US Ch: Xiong beats the champ

by Antonio Pereira
3/23/2019 – The main attraction of the third round was Jeffery Xiong's win over defending champion Sam Shankland at the US Championships in Saint Louis. The 18-year-old not only claimed a big scalp but also got his name on top of the standings after a dream start. Hikaru Nakamura and Leinier Dominguez also won and are now a half point behind him, together with Wesley So. In the Women's, Jennifer Yu took down Irina Krush to keep a perfect score. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Sharp, entertaining

None of the big names (2700+ players) were paired against each other in round three — a circumstance that will only be seen again in rounds seven and nine. But as Fabiano Caruana pointed out after drawing for a third time in the event, "there are no easy games [in Saint Louis]". 

Early in the day, the commentators' attention drifted toward the defending champion's game. By move eight, Sam Shankland had already not castled against the recent winner of the Spring Classic, Jeffery Xiong. When Sam went 8.♔f2 as a response to the bishop check 7...♝b4+, the youngster thought for fourteen minutes before deciding to keep a classical approach with 8...0-0 instead of looking for a refutation of the line with 8...d5.

Xiong's choice quickly paid off, as Sam did not prioritise his king's safety as much as he should have. By move 16, Black already offered a piece sacrifice to open up the position:

 

Jeffery had enough time to calculate, and that is exactly what he did prior to playing 16...xf3! — when 17.gxf3 would be followed by mate with 17...h3+ 18.g1 e3# and 17.xf3 would be answered with the lethal blow 17...e3. Credit should be given to Shankland for keeping a pragmatic stance in dire circumstances and responding 17.3e4 after 'only' five minutes. 

White's only source of counterplay was the d-pawn, so a move like 17...e5 would have kept all the trumps of the position for Black while avoiding trouble with the passer. Instead, Jeffery chose 17...g4 (the sharper 17...f5 was also good, according to the computers). It was all for grabs again, with White a pawn up and capable of advancing with 18.d7 in one go. 

Sam Shankland

It's tough to face that h-file line of attack | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

But Sam's king was still open…After a couple of mistakes by both sides, Shankland went astray by wasting key tempi with his kingside rook in a critical position:

 

The computers think Black has a winning advantage, but White is an exchange and a pawn up nonetheless. Sam correctly thought it was time to activate his rook, and he did so with 27.g1 instead of 27.h2, getting ready to give up the exchange while defending from the second rank in many lines. In fact, White followed 28.♖g2 and 29.♖h2 in the next two moves, giving Black more than enough time to round up his attack. 

Xiong closed the deal shortly after the time control:

 

Shankland resigned after 41...e4.

Things keep looking up for the former Junior World Champion, who has so far climbed 27 spots in the live ratings list after winning the Spring Classic and getting 2½ out of 3 at the start of the US Championship. The Saint Louis Chess Club seems to be suiting him well!

Jeffery Xiong

Xiong is number 56 in the live ratings list | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Two technical wins

A more commonplace story line was seen in the other two decisive games of the day, with the older, higher-rated players getting rather technical wins against younger opposition. In fact, both final positions feature rook endgames with the winning side bringing home a passed pawn to decide the game.

Hikaru Nakamura got the better of round-two winner Sam Sevian with the white pieces after gaining a pawn in the middlegame:

Follow the game continuation by moving pieces on the diagram

It is certainly more pleasant to have White in this position, but it was not necessary for Black to kill the tension with 20...xd5, as after 21.cxd5 d4 22.xd4 exd4 23.d3 c5 24.dxc6 bxc6 25.xd4 White is a clean pawn up. From this point on, Hikaru did not look back and secured the win after 49 moves.

Hikaru Nakamura

Time to focus | Photo: Justin Kellar / Saint Louis Chess Club

Leinier Dominguez, meanwhile, got his first classical win after a long hiatus. His rival of the day, Ray Robson, did not play the opening ambitiously and found himself on the wrong side of a queenless middlegame:

 

Leinier broke loose in the centre with 25...c5 26.dxc5 d4 and soon enough traded his positional trumps for a pawn. The Cuban-born GM went on to show good technique and get a 51-move win against the sixth highest-rated player of the field.

Leinier Dominguez

The new kid on the block, Leinier Dominguez | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club 

Results of Round 3

 

Standings after Round 3

 

All games

 

A perfect start for Yu

The only player still with a chance to claim the $64,000 "Bobby Fischer prize" is Jennifer Yu, who achieved a crucial win against rating favourite Irina Krush with the black pieces. The commentators did not think Jennifer would be fighting for a win after the opening, as Irina got the kind of positional edge that has given her so many victories in the past:

 

White's plan is simple: to advance her queenside pawns as far as possible. Black, on the other hand, must try to stir up some kind of counterplay on the other flank, despite having doubled f-pawns. 

Jennifer Yu

Three games, three wins for Jennifer | Photo: Justin Kellar / Saint Louis Chess Club

Krush was well aware of this fact, but then overplayed her hand by putting too much hope on her queenside and giving Black too much of a material advantage:

 

The flashy 29.c5, played by Irina, is actually a mistake — the cooler 29.c2 was enough to keep the advantage. Jennifer, of course, captured the exchange with 29...xc5. Apparently, the seven-time US Women's Champion lost control over the situation when she saw the win was not as clear as she might have thought...and went on to blunder on move 33. Yu navigated the complications correctly and claimed her third straight win after reaching the time control.

Yu's only chaser on 2½/3 is Anna Zatonskih, who won her two games with the white pieces so far in Saint Louis. Her third round victim was Maggie Feng. 

US Women's Chess Championship

Round 3 of the Women's US Championship | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Results of Round 3

 

Standings after Round 3

 

All games

 

Commentary webcast

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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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