American Cup represents a chess stress test

There is plenty of stress in classical chess, where the slightest misstep can lead to catastrophic loss and a single move can ruin seven hours of hard work.

But things have only gotten worse — or better, depending on your tastes — with the modern game, with its variety of speeded-up time controls and new formats beyond the traditional one-on-one matches and round-robin tournament to make the players ‘ blood pressure rise.

The inaugural American Cup, wrapping up this week at the St. Louis Chess Club, is a “double-elimination knockout” tournament featuring most of the country’s very top players. First-round match winners were seeded into a “Champion’s Bracket,” while first-round losers lived to fight again in the “Elimination Bracket,” with the winners/survivors squaring off for the top prize. To increase the tension, no draw offers are permitted and virtually every match after the opening round sends someone home for good .

The EKG charts for the players in today’s first game, played at rapid time controls, must have been sorely elevated. GM Sam Sevian needed a win after losing a first playoff game to GM Fabiano Caruana. He didn’t get it, but he did put a major scare in the higher-rated Caruana in the game’s frantic final finale.

Black’s Modern Defense succeeds in producing the unbalanced position Sevian needed, and Black throws his pieces at the castled White king with abandon. Caruana, just needing a draw, eschews more active but risky lines — the computer likes both 21. Qxg4! and 24. Qxg4!, counterattacking even as Black looks for a queenside mate — to win the exchange, but Black’s bishop pair pose a formidable attacking threat.

The clock, the stakes and a race of passed pawns all play a part in the wild finale: 44. Re1 Bxc3?? (Black can fight on with 44…Qc7 45. Na4 Kf7 46. Bxd7 Qxd7 47. Rxe5 Bd1+ 48. Ka3 Bxa4, as 45. Qxa4? Qd6+ picks off the rook) 45. Qxc3? (returning the favor; White understandably wants to trade queens, but instantly winning was 45. Rxe6+! Kd8 [Kf7 46. Qe7+ Kg8 47. Rg6+ Kh8 48. Qh4+] 46. ​​Qe7+ Kc7 47. Rc6+ Kb7 48. Rxc8) Qxc3+ 46. Kxc3 Ke7 47. a4!, getting a head start as both players seek new queens.

The pressure boils over again on 52. Rf1 d2 (see diagram) 53. Rxf3?? (Rd1! is the right idea, winning on 53. Nb3 54. a8=Q! [Kxb3?? Bxd1 is check, and Black is winning after 55. Kc3 Bf3 56. Kxd2 Kc5] Bxa8 55. Kxb3) d1=Q 54. a8=Q; Black now gets in the first crucial check, but which square is right?

Tragically, Sevian’s heroic effort comes to naught after 54…Qd4+? (as computer-aided analysts everywhere were quick to point out, Black wins on 54. Qb1+! 55. Kc4 [going to the a-file loses the White queen] Qc1+! [and not 55…Qc2+? 56. Rc3 Qe2+ 57. Kb4 Qb2+ 58. Kc4, and Black must settle for a perpetual] 56. Kb4 [Rc3 Qf4+ and mate next] Qb2+ 57. Kc4 Qd4 mate) 55. Bc4 Qd2+ (Qb2+ 56. Rb3! Nxb3 57. Qd8+ Kc6 58. Bd5 is a pretty mate) 56. Rc3 Nd7 57. Qa6+, and now it’s the Black king caught in a hail of checks .

The cornered Black monarch can’t be saved after 63. Qc7+ Ka8 64. Ka3 (64. Bd5+! Qxd5 65. Ra3+ was slightly more efficient) Qd4 65. Qa5+ Kb5 66. Qb4+, and Black resigned as the ending is hopeless in lines like 66. Qxb4+ 67. Kxb4 Nf8 68. Kb5 Ng6 69. Kb6 Ne6 70. Be6 f4 71. Rc7. A never-wracking battle all the way through.

Through Monday’s play, Caruana had booked a berth in the finals, defeating GM Lenier Dominguez in the Champions bracket. Dominguez and GM Levon Aronian, winner of the Elimination Bracket, now square off for the right to challenge Caruana. On the women’s side, GM Irina Krush awaits the winner of the match between FM Alice Lee and WGM Tatev Abrahamyan in the title match for the Cup later this week.


By contrast, the agony of anxiety was pretty much all on one side in NM Justus Williams’ win over expert Jason Shi from the recent Foxwoods Open, the annual tournament at the famed Connecticut casino. Williams goes all in for the attack, and the bet pays off with a king hunt that leads to a quick mate against Black’s harried king.

In an unorthodox English, White plays for open lines before either side is fully developed with moves like 9. e4! (violently getting the White bishop into the fray) and 12. Rc1!! bxa4 13. Bb5! Qxb5 Rc8+, jettisoning two pieces in order to cause havoc behind enemy lines. Already, Black to watch out for 14…Kd7?? 15. Qg4+ Ke7 16. Ba3+, with mate on tap.

The chase is on after 15. Ba3+ Ke6?! (better survival chances were offered by 15…Nb4 16. Bxb4+ Qxb4 17. Qf3 axb3 18. axb3 g6, when Black unwinds a bit after 19. Qf6+ Kd7 20. Rc4 Qe7 21. Qxh8 Nc6) 16. Qg4+ f5 (Kxe5 17. Bxf8 Rxf8 18. Qxg7+) 17. exf6+ Kxf6 18. Qd7 — Shi’s move holds g7, attacks the White rook and offers a queen trade, but Williams is not done yet with his attack.

It’s over after 23. f3! (Qxg7? would ruin all the fine prior work after 23…Qb1+ 24. Ke2 Qe4+ 25. Kd1 Qg4+ 28. Qxg4+ Kxg4, and White’s attack is gone) Rg8 24. Qd6! (with the deadly threat of 25. g4+) Rxf8 (Nf6 25. Rc5) 25. Rxf8 Qd3+ 26. Kg1 g6 27. Qxd5+ Kh6 28. Qg5+ (Qxa8 was good enough as well) Kg7 29. Qe7+ Kh6 30. Rf7, and after a few spite checks , it will be mate on h7; Shi resigned.

Caruana-Sevian, American Cup 2022, St. Louis, April 2022

1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. Be3 a6 5. g4 b5 6. Bg2 Bb7 7. h4 Nd7 8. h5 gxh5 9. g5 c5 10. Nge2 h6 11. Ng3 hxg5 12. Nxh5 Bh6 13. Qd2 cxd4 14. Qxd4 Ne5 15. OOO Rc8 16. Kb1 Rc4 17. Qd2 Rb4 18. b3 Nc4 19. Qe2 Qa5 20. Bc1 g4 21. Nf4 e6 22. Nd3 Bg7 23. Rxh8 Bxh8 24. Qe1 Na3+ 25. Bxa3 Qxa 26. Nxb4 Qxb4 27. Ne2 Qa3 28. c3 Be5 29. Nd4 Nf6 30. Qe3 Qc5 31. b4 Qc4 32. f4 gxf3 33. Bxf3 a5 34. Be2 Bxe4+ 35. Kb2 Qc8 36. Nxb5 axb4 37. Kc1 d5 38. Qb6 Bf4+ 39. Kb2 bxc3+ 40. Nxc3 Be5 41. Qb4 Nd7 42. Bb5 f5 43. Kb3 Bf3 44. Re1 Bxc3 45. Qxc3 Qxc3+ 46. Kxc3 Ke7 47. a4 Nc5 48. a5 Kd6 49. a6 e5 50. a7 d4 51. Kb4 d3 52. Rf1 d2 53. Rxf3 d1=Q 54. a8=Q Qd4+ 55. Bc4 Qd2+ 56. Rc3 Nd7 57. Qa6+ Ke7 58. Qe6+ Kd8 59. Qg8+ Kc7 60. Bb3+ Kb6 61. Qd8+ Ka7 62. Qa5+ Kb8 63. Qc7+ Ka8 64. Ka3 Qd4 65. Qa5+ Kb8 66. Qb4+ Black resigns.

Williams-Shi, Foxwoods Open, Ledyard, Connecticut, April 2022

1. c4 c6 2. b3 d5 3. Bb2 Nf6 4. Nf3 Bf5 5. Nc3 d4 6. Na4 e5 7. Nxe5 b5 8. cxb5 cxb5 9. e4 Bd7 10. Nxd7 Qxd7 11. e5 Nd5 12. Rc1 bxa4 13. Bb5 Qxb5 14. Rc8+ Ke7 15. Ba3+ Ke6 16. Qg4+ f5 17. exf6+ Kxf6 18. Bxf8 Qd7 19. Qf3+ Kg6 20. Qg3+ Kh5 21. h4 Qe6+ 22. Kf1 Qf5 23. f3 Rg8 24. Qd6 Qd3+ 25. Rxf 26. Kg1 g6 27. Qxd5+ Kh6 28. Qg5+ Kg7 29. Qe7+ Kh6 30. Rf7 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at

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