U.S. Championships: Action-Packed Ninth Round Sets Up Dramatic Final Two Days

Yesterday's round nine of the 2023 U.S. and U.S. Women's Championships delivered a number of attacking games with lots of cool ideas, occasional blunders, and some missed opportunities. It was also a significant round for the standings as it reshaped the tournament landscape, especially in the women's section.


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At long last, there is a clear leader in the Women's section, with Begim Tokhirjonova winning her fifth consecutive game (courtesy Lennart Ootes/SLCC)


In the Open, we saw four decisive games as players finally broke the drawish streak of the past two rounds. The leader, GM Fabiano Caruana, won a fascinating game against GM Hans Niemann and maintained a one-point lead over the trio of GMs Leinier Dominguez, Wesley So, and Abhimanyu Mishra, who all won their games in rather unusual ways.


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"We want Fabi!" the junior champion will face Caruana in a critical game for the standings (courtesy Lennart Ootes/SLCC)

In the most important game of the round, Niemann challenged Caruana with 1. e4 and the Giuoco Piano Opening. In terms of the opening, Caruana appeared well prepared. Opting for an interesting sideline with 7. ... Ba7, he managed to confuse Niemann, who responded with an early inaccuracy. However, instead of taking advantage of the situation, Caruana played an inaccuracy himself allowing Niemann to gain a positional advantage. Niemann found the best way to address the inaccuracy and to improve his pawn structure. However, the position was still complicated, and it was Caruana who found a direct way of counterattacking in the center and then opening up a deadly attack on the opponent's king. Niemann failed to find the best defense and his position quickly collapsed.




An important win was scored by one of the best theoreticians in the tournament, GM Leinier Dominguez. GM Andrew Tang, playing with the Black pieces, chose the Philidor defense and the 8. ... h6 sideline. It didn't take long for Dominguez to seize the initiative. With his creative Nf3-h2-g4 maneuver, he intensified the pressure on the vulnerable black king. Faced with a difficult position, Tang made a bold choice, sacrificing a pawn in exchange for a trade of both bishops and an attempt to activate his pieces. Unfortunately for Tang, his activity was not sufficient. After Dominguez posed a serious challenge with his fast a-pawn and an attack on the seventh rank, Tang froze and ultimately lost on time.



A great battle arose between former Webster University teammates GM Wesley So and GM Ray Robson. So chose to play the Giuoco Piano Opening and Robson responded with an unusual variation, allowing the opponent to damage his pawn structure. However, the most compelling part of the game started after Robson positionally sacrificed a pawn with 26. ... c4 in exchange for activating his knight to c5 and creating a strong counterplay on the queenside. Soon after, he had a winning advantage. After both players blundered several times in time pressure, it was Robson who blundered the last. So was able to find the best way to convert his advantage by a nice knight-transfer. Black's position then became hopeless.




Another promising battle was expected between GM Sam Shankland and GM Abhimanyu Mishra. This game certainly did not disappoint. Playing against Mishra's French defense, Shankland managed to gain a significant position advantage. Saying that, I am not sure what was happening in the game otherwise. Both players made several unexpected moves and chose unexpected plans. However, the most important part occurred on move 63. In a balanced position, Shankland blundered a piece by missing an important intermediate check. Despite this inaccuracy, Mishra gifted him with a one-time chance to draw the game with a very unexpected move. Shankland failed to find this move and after a few more passive moves, his position was no longer salvageable



In the Women's championship, a solo leader emerged for the first time! WGM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova notched her fifth consecutive victory against FM Ruiyang Yan, while IM Carissa Yip was unable to convert her significant advantage settling for a draw against IM Nazi Paikidze. FM Alice Lee drew with GM Irina Krush in a rather uneventful game, continuing their tie for the third place, but is already unable to catch the leader.


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"Why is everybody playing the French?" - Yip looked in prime position to catch Tokhirjonova once again, but Paikidze held on for a resilient draw (courtesy Crystal Fuller/SLCC)

The unstoppable Tokhirjonova chose 1. Nf3 against Yan, and soon after transposed into the English Opening. Despite an expected long battle between these very strong players, things went south extremely fast. Quite unexpectedly, Ruiyang blundered on move six by capturing a poisonous pawn and her position became very quickly lost. Although trying to complicate the position with an interesting idea, there was no way to save the game. Tokhirjonova was able to convert her exchange advantage quite smoothly into a full point.

A difficult match was expected between the two former U.S. Women's champions Yip and Paikidze. After Yip opened with her typical 1. e4, Paikidze somewhat surprisingly responded with the French Defense: an opening she lost in the seventh round against WGM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova. Being aware of that game, Yip went for the exact same variation as Tokhirjonova. Despite improving on her previous game, Paikidze found herself in a positionally difficult situation. To make things worse, Yip understood the position and made very good moves. Soon after, Yip's position was winning. However, Paikidze did not collapse and instead found the most hopeful way for defense. After several extremely accurate moves, Paikidze was able to launch a counterattack and Yip had to settle for a perpetual check.


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courtesy SLCC / Spectrum Studios




standings w9
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courtesy SLCC / Spectrum Studios


Tomorrow is the penultimate round, and we can expect many players to go all-in hopes of reaching the podium or getting into a playoff! In the Open, the key match-up is crystal clear: the sole leader Caruana playing the young superstar Mishra who may risk it all in hopes of catching Caruana in the standings. In the Women's championship, all eyes will be on two matches: Krush challenging the sole leader Tokhirjonova and Yip playing against Zatonskih. Both Caruana and Tokhirjonova may become the winners of their section with one round to spare! Tune in for live coverage at 1:20 p.m. CDT.

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