In two hard-fought matches in the Elimination Brackets, day seven decided who would make it to the finals of The American Cup and face GMs Fabiano Caruana and Irina Krush.
In group A, GM Levon Aronian outlasted GM Lenier Dominguez; in Group B, FM Alice Lee and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan took turns delivering and taking punches in a memorable match that eventually saw the 12-year-old Lee as the winner.
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Ahead of the finals in the Elimination brackets, each player had lost just one match, yet from the action on the board, it was clear why all four were still there. Their tenacity and will to both win and survive were unmatched.
Two of the best-prepared players in the event, Aronian and Dominguez, met for the second time to decide who would play Caruana. In their first match, Dominguez had won in two games, but this time it was Aronian who pulled the longer straw in a tight match.
But on the path to that decision, it was far from obvious that it would be so, with Dominguez often being the side who was pressing.
Rapid Game 1: Aronian-Dominguez
That Dominguez opted for the Petroff should not have been a surprise to Aronian, considering that in their first match, Dominguez had won convincingly in just 28 moves with the opening.
In the popular 5.Nc3 line, the players repeated the first 10 moves from that game until Aronian chose to deviate with 11.Rhe1, ultimately departing from what had previously been seen with 13.Bd4. Although the computer engines were not unabashedly impressed by Aronian’s opening choices, the battle on the board told a different story, where both sides had their share of the chances in the middlegame.
It was only after Aronian’s logical but ultimately erroneous 30.f6 that it became clear that Dominguez was in charge of the game. Eventually, the players first went into a queen-and-two-rooks endgame where Aronian nearly perished and then a queen-and-pawns ending where Dominguez had two extra pawns.
With three connected passed pawns, it seemed certain that Dominguez would once more win, but Aronian kept confusing matters by combining checks with creating a passed pawn of his own.
Had the game been conducted with the classical time control, Dominguez would certainly have won the game, but when having to make the moves on the increment only, the situation is an entirely different one. Frustrated by Aronian’s checks from all directions, Dominguez approached the task of winning from various angles until ultimately getting stomped by Aronian’s brilliant 73.c6! which secured White the draw.
Game 2: Dominguez-Aronian
In the second game, Aronian defended with the somewhat passive Hungarian Defense against Dominguez’s 3.Bc4. White gained a space advantage, which he gradually built on, giving him a small but clear advantage.
However, after the careless 25.Bxc5, the advantage evaporated and gave Black the initiative. But with careful and precise defense, White confidently secured the draw.
Blitz Tiebreak Game 1: Dominguez-Aronian
In the blitz tiebreak, the colors were repeated from the second game. Dominguez, clearly satisfied with the outcome of the opening in that game, invited Aronian to repeat their choices, but Aronian obviously was less inclined to do so and instead opted for a line he had played a bit in his much younger years, where Black fianchettos his kingside bishop.
The play eventually transformed into a Modern Benoni-like position where White was comfortably better. However, the middlegame saw mistakes of varying sizes from both sides, including a missed winning shot by Dominguez. But as Tartakower once wrote, the winner is the player who commits the next-to-last mistake, and here that was Aronian.
Blitz Tiebreak Game 2: Aronian-Dominguez
Now needing to win, Dominguez decided to stray from the Petroff that had otherwise provided him with so much joy against Aronian in this event, possibly wanting to avoid some of the extremely drawish options that are available to White. Instead, the players entered an Alapin Sicilian, 2.c3, where Dominguez, perhaps less familiar with the theory, went wrong with his 7…d5, which allows White an advantage.
Out of the opening, White was completely winning, but somehow Dominguez avoided the knockout punch and kept going. When Aronian slipped up, Dominguez fired off …Rxh2+, bringing him right back in the game. Despite many twists and turns, Aronian managed to save the draw and thus win the match.
The winner of the Elimination Bracket, Aronian, will face Caruana on Thursday.
To compare this match to two heavy-weight sluggers, with heavy desires to deliver knockout punches and less desire to patiently wait for their chances, would be rather apt. Despite the five decisive games, there was a lot of fascinating chess and fine touches, before Alice Lee could book her ticket to a revenge encounter with Irina Krush.
Rapid Game 1: Lee-Abrahamyan
With Lee playing the white pieces, the players went into a sharp and unbalanced variation of the Queen’s Gambit.
In the early middlegame, Abrahamyan seemed to struggle to find the right plan, which allowed White a strong initiative on the kingside in conjunction with some possible pawn advances in the center. However, missing her chances, Lee allowed Abrahamyan the opportunity to play the almost decisive rook sacrifice 27…Rxd4!!. But despite thinking for a long time about her move, she instead opted for 27…Nb3, which led to sharp but approximately equal chances. Once the clock ticked down toward zero, Black made several further mistakes and Lee confidently scooped up the full point.
Rapid Game 2: Abrahamyan-Lee
The second game was an entirely different affair. Lee equalized smoothly as pieces got exchanged and the players were left with only a queen, rook, and six pawns for each side. A draw seemed inevitable. But then Abrahamyan showed why she is as tough an opponent as she is. Gradually, she started creating small problems for Black to solve. At first, it seemed innocent, but a couple of loose moves by Lee made White’s advantage more significant. All of a sudden, Abrahamyan had a pawn, which was duly converted, despite Lee’s best efforts to confuse the situation.
Blitz Tiebreaker Game 1: Abrahamyan-Lee
The colors were repeated in the blitz tiebreaker, once more handing Abrahamyan the white pieces. Like Dominguez, she offered an invitation to repeat the opening, but Lee decided to try something different.
This apparently was not a good idea. Abrahamyan, by and large, played a positional masterpiece, particularly considering that it was a blitz game, only missing a few tactical ideas here and there but otherwise winning a beautiful game.
Blitz Tiebreaker Game 1: Lee-Abrahamyan
Now in a must-win situation with White, Lee countered Abrahamyan’s English Defense with aggressive play and secured a clear advantage. Interestingly, the players followed a game from 10 years earlier where White also won.
And as Abrahamyan had done in the previous game, Lee displayed extreme maturity by converting the advantage without any hint of hesitation, sending the match into an armageddon blitz game.
As in the previous game with Abrahamyan as White, she got off to a good start via transposition from the 1.Nf3/English Opening into a Queen’s Gambit Accepted, which Lee did not seem to know particularly well. Particularly, 8…b6?! was problematic and soon White had a large, maybe decisive, advantage thanks to a massive lead in development.
White seemed to miss several knockout punches, most notably on move 16, when she could have forced an endgame with an extra minor piece.
However, that was not to be, and Lee returned to the living. After White’s careless 28.b4, she could no longer lose. And when Abrahamyan gambled, Black went on to win the game.
With that, Alice Lee will be facing Krush in the final match.
All Games Day 7
The American Cup is an over-the-board event in St. Louis featuring some of the best grandmasters playing for the United States. Players compete in two distinct double-elimination events for a piece of the $300,000 prize fund.