It took two tiebreakers before the winners were determined in the two elimination brackets in The American Cup.
GM Wesley So cheated himself from a win in the first game but took care of business in the blitz tiebreaker.
In the women’s event, FM Alice Lee and IM Nazi Paikidze initially traded punches before Lee took both games of the blitz tiebreaker, securing a repeat visit to Queen Krush’s court.
The two finals of the 2023 American Cup will start on Friday, March 24, 2023, at 11 a.m. PT/20:00 CET.
In both finals in the elimination brackets, the third game provided the decisive breakthroughs for Lee and So, but before the matches went as far as that, some action-packed games thoroughly riveted both commentators and the online spectators.
So faced last year’s winner, GM Levon Aronian, in the Open event. In game one, So chose a rather insipid-looking setup against Aronian’s Semi-Slav. However, after some inaccuracies by Aronian in the early middlegame, White whipped up a terrifying attack on the g- and h-files. Black was dangling on the edge of defeat for some time, only staying in the game through a combination of sheer luck, defensive ingenuity, and some inaccurate moves by So.
Having staved off defeat and securing sufficient counterplay to balance the position, the game entered the endgame where Aronian should have been able to hold the draw without too many worries. However, defending a slightly tricky rook ending with less than a minute on the clock, especially against someone as gifted as So, is no easy task. Soon the position was lost again, but once more, the players found a way to reach a drawn position. In the end, with only kings left on the board, the players settled for a draw.
Our Game of the Day has been annotated by GM Rafael Leitao.
In the second game, the players essayed a Petroff, a departure from So’s usual and trusty Berlin Defense. Despite playing the game down to bare kings once more, the game was hardly unbalanced throughout.
On to the tiebreaker…
For game three, the colors were repeated from the previous encounter, and this time the players, didn’t avoid the Berlin. For So, that soon proved to be an excellent decision, as Aronian quite possibly mixed up his move order or got afflicted by an illness defined by over-the-board inspiration and irresistible overconfidence, which, I think, was discussed in a recent episode of the Chess Feels podcast.
Certainly not Aronian’s finest performance of the event. This game, obviously, set So up for the enviable situation of having White and the opponent needing to win.
Aronian, for his part, pulled the Hippo/Pirc out of the hat, hoping that the opening’s inherent flexibility would allow him some chances at some point. He got his way, achieving a fully playable position. Rather than submitting to dull equality, Aronian sacrificed a pawn for the initiative. Sadly for him, his benefit never extended beyond full compensation. With a steady hand, So steered the game toward a dead-drawn rook ending and the hoped-for revenge opportunity vs. GM Hikaru Nakamura in the final.
With that, we concluded the elimination bracket of the Open event.
The women’s event in last year’s The American Cup is for many remembered as the coming out party for Lee where she showed the world exactly how much she had improved. This year, like the year before, she had been vaulted out of the championship bracket by GM Irina Krush, who has seemed, much like a mobster in Chicago in the 1930s, untouchable. Eager to book a return ticket to a full viewing of Groundhog Day, she had to get through Paikidze, who had demonstrated some serious determination of her own throughout this event.
The first game showed lots of creativity in the opening, particularly on Black’s side, where Paikidze pulled out a Semi-Djin Indian. It didn’t seem entirely okay, but it shook Lee sufficiently so that Paikidze took over the initiative as Black.
However, two big mistakes by Black resulted in a quick win for White.
In the second game, Lee rolled out her trusty Meran Defense. Paikidze answered with Shabalov’s 7.g4, which isn’t considered as dangerous as it once was, but it still carries a solid punch if you are not properly prepared. It turned out that Lee wasn’t particularly familiar with the line, and Paikidze once more pulled the longest straw in the opening preparation battle.
Things went from bad to worse immediately after the opening when Lee chose the wrong plan and then was violently picked apart by Paikidze.
In the tiebreaker, Lee understandably decided to avoid a return trip to Shabalov Land, an amusement park she clearly didn’t enjoy nearly as much as her more experienced opponent. Instead, she went for 6…b6, a move that has been played by GMs such as Magnus Carlsen and Sam Shankland, both familiar names in St. Louis.
Nevertheless, White still gained a pleasant position. After two mistakes by Lee, 14…f5? and 15…Rfd8??, White got the opportunity to play the devastating 16.c5! However, this move seems to have been overlooked by both players because for many moves White didn’t play it and Black did nothing to prevent it despite its apparent strength.
Nevertheless, White had a considerable advantage for several more moves, but chaos descended on the board when the clock started running low, and mistakes were exchanged with loose hands. In the end, Lee stood as the victor of the battle.
In the second game of the tiebreaker, Paikidze was in the same situation as Aronian in the Open section, having to win with the black pieces. Like Aronian, she chose a flexible and unorthodox setup designed to keep the position fluid and her opponent unsteady in terms of direction and plans. This was quickly rewarded as Lee didn’t find the right setup, and Black took the initiative.
The situation carried on for a while, in fact, well into the endgame, when Paikidze then, rather unfortunately, let her rook get trapped when trying to recover a pawn she had correctly sacrificed earlier in the game. While Black avoided losing the rook, she couldn’t avoid entering a lost endgame.
With that, the rest of us can get the popcorn ready for the Groundhog Day encore.
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.