of the crowds who want to see blood. Yet, I agree with you that the crowds appetite for blood must be satisfied as well. If one pays for a ticket to see a tournament round, then he or she should leave in a satisfied state of mind. For example, some chess puzzles might be interactively discussed with the public after the games if they do not take too long (not necessarily by the players themselves). This would compensate for the frustration that one paid for the ticket and the game happened to be different from the game of the year.

The main reason I would like to have draw odds is that it would avoid the disgrace of a world championship match ending in a rapid or blitz game. A side effect is that the format that way would encourage fighting chess from at least a player on every round. I do not feel there is an inherent problem with draws, but Carlsen not playing for a win in a riskless advantageous position because he considered his chances to be better with the rapid games and saved energy, this was ridiculous.

You say that there is a problem with classical tournaments and matches. But the World Champion is not classical. Players can bank on the tiebreaks. That's a problem in my view.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/3/2019 11:58
@fgkdjlkag

I think this is a matter of perception. For example I have no problem if many games are drawn as long as those draws are rarely the result of cowardness on both sides. If a player wants to win, then it's good to avoid the lines which are known by the opponent. If a player wants to avoid losing, then he or she will only have to stick to the lines known by him or her best.

Classical tournaments actually do not encourage sticking to the opening theory ab ovo. If one has decent chances of winning, then yes, the player might want to play in a safety-first manner. However, if there is at least another player who will score better against the others, then one will be encouraged to take risks. This is why tournaments having a long range of rates, maybe between 2600 - 2800 like Wijk aan Zee are often resulting in more fighting chess from top players, while tournaments with only top players, having around the same strength is encouraging risk-free play.

In a match draw odds are giving incentives to fight, while in a tournament a number of beatable opponents add a randomity for the top players. The same lower rated player might have a good day and achieve a draw or even a win a day and then blunder horribly the next day. Lower rated players will fight for their lives, top players are in hunting mode.
ChessAdmin_01 ChessAdmin_01 4/3/2019 07:31
Congratulations to the winners! Great to see Nakamura use the Leningrad Dutch in the last round.

And @Lavanda: Irina Krush earned her GM title in 2013. See the official FIDE card: https://ratings.fide.com/card.phtml?event=2012782
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/2/2019 11:58
@lajosarpad, I don't disagree with much of what you have said, but it has nothing to do with my comments. I am saying that the high draw frequency and the nature of draws among the very top players is a problem, and if it is not addressed, I believe there is going to be a gradual decrement in interest in chess. Probably it is already happening, and why there are so many blitz and rapid events on the international schedule this year. But that, in my mind, does not solve the underlying problem.

I emphasize it is not only the number of draws, but also the nature, although the number of draws is itself a problem for having a tournament, or match winner. If all the draws were 3-result games, it would be better, but there are many games that are close to drawn for the entire game, leading to these Carlsonesque wins after 6-7 hour games of endurance. And I am talking about at the top level. So because the US championship has players who are relatively weaker than the top 4-6, there are more decisive results. I think the reason for all of the above is opening theory. It not only leads to very level games, but also I think it affects player morale. Nakamura and Krush both mentioned the importance of being motivated in interviews in this tournament, and many others mention it. I think a lack of motivation is due to unbelievable depths of opening theory. You say that "The current system of the World Championship match encourages sticking to opening theory for the contenders", but that is the case for all classical tournaments.

I won't repeat my comments from the world championship, but if you want draw odds or some other way to start the players on unequal footing, then you agree with me that classical chess today (that is, classical time controls) cannot distinguish the very top players in a reliable way.

The lack of respect for players today I think is due to computers, because it makes amateurs think that GM moves are much easier than it actually is.
offpister offpister 4/2/2019 06:19
@Lavanda--not sure why noone else has bothered to correct you, but Irina Krush is a GM, not a WGM.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 4/2/2019 02:49
Believe it or not, Yu's score is not a record. Rachel Crotto scored 10½ / 11 in the 1979 US Women's Championship.
DaveC DaveC 4/1/2019 11:08
I like Seirawan's idea regarding World Championship matches that end in a tie - have a final classical game where the champion has draw odds, BUT the challenger gets white!
lajosarpad lajosarpad 4/1/2019 10:53
@fgkdjlkag

Chess is so complicated that no human will ever play it to near perfection. Ever. What humans are capable of is to train their middlegame and endgame skills and to memorize engine-generated theory. This means that everyone is beatable. If a top engine (with decent hardware, of course) would play a ten-game match against a top grandmaster, then achieving at least half a point would be the human's goal. They are all beatable.

From 55 games 27 were decided this time, which is just a tiny bit lower than half of the games.

You are right to state that in the World Championship Match the 12 draws are ridiculous. But what is the reason? Were the two contenders unbeatable? Not at all. They just did not take risks, they were more afraid of losing than excited of winning. Back then a large debate was unfolding that I took part of as well here on Chessbase and back then I stated that there is indeed a problem. The current system of the World Championship match encourages sticking to opening theory for the contenders, where they are in their comfort zone. The match is short-enough to increase the importance of any decided game and since the rules are absolutely balanced, nobody has the advantage. I see this to be a problem.

If the World Champion would have draw odds, then the conditions would encourage at least one of the players to play for a win. From the start of the match the challenger would be wise to do his job and really challenge the world champion. If the challenger takes the lead, then the world champion would have to play for a win.

Like in old days. Also, in the days of Petrosian, the so-called grandmaster draw of 15-16 moves was fairly commonly occurring, but back then the spectators did not whine, because they respected more the players and the game than now.
Lavanda Lavanda 4/1/2019 09:53
Zatonskih's highest title is IM, not WGM. If you put the GM title next to Irina Krush, then you should also do the same with IM Zatonskih.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 4/1/2019 09:26
I don't know why more ppl don't seem to take the problems with top-level chess seriously. Nakamura gave a very pessimistic-sounding interview a couple days ago about how extremely difficult it is for any top player to get a win these days, and Caruana described his impossible task of trying to get a win with black against Shankland. Top chess has become a test of endurance, playing on endlessly in slightly better positions until the opponent fatigues, Carlsen being the main example. The world championship ending in 12 draws, creating a difficult situation for tiebreaks that no one is happy about, further exemplifies it.

Mr. Sinquefield should take Annie Wang and Tatev Abrahamyan out for an expensive dinner.
RayLopez RayLopez 4/1/2019 08:14
@willyrobinson @KevinC- are you trolling us on April Fools? Since 9.Ne4 in the Naka-Xiong game loses a piece for nothing...maybe you meant 9. Nd4, which still loses a pawn for nothing...anyway, the comments section is probably not the best place for analysis of a game.
KevinC KevinC 4/1/2019 06:59
@willyrobinson, That is theory, and after 9...Ne4; 10. Ne4 Ba1; 11. Neg5 it is known to be better for white. For example, as an example line, the main move is 11...c5; 12.e4 Bg7 (the comp thinks Bf6 is slightly better); 13.Nh4! h6 14.Ne6 Be6 15.de and white has a VERY dangerous attack (+1.81 Stockfish 10 depth 26). That is EXACTLY the type of line you don't want to play against a kid, even a GM kid, who is certainly a human calculator.
Grewia Grewia 4/1/2019 06:56
April Fool's!

Oh wait...
willyrobinson willyrobinson 4/1/2019 02:39
I watched Nakamura's game yesterday. Why does black not play Ne4 on move nine? It seems very uncomfortable for white, but I'm a patzer with no chess engine, so...
jonkm jonkm 4/1/2019 01:03
Nice that Naka could win with enterprising play -- not content to cruise home with a draw! Congrats!
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