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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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