Wesley So dominates playoffs, wins 2021 US Championship

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
10/20/2021 – Wesley So beat both Fabiano Caruana and Sam Sevian in the playoffs of the 2021 US Championship to win the national title for a third time, since his transfer to the United States in 2014. A hard-fought tournament saw the three players sharing first place on 6½ points after 11 rounds. A round robin with a rapid time control took place on Tuesday to decide the winner of the national championship. | Photos: Lennart Ootes

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A third US title for So

Wesley SoWesley So defended his US Championship title on Tuesday, after beating both Fabiano Caruana and Sam Sevian in rapid playoffs. The Filipino-born grandmaster had won the 2020 event, which took place online, and a similar 12-player round robin back in 2017 — So also won that tournament in playoffs, as he beat Alexander Onischuk in a two-game rapid match that followed the two players tying for first place on 7/11 points in the classical event.

At 28, So is a force to be reckoned with at the very top of the chess elite. Currently ranked sixth in the world, he was one of two players to finish the tournament without a loss — Leinier Dominguez finished undefeated, in shared 4th-6th place, a half point behind the winners. The now 3-time national champion capped a typical sturdy performance with back-to-back wins in the playoffs, which were played with a 10-minute time control (and a 2-second delay).

In the post-game interview, So thanked Sam Shankland for saving a difficult draw against Caruana on Monday. Had Caruana won, he would have incredibly come back from a supbar early performance to win the event after scoring three consecutive victories — but it was not meant to be for the rating favourite.

Caruana also had a better position in the first playoff game against So. The eventual champion later confessed:

The thing in this game is that I was playing with no pressure. I didn’t expect this playoff, so I was just playing fast, playing chess — if chances come, good; if I lose, that’s fine too.

So emphasized how important winning the national championship is for him:

I remember 2017, I really wanted to win my first US Championship because it was getting more and more difficult. [...] Now this is my third title, and it’s huge. I feel that the US Championship is a tournament we have to play every single year, and winning the title is huge, it’s even more important than the money.


The rating favourites kicked off the three-player round robin, with Caruana getting the white pieces. The world number two got a positional advantage, and found the right way to break through on move 33.


The forcing line starting with 33.Nc6+ bxc6 34.bxc6 leaves Black struggling to deal with his opponent’s passer after 34...Bxc6 35.dxc6 Kd8


As the commentators noted, Caruana here needed to play actively to leave his opponent without counterplay or chances to fight in a technical endgame — thus, 36.Rb1 would have been the best alternative, while after 36.Nd5 Nxd5 37.exd5 White is still better, but will need to find precise moves to convert his advantage with little time on the clock.


So put up stiff resistance, and soon stabilized the position. Caruana could not switch gears and ended up losing the game.

Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So

Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So | Photo: Lennart Ootes

However, as he has proven repeatedly throughout the event, the Italo-American star is a fighter at heart. After that painful loss, Caruana beat Sevian, keeping his chances alive. Sevian needed to beat So to take the playoffs to the blitz section. The youngster had the black pieces, and opted for a King’s Indian Defence.


Sevian’s risky approach quickly backfired, though, as So played active, natural moves and got a clear edge early in the game. White was fully in control after 15.Nxd4 exd4 16.Bc4, creating deadly threats while Black’s queenside is seriously underdeveloped.

So scored a 33-move win to clinch his third US Championship title.

Carissa Yip, John Burke, Sam Sevian

It was nonetheless a great performance by Sam Sevian — here with Carissa Yip and John Burke | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All games - Playoffs


Final standings


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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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