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'Dinosaur' Onischuk Joins Akobian, So For U.S. Champs Finish Sunday

'Dinosaur' Onischuk Joins Akobian, So For U.S. Champs Finish Sunday

Stop me if you've heard this one: "A 20-something, a 30-something, and a 40-something lead the U.S. Championship..."

It's not the setup to a joke, but it is the setup to a unpredictable finish at the 2017 U.S. Championship, which (may) conclude tomorrow. The U.S. Women's Championship is just as tight, although only two women will likely factor for the top of the podium.

If there's no clear leader at nightfall tomorrow, either or both events will go to a playoff on Monday.

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GM Alex Onischuk, one of the few who was able to handle his passed pawns the past few days. Photo: Austin Fuller for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

What's creating the turgid standings? Many of the unexpected results are stemming from a usual winning advantage.

The next time you hear about the power of passed pawns, don't believe the hype.

A day removed from GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Irina Krush scoring a collective 0.5/2 with side-by-side passers, in round 10 of the 2017 U.S. Championships they scored another defeat in a key game, and failed to net the full point in another.

Today, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan couldn't convert despite the pawns seemingly enjoying a free pass to nirvana. Hers weren't quite in tandem yet, but they were about to become enlightened nonetheless. That's when IM Nazi Paikidze found just enough counterplay to not only hold, but also to pull a "full Akobian" and go from losing to winning.

"I was really unhappy," Paikidze told Chess.com. "I was just trying really hard to find compensation somehow." She did, but Abrahamyan unwittingly assisted with an unprovoked weakening move.

That reversal of fortune proved vital for her hopes to repeat the U.S. Women's Championship she won a year ago. WGM Sabiana Foisor, the woman tied with Paikidze pre-round, remained knotted with the champ by beating former title-holder IM Anna Zatonskih.

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WGM Sabina Foisor focuses while trying to win her first title in her ninth attempt. If she does, she'll do it for her mom.

One player in the open division showed how to play with endgame passers: get them as separated as possible. But what else would you expect from a veteran?

GM Alex Onischuk had one of the rare "clean wins" in St. Louis. He was simply better from start to finish, and the ease with which he converted surprised him.

"I got such a wonderful position out of the opening," he told Chess.com. "I could beat just about anyone." He then called the endgame "paradise."

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College kids playing in the U.S. Championship is nothing new. But how about a college coach tied for the lead going into the final round? GM Alex Onischuk will have students and family from Lubbock to Crimea following him tomorrow.

According to U.S. Championship statistician Ed Gonsalves, Onischuk may be the most solid player in the tournament's history. He's gone 126 lifetime games without back-to-back losses, the best in history (GM Gata Kamsky had been slightly ahead but lost two in a row earlier this fortnight).

Onischuk's win today against struggling GM Jeffery Xiong was his third in as many days and pulled him into a three-way tie for the lead. Still holding a share are GMs Varuzhan Akobian and GM Wesley So, who both drew.

"This is something I couldn't dream of before the game," Onischuk said. "I didn't have to calculate much. Just play the best moves."

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Onischuk said he didn't plan to change his pre-round routine going into Sunday's finish. Neither will a member of his family.

One person is almost guaranteed to have a Monday finish -- his father. Like always, he will be awake in Crimea past 1 a.m. watching the finish. He will be the only tired one. Onischuk, 41, called himself a "veteran" and then a "dinosaur," but then ensured Chess.com that he'll have the energy for tomorrow's decider.

"The last round, you always have something left," he said. "I last round has its own rules. I can risk everything. This is like a once-in-a-lifetime event." Then he corrected himself, remembering he had already won the event once in 2006. He clarified that it is the likely the last of his lifetime.

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Akobian is not Var away from his first title. (Bad pun courtesy of GM Ben Finegold.)

Akobian nearly pulled ahead today, as he also enjoyed the bishop pair in the endgame, against GM Ray Robson. He could have kept the volatility in the position with the retreat 41. Bc1, but instead went for a forcing line which offered both of his bishops to obtain passed pawns.

That's when the common theme re-appeared, and the multiple passers weren't enough to win.

"I was probably much better out of the opening," Akobian said. "This b4 move I've never seen in my life."

"I noticed he's started to play well recently," So said about Akobian. "Good chess in Gibraltar...I think he might be inspired by the fact we won the PRO Chess League just before this."

So seemed to have a favorable matchup -- White against a man who he's owned, GM Gata Kamsky. Part of So's prominence on the world scene came with his upset over Kamsky in the 2009 World Cup, and he's continued to dominate with wins in both of the last two championships.

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They're already naming St. Louis streets after Wesley So, but it's a bit presumptuous. His unbeaten streak currently sits at 65, not 66. 

However, the five-time champ has rebounded since a pair of early losses. Kamsky held the upper-hand in the queen ending but probably never varied outside the drawing zone.

"It was really close and in the end I didn't see a win for Black," So said of his "uneventful" game.

Defending champion GM Fabiano Caruana and past champion GM Hikaru Nakamura both got back on track today.

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GM Hikaru Nakamura won the shortest game of the event with blistering tactics.

If you would have gone to the movies for a matinee today, Nakamura's two-hour drama would have been done before you left the theater. For his opponent, GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, it was a horror film.

Chess.com spoke with Nakamura; here's the video:

As you heard, the four-time champion isn't completely counting himself out. When also asked if he harbored any faint hopes for first, Caruana originally discounted the possibility, then as he continued to mull it over, the hilarity of the possibility became endearing to him.

"I don't think even in the most unrealistic scenario," Caruana began, then listed off all the things that would have to happen tomorrow (three leaders lose all lose while he wins, and Nakamura could would also join fray).

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GM Fabiano Caruana lifted the mental fog today against GM Alex Shabalov.

"We would get a huge five-way tie," Caruana said, warming up to the idea as he allowed his thoughts to form. "It would be the greatest thing ever! The chances are probably one in 500 million, but would be a fitting cap to an unpredictable tournament.

"The [tournament's] second half was one of the worst performances ever."

Today he kept open that infinitesimal chance by beating GM Alex Shabalov's Dragondorf (Caruana: "something I could have never predicted").

"With Black against a guy like this, what's the point in playing something normal?" Shabalov said to Chess.com. "From a practical point of view, it was a good choice."

Caruana told Chess.com that yesterday's full-point shedding was an altogether strange experience. He felt "kind of dizzy" in the first time control, thought he would blunder, and then did not. 

"After the time trouble I didn't feel bad anymore but obviously something is wrong." Today he said he had no ill health.

While the men are three abreast coming into the finish, for different parts of the day there were at least three different women who could have had the sole lead in the women's championship.

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Both WGM Sabina Foisor and IM Anna Zatonskih had hopes of leading going into the final day of play.

After not being discussed much in the opening nine rounds, Zatonskih's queen sacrifice could very easily have put here clear of the field with 24 hours remaining. Instead, she tried to emulate So's ...Nxf2 but it proved to be a giant error.

Foisor took the game and she looked to be headed to a full-point Sunday lead.

At day's end, Foisor would not enjoy that one-point lead, or any lead at all. Paikidze upended the evaluation by creating just enough counterplay, and by taking advantage of an unnecessary weakening move by her opponent.

"That's what happens toward the end of the tournament," Paikidze said of the wild finish.

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WGM Tatev Abrahamyan's chance for her first title was already slim this morning, but after today's errors, she is eliminated from title contention.

Was Paikidze peeking at Foisor's game? No. "I was in trouble in my game and I was trying to get out of trouble."

The only other woman who can mathematically catch Foisor and Paikidze is GM Irina Krush, but she only drew today and thus falls another half point off the pace. Like Caruana and Nakamura's extreme longshot, she will need multiple leaders to falter to get to play more chess Monday.

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All three leading men take Black tomorrow. For at least one of them, he doesn't think a draw will be enough.

"It so hard to win with Black in the final round," Onischuk said. "It seems to me if I want to win the U.S. Championship, I should probably try. I don't know how."

So would seem to have the inside track. Neither Onischuk nor Akobian have plus lifetime scores versus their opponents, while the top seed is 3-0 lifetime against GM Daniel Naroditsky.

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Both leading ladies get youngsters. While it may seem that Paikidze's color makes her the betting favorite, recall that WIM Jennifer Yu has already taken out the tournament's top two seeds, Zatonskih and Krush. Paikidze? She's the third seed.

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Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.

You can catch the full broadcast of the final round Sunday at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern at either Chess.com/TV or at the official site, uschesschamps.com.

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