Former World Champion Vishy Anand described Wesley So’s phenomenal 56-game unbeaten streak in the past year in elite competition as being “effortless”. In addition to winning the Sinquefield Cup, So won Olympiad individual and team gold, London Classic, the Grand Chess Tour title and the Tata Steel Masters last January ahead of Magnus Carlsen - and now the next milestone event on his bucket list is the 2017 US Chess Championship that got underway earlier today at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
World #2 So desperately wants to win his first US title to add to what's already a very overcrowded trophy cabinet, and he’s the top seed in the strong 12-player field which also features defending champion Fabiano Caruana, #3 in the world, and four-time champion Hikaru Nakamura, #6 in the world, who recently won the prestigious Tradewise Gibraltar Masters for the third successive year.
Apart from the top three, the all-GM strong field also includes (in rating order) is: GM Ray Robson, GM Sam Shankland, GM Jeffery Xiong (US Junior Champion), GM Gata Kamsky, GM Alex Onischuk, GM Daniel Naroditsky, GM Varuzhan Akobian, GM Alex Shabalov (US Open Champion), and wildcard GM Yaroslav Zherebukh.
Also, there’s the US Women’s Championship, with reigning champion IM Nazi Palkidze returning to defend her title. The full field (in rating order) is: GM Irina Krush, IM Anna Zatonskih, IM Nazi Palkidze, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, WGM Katerina Nemcova, WGM Sabina Foiser, WGM Anna Sharevich, WFM Jennifer Yu, WFM Apurva Virkud (U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion), and wildcards WFM Carissa Yip and NM Maggie Feng.
The championships run March 29 – April 10 and will be streamed live each round on http://www.uschesschamps.com, featuring play-by-play and analysis from the world-renowned commentary team of GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade.
So 1-0 Shabalov
Shankland draw Caruana
Robson 0-1 Nakamura
Akobian draw Xiong
Onischuk draw Naroditsky
Zherebukh draw Kamsky
Yu 1-0 Zatonskih
Feng draw Krush
Nguyen draw Paikidze
Abrahamyan 1-0 Virkud
Sharevich draw Nemcova
Foiser 1-0 Yip
And that “effortless” Anand described was on show in the opening round from Wesley So, as his dynamic play soon overwhelmed four-time past champion Alexander Shabalov to stretch his unbeaten streak now to 57 games; and, in the process, he creeps ever-closer to Carlsen’s coveted top spot in the world rankings, with the world champion’s lead now down to just 14-points on the unofficial live rating list.
GM Wesley So - GM Alexander Shabalov
US Championship, (1)
1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 Nf6 4.d4 Bg4 Shabalov is a highly experienced player, and the Slav Defence is normally a tough nut to crack, but So almost makes this overpowering win look so easy. 5.h3 Bf5 6.Nc3 e6 7.g4 Bg6 8.Ne5 You have to play this move now to seize the advantage of the bishop-pair before Black can prevent it with ...Nbd7. At least with the bishop-pair and the White pieces, the higher-rated elite star can press hard and probe for the win. 8...Nbd7 9.Nxg6 hxg6 10.g5 Ng8 This retreat and redeployment on e7 and heading to f5 at least look's to be achievable without too much time-wasting involved. For this reason, 10...Nh5 and later playing ...f6 looked risky, as the knight could well be out of the game for too long. 11.h4 Ne7 12.Bd2 Nf5 From here, it looks as if Shabalov can tie So down to defending his h-pawn. 13.Qg4 a6?! This looks where it all starts to go so horribly wrong for Shabalov - he first should have played 13...Be7 (threatening ...Bxg5! with the rook pinned on h1) 14.Rh3 Nb6 15.c5 Nd7 and, with White's pawn now committed to c5, then start preparing ...b6 to start breaking down the pawn chain. At least here, Black has good counterplay option that he doesn't achieve in the game, as Shabalov now gets overwhelmed by So's very dynamic play. 14.0-0-0 dxc4 The problem Black faces is that the rather obvious 14...b5 now gets hit by 15.e4! and White is threatening to bludgeon the position wide-open in the centre to take advantage of Black's king stranded in the middle of the board. 15.Bxc4 c5 Shabalov's only hope here is to try to open as many lines as possible to the White king - but after a timely Kb1 from So, there's no breakthrough and Shabalov's left with his king stranded in the middle of the board. 16.dxc5 Bxc5 17.Be2 Be7 18.Kb1 Best to just nudge the king to safety and then utilise the open c-file. 18...Qb6 19.Na4 Instead, 19.h5 was the direct plan of action - but So spots that he can bring his pieces to life with all that empty space now on the queenside that will give Shabalov a major headache to deal with. 19...Qc7 20.Rc1 Qd6 21.Ba5! Suddenly there's now a big threat of Bc7 followed by Rc4 and the Black queen embarrassingly short of squares. 21...Ne5 Black is now in a fix. If 21...b6 22.Qe4! 0-0 23.Rcd1 (More accurate than 23.Rhd1 Qh2! with some hopes with the hit on h4) 23...Qc7 24.Rxd7! Qxd7 25.Nxb6 Qa7 26.Nxa8 Rxa8 27.h5! and White has an overwhelming position. 22.Qe4 Nc6 23.Rhd1 Rxh4 24.f4 Qb8 25.Nb6 Nd6 There is no hopes of survival here. If 25...Nxa5 26.Qa4+! leaves Black in dire straits - and not in a good way, with Mark Knopfler playing lead guitar! - as after 26...Nc6 27.Rxc6! bxc6 28.Qxc6+ Kf8 29.Nd7+ Black loses his queen, and with it, also the game. 26.Qa4 Ra7 This had to be an embarrassing concession for Shabalov to have to play. 27.Bf3 Nb5 28.Qc2 Qc7 29.Rd7 1-0