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.  

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
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Nh3 Nf6 7. Nf4 Nbd7 8. Bc4 Qc7 9. O-O e6 10. c3 Bd6 11. Qf3 c5 12. dxc5 Bxc5 13. Bb3 O-O-O 14. Nxg6 hxg6 15. Bf4 e5 16. Be3 e4 17. Qe2 Bxe3 18. Qxe3 Rxh2 19. Rfd1 Rdh8 20. Qxa7 e3 21. Qxe3 Ng4

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
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 Bg7 7. Nf3 c5 8. Be3 Bg4
8... Qa5 Is the move that is usually played.  )
9. Rc1 O-O 10. Be2 Qa5 11. Qd2 cxd4 12. cxd4 Nc6?
12... Qxd2+ 13. Nxd2 Bxe2 14. Kxe2 Is no longer popular, but it is certainly better than what was played in the game.  )
13. Qxa5 Nxa5 14. h3 Xiong can't retreat, lest Onischuk's rook take over the seventh rank.
14... Bxf3
14... Bd7 15. Rc7 Is awful for Black.  )
15. Bxf3 Rfc8 16. Ke2 If 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... e5 17. dxe5 Bxe5 18. Bg4 Rc4 19. f4 Bb2 20. Rxc4 Nxc4 21. Bf2 Onischuk's bishops control the board and, unfortunately for Xiong, a rook trade would not provide any relief.
21... Re8
21... Rd8 22. Rd1 Rxd1 23. Kxd1 Is 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. Bf3 Na3 23. Rd1 Rc8 24. e5 Bc1 25. Bxb7 Rc2+ 26. Kf3 Bd2 Xiong can't play
26... Bxf4 27. Rd8+ Kg7 28. Bd4 Because the bishop on f4 is en prise and e6+ is a devastating threat.  )
27. Bd5 Nb5 28. Bb3 Rb2 29. g3 Nc3 30. Ra1 a5 31. e6 fxe6 32. Bxe6+ Kf8 33. Bc5+ Kg7 34. Bd4+ Kf8 35. Bb3 Ke8 36. Rf1 a4 37. 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. Bg8 was also a good move, but the game continuation expedites matters.  )
37... Bxc3 38. Bxa4+ Kf8 39. Bb3 Bd2 40. Rf2 Bc3 41. Rxb2 Bxb2 The 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. Ke4 Ba3 43. Ke5 Ke7 44. g4 Bd6+ 45. Ke4 Ba3 46. Bg8 h6 47. h4 Kf6 48. Bb3 Ke7 49. g5 hxg5 50. hxg5 Kf8 51. Kf3 Kg7 52. Kg4 Xiong 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
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 c6 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Qc2 Bd6 7. Be2 O-O 8. O-O dxc4 9. Bxc4 b5 10. Be2 Bb7 11. Rd1 b4 12. Na4 Rc8 13. Nc5 Qb6 14. Nxb7 Qxb7 15. Qa4 c5 16. Ba6 Qc6 17. Qxc6 Rxc6 18. Bb5 Rb6 19. Be2 Rc8 20. dxc5 Nxc5 21. Nd2 Be7 22. Nc4 Rbc6 23. Na5 R6c7 24. f3 Na4 25. Bb5 Rc5 26. Bxa4 Rxa5 27. Bb3 Nd5 28. Bd2 Rb5 29. Rac1 Rxc1 30. Rxc1 Rc5 31. Rxc5 Bxc5 32. Kf2 Nb6 33. Ke2 Kf8 34. f4 a5 35. Kd3 Ke7 36. e4 Kd6 37. g4 Bg1 38. h4 Kc5 39. a3 Bd4 40. axb4+ axb4 41. Bxe6 fxe6 42. Bxb4+ Kxb4 43. Kxd4 Nd7 44. f5 exf5 45. gxf5 Kb5 46. Kd5 Nf6+ 47. Ke6 Nxe4 48. Kf7 Nd6+ 49. Kxg7 Nxf5+ 50. Kxh7

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.

Wesley So vs. Gata Kamsky
US Championship | 0:18:33-0:15:33 | Round 11 | 08 Apr 2017 | ECO: D10 | 1/2-1/2
f5 The position looks completely equal, but Kamsky discovered a hidden idea. The superiority of Kamsky's knight means that only he has winning chances.
31. Kg2 gxf4 32. exf4 fxg4 33. hxg4 h5! 34. Nf3
34. g5 Should 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... Nf5 35. Nf3 Qxf4 36. Qb7+ Ke8 37. Qc8+ Ke7 38. Qb7+  )
34... hxg4 35. Ne5 Qc8 36. Ng6+
36. Qxc8 Nxc8 Would 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. Qxb6 Qc2+ 37. Kg1 g3 Would be a winning attack for Black.  )
36... Kf6 37. Qxd6 Qc2+ 38. Kg3 Qxb3+ 39. Kxg4 Qd1+ 40. Kh4 Qe1+ 41. Kg4 Qe2+ 42. Kg3 Kxg6 43. Qxb6 Kf5 Kamsky'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. Kg4 Would eventually transpose to continuation in the game.  )
44. Qxa5 Qg4+ 45. Kf2 Qxf4+ 46. Ke2 Qe4+ 47. Kf1 Qd3+ 48. Ke1 Qe3+ 49. Kf1 Ke4 Kamsky'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... Qxd4 50. Qb5  )
50. Qb6 Qf3+
50... Kf3 51. Qb2 Holds 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. Ke1 Is a draw.  )
51. Kg1 Qd1+ 52. Kg2 Qc2+ 53. Kg3 So 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.

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
f4 Abrahamyan 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. Qxd4 Bxd4+ 31. Kh2 Re2
31... Kg7 Was more direct as Rh8 is a deadly threat.  )
32. Bb4 Kg7 33. Rd1 Be5 34. Kg1 g4 This 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... Ra8 Would 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. b6 Raa2 36. b7 Rxg2+ 37. Kf1 Raf2+ 38. Ke1 Rb2 39. Kf1 Rh2 40. Kg1 Rbg2+ 41. Kf1 f3 And White will be checkmated.  )
35. Rc6
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. Rxd4 Rxe7 37. Bxd6 Re1+ 38. Kf2 Rfe8 Black's rooks are fine, but White's passed pawns decide the game.
39. Rxf4 And Black can resign.  )
35... g3 36. b6
36. c5 Would have allowed Abrahamyan to keep fighting. She needed the option of preventing the second Black rook from infiltrating the second rank. For example:
36... Ra8 Could be met by
37. Ra6  )
36... Ra8 37. Re1 Bd4+ Paikidze escaped a lost position and keeps her perch atop the leaderboard.

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. Qe2 Zatonskih'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... Ba8 With the idea of setting up a battery on the long diagonal was strong.  )
27. Rc2 Qf6 28. Nd5 Rxc2
28... Bxd5 29. Rxc8 Rxc8 30. Qxd3 Qc3! Leads to a superior ending for Black.  )
29. Nxf6 Rxa2 30. Qh5
30. Nh5+ Kf7 Is 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... Bc6
30... Rxd2 31. Ne8+ Would have created unnecessary trouble for Zatonskih's king.  )
31. Nf3 Nxf2?
31... Rf8 Was completely winning, but not an easy variation to spot with the clock winding down.
32. Nh7 Be8 Is 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. Qh3 Rh8 Black picks up the knight and White has no compensaton.  )
32. Ne5 White is now winning because the Black king is under fire.
32... Kxf6
32... Nh3+ 33. Kh2 Rxg2+ 34. Kxh3 g4+ 35. Nfxg4 And the checks have run out.  )
33. Nxc6 Rdd2 34. Qxh6+ Kf7 35. Qh7+ Kf8 36. Qe7+ Kg8 37. Qxe6+ Kh8 38. Qh6+ Kg8 39. Qxg5+ Kh8 40. Qf6+ Kh7 41. Qxf5+

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.