So Wins At U.S. Championship To Start Title Defense
GM Wesley So, trying for a career first: a successful title defense. | Lennart Ootes.

So Wins At U.S. Championship To Start Title Defense

| 28 | Chess Event Coverage

He's young, but he's got some experience with defending titles. And it hasn't gone well.

By his own admission, GM Wesley So has struggled the year after winning an event. London, Grand Chess Tour, Tata Steel—you name it, and as best he can recall, he hasn't ever won back-to-back titles in his career.


GM Wesley So, sporting his new Italian jacket. | Photo: Lennart Ootes.

So's next opportunity, these upcoming two weeks in St. Louis, is off to the right start to reverse that futility. Although he missed an absolutely electric tactic, So still won today against GM Yaroslav Zherebukh in the start to the 2018 U.S. Championship. (So said he is also looking forward to defending his gold medal at the Olympiad later this year.)

"I don't know when the next time I'm going to win a game again!" So said about savoring this victory. He's coming off a poor performance at the Candidates' Tournament, where he won only one game out of 14.

The only other person tied with So is GM Varuzhan Akobian, who is still seeking his first national title. He beat newly-inducted U.S. Chess Hall of Famer GM Alex Onischuk.


GM Varuzhan Akobian promotes, which was the winning move against GM Alex Onischuk. | Photo: Lennart Ootes.

On the ladies' side, WIM Annie Wang took out FM Maggie Feng, while 2016 champion IM Nazi Paikidze beat WIM Jennifer Yu.

So and Paikidze played on opposite sides of the upstairs of the Saint Louis Chess Club, but they were bound by the same move. Both played Black and both said they began feeling comfortable after advancing ...b5.

Earlier, So thought the wildcard player was doing just fine with extra space. "Then he kind of drifted," So said about Zherebukh's middlegame.

Already with a better position, So missed a chance to perhaps win the brilliancy prize in the first round of the tournament. The majestic opportunity came on move 24. See if you can out-calculate the candidate:

If you didn't see the answer, don't fret. After the game, the commentator staff attempted to ask So about the opportunity to play the tactic.

When GM Maurice Ashley mentioned 24...Nf5, So nearly interjected to correct him, thinking Ashley misspoke. So's response was roughly: "What? Ahhh...Hmm." Then it sank in. Turns out, So hadn't even looked at the move, despite spending some time analyzing various ways to win on the long diagonal.

"That's why I'm only number seven in the world!" he said.

Here's the full game, with analysis by GM Robert Hess.

null's interview with So.

Akobian beat longtime Olympiad teammate Onischuk a day after his friend was immortalized in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.


GM Alex Onischuk, only the fifth U.S. player to break 2700 (after getting to 2699 three times!), said getting into the Hall of Fame was the greatest honor of his life. | Photo: Mike Klein/

An exchange sac gave Black a better game, but the finish was clever, too, in this GM miniature.


A good tournament by GM Varuzhan Akobian may get him on the Olympiad team by rating. A great tournament by Akobian gets him the automatic qualifier. | Photo: Lennart Ootes.

GM Hikaru Nakamura's last national title came back in 2015. One thing he's particularly good at is getting off to quick starts in St. Louis. How good? Going into today, he'd won his last seven opening-round games at U.S. championships (every time he's played in one in St. Louis).

That ended today when he could only draw as White against GM Ray Robson (who Nakamura beat in round one last year!).

"I was in a bit of a haze," Nakamura said. "I confused the move order at the start. I was in a bit of trouble."


GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Ray Robson reprise their annual battle. Robson, 23, is playing in his 11th U.S. championship, but still chases his first win. | Photo: Austin Fuller, Saint Louis Chess Club.

Eventually he sorted out his deficiencies but decided not to go for broke. As Nakamura put it: "It's the first round. You don't want to do something stupid and blunder a tactic and lose in like 20 moves as White."

Robson told he thought he might be better, but he wasn't sure. 

"These positions are just unclear; they are complicated," he said. "Against Hikaru you just need to play really objective chess and then try to make him overpress."

Robson admitted he's still "never come close to beating him in a classical game."'s interview with Nakamura.

The 2016 U.S. champion and new world championship contender, GM Fabiano Caruana, played the youngest player in the field. Tournament newcomer 15-year-old GM Awonder Liang impressed Caruana with several of his moves. Of course, he may have earned his respect even before then, famously beating Caruana in the PRO Chess League this year.

Caruana Liang

The Arch Bishop (Caruana) tried to get revenge on the Pawngrabber (Liang). | Photo: Austin Fuller, Saint Louis Chess Club.

"I wasn't unhappy with the pairing," Caruana told Neither was Liang.

"I think it was better this way that I was playing him in the first round," the teenager said. "It was like ripping a band-aid. You do it, and you don't have to think about it later on."

Caruana praised his opponent's decision to open the kingside with 24. g3. The world number-two also admitted that he didn't even see the strong defensive move 27. Ra2 with the idea of replacing and trading the queen via the vacated corner. Afterward, he thought Liang could have played even more ambitiously. asked Caruana about whether he believes in chess players getting "hot" or being "streaky." Recall that Caruana once won seven games in a row in 2014 against the world's elite in the very same building. He also won London 2017, then underperformed in Wijk aan Zee, before winning his last two events on the heels of each other (Candidates' and Grenke).

Nope, he doesn't put any stock in that. And science has suggested that Caruana is right—it's likely just natural variance.

He was then asked about his upcoming world championship clash. Since Caruana was the only member of this year's Candidates' to drop by the world championship in 2016, was he "scouting out" how it would feel to compete on the biggest stage in chess? Nope to that one too.

"It's nearby and a lot of my friends were going," he explained about showing up in New York. When asked, So said he might go to London this year and hope to continue Caruana's parlay from spectator to challenger!

Paikidze Foisor

The last two U.S. Women's Champions at the opening ceremony. IM Nazi Paikidze, left, 2016 champion, and WGM Sabina Foisor, the reigning champion. | Photo: Mike Klein/

One last recurring question of the round: What odds did Caruana's colleagues give him in the upcoming world championship match?

Nakamura favored GM Magnus Carlsen, generously stating he was a 75-80 percent favorite. He said it would be about 10 points lower, except "Fabiano has absolutely no chance if it goes to tiebreak."

So's percentage for the champ to defend was only 60 percent. Then he found out Nakamura's estimate, and responded, "He's not very patriotic!" asked Caruana, who held to his belief that he's 50-50. "I really think it's very even," he said. As for the next few months, he said he is building his team and "we're pretty much planning everything."

The very first win of the fortnight came from the U.S. Women's Championship, where IM Nazi Piakidze took out upstart WIM Jennifer Yu. Experience prevailed when Paikidze, the 2016 champ, tricked her queen-pawn-playing opponent into an e4 opening.


Chief Arbiter Ken Ballou announces at last night's opening ceremony that IM Nazi Paikidze drew number nine, but today she made the most of her chance with Black. | Photo: Mike Klein/

After an early Nc3, "I decided to transpose into a Pirc opening," Paikidze said, later telling she didn't know the opening that well either. "It worked out very well for me." 

Just like So, Paikidze hit cruise control after advancing her b-pawn. "She helped me when she took on b5," Paikidze said, adding that it felt great to play an aggressive game with Black to start the event.

Just as the winner was leaving the post-game commentary area, WGM Jennifer Shahade mentioned that she thought Paikidze could become America's third female GM if she wanted to (after GM Susan Polgar and GM Irina Krush).

Paikidze didn't have a chance to respond since she'd removed her microphone, so repeated the question off camera.

"I've been having those thoughts for years," Paikidze told "Evidently I've made my choice."


Paikidze's business is no longer to become a GM, but she said her actual business will be a "go" by year's end.  | Photo: Mike Klein/

Paikidze has not played a rated event since June 2017 and has been focusing on a business venture that she said will likely go live later this year. She said playing in long tournaments like this does not inspire her to play more.

"After such an event I'm so exhausted, I can't even look at chess afterward."

Both IM Rusudan Goletiani and IM Anna Zatonskih concurred about the physicality of the championship. As the only two mothers in the field, neither of whom brought their families, they both agreed that the tournament is most definitely not a vacation.


IM Anna Zatonskih, about as happy as you'll ever see her before a game. She played her old friend Goletiani. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Goletiani, who now works for a major bank, hasn't played here since 2015. "I'm glad Rusa is here!" Zatonskih said.

The two have been Olympiad teammates many times in the past. Should Goletiani win the event, she'd get an automatic spot to join Zatonskih on the team later this year. Zatonskih reminded her that it will be in Goletiani's native Georgia, which the banker had completely forgotten.


WGM Rusa Goletiani and Zatonskih both agreed that no matter how long you are away from the game, chess is always "in your blood."  | Photo: Mike Klein/

2018 U.S. Championship | Standings After Round 1

Rank Name Rating 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Score
1 GM So, Wesley 2786 x 1 1
2 GM Akobian, Varuzhan 2647 x 1 1
3 GM Caruana, Fabiano 2804 x ½ 0.5
4 GM Nakamura, Hikaru 2787 x ½ 0.5
5 GM Shankland, Samuel 2671 x ½ 0.5
6 GM Xiong, Jeffery 2665 x ½ 0.5
7 GM Robson, Ray 2660 ½ x 0.5
8 GM Lenderman, Aleksandr 2599 ½ x 0.5
9 GM Izoria, Zviad 2599 ½ x 0.5
10 GM Liang, Awonder 2552 ½ x 0.5
11 GM Onischuk, Alexander 2672 0 x 0
12 GM Zherebukh, Yaroslav 2640 0 x 0

2018 U.S. Women's Championship | Standings After Round 1

Rank Name Rating 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Score
1 IM Paikidze, Nazi 2352 x 1 1
2 FM Wang, Annie 2321 x 1 1
3 IM Zatonskih, Anna 2444 x ½ 0.5
4 GM Krush, Irina 2422 x ½ 0.5
5 WGM Abrahamyan, Tatev 2366 x ½ 0.5
6 WGM Foisor, Sabina-Francesca 2308 ½ x 0.5
7 IM Goletiani, Rusudan 2306 ½ x 0.5
8 IM Derakhshani, Dorsa 2306 x ½ 0.5
9 WGM Sharevich, Anna 2281 ½ x 0.5
10 FM Gorti, Akshita 2252 ½ x 0.5
11 FM Yu, Jennifer 2367 0 x 0
12 FM Feng, Maggie 2243 0 x 0

The 2018 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship are twin 12-player round robins from April 18-30. The time control is 40/90, SD/30 with a 30-second increment from move one. You can follow all the action at the official website. Games will be daily at 1 p.m. Central time (11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. UTC). is on site and will be bringing you daily reports and video interviews.

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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