GM Varuzhan Akobian and IM Anna Zatonskih entered today's play at the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship with the narrowest of leads. They both won, and watched their main competition draw as Black, stretching the lead to one full point in each event.
Zatonskih (6/7) won an opposite-colored bishop ending, something GM Irina Krush (5/7) failed to do. Of course, Zatonskih had three extra pawns, all of which were needed, while the defending champion Krush only had one, which offered zero winning chances.
IM Anna Zatonskih
Meanwhile, Akobian won his fourth straight game, something GM Gata Kamsky also did while winning the 2013 title. Kamsky (5/8) is playing the role of spoiler this year as he attempts to deny Akobian his first-ever U.S. title, however his draw versus GM Daniel Naroditsky (4.5/8) pushed him to a full point behind.
"I didn't expect she would play this pawn sacrifice," Zatonskih said of her opponent's Milner-Barry Gambit. Melekhina played it earlier in the tournament in round two, also without success. "I should have spent more time analyzing," Zatonskih said.
Zatonskih highlighted the importance of playing 15...Qh4 before swinging her queen to the other side. Forseeing the sacrifice of the d5 pawn, she said forcing 16. g3 helped her create threats against White's king.
Despite not playing in a normal-length tournament since last year's championship, Zatonskih said she was nonetheless prepared this year. "Don't forget my husband is a grandmaster (Daniel Fridman), so I'm always around chess."
Krush was nearly knocked completely out of contention; instead the lead merely doubled as she fought back against WGM Sabina Foisor. "I made this really horrible move exd5 in the opening," Krush said. "It's such a stupid, stupid move. Then my whole game was not to lose. After that it was a struggle to stay in the game."
"I'm sure it was a losing position," Krush said. "I don't doubt that. It was just playable enough where I could make some moves."
Krush wasn't helped by her time management. After running her clock down to one second on the 39th move in the previous game, today she dwindled to two seconds, also on the 39th move. "It's extremely unprofessional to allow yourself only one second to make a move," commentator GM Yasser Seirawan said.
On the other side of the room at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, Akobian was engraving a few more letters on the winner's trophy. He converted an extra pawn against struggling first-time participant GM Sergey Erenburg.
"I just tried to play good moves and if you do that you have good chances to win," Akobian said. "He missed the crucial idea Qd8, Kh7, Qd1. This is the best setup. There are no threats, the rook is behind the pawn, and everything is protected."
GM Varuzhan Akobian
Akobian has played in 11 consecutive U.S. Championships, the longest active streak. He has yet to win a title.
Kamsky could only muster a draw against Naroditsky, despite the younger player's pawn extension on the kingside. Still, the four-time champion still controls his own destiny. Looking ahead, Akobian takes White against Kamsky in round 10 on Sunday.
Likewise, Krush also still controls her own destiny. She takes White tomorrow against Zatonskih.
A graphic the live production showed with the impending #1 vs. #2 matchup
Today's round began with an unfortunate incident involving the luckless WGM Camilla Baginskaite (1/7). With her knight en prise on f4, she touched her f-pawn, and immediately resigned before completing the move.
"I think she wanted to play 14. Nxe6 fxe6 15. f3 but she took so long I think she just mixed up the move order and touched the pawn," WGM Katerina Nemcova (4/7) said. "It's a lot of stress - it's the U.S. Championship."
WGM Tatev Abrahamyan got a gift perpetual despite being two pawns down against WIM Viktorija Ni (2/7), but she will need considerable help to overtake Krush and Zatonskih with two rounds to go. Young NM Ashritha Eswaran (3.5/7) reversed her two consecutive losses to beat WIM Iryna Zenyuk (3.5/7), who has previously been undefeated and still seeks her first plus score at a U.S. Women's Championship.
NM Ashritha Eswaran
In the U.S. Championship, GM Alex Lenderman (5/8), like Eswaran, reversed his two-game losing streak by winning the battle of the Alexes. He won as Black against the normally solid GM Alex Onischuk (4/8). As Lenderman told Chess.com, his losing streak may have been a hidden advantage.
GM Alex Lenderman
"I was expecting to have chances this game," Lenderman said. "Onischuk is a very smart player. He knows I lost twice in a row and wanted to pounce on me. Giorgi (Kacheishvili), my coach, told me that might happen. You have to always look for something positive."
Lenderman was pleasantly surprised the game ended as quickly as it did (White faces a deadly invasion on e1). "In the endgame I was planning on playing 100 moves," he said. "But then he tricked me, or rather, tricked himself."
Besides Naroditsky, another player with a positive score on +1 is GM Josh Friedel (4.5/8), who had the better side of a draw against GM Ray Robson (3.5/8). GM Timur Gareev (4/8) hasn't been able to make a run, and today he couldn't convert a wild game against GM Alejandro Ramirez (3/8). Both sides defied conventional chess principles:
According to commentator GM Robert Hess, both sides were winning at several points.
U.S. Championship crosstable after Round 8
U.S. Women's Championship crosstable after round 7
You can find a complete listing of the standings and pairings here.
Tune into live play-by-play every day, resuming Saturday, at 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET, 20:00 CET with GMs Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade at Chess.com/TV!