GM Hikaru Nakamura was the first player to book his ticket to this year’s finals of The American Cup after defeating GM Wesley So in a blitz playoff. So will now have to play against GM Levon Aronian for a spot in the final after the latter won his second playoff matchup in a row, this time against GM Leinier Dominguez.
In the women’s event, GM Irina Krush overcame FM Alice Lee in their championship bracket playoff after two classical draws, while IM Nazi Paikidze eliminated GM Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova after scoring 2-0 in their rapid playoffs. Lee will take on Paikidze on Thursday to decide who will face a so-far unbeaten Krush in the finals.
The winners of the 2023 American Cup elimination bracket will be decided on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at 11 a.m. PT/20:00 CET.
With neither player having lost a classical game in the event so far, it was unsurprising to see a draw play out between Nakamura and So in their second game of the match. Given the players’ long history in rapid and blitz tiebreaks, including an epic semifinal in the 2022 Chess.com Global Championships (which So won), playoffs were a fitting way to separate the pair.
By move four of their first rapid game, Hikaru, playing with the black pieces, had already tried to steer the game away from well-known territory with the unusual 4.Bd6 in the Sicilian Defense: Nyezhmetdinov-Rossolimo Attack.
The idea was well handled by So who quickly built an advantage and kept expanding it through the middlegame. By the 48th move, White was completely winning however a huge opportunity to secure the first point was missed, gifting Nakamura the chance to grind out, and eventually win the endgame.
Notably, So had the chance to draw the game on move 100 but suffered from a nervy slip that cost him a crucial half-point.
Insane ending! Wesley So blunders in a drawn position and @GMHikaru gets the point! Now Wesley is in a must-win position with the black pieces! #TheAmericanCup pic.twitter.com/YbrPucasME
— Saint Louis Chess Club (@STLChessClub) March 22, 2023
Needing to win on demand with the black pieces, So opted for a variation of the Modern Defense that commentator and GM Yasser Seirawan described as “helpful for Nakamura” due to it being too “conventional”.
Moves later though, a decision was made to trade the queens which brought So’s pieces to life. A queenside assault was launched towards Nakamura’s king and after a brilliant temporary exchange sacrifice, So forced his opponent’s submission.
The match then moved to a two-game blitz playoff where So started with the white pieces. Nakamura again played the Sicilian Defense: Nyezhmetdinov-Rossolimo Attack and equalized easily. As black began to take control, So blundered on move 27 and Nakamura jumped at the opportunity to finish the game in his trademark tactical style. Our Game of the Day has been annotated by GM Rafael Leitao.
Once again tasked with needing to win on demand with Black, So selected the Modern Defense as his opening and tried to prove that lightning can indeed strike in the same place twice. Still feeling the pressure from the previous encounter, the Chess.com global champion went awry in the middlegame and succumbed to defeat.
In the elimination bracket, Aronian only needed two games to sweep aside Dominguez and book his spot in the finals after outfoxing his opponent in a bishop, rook, and pawn endgame. Coming into today’s match, Aronian’s objective was to “try and avoid what happened in yesterday’s match”, that being a lengthy, wild encounter that ended in an armageddon tiebreaker, and he achieved exactly that by winning 1.5-0.5.
Aronian will play So in the finals of the elimination bracket to determine who will ascend to play Nakamura in the finals of the 2023 American Cup.
The showdown between Krush and Lee came to a conclusion in the women’s event with the eight-time U.S. women’s champion winning both rapid playoff games. In their classical encounter, a draw was reached but not before Lee missed the opportunity to win the match in a rook and pawn endgame!
Krush proved too strong in the quicker time controls and played in her customary attacking playing style in both rapid games, choosing not to castle at all in the first game and to castle queenside in the second. The final moments of the match highlighted Krush’s ability to calculate amidst the chaos.
Paikidze-Tokhirjonova was a more one-sided affair and the former played enterprising chess in both games to take the match 2-0. One brilliant move in each game, both leading to cutting combinations, spelled the end to a good tournament for Tokrhirjonova and granted Paikidze a shot at taking out the elimination bracket final. Only Lee stands in her way…
The American Cup is an over-the-board event in the U.S. capital of chess, St. Louis, featuring the country’s top grandmasters. Split into Open and Women’s categories, the players will compete in a double-elimination knockout bracket while competing for their share of the $300,000 prize fund.