U.S. Championship: So and Akobian start with wins

by André Schulz
4/19/2018 – Kicking off the US Championships at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, defending US Champion Wesley So and Varuzhan Akobian started with victories — both coming with the black pieces. Awonder Liang took half a point off Fabiano Caruana. In the Women's championship, there were two decisions in round one. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Excellent field and first class presentation

Nearly $200,000 is up for grabs between the 12 players at the 2018 U.S. Championships, of which $50,000 goes to the winner. In the women's championship, the prize fund is half the amount, but still a sizeable $100,000 in total, with $25,000 for the new champion. By comparison, the new European champion among women, Valentina Gunina, will receive 11,000 euros (around $13,600) and she to prevail against a much stronger field.

With the new World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, there are three absolutely world-class players in the Open Championship. Awonder Liang, just 15 years old, belongs to the next generation of strong US players.

Behind the chess boom in the USA is the multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, who founded the Chess Club & Scholastic Center in 2007 and has since invested huge sums in US chess as a patron. The national championships have been held in Saint Louis for ten years now organizing team at the CCSCSL now operates like a well-oiled machine. One clear sign is the top-notch live commentary webcasts that have become routine in these top US events.

Replay live commentary of Round 1 | CCSCSL on YouTube

The returning U.S. Champion Wesley So got off to the best possible start, winning with black against Yaroslav Zherebukh. In a Sicilian with 3.Bb5+, So, kept the minor pieces on the board with 3...Nd7, and Zherebukh played the very tame 4.Ba4, relocating the bishop without being asked. The players eventually followed a recent game Boruchovsky vs Yilmaz from last month's European Individual Championship through move 11.

The players manoeuvred for the next 15 moves, but So played both a bit better and a bit faster until this critical position was reached:


Here So gained a clear edge with 26...Nc2. It was imperative for Zherebukh to have played 26.Ra2 — not to control the c2-square, but simply to get the rook off of a1, so that Nc2 fails simply to Bxa7. With the rook on a1, after Nc2 White was forced to play 27.Bxa7 Nxb4 28.Rb1 and Black went up a pawn with a clearly better position to boot: 28...Nxd3 29.Rxb5 Bc6 30.Rb1 Ra8. So converted with ease. 

Wesley So

In the game between Alexander Onischuk and Varuzhan Akobian, Black interpreted the Dutch Stonewall variation in a very dynamic way. The game developed very slowly, and in the lively contest that followed, Onischuk grabbed an exchange, but Akobian had full compensation. In the end, Black's advanced d-pawn decided the game:


White could keep fighting with 25.f3 deflecting the bishop 25...Bxf3 26.Rd7 when everything is kept under control for the moment. E.g. 26...Re8 27.Kf2. But 25.Re2? d1(Q) just left Akobian up a full piece, and Onischuk resigned. 

Onischuk and Akobian

Oniskuk and Akobian | Photo: Lennart Ootes

After the game, Akobian noted that this was actually his first win in a classical game against Onischuk! Akobian has participated in many US Championships but has never won. He was runner-up in 2014, when he lost a playoff to Gata Kamsky.

Onischuk has been US Champion in 2006, and on Tuesday was inducted into the US Chess Hall of Fame across the street from the Chess Club.

Onischuk at the Hall of Fame

Today Onischuk is primarily a full-time coach at Texas Tech University | Photo: Austin Fuller

Youngster Awonder Liang got off to a good start with a draw against Fabiano Caruana. Liang kept the game in calm waters and scored half a point against the 2800 World Championship challenger.

Standings after round one


All games of the round


Women's Championship

The women's championship held parallel also saw two decisive games in the opening round. Nazi Paikidze win against Jennifer Yu with black in the first decisive game of either Championship.


White had already spent over an hour on her clock by this point and here played 12.g4, but was already on the back foot after 12...Nxf2! winning the exchange. White was suffering throughout the game with her king in the centre. Paikidze played energetically and forced resignation on move 30.

In the duel of the teenagers, Annie Wang defeated Maggie Feng. Wang outplayed Feng in a double-rook endgame. The key moment was on move 34.


At first glance, the connected passed pawns for Black look like they should give her an edge in this ending, but the activity of White's rooks and Black's weak king is actually more significant. Black really should try 35...c5 giving up a pawn to swap off a pair of rooks. After 34...R6b5 35.Rc7 followed by Ree7 gave Wang a strong attack. To defend her king, Feng ended up being forced to give up both her passed pawns leaving her with a hopeless position.

Women's playing hall

The women play just across the hall from the men | Photo: Austin Fuller

All games of the round


Standings after round one


Translation and additional reporting: Macauley Peterson


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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