U.S. Champs Round 9: "I can't believe what I just witnessed"

U.S. Champs Round 9: "I can't believe what I just witnessed"

| 35 | Chess Event Coverage

On's Tactics Trainer you can solve by the theme: e.g. "attacks on f2/f7." GM Wesley So doesn't need the practice.

A year removed from the scintillating cruncher 20. Nxf7!, at today's 2017 U.S. championship round nine, he one-upped himself to break out of his drawing funk. The sublime 21...Nxf2!! had more depth and subtlety than its 2016 vintage, yet still wasn't enough for sole first at day's end.


In an incredibly eventful day for the "big three," only GM Wesley So could smile at the end.

Today's fine wine could be sipped slowly; after the sacrifice he used some seemingly slow moves and maneuvers, many of them with pawns, to highlight the denuding of GM Jeffery Xiong's defenses.

The awesomeness of the move and conversion would have stood out even more on any other day besides this one. Why? The other two elite world players, GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, both played uncharacteristically below their standards and lost.

GM Varuzhan Akobian kept pace with So by beating Caruana after being down two pawns for nothing. GM Alex Onischuk, 41, outplayed Nakamura in the ending to stay only a half-point back.

"I can't remember anything like this," the 15-year championship veteran Akobian told "It's a pretty incredible day."


GM Varuzhan Akobian just gave chess teachers everywhere fodder for their "Why should you never resign?" lesson.

The session ended with GM Yasser Seirawan's note: "I can't believe what I just witnessed."

In his loss, Caruana made what is surely the worst blunder of his U.S. championship career. It nearly cost him his 2800 perch, a crescendo he re-achieved this time last year in St. Louis.

"It's an incredible feeling to win a position like this," Akobian told "I feel bad for Fabiano."

Only minutes removed from his own underdog win as Black, Onischuk said, "When I saw this I immediately forgot about my own game."

"How do you lose a game with two extra passed pawns?" Seirawan asked.

"A game like this is a good sign," Akobian told about his tournament chances. He's been close many times, including his first championship in 2003 when he was tied for the lead in the final day but lost a long game in the last round. His most recent close call was 2014, when he made a three-man playoff but lost to GM Gata Kamsky.

The top-rated American Wesley So had set the pace the whole tournament, and had at least a piece of the lead since round one.


GM Jeffery Xiong just can't buy a break as White. Today though, he was up against an other-worldly move.

So continues to enjoy his now 64-game unbeaten streak, but today's effort may have been the best of the lot. So told that the move precipitating the kingside assault was 85 percent calculation and 15 percent intuition.

Here's our video interview with So:

"Fortunately it worked for me," So said as he beat his "pet line," the Catalan. "It was all very difficult to calculate...This battery on the second rank is really hard to fight against."


"This is obviously a much-needed win," So said.

GM Maurice Ashley didn't see similarities to last championship's annihilation of Akobian. Instead, he compared it to So's blitz game for the ages at the Ultimate Blitz Challenge that came after the 2016 event.

"Where's Garry when you need him?" So joked.

As the game was concluding, So could have reasonably expected to have sole possession of the lead going into the final weekend. Neither he, nor anyone else, knew Akobian's sorcery was to come.

As if that wasn't enough, Onischuk beat Nakamura for the first time in 10 years.


GM Alex Onischuk didn't qualify for the U.S. Olympiad team in Baku, but today he showed why he was one of America's best for the better part of a decade.

Onischuk certainly still has the strength, but he admitted to that he really doesn't work on his game much anymore now that he's the program director and coach of the Texas Tech chess team.

"For this tournament I look at more [of my own] chess than the entire year," he told Onischuk said that instead he is preparing his students. Could they reciprocate and help him here in St. Louis? Yes, but he doesn't want to bother them before final exams.

Onischuk's only title came in 2006 and not many had him on the radar to win another one.

"Sometimes I say that I have no chance to win, but inside, I still feel like I can if I play my best chess," he said.


No repeat of the 2013 Sinquefield Cup: GM Hikaru Nakamura (with stepfather FM Sunil Weeramantry) explained that he's wearing photochromatic lenses that go back to translucent when out of the sunlight.

Onischuk apologized to Nakamura's stepfather FM Sunil Weeramanty, who smiled and congratulated Onischuk.

"I could imagine being +2 after nine rounds, but I would never imagine I'd be only a half-point out of first," Onischuk told

He added on the live broadcast: "I feel like Viktor Korchnoi. Towards the end I have more energy and thus my chances against the younger players is high."

GM Ray Robson blew a highly tactical winning position against GM Yaroslav Zherebukh and drew, while GM Daniel Naroditsky's emotions ran deep against GM Alex Shabalov.

Just after losing back-to-back games, Naroditsky failed to convert a winning position in which all of his pieces could have played the hero against the enemy king. When the advantage slipped, his expressions told you more than the board did.


GM Daniel Naroditsky can't watch his fate while GM Hikaru Nakamura stops by to check on the histrionics. Photo: Lennart Ootes for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Full credit to the Stanford undergraduate: He recovered to salvage a half-point via a nice simplification and repetition.


GM Daniel Naroditsky before the round, showing just how lonely the chess world can be when you're running bad.

More jolts lay ahead in the U.S. women's championship.

The top board was about the only one that allowed chess fans to catch their breath. IM Nazi Paikidze and WGM Sabina Foisor could have gone longer, but Foisor didn't attempt to keep her extra pawn. 

The split point leaves them both on 6/9, the same leading score as Akobian and So enjoy. interviewed Foisor on the tumultuous year she's endured in her personal life, and why this event means so much to her. Here's the video:

The draw between the leaders allowed GM Irina Krush to get to the front, but her neat tactic and pawn-up ending was spoiled by stalwart defense.


GM Irina Krush couldn't catch up today but is still very much in the quest for her eighth title. The all-time career record is nine.

On a day with just about everything happening, the hold by the 13-year-old NM Carissa Yip even had GM Ben Finegold talking about it:

Krush thus remains a half-point back, as does longtime compatriot IM Anna Zatonskih, who actually got to mate on the board today.

"I think she had compensation, but she didn't play well afterward," Zatonskih said of the early gamble.

The tournament is scheduled for two more days, although with a day like this, a Monday playoff seems more fitting than ever.





Images courtesy Spectrum Studios.

You can catch the full broadcast of the next round at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern at either or at the official site,

Previous reports:

FM Mike Klein

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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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