Wesley So won a showdown against Jeffery Xiong in Round 9 of
the US Chess Championship to move to an amazing 8/9, a point clear of Xiong and
Ray Robson with just two rounds to go on Thursday. Both chasing players scored
impressive wins over out-of-form defending champion Hikaru Nakamura, with
Jeffery getting some revenge for his Bong Cloud loss to Hikaru in the final
round of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz. The event is far from decided, since Wesley
faces both Robson and Nakamura on the final day.

You can replay all the games from the 2020 US Chess
Championship using the selector below:

And here’s the Day 3 commentary from Maurice Ashley,
Jennifer Shahade and Yasser Seirawan.

Nakamura’s hopes extinguished

5-time and defending US Chess Champion Hikaru Nakamura went
into Day 3 of the 2020 event trailing Wesley So by 2.5 points. It was now or
never if he was going to mount a challenge, and any doubts about his approach
were dispelled when he tweeted before the start of play.

That statement provoked some responses!

Hikaru was also trailing his opponent Jeffery Xiong by 2
points, and decided to play the most common opening at the elite level when needing
to win on demand against 1.e4 with the black pieces – the Modern Defence with g6 and d6.
It has a dubious reputation, but nowhere near as dubious as the 1.e4 2.Ke2 Bong
Cloud Hikaru had played against Jeffery in the final
round of the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz
a month earlier. Despite a lost
position out of the opening, Hikaru won that game, but this time Jeffery was to
get sweet revenge.

When 18.Bc4! appeared on the board Hikaru already knew he
was in deep trouble.

The simple threat of Ng5 and capturing on f7 is highly
unpleasant, and after 18…Nf8 (played after 6 minutes’ thought) 19.Qd6! Jeffery exchanged
off queens to get what he made appear a technically won endgame. It was
reminiscent of the one-way traffic in Hikaru’s loss to Awonder Liang the day
before, with a crisp finish soon following.

30.f3 would leave Black paralysed, but Jeffery saw no need
for sadism and forced matters with 30.Rca7! Bxe4 31.Rxf6! Bxf6 32.Nxe4 Bd8
33.Ra8! Ne6
and Hikaru resigned since opponent can win in almost any way he
chooses.

A 3-way race between So, Xiong and Robson

It seemed at first that Wesley So had decided that on +5 he could
safely draw his way to the finish line, and he played a fast 28-move draw
against Sam Sevian. It turned out, however, that he was caught immediately both
by Xiong and Ray Robson, with the latter crushing Elshan Moradiabadi.

After 16.Bxc4! dxc4 17.d5! there was no looking back for
Ray, who soon had an overwhelming advantage that he converted in real style.

Moradiabadi had unfortunate pairings, since after being
pummelled by Xiong and Robson in his previous two games he came up against So
in Round 8. Wesley made no mistake and smoothly picked up a full point with the
black pieces.

That meant all eyes were on Xiong-Robson, where Jeffery
played the Scotch.15…Ne5!? seems to have been an inaccuracy by Ray Robson.

16.Ba3! Qxa3 17.Qxe5 left White with a dominant queen and an
extra pawn, while later in the game Jeffery was able to crash through on the
kingside. That meant he went into the final round of the day still level with
Wesley and, as fate would have it, the two leaders were playing each other.

“The Sveshnikov is very solid, so I wasn’t trying to be that
ambitious in the opening,” said Wesley, but Jeffery’s over-the-board novelty 16…Bb7!?
(played after 6 minutes’ thought) left both players out of book, with a fascinating
struggle ahead. 19…b4!? took another 6 minutes, but it was worth it.

After 20.axb4 Nxb4! 21.Nxb4 Bxe4 Wesley’s 22.Qxf4!? looks to have
been inaccurate, since 22…Qa5! is strong for Black, but after 22…Rxb4!?
23.Bd3!
White was back in business.

23…Bxh1 24.Qxb4 Bf3 25.Rd2 left a dynamically balanced but
very complicated position, with the problem for Jeffery being that he had only
2 minutes to Wesley’s 14. As Wesley explained:

I didn’t have time to calculate everything, so I was just
playing my moves fast and then thinking on my opponent’s time – seems like a
good idea!

An endgame soon arose where White’s queenside pawns had a
head start over Black’s pawns on the kingside, but despite the lack of time Jeffery
defended brilliantly… up to a point.

As Wesley noted, Jeffery could have played 44…Be4! here, when
it’s hard for White to make any progress, but with 6 seconds on the clock the
19-year-old went for 44…Rxb6!?, allowing 45.d6! After 45…Rxb7 46.d7 Rxd7
47.Rxd7
Wesley So deferred to Yasser Seirawan’s endgame knowledge, and the
1981, 1986, 1989 and 2000 US Champion was correct.

Yasser felt 47…Bd5!, with the bishop coming to e6 to cement the
position, should be a draw, and the all-knowing 7-piece tablebases concur. All other
moves lose, including 47…f5, as played by Jeffery. After 48.Kd3! Wesley didn’t
put a foot wrong, finishing the game by sacrificing the exchange on f5 for a
winning pawn endgame.

Wesley, now on 8/9, was asked if he could have imagined
things would go so well for him.

No, definitely not! Everything’s going right in this
tournament. I’m trying to squeeze my games and somehow my opponents are making
mistakes, so yes, definitely it’s a dream tournament. I’m also getting
positions I like out of the opening, but it’s not over yet, because I play Ray
Robson tomorrow.

Ray Robson has White in that penultimate round game and is,
like Xiong, just a point behind after winning a great game against Hikaru
Nakamura.

18.Ndb5! axb5 19.Nd5! was a known but still spectacular
tactical operation, and although after 19…exd5 20.Bxf6 g6 the position was
roughly equal, Ray went on to apply pressure until Hikaru ultimately cracked.

The final day couldn’t be set up better, with Wesley’s final
round opponent none other than Nakamura! Wesley noted he has White in that game
and Hikaru is out of form, but the defending US Champion may relish the
opportunity to decide his successor. Jeffery Xiong may be ready to pounce on
any slip-up by Wesley, since he faces the struggling Alex Lenderman and Alejandro
Ramirez.

A tie for first place would mean a playoff featuring two 10+2 rapid games and potential Armageddon. Don’t miss all the action live from 19:00 CEST here on
chess24
!

See also:


Chess Mentor

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