Caruana wins the inaugural American Cup

A great way to prepare for the Candidates Tournament.

Image via Pixabay

Fabiano Caruana bested Levon Aronian in the grand final of the inaugural American Cup after a flawless run through the upper bracket, getting closer again to the 2,800 rating mark.

His good showing at this event should bode well for his chances at the upcoming Candidates Tournament, where eight of the best chess players in the world will battle it out against one another for the chance to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world championship title.

The American Cup was a new high-profile invitational event featuring eight of the best American chess players. It introduced an interesting double-elimination format to competitive chess. In a design that may be familiar to people in the esports scene, the American Cup was based around an upper (“champions”) and lower (“elimination”) bracket.

The upper bracket games used classical time controls (90 minutes plus 30 seconds per move) but the lower bracket used rapid time controls instead (25 minutes plus 10 seconds per move). For tiebreaks, two blitz games (10+5) and an Armageddon game were used. No draw offers were allowed at the event, so games could only end in a tie in the event of drawn positions according to the rules of chess (three-fold repetition, the 50-move rule, or possibly stalemate).

The field of the inaugural American Cup consisted of the following players (in order of final standings):

  • Fabiano Caruana
  • Levon Aronian
  • Leinier DomĂ­nguez
  • Ray Robson
  • Sam Sevian
  • Wesley So
  • Sam Shankland
  • Jeffery Xiong

The event also featured a separate women’s tournament, which was won by IM Irina Krush, who also cruised through the upper bracket and finished the event without losing a single game in her four matches. That field featured the following players (in order of final standings):

  • Irina Krush
  • Alice Lee
  • Tatev Ahbrahamyan
  • Begim Tokhirjonova
  • Katerina Nemcova
  • Stavroula Tsolakidou
  • Ruiyang Yan
  • Anna Zatonskih

A great display from Caruana and yet more pain for Aronian

Featuring the three highest-rated American GMs in the form of Caruana, Aronian and So, the event carried a lot of excitement and intrigue even with many other top-tier events looming on the horizon for chess enthusiasts. Hikaru Nakamura was also scheduled to participate, but he withdrew to prepare for the Candidates Tournament, which meant that Ray Robson was drafted as his replacement.

All eyes were on Caruana here because he was the highest-rated player heading into the event. He’ll also be one of the eight players involved in this cycle’s Candidates Tournament soon, making him one of the potential challengers of Carlsen.

If this is the level of play he can display there, he could do real damage at the event. Round one began with a huge upset when Sam Sevian beat Wesley So with the Black pieces, pushing him down into the lower bracket. Meanwhile, a wild series between Caruana and Xiong went all the way to the playoffs stage, with Caruana ultimately triumphing over his opponent.

Caruana’s series against Sevian also went to tiebreaks, with another comfortable victory to follow in the shorter time controls. His challenger in the upper bracket final was none other than Leinier DomĂ­nguez, who defeated Levon Aronian in the second round to make it this far. It was the first time in the event that Caruana managed to win the series in classical time controls.

Aronian struck back against Domínguez in the lower bracket, setting up a grand final matchup with Caruana. After failing to convert a promising position with the White pieces in game one, Aronian couldn’t hold back Caruana’s onslaught in what turned out to be a completely winning rook endgame. He resigned on move 56. Despite the second-place finish, Aronian lost 13.8 rating points in total at the American Cup. Caruana, in contrast, gained 4.6. This pushed him up to 2,785.6, still fourth in the world rankings but closer to the magical 2,800 barrier, which he dipped below in November 2021.

Having already challenged Carlsen once in 2016, pushing the world champion all the way to the brink in the form of rapid tiebreaks, a repeat Candidates win by Caruana could prove to be an interesting affair—that is, if Carlsen is willing to defend his title, which he’s been unclear about in recent months. The return of a formerly vanquished challenger may not whet his appetite.