World no. 2 Wesley So got the one he wanted on Monday in St. Louis as he won the US Championship on his third attempt. Alexander Onischuk put up a heroic fight in the rapid playoffs but lost his way in complications in the first game and then needed to win the second to force Armageddon. He came incredibly close, but ultimately couldn’t stop Wesley snatching the $50,000 first prize.
Wesley So reached a playoff after taking a quick draw against Daniel Naroditsky in Round 11 of the US Championship. That left his fate in the hands of Varuzhan Akobian and Alexander Onischuk, who could have claimed the title if they'd won with the black pieces. Wesley had left the building quickly on Sunday, but explained his reasoning after his choice had been vindicated:
I didn’t really think it to be that dangerous. I didn’t really gamble, because I don’t gamble! Hikaru rarely loses a game – he probably loses one or two games with the white pieces a year. I knew he wouldn’t let me down! Gata Kamsky can have good days and bad days, but I think in the last days of the event he was starting to catch on fire. Beating Kamsky with the black pieces – you need to create some kind of miracle for it to happen.
Sure enough, Akobian lost to Nakamura and Onischuk drew against Kamsky, meaning that a rapid playoff against 41-year-old Alexander was all that stood in the way of Wesley So and his first US Championship title.
You can replay the 25-minute games – and all the earlier games in the 2017 US Championship – by clicking on a result in the selector below:
If you missed it, check out the full video of the playoffs and post-tournament interviews:
Wesley So drew White, played the English Opening and, when his opponent seemed to mix up his move-order, gained a chance to go after the black pawns:
Wesley went for it with 10.Nxd5 Bc5 11.Ne3 Bg6 12.Qxb7, later quipping “a pawn is a pawn, not to mention two!”, before adding:
In a rapid game when I see pawns I’ll just take them, even though objectively White’s position is probably not better.
Similarly to the classical game between the two players it soon got super sharp, with Onischuk as Black seeming to have sufficient compensation for the invested material. Wesley had faith in his ability to navigate complications better, though, and he simply kept upping the ante. His 20.Bg4! finally bamboozled Onischuk, who later lamented, “he’s so resourceful!”
Wesley ignores the rook on b2, saves his bishop and is threatening Bxe6, Qxd4 and f5. Black is currently up an exchange and there were paths to salvation – 20…Qxc4 or especially 20…Qb6! – but Wesley himself admitted he hadn’t seen that last move and it was understandable when Onischuk went astray with 20…Rb4? 21.Qxd4 Rxd4 22.f5! Nf4? 23.Nc2!
Suddenly three black pieces are under attack and White's advantage is crystal clear. Wesley didn't put a foot wrong as he converted his extra material.
Alexander now faced the unenviable task of having to win to force a deciding Armageddon game, and later explained that he saw no hope in a theoretical battle. Instead he decided to “try for an equal position and try to outplay him in the middlegame”. That’s easier said than done, of course, but Onischuk pulled it off!
32.a5! Nc5 33.axb6 axb6 34.Qf5! f6 35.h4! suddenly left Black in deep trouble, with Wesley losing his advantage on the clock as he tried to chart a path to salvation:
Things began to fall apart, and after 35…Re5 36.Bxf4! gxf4 37.Qxf4 Qe7 38.Bg2 Re1+ 39.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 40.Kh2 Qe7 41.Qb8+ Kh7 Alexander was on the verge of levelling the score:
42.Bd5! would generate powerful threats against the black king, with the queen exchange 42…Qe5+ 43.Qxe5 fxe5 losing after 44.g5. If Black tries 42...Ne6 then White can grab the b6-pawn without losing any control of the position. Instead 42.Qxb6 immediately (Wesley joked about the pawn grab, “He learned it from Yasser!”) allowed So to give a queen check and get his knight into the game.
Although Onischuk managed to retain two extra pawns he was unable to escape the troublesome queen and knight with little time left on his clock. Wesley forced a perpetual check that ended the game on move 64:
You could say, of course, that Onischuk had been unlucky, but Alexander was having none of that. When told he’d missed a clear win he responded:
I understand, I just don’t have enough time to calculate! That’s why Wesley’s the better player. He’s faster, he’s a great calculator.
Wesley was delighted to have matched the feats of Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana:
I really wanted to win this title because it means a lot. Obviously it’s one of the strongest or the strongest national championship in the world - probably only Russia can compete.
There was praise from a fairly well-known Russian Grandmaster...
Wesley kept his feet firmly on the ground, though, reflecting on his own failure, and that of his fellow Top 10 players, to post the big score their ratings demanded:
My play here in this tournament is so so. I can’t believe that I won considering the way I played.
The ominous thing for Wesley’s rivals is that he’s not planning on stopping here:
It goes well with my goal and I just want to keep improving.
As a small bonus, however, Wesley also won the $50,000 first prize, while Onischuk earned a very respectable $35,000:
Sabina Foisor may have won "only" half as much, but she got a rousing reception:
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There’s absolutely no rest now for the players or chess fans in an amazingly packed Easter schedule. Hikaru Nakamura will be able to forget the US Championship in a hurry as he starts the Korchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge with an opening blitz tournament against Kramnik, Anand, Nepomniachtchi, Svidler, Gelfand, Oparin and Pelletier on Wednesday 12 April.
meanwhile, starts the GRENKE Chess Classic against Carlsen, Vachier-Lagrave,
Aronian, Naiditsch, Hou Yifan, Bluebaum and Meier from Saturday.
Wesley So has a little longer to rest, but in only 10 days will be top seed in the 4th Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, where he faces Kramnik, Karjakin, Mamedyarov, Radjabov, Adams, Harikrishna, Eljanov, Wojtaszek and Topalov. It’s going to be an exciting few weeks!