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So Beats Onischuk To Win 1st U.S. Championship

So Beats Onischuk To Win 1st U.S. Championship

It turns out, the PRO Chess League was just the warmup.

After winning the MVP award last month for scoring the highest league performance rating, today GM Wesley So continued his rapid brilliance in the Monday playoff for the 2017 U.S. championship. He beat 2006 U.S. champion GM Alex Onischuk, who at 41 was trying to become the first 40-something to win a national title since 2002.

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2017 U.S. Champion GM Wesley So and 2017 U.S. Women's Champion WGM Sabina Foisor at the closing ceremony.

The base time was today was 25 minutes, not 15, but So proved to be the faster thinker in winning 1.5-0.5. After a random drawing of lots, So took White for the opening game and the two players didn't shy from the complications.

"A pawn is a pawn, let alone two pawns," So said about his preference for the material over the initiative.

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GM Wesley So with a rare look at the crowd during game one.

Already ahead on time, So found the diabolical 20. Bg4!! where the punctuation is for originality and bravado. While the move is no more accurate than simply recapturing the rook, it kept the tension and allowed So to widen his growing time advantage.

"I'm a decent grandmaster and I would never even consider it," GM Elshan Moradiabadi said.

Onischuk's clock consistently dwindled five to nine minutes less than his opponent, a lifetime in rapid chess.

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"I finally cracked," Onischuk told Chess.com. Despite the perception of playing too slowly, the runner up claimed the inverse. He said he wished he'd taken more time in the critical moments.

When asked about the perception of him being a solid player and just trying to hold as Black, Onischuk said he enjoys getting the initiative as Black and he wasn't just trying to get to his turn with White.

"I didn't have a chance after Qb3. Quite frankly, I like the kind of chess with one or two pawns [sacrificed]," he said. He reminded us that the Marshall Gambit is in his repertoire. 

The players had a 10-minute break before reversing colors. So walked around with his entourage while Onischuk preferred to sit in the adjacent boardroom with his wife. 

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During the respite in between rapid games, GM Alex Onischuk resembled a politician at the end of long campaign, waiting for the election returns to come with his wife.

In game two, Onischuk didn't have anything to lose. Of course, he said the same about his chances during the classical chess a few days ago.

The King's Indian Attack seemed like a modest choice but eventually the two bishops versus two knights provided the kind of imbalance that a trailing player covets.

"That's the only way to play for the win against Wesley," Onischuk said about avoiding theory.

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Before the playoff began, IA Franc Guadalupe (center) asked the players if they had any questions. Here, GM Alex Onischuk asks about the procedure to claiming repetitions. Little did he know one would end the championship.

Perhaps more important, Onischuk kept pace on the clock with the man 18 years younger. The breakthrough attempt 32. a5! came quickly and confidently. Although a passed pawn didn't appear, instead White's pieces invaded the kingside and Onischuk switched flanks with 35. h4.

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GM Alex Onischuk had two extra pawns and several minutes more time, but could not figure out how to undo the Gordian knot on So's dark squares.

The invasion was so close, but in the waning seconds, So found a geometric repetition to end the game and his quest for his first U.S. Championship.

"I wish I could play with knights like Wesley does," Onischuk said.

Analysis also by GM Elshan Moradiabadi:

If two pawns are indeed two pawns as So said, then this game would be the exception. He said Onischuk should not have captured the b-pawn and should have instead kept the initiative with 42. Bd5.

"Today wasn't easy," So said. "Alex Onischuk will not go down without a fight and he didn't the second game."

Here's the video interview with So.

After the playoff ended, Onischuk told Chess.com that he only prepared for about 30 minutes. He focused on scenarios (color order, all the possible first-game results) more than openings.

"I think I played well," Onischuk told Chess.com. "I was just slower than him."

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GM Wesley So is congratulated by foster mother Lotis Key immediately after the game.

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"I can't believe that I won this tournament considering the way that I played," So said. "My play here has a lot to be improved upon. I found it hard to win games."

When asked if he thinks he could compete for that elusive second title in the upcoming years, Onischuk demurred and referred back to his disbelief of the present year.

"You have to eliminate three people, first of all," he said, referencing the three top-10 players in the field. Then he went down the line listing most of his rating peers too. "What am I going to do about that next year? Unless they change [the] federation to France. Before the tournament I thought maybe I could do better than one of them or two. But all three?"

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GM Alex Onischuk barely wavered from his singular focus when arriving at the club today. The only pause in his focus came when entering, as he stopped and remembered to hold the door for his wife.

Having only played one weekend event since last year's championship (December's Carlos Torre Memorial), but now on his highest rating since 2010, has he become inspired to play more?

"I hope it inspires other people!" he said about returning to form at age 41. He called his last two weeks a "vacation."

"I really enjoyed every minute of the U.S. championship."

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Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.

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