Reports Apr 10, 2017 | 10:59 AMby Colin McGourty

US Championship 11: Foisor triumphs, So gambles

Sabina-Francesca Foisor described herself as “sad and excited at the same time” after winning a brilliant attacking game that made her the US Women’s Champion in the same year her mother passed away. Nazi Paikidze lost with White to 15-year-old Jennifer Yu, who has taken giant killing to a whole new level. In the overall event Wesley So and Alexander Onischuk face a rapid playoff on Monday after Wesley’s gamble of taking a 14-move draw against Daniel Naroditsky went unpunished.

Sabina talks to Maurice after winning the game that made her 2017 US Women's Champion | photo: Austin Fuller

For once it’s time to start with the Women’s US Championship, since the title was decided on Sunday. There were two crucial games, and they were the only ones to finish decisively:

You can replay the Round 11 commentary below:

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Sabina Foisor wins her 1st US title

Back-to-back - the key games of the 2017 US Women's Championship | photo: Lennart Ootes

27-year-old Sabina-Francesca Foisor is the deserving US Women’s Champion after she finished the tournament in true style. Previously she had won all six of her games with the white pieces, but going into the final round she had two losses and two draws with Black. Since she shared first place with defending Champion Nazi Paikidze, who was playing White, she knew that she really needed to try and win with the black pieces against Apurva Virkud. In the end it couldn’t have gone any better.

Nazi Paikidze looked on as Sabina Foisor found the final blows | photo: Austin Fuller

By move 9 she’d pushed a pawn to d4 with a big advantage, and when she managed to push her e-pawn to e3 the game was all but over. She found a beautiful queen sacrifice finish, saying afterwards, “I’m thankful for having been put to work on this type of position before the tournament… I got to the point that you have to look for things like this”:

26…Qxg1+! 27.Kxg1 Re1+ 28.Bf1 Rfxf1+ 29.Kg2 Rg1+ 30.Kf2 Ref1+ 31.Ke3 Rf3+ White resigns

It’s mate-in-3. 

Apurva Virkud concedes defeat | photo: Lennart Ootes

Sabina and her fiancé Elshan Moradiabadi had done their part, and could now only wait | photo: Lennart Ootes

The victory meant only a win for Nazi Paikidze could stop Sabina becoming the new US Champion and winning $25,000, and whatever happened it was her best result in an event she first took part in in 2009:

  • 2009: 7th
  • 2010: 8th
  • 2011: 4th
  • 2012: 6th
  • 2013: 6th
  • 2014: 7th
  • 2015: 8th
  • 2016: 5th

Sabina said she was “sad and excited at the same time”, and when asked about her mother, who passed away in January, she replied:

For some years we had this goal to be in the top 3… I think she’s happy, there where she is, she’s happy.

For more on Cristina Foisor be sure to check out GM Elshan Moradiabadi’s tribute at the US Chess Federation website.

Nazi's nemesis proved to be 15-year-old Jennifer Yu | photo: Spectrum Studios

That result put all the pressure on Nazi Paikidze, who started well in her game against Jennifer Yu. Then, however, Jennifer turned on Hulk mode, and for around 14 moves in a row from move 26 onwards she picked the chess engine’s first choice on every move. That included the following subtle sequence:

32…Bc4! 33.Qe1 Bxf1! 34.Kxf1 Qa6+! 35.Kg2 Qd3! and Jennifer would later win the critical e4-pawn. After another pawn dropped Nazi Paikidze had already conceded the title when she offered a draw, but Jennifer correctly played on and the draw offer had soon changed into resignation. The 15-year-old had lost three games in St. Louis, but she’d also beaten the top three seeds Irina Krush, Anna Zatonskih and now Paikidze!

The moment at which Paikidze resigned was the moment Sabina was confirmed as the 2017 US Women’s Champion:

Nazi was among the first to congratulate her, telling Maurice Ashley:

Sabina’s my friend and I’m really happy for her. She had a phenomenal performance and she deserves it.

She also wrote on Twitter:

Paikidze was making no excuses for her loss, commenting:

I think I got a good position from the opening and somehow she outplayed me… She didn’t make any mistakes.

7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush took 3rd place, and said of Sabina:

She outperformed herself and she was really the only one who could play better than she could suspect, and that’s why she’s a deserved winner.

The final standings in the Women’s Championship were as follows:

Afterwards the young players in the women’s section enjoyed themselves with some bughouse chess (two games are played side-by-side and when you capture a piece you hand it to your partner, who can put it on their board instead of moving a piece) and an unusual “boardless” chess variant!

So’s gamble earns a playoff with Onischuk

Wesley So looked fine with an early draw | photo: Lennart Ootes

The overall US Championship title is still up for grabs after a tense and controversial 11th round. 

The controversy came when Wesley So played the Berlin Defence against Daniel Naroditsky and then acquiesced when Daniel headed for a known draw by repetition. We got exactly the same 14-move draw as seen in Gawain Jones vs. Wang Hao in the Sharjah Open two weeks ago (which worked out perfectly for Wang Hao), though Wesley did play one more move at the end:

Daniel explained his own reasoning in some depth to Maurice Ashley:

I honestly didn’t expect the Berlin from Wesley. I thought he’d play the Sicilian, in which case I would repeat 6.h4!? – full disclosure – or the French, or something like that. In my mind I knew about this forced draw, of course, and I would consult myself and act on how I felt, but of course I don’t have anything against the Berlin and, to be frank, I’m a bit out of gas at this point. I have two papers due tomorrow (at Stanford University), which I have to work on all night tonight, and so I figured given the circumstances and given the way I’d played in the latter half of the tournament, it would not be a huge crime to do something that’s perhaps somewhat unprofessional but within my rights.

He also added:

I don’t know anyone who’s been able to crack Wesley’s Berlin in the past 18 centuries, myself included, so in different circumstances I would have exploited the chance to play this amazing player, but…

Wesley, surprisingly, left the building before talking to Maurice Ashley, and his choice was also something of a surprise. 

Wesley So's gamble has paid off so far - he's now a big favourite in the playoff | photo: Lennart Ootes

While his 67-game unbeaten streak has partly been built on extremely pragmatic choices, this one had a substantial element of risk. He took it knowing that while Varuzhan Akobian and Alexander Onischuk would struggle to beat Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky with the black pieces, if either of them managed they would become the US Champion. Wesley’s hopes of winning his first title were entirely out of his hands.

Nakamura was in the mood to crush... or fulfil... Akobian's dreams | photo: Spectrum Studios

It would be interesting to know if Wesley’s choice would have been any different if he’d heard the players’ post-game interviews. Hikaru Nakamura made a remarkable admission:

My thought process: I wanted to just make sure it was a decisive game… I didn’t want a draw. Var isn’t going to beat Wesley in a playoff. I just wanted to make sure it was messy and decisive one way or another.

You could say both players wanted the same thing and got their wish, with Akobian commenting:

I was very happy with the opening, then at some point I got a little too optimistic and made a couple of moves too fast.

Akobian identified the key moment as coming after Nakamura’s 26.Qd1, that surprised him:

He’d missed in advance that 26…Qxa2? 27.Ra1! is not an option, and here he panicked and exchanged queens. Soon he had an ending a pawn down that was probably holdable, but was very tough to play against a player of Nakamura’s calibre. In the end Varuzhan put up little resistance, but instead 26…Qa7! would have kept the game very much alive. 27.Bxd5? fails tactically to 27…Bc5!, when the pin would cost White a piece.

It was a sad endgame for Varuzhan Akobian, who saw his title chances slipping away after a fantastic tournament | photo: Lennart Ootes

After the game Nakamura was full of sympathy for his opponent, who has never yet been US Champion and is unlikely to get as good a chance again. He compared him to 2006 US Champion Alexander Onischuk, who Hikaru feels no longer has the same driving ambition:

Alex – he’s still a very strong player, but he doesn’t have the same motivation… He’s still trying to compete but he doesn’t consider himself as strong as he once was… For Var, you could consider it the most important game of his chess career.

Alexander Onischuk had a chance to become US Champion in Round 11 - now he faces a rapid playoff against Wesley So | photo: Lennart Ootes

Alexander Onischuk’s opponent was Gata Kamsky, who pointed out, “everybody’s tired, making lots of blunders” as he emphasised the risk Wesley had taken. The opening battle was won by Onischuk. He revealed his thought process before the game:

This morning I considered playing the Sicilian, but some good friends of mine just told me to play whatever I knew best and go for a complicated position.

That worked out, since Gata confessed his preparation hadn’t been a model of diligence:

Five minutes before the game I remembered he played this line… If you’re not prepared you need to play a quiet game and see what happens.

In the early middlegame of a Ruy Lopez Gata seemed to squander a series of tempi, while So’s early draw had ratcheted up the pressure on Alexander:

I thought now everything depends on me and now 90% if I win this game I’ll be the US Champion… Should I play the moves I consider to be best, or should I take a little more risk? That’s why I was down on the clock.

In the end we didn’t get a full conflagration and instead the players agreed a draw after reaching the required 30 moves. That meant Alexander was heading for a rapid playoff against Wesley So.

Kamsky told Maurice he'd be happy if the tournament continued now: "By the time I get acquainted and ready to play the strong guys it’s too late…  I’ve got my ass kicked already!" | photo: Austin Fuller

In other action

Those games took the full focus of the chess world, though Fabiano Caruana’s win over Ray Robson was certainly the day’s most spectacular encounter among the men’s games. 

The reigning US Champion Fabiano Caruana at least ended his defence in style | photo: Spectrum Studios

Caruana started the US Championship with five draws and then after the rest day came back with six decisive games. The two wins at the end gave a measure of respectability to his score, but Fabiano admitted, “I’ve played horribly this tournament” and felt all his fellow top players, including Wesley So, had been “on shaky form”. The regret for Fabiano was that despite that if he’d done “the most basic thing” and won his game two pawns up against Akobian he would have been the outright champion, or at least playing a playoff.

Instead there was the consolation of “probably my most interesting of the tournament” against Ray Robson. They followed a Nepomniachtchi-Ponomariov game until Caruana’s 12…a5, and then took a walk on the wild side. The best way to relive the action is to watch Fabiano explain it himself from 03:51:45 in the video at the start of this report, while just as a spoiler alert here’s the unusual piece configuration they reached towards the end:

Fabi’s queens won the day.

This wasn't Jeffery Xiong's tournament, but the 16-year-old World Junior Champion will be representing the US in the World Team Championship later this year and has a bright future ahead | photo: Austin Fuller

The other games were drawn, with Alexander Shabalov missing a chance to beat Sam Shankland and move off rock bottom, while Sam also missed out on the World Cup spot he was gunning for. Jeffery Xiong and Yaroslav Zherebukh could both be satisfied with a draw after tournaments that, to different degrees, started well and ended badly for them. Xiong said his confidence was hit by his Round 5 loss to Gata Kamsky, while, paradoxically, Zherebukh’s Round 7 win over Caruana was his problem:

After seven rounds I actually got really ambitious, but suddenly I ran out of batteries. I didn’t have any energy to continue.

The final standings, before the playoff, look as follows:

The format of the playoff is for Wesley So and Alexander Onischuk to play two 25 minutes games with a 5-second delay i.e. the clock doesn’t start ticking down until 5 seconds after you make a move, but you don’t get an increment and so can’t build up extra time on your clock. If those two games are drawn the players will go straight to an Armageddon game, where the player with White will have more time but a draw in the game will make the player with Black the 2017 US Champion.

Will Onischuk win his 2nd US Championship, or will So grab his 1st? | photos: Lennart Ootes

Hikaru Nakamura gave Wesley an 85% chance of victory, but will it be that easy? Don't miss the action that starts as usual at 19:50 CEST here on chess24. You can also watch all the action for free in our mobile apps:


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