Varuzhan Akobian and Sabina-Francesca Foisor moved into ties for first after important wins in Round 8.

The United States Championship Open and Women’s Championship both have a two-way tie for first with three rounds to play: Wesley So, who has led from the early stages, now shares the lead with Varuzhan Akobian, eachwith 5 points, while Sabina-Francesca Foisor has caught up to Nazi Paikidze. They each have 5.5 points.

So was tied with Yaroslav Zherebukh  after Zherebukh pulled off a career win over Fabiano Caruana in Round 7. But Zherebukh  hita roadblock in Akobian in Round 8 and lost.

So had White against Hikaru Nakamura, but managed only a dull draw. Meanwhile, Caruana, the defending champion, rebounded from his shocking loss with a resounding victory over Daniel Naroditsky.

Caruana, Nakamura, and Zherebukh sit just a half point behind the two leaders, each with 4.5 points. They have been joined by Alexander Onischuk, a former United States Champion, who beat Ray Robson, a former student, by breaking through a  fortress that Robson tried to create.

In the Women’s Championship, Paikidze, the defending champion, only managed adraw with Maggie Feng, one of the several teenage players in the tournament. That draw allowed Foisor defeated to catch up after she beat Emily Nguyen, who in last place, with only a draw in Round 1 — against Paikidze.

Feng, who is playing in her first Women’s Championship, is having the tournament of her life. She is tied for third with Irina Krush, a seven-time champion, each with5 points. Krush’s results have been disappointing thus far, but her win over Apurva Virkud in Round 8 keeps her in the hunt for an eighth title.

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.

Akobian is no stranger to being at the top of the leaderboard in the championship. In 2014, he tied for first before ultimately losing in a rapid playoff to Gata Kamsky. He is once again in fine form, as evidenced by the way he smoothly outplayed Zherebukh in a French Defense.

Yaroslav Zherebukh vs. Varuzhan Akobian
US Championship | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: C07 | 0-1
15. Bxf6 Zherebukh got nothing out of the opening and was already slightly worse, but this move simply hands the advantage to Black. Akobian's king is hardly exposed and the two bishops prove to be immensely powerful in an open position. The doubled f-pawns actually help corral the White knights.
15... gxf6 16. Qe3 Bf4 17. Qc3 f5
17... Nd7 likely was stronger, threatening to exploit the pinned bishop with b6-b5. If the queen flees, for example:
18. Qb2 Ne5 is a problem. The bishops dominate.  )
18. Bf1 Rac8 19. b4
19. Qf6 is an odd-looking move, but it would have kept Akobian wary of any potential perpetual checks. Of course Black remains much better, but it would be necessary to play precisely.  )
19... Ne4 20. Qxc7 Rxc7 With the queens off the board, Akobian can nurse his advantage without any concerns.
21. Nc4 Rb8 22. Nxb6 Rxc2 23. Nd7 After this, Akobian cruises to victory.
23. Ne1 should be insufficient, though it makes Akobian's task trickier.
23... Nxf2 24. Nxc2 Nxd1 25. Rxd1 Be4 Equalizes material and then some.  )
23... Rbc8 24. Bd3 Rb2 25. Bxe4 fxe4 26. Rd4 f5 27. Rad1 Zherebukh was already in trouble, but this expedites his demise.
27... exf3 28. Rxf4 Rd2! A nice motif, exploiting the back rank. White drops a piece so he resigned.

Against Nakamura, So could not manage to obtain an advantage. The game was a quiet affair that quickly petered out to an equal ending:

Wesley So vs. Hikaru Nakamura
US Championship | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: E10 | 1/2-1/2
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O Nbd7 8. Qc2 Ne4 9. Bf4 c6 10. Nc3 g5 11. Bc1 f5 12. b3 b6 13. Bb2 Bb7 14. Rad1 Qe8 15. Nd2 Nd6 16. Ba3 Rc8 17. Rfe1 Nf7 18. Qb2 Nf6 19. Bxe7 Qxe7 20. b4 Rfd8 21. e3 g4 22. cxd5 cxd5 23. b5 Rc7 24. Rc1 Rdc8 25. Ne2 Nd6 26. Rxc7 Rxc7 27. Rc1 Rxc1+ 28. Nxc1 Nfe4 29. Bxe4 dxe4 30. Ne2 Bd5

With his fellow grandmasters splitting a point, Caruana pounced on the opportunity to inch closer to a title defense. He handed Naroditsky a second straight defeat by punishing the Stanford student’s offbeat opening choice.

Fabiano Caruana vs. Daniel Naroditsky
US Championship | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: C18 | 1-0
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 c5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 Qa5 This move is rarely played nowadays, and Naroditsky's play in this game is unlikely to encourage its revival.
7. Bd2 Qa4 8. Qg4
8. Qb1 Was a main line, forcing Black to play
8... c4 White's plan is simple: put all pieces on the kingside and try to break through.  )
8... Kf8 9. Nf3 b6 Too risky. It's clear that Naroditsky is underdeveloped, and though the move b6 is a thematic one in the French, Caruana jumps on the opportunity to break open the center.
9... Qxc2 Black is up a pawn only temporarily.
10. Rc1 Qg6 11. Qxg6 hxg6 12. c4 Equalizes material again, leaving White with a clear advantage. The unopposed dark-squared bishop will prove very valuable.  )
10. c4 Ne7 11. Bd3 dxc4 When a king is uncastled and the majority of a players pieces are on their original squares, opening the position tends to be a poor decision.
11... Ba6 Retains the tension, which should favor Black if he is able to survive the next few moves.  )
12. dxc5 bxc5 13. Ng5 Now Caruana goes on the offensive. White has too many threats to counter.
13... h6 14. Nh7+ Rxh7 Sadly forced. Attempting to avoid this sacrifice simply quickens Naroditsky's demise.
14... Kg8 15. Bxh6 Ng6 16. Bxg6 fxg6 17. Nf6+ Kf7 18. Qf3 And Whites advantage is decisive.  )
15. Bxh7 Bb7 16. O-O Nbc6
16... Bd5 Would have been a more stubborn resistance. If the bishops are traded on d5, the knight takes its place. Caruana is up an exchange and is much better, but the fight continues. The game continuation is straightforward.  )
17. Rab1 Ba6 18. Be3 Qa5 19. Rfd1 Nxe5 20. Qg3 f6 21. Rd6 Bc8 22. Rbd1 Nd5 23. Bf4 Rb8 24. Bxe5 fxe5 25. Qxe5 Qd2 26. Rd8+ Kf7 27. Bg8+ Kg6 28. Qe4+ Kf6 29. Qf3+ Naroditsky threw in the towel since his queen is lost. 29...Qf4 30. Rf8+ does the trick.

Alexander Shabalov and Kamsky both scored wins in Round 7, but against each other there were no fireworks. Although they combine for nine championships, the two have found themselves at the bottom of the crosstable throughout the event.

Onischuk turned back the clock by punishing Robson, who chose a dubious opening.

Alexander Onischuk vs. Ray Robson
US Championship | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: D85 | 1-0
40. Qf4 Rc8 If it were Robson's move, he could set up a fortress. Black needs his king on g7/g8 and his rook patrolling the fifth rank. However, he's one tempo too slow.
41. Qxf6 Rxc5 42. Qd8+ Kh7
42... Kg7 would be required for the fortress, but it loses the rook to
43. Qd4+  )
43. Qf8 The king is cut off from protecting f7, making the defensive task impossible. Onischuk demonstrates nice technique. It is important to note that White can't afford to exchange too many pawns. For instance, a Black rook on e6 and pawn on f7 (with king on g7) versus queen and h-pawn is a known theoretical draw.
43... Rf5 44. Kg2 Rf6 45. Kf1 Rf5 46. Ke2 e5 47. Kf1 Rf6 48. Kg2 Rf5 49. f3 Rf6 50. Qe7 Rf5 51. g4 hxg4 52. fxg4 Rf4 53. Kg3 Rf1 54. Qxe5 Rg1+ 55. Kf3 Rb1 56. Qd4 Rc1 57. Kf4 Re1 58. Qb4 Rf1+ 59. Ke5 Kg7 60. Kd6 Rf6+ 61. Kd7 Re6 62. Qc4 g5 63. h5 Re5 64. Qd4 f6 65. Kd6

In the final game of the round, Jeffery Xiong knocked off Sam Shankland with the Black pieces. Both players have 3.5 points.

In the Women’s Championship, there were three decisive games, all by players who had White. If Feng had won, she would have overtaken Paikidze, who had Black, had no problem holding a draw. Their game followed one between So and Nakamura in the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, which was also held in the St. Louis chess club.

Maggie Feng vs. Nazi Paikidze
US Championship (Women) | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: E05 | 1/2-1/2
1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 e6 4. O-O Be7 5. d4 O-O 6. c4 dxc4 7. Ne5 Nc6 8. Nxc6 bxc6 9. Na3 Bxa3 10. bxa3 Ba6 11. Qd2 Rb8 12. Qa5 Qc8 13. a4 Rd8 14. Ba3 Rxd4
14... Qb7 15. Bc5 c3 16. Rfe1 Nd5 17. e4 Nb6 18. Rac1 e5 19. dxe5 Rd3 Was played in Shabalov-Onischuk from Round 2 of the Championship. Black went on to win, but White held an advantage.  )
15. Rfb1 Rb6 16. Bc5 Rd7 17. Rd1 Rxd1+ In the postgame interview, Paikidze told Maurice Ashley that she studied this opening extensively. She improved on Nakamura's exchange sacrifice against So at the 2016 Sinquefield Cup.
17... h6 18. Rxd7 Nxd7 19. Bxb6 cxb6 20. Qd2 c5 21. Rd1 Nf6 22. Kf1 Kh7 23. Qc2+ Kg8 24. Qd2 Kh7 25. Qd8 Qxd8 26. Rxd8 c3 27. Ke1 Bc4 28. Kd1 Bxa2 29. Kc2 Bc4 30. e3 b5 31. Kxc3 a6 32. Ra8 Nd5+ 33. Bxd5 exd5 34. a5 b4+ 35. Kd2 Bf1 36. Rc8 c4 37. Rb8 b3 38. Kc3 1-0 (38) So,W (2771)-Nakamura,H (2791) Saint Louis 2016  )
18. Rxd1 Rb8 19. Bxc6 Bb7 Around here, after blitzing out the opening, Feng sank into thought. She was considering the ramifications of keeping the bishops on the board and decided it too risky.
20. Bxb7
20. Bb5 Asks for trouble. Paikidze would seize the initiative and launch a blistering attack with
20... e5 For example, after
21. Bxc4 Qh3 22. f3 Ng4 23. Bxf7+ Kh8 24. Qxa7 Rf8! White would be extremely fortunate to survive.  )
20... Qxb7 21. Qxa7 Forcing a draw.
21... Qxa7 22. Bxa7 Ra8 23. Rb1 c3 Played after a long think. Paikidze understood that attempting to play for a win was really playing for a loss:
23... h6 24. Rb8+ Rxb8 25. Bxb8 and only White can be better here.  )
24. Bd4 c2 25. Rc1 Rxa4 26. Bxf6 gxf6 27. Rxc2 f5 28. Rxc7 Rxa2 29. e3 Kg7 30. Kg2 Kg6

If not for a tremendous blunder in her Round 2 game against Krush, Foisor might be in first at this point. Though she missed some chances to shorten her game against Nguyen, she finally converted her extra exchange. She will face Paikidze in Round 9.

Sabina-Francesca Foisor vs. Emily Nguyen
US Championship (Women) | Saint Louis USA | Round 8.2 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: E09 | 1-0
54. R3e5 Foisor has been up an exchange for a pawn for thirty moves. Nguyen would optimize her drawing chances if she could keep her rook on the board, but she's run out of useful moves.
54... Rc7 Nguyen certainly would have preferred to disconnect the rooks, but retreating the bishop fails for a tactical reason.
54... Be6 55. f5! And White crashes through. Bishop and pawn are great mutual defenders, but here the setup is undermined by this beautiful sacrifice.
55... gxf5 56. g6  )
55. Ke3 Kb7 56. Kd4 Rxe7 57. Rxe7+ Kb6 58. Rd7 Kc6 59. Rd8 Be6 60. Kc3 a5 Nguyen's drawing chances would have been much higher had she been able to leave her pawn on a6. Realistically, she'd eventually be forced to push the pawn at some point, but this speeds up the process. Now Foisor can infiltrate with her king and attack the pawns from behind.
61. Ra8 Kb6 62. Kd4 Bb3 63. Ke5 b4 64. Kd4 Be6 65. axb4 axb4 66. Rb8+ Kc7
66... Ka5 67. Kc5 Simultaneously threatens the pawn and checkmate. White now wins easily.  )
67. Rxb4 Kd6 68. Rb6+ Ke7 69. Ke5 Bc4 70. Rb7+ Kf8 71. Kf6 Importantly, Black did not have time to get her king to g7.
71... Ke8 72. Rb8+ Kd7 73. Rf8 With Rxf7 coming next, resignation was not premature.

Katerina Nemcova, a graduate of nearby Webster University, underperformed with just 1.5 points in her first five games. But since the rest day, she has righted the ship, scoring 2.5 points in her last three games. In Round 8, she beat Carissa Yip by undermining Yip’s protection of the d7 square, which netted her an extra piece.

Katerina Nemcova vs. Carissa Shiwen Yip
US Championship (Women) | Saint Louis USA | Round 8 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: B72 | 1-0
16. exd6 Nf6? Yip had already misplayed the opening and is down a pawn, but this move loses a piece.
17. Nxa5 Qxa5 18. Bxf6 Bxf6 19. d7 Nemcova has successfully removed all the defenders and collects a bishop.
19... Bxd7 20. Qxd7 Red8 21. Qg4 Bxc3 22. bxc3 Rxc3 23. Bd3 Rxa3 24. f5 Rd6 25. Rbe1 Qc7 26. fxg6 hxg6 27. Qf4 f5 28. Bxf5! The position is completely winning for White but this is the most direct path. Black's king lacks shelter and the mating attack requires no effort.
28... gxf5 29. Qg5+ Kf7 30. Rxf5+ Rf6 31. Qh5+

The battle of the Annas (Sharevich and Zatonskih) ended in a draw, so the two remain in striking distance with 4.5 points apiece. Tatev Abrahamyan almost joined them, but she failed where Foisor succeeded; in fact, despite being up an exchange, Abrahamyan almost handed Jennifer Yu her third major upset.

Krush continued her quest for an eighth title with a win over Virkud in which she was betterfrom start to finish.

Irina Krush vs. Apurva Virkud
US Championship (Women) | Saint Louis USA | Round 8.4 | 06 Apr 2017 | ECO: D37 | 1-0
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Be7 4. Nf3 Nf6 5. Bf4 O-O 6. e3 c5 7. dxc5 Bxc5 8. Qc2 Qa5 9. Nd2 Be7 10. Be2 Nc6 11. O-O dxc4 12. Nxc4 Qf5 13. Bd3 Qh5 14. a3 e5 15. Bg3 Be6 16. Be2 Bg4 17. Bxg4 Nxg4 18. Nd5 Bh4 19. h3 Bxg3 20. fxg3 Nh6 21. Qb3 Rab8 22. Rad1 Qg5 23. g4 Rfd8 24. Qb5 Kh8 25. Na5 a6 26. Qb6 Nxa5 27. Qxa5 Rd7 28. e4 Rbd8 29. Rc1 Qg6 30. Qb4 Qg5 31. Rc2 Ng8 32. Rf5 Qh4 33. Rcf2 Rc8 34. Rxf7 Rxf7 35. Rxf7 Qg3 36. Qd2 Rc4 37. Qg5 g6 38. Nf6

In both the U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship, a surprise contender is now among the leaders. Can Akobian and Foisor continue their magical runs? With three rounds to go and Akobian-Caruana and Paikidze-Foisor looming, there’s a lot to look forward to in Saint Louis!


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.