Image by Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
In the open section, three players are tied for first, while the women’s crown is down to two players.
Onischuk Catches Akobian and So; Foisor and Paikidze Distance Themselves From Field
With one round to go in the United States Championship and Women’s Championship, three men and two women are still in contention for the titles. Varuzhan Akobian, Alexander Onischuk, or Wesley So will be crowned United States champion; Sabina-Francesca Foisor or Nazi Paikidze will win the women’s event.
Akobian, Onischuk, and So each have 6.5 points, a full point ahead Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura.
That three players are fighting for the title was not a surprise, but the expectation was that it would be Caruana, the defending champion, Nakamura and So, all of whom are ranked in the top 10 in the world.
The two championships are being held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. It is the ninth consecutive year that the club has hosted both events. The open tournament, a round-robin with 12 players, has a prize fund of $194,000. The women’s tournament, which is also a 12-player round-robin, has a prize fund of $100,000.
Onischuk, Akobian and So have taken different routes to put themselves in position to win the tournament.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
With three straight wins, Alexander Onischuk is in position to win his second title.
Onischuk, whose lone previous championship came in 2006, had a mediocre performance in the early part of the competition, but three consecutive victories, including in Round 10 over Jeffery Xiong, have catapulted him to the top of the field.
In Round 10, Akobian and So both drew, but from very different situations. Gata Kamsky, a five-time United States Champion, had So sweating before a queen-and-pawn ending petered out. Akobian was applying pressure on Ray Robson until a piece sacrifice he thought was winning actually allowed Robson to force a draw.
Caruana and Nakamura, who both suffered crushing losses in Round 9 that effectively took them out of contention, bounced back in Round 10 to beat Alexander Shabalov and Yaroslav Zherebukh, respectively.
There were four decisive results in the women’s division in Round 10, including reversals of fortune for the two leaders during their respective opponents’ time trouble.
Anna Zatonskih, a four-time champion who entered Round 9 just half a point out of first, essayed a fine queen sacrifice against Foisor only to see her exposed king lead to her demise. Paikidze, the defending champion, was thoroughly outplayed by Tatev Abrahamyan, until an oversight by her opponent handed her the advantage. Paikidze then netted the point with a punishing attack.
Foisor and Paikidze each have 7 points. Irina Krush, the seven-time champion, who held on for a draw against Katerina Nemcova, has 6 and is the only player who can catch them, but she needs both leaders to lose to have any chance of forcing a playoff.
Nakamura struck first in round 10, winning a miniature over Zherebukh. Although it is too little, too late for the four-time champion, Nakamura fans must have relished the tactical victory. Zherebukh, who shared first with So after seven rounds, has now scored just half a point in his last three games.
Yaroslav Zherebukh vs. Hikaru Nakamura
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 10 |08 Apr 2017 |ECO: B18 |0-1
Onischuk, who beat Nakamura in Round 9, also had an easy day at the office. Onischuk played a fine technical game that demonstrated the dominance of having the two bishops. Xiong never had sufficient compensation and went down without much of a struggle.
Alexander Onischuk vs. Jeffery Xiong
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 10 |08 Apr 2017 |ECO: D85 |1-0
( 12... Qxd2+13. Nxd2Bxe214. Kxe2Is no longer popular, but it is certainly better than what was played in the game. )
13. Qxa5Nxa514. h3Xiong can't retreat, lest Onischuk's rook take over the seventh rank. 14... Bxf3
( 14... Bd715. Rc7Is awful for Black. )
15. Bxf3Rfc816. Ke2If this is where Xiong's
preparation took him, he needs to choose a different opening. White has the two bishops and a powerful center. Onischuk, one of the most respected positional players in chess, makes his young opponent pay. 16... e517. dxe5Bxe518. Bg4Rc419. f4Bb220. Rxc4Nxc421. Bf2Onischuk's bishops control the board and, unfortunately for Xiong, a rook trade would not provide any relief. 21... Re8
( 21... Rd822. Rd1Rxd123. Kxd1Is really bad for Black. White's king has easy access up the board and the White light-squared bishop is much better than the Black knight. )
22. Bf3Na323. Rd1Rc824. e5Bc125. Bxb7Rc2+26. Kf3Bd2Xiong can't play
( 26... Bxf427. Rd8+Kg728. Bd4Because the bishop on f4 is
en prise and e6+ is a devastating threat. )
27. Bd5Nb528. Bb3Rb229. g3Nc330. Ra1a531. e6fxe632. Bxe6+Kf833. Bc5+Kg734. Bd4+Kf835. Bb3Ke836. Rf1a437. Bxc3!This move is by no means spectacular but it demonstrates Onischuk's understanding. An extra pawn on both sides of the board is a winning advantage in the opposite-colored bishop ending. Xiong had no choice but to allow a rook trade.
( 37. Bg8was also a good move, but the game continuation expedites matters. )
37... Bxc338. Bxa4+Kf839. Bb3Bd240. Rf2Bc341. Rxb2Bxb2The only chance Xiong had to hold this endgame was if Onischuk mistakenly allowed Black to sacrifice his bishop for all but the h-pawn, since the queening square does not match the color of the White bishop. 42. Ke4Ba343. Ke5Ke744. g4Bd6+45. Ke4Ba346. Bg8h647. h4Kf648. Bb3Ke749. g5hxg550. hxg5Kf851. Kf3Kg752. Kg4Xiong tipped his king because the winning plan is quite simple: use one pawn as a distraction so that the other promotes.
Akobian was unable to replicate the same success as Onischuk. He held a slight advantage throughout the game because he also had his two bishops, but on the first move after the second time control, he played a forcing line that assured a draw would be reached.
Varuzhan Akobian vs. Ray Robson
US Championship |Saint Louis USA |Round 10 |08 Apr 2017 |ECO: D45 |1/2-1/2
With Akobian splitting the point, So had the opportunity to take sole possession of first place with a win over Kamsky. In last year’s championship, So demolished Kamsky’s defense en route to a crushing victory. This time was much different: Kamsky easily equalized after the opening and even secured an advantage with the Black pieces. Just as it appeared that So might lose his first game since Bilbao 2016, So managed to salvage a half point.
f5The position looks completely equal, but Kamsky discovered a hidden idea. The superiority of Kamsky's knight means that only he has winning chances. 31. Kg2gxf432. exf4fxg433. hxg4h5!34. Nf3
( 34. g5Should hold the balance. It's an awkward move to play, since it allows Kamksy to keep an outside passed pawn and an outpost on f5. But Black has no means of taking advantage of these things without allowing a perpetual check: 34... Nf535. Nf3Qxf436. Qb7+Ke837. Qc8+Ke738. Qb7+ )
34... hxg435. Ne5Qc836. Ng6+
( 36. Qxc8Nxc8Would be a worse endgame for White. Isolated pawns are not easy to defend with knights on the board. According to chess principles, So made the right decision, though the game continuation was more difficult. In retrospect he probably regreted not exchanging queens. )
( 36. Qxb6Qc2+37. Kg1g3Would be a winning attack for Black. )
36... Kf637. Qxd6Qc2+38. Kg3Qxb3+39. Kxg4Qd1+40. Kh4Qe1+41. Kg4Qe2+42. Kg3Kxg643. Qxb6Kf5Kamsky's king activity nearly allows him to win the game. At the very best, So would face a pawn deficit. However, an outside passed pawn is often sufficient to hold a draw in queen endings.
( 43... Qe1+Defends a5, but unfortunately for Kamsky he can't simultaneously protect the pawn and keep So's king from g4. 44. Kg4Would eventually transpose to continuation in the game. )
44. Qxa5Qg4+45. Kf2Qxf4+46. Ke2Qe4+47. Kf1Qd3+48. Ke1Qe3+49. Kf1Ke4Kamsky's king comes close to aiding a checkmate, but it does not pan out. He could have simply grabbed the
d4 pawn, but the a-pawn is easier to push.
( 49... Qxd450. Qb5 )
( 50... Kf351. Qb2Holds everything. The king looks menacing on f3, but any move by Black would allow a queen trade, after which White would be winning. 51... Qd3+52. Ke1Is a draw. )
51. Kg1Qd1+52. Kg2Qc2+53. Kg3So survives a scare; Kamsky came close to the upset.
In the remaining games, Daniel Naroditsky and Sam Shankland drew, while Caruana pounced on Shabalov’s Sicilian Defense.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Nazi Paikidze, the defending champion, had a fortunate escape against Tatev Abrahamyan in Round 10.
In the women’s section, Abrahamyan was on the verge of unseating Paikidze, who has been atop the leaderboard since Round 4. In the 2016 championship, Abrahamyan was half a point ahead of Paikidze heading into the final round, before Paikidze won the title when she defeated Krush as Abrahamyan lost. This year Abrahamyan almost took on the role of spoiler, but unfortunately for her the only thing she spoiled was her own position. Had Abrahamyan converted her huge advantage, she would have remained in contention.
Tatev Abrahamyan vs. Nazi Paikidze
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 10 |08 Apr 2017 |ECO: B06 |0-1
f4Abrahamyan has an extra pawn and need only worry about consolidating her pieces. Instead, she took an unnecessary risk that was quickly punished. 29. h4??A strange decision since White's king was safe. 29... Qd4+30. Qxd4Bxd4+31. Kh2Re2
( 31... Kg7Was more direct as Rh8 is a deadly threat. )
32. Bb4Kg733. Rd1Be534. Kg1g4This was a natural continuation, moving a pawn that was being attacked and threatening to clamp down on the enemy king. Yet it was an inaccuracy that restored White's advantage.
( 34... Ra8Would have been the best way to increase Black's advantage. White has no means of defending the second rank. Even a pawn promotion does nothing to stop Black's attack: 35. b6Raa236. b7Rxg2+37. Kf1Raf2+38. Ke1Rb239. Kf1Rh240. Kg1Rbg2+41. Kf1f3And White will be checkmated. )
( 35. Re7!Was the move that would have saved White, which Abrahamyan overlooked. It is hardly standard to place your rook on a square susceptible to a discovery, but the passed pawns give White the clear edge. 35... Bd4+36. Rxd4Rxe737. Bxd6Re1+38. Kf2Rfe8Black's rooks are fine, but White's passed pawns decide the game. 39. Rxf4And Black can resign. )
35... g336. b6
( 36. c5Would have allowed Abrahamyan to keep fighting. She needed the option of preventing the second Black rook from infiltrating the second rank. For example: 36... Ra8Could be met by 37. Ra6 )
36... Ra837. Re1Bd4+Paikidze escaped a lost position and keeps her perch atop the leaderboard.
Austin Fuller / Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Tatev Abrahamyan's loss in Round 10 had echos of her painful loss in last year's finale.
Zatonskih suffered a similar fate as Abrahamyan, much to the delight of Foisor. The four-time champion was a few accurate moves from leapfrogging Foisor in the standings, and had Paikidze also lost, Zatonskih would have ended Saturday in clear first. Instead, she blundered as her clock ticked down and now has just 5.5 points — 1.5 behind the leaders.
Sabina-Francesca Foisor vs. Anna Zatonskih
US Championship (Women) |Saint Louis USA |Round 10 |08 Apr 2017 |ECO: D37 |1-0
26. Qe2Zatonskih's experience helped her seize the initiative against Foisor, who did a little too much shuffling in the opening. Black's advantage is overwhelming. 26... Nd3
( 26... Ba8With the idea of setting up a battery on the long diagonal was strong. )
27. Rc2Qf628. Nd5Rxc2
( 28... Bxd529. Rxc8Rxc830. Qxd3Qc3!Leads to a superior ending for Black. )
29. Nxf6Rxa230. Qh5
( 30. Nh5+Kf7Is simply winning for Black. The knight on h5 is stuck and there is no good way to protect the other knight. Black's pieces are superbly placed. )
( 30... Rxd231. Ne8+Would have created unnecessary trouble for Zatonskih's king. )
( 31... Rf8Was completely winning, but not an easy variation to spot with the clock winding down. 32. Nh7Be8Is an easy move to miss under time pressure because the e8
square was previously covered and the rook on f8 is under attack. Yet, it results in a straightforward win. 33. Qh3Rh8Black picks up the knight and White has no compensaton. )
32. Ne5White is now winning because the Black king is under fire. 32... Kxf6
( 32... Nh3+33. Kh2Rxg2+34. Kxh3g4+35. Nfxg4And the checks have run out. )
Irina Krush never had much of a chance to win her game. In fact, it was Nemcova who went up a pawn but was unable to find a breakthrough. Krush bailed out with a repetition and now sits a full point behind the leaders. Unless both Foisor and Paikidze somehow lose in Round 11, Krush’s quest for her eighth title will fall short.
Maggie Feng continued her impressive debut by drawing Apurva Virkud. Anna Sharevich rebounded from a tough loss by outplaying Carissa Yip. Emily Nguyen’s nightmare tournament continued against Jennifer Yu, as Nguyen lost for the ninth straight round.
The critical final round pairings are: Naroditsky vs. So, Nakamura vs. Akobian, and Kamsky vs. Onischuk in the championship and Paikidze vs. Yu and Virkud vs. Foisor in the women’s. Akobian has the toughest challenge while Paikidze has the more favorable matchup. In the event that multiple players finish tied for first, there will be a playoff on Monday. Besides the competitors hoping to win a championship, who doesn’t want some free chess?
Robert Hess is a former United States Junior Champion, recipient of the 2010 Samford Award (the most prestigious in the United States for young players) and was runner-up in the 2009 United States Championships. A 2015 graduate of Yale University, he is the chief operating officer of The Sports Quotient, a statistically-based sports site that he co-founded. He can be found on Twitter at @GM_Hess.
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