Last summer, pundits were thinking that the next world title challenger for Magnus Carlsen - after Sergey Karjakin’s challenge - would be either Fabiano Caruana or Vladimir Kramnik, possibly even Hikaru Nakamura. But then back in July 2016, after his tournament in Bilbao, Spain, Wesley So started his remarkable journey of winning every elite event he’s played in since, to now be firmly seen by everyone as possibly being Carlsen’s biggest threat.
The Sinquefield Cup, team and individual gold at the Chess Olympiad, the London Chess Classic (and with it, the Grand Chess Tour), and the Tata Steel Masters. But So is a big Bobby Fischer fan, and the title he covets most - after the world title, naturally - would be to follow in Fischer’s footsteps by winning his first US Chess Championship title.
And after beating Alexander Onischuk in round 4 of the 2017 US Championship at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, to take his memorable unbeaten streak to 60 games, he’s now moved into the sole lead at the top. So followed this with a draw in round 5 against Yaroslav Zherebukh, now moving the streak to 61 games, while at the same time holding onto his half point lead at the top on 3½/5, going into the first rest day of the tournament.
Meanwhile, the race is heating up in the women’s championship as the three previous title holders, defending champion Nazi Paikidze, and multi-time champions Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih respectively, are all tied at the top on 3½/5, half a point ahead of the field.
1. W So, 3½/5; 2-6. D Naroditsky, H Nakamura, Y Zherebukh, V Akobian, R Robson, 3; 7-8. F Caruana, A Onischuk, 2½; 9-11. S Shankland, J Xiong, G Kamsky, 2; 12. A Shabalov, ½.
1-3. I Krush, A Zatonskih, N Paikidze, 3½/5; 4-5. T Abrahamyan, S Foiser, 3; 6-8. J Yu, M Feng, A Sharevich, 2½; 9-10. C Yip, A Virkud, 2; 11. K Nemcova, 1½; 12. E Nguyen, ½.
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.
GM Wesley So - GM Alexander Onischuk
2017 US Championship, (4)
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.0-0 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.b3 While not a very ambitious opening, the ensuing middle game would normally favor the stronger player marginally - and this is how the script goes. 6...b6 7.Bb2 Bb7 8.cxd5 Nxd5 If 8...exd5 9.d4 Ne4 10.Nc3 f5 11.Rc1 White will look for play down the half-open c-file; possibly also looking for it combined with a later Nb5 hitting the pawns on a7 and c7. Instead, Onischuk recaptures with the knight, which signals he wants to lure White into pushing his pawns in the center, hoping to later make a target of them that he can use to create a weakness. 9.d4 Nd7 10.Re1 c5 11.e4 N5f6 12.Nc3 cxd4 13.Nxd4 Ne5 14.Qe2 Bc5 15.Red1 Qe7 There's nothing much in the position - but So, with the open d- and c-files has the possibility of gaining the bishop-pair, as Black's ...Bc5 will fall short of squares. And this little edge is all So needs to build on. 16.Na4 Bxd4 There's no time for 16...Ba3 as after 17.Bxa3 Qxa3 18.f4! Nc6 19.Nb5 Qe7 20.e5, and the vulnerable d6 square will serve as a wonderful outpost for White's knight. 17.Bxd4 Nc6 18.Be3 Rfd8 19.Nc3 Qb4 20.Qb2 Not just defending the knight, but also planning a little queenside expansion with a3 and b4. 20...Ng4 21.Bf4 Nce5 22.a3 Qc5 Onischuk want's to tempt So into playing Na4, thus diverting his knight from the central squares or an immediate Nb5, and raising the possibility of a repetition. The trouble with retreating the queen with 22...Qe7 is that Black has to gamble by 'loosening' his position after 23.h3 g5 24.Bc1! Rxd1+ 25.Nxd1 Rd8 (If 25...Nd3 26.Qe2 Nxc1 27.Rxc1 Ne5 28.Ne3 Rd8 (Dangerous is 28...Qxa3?! 29.Rc7 Ba6 30.Qh5 Qd6 31.Qxg5+ Ng6 32.Rc2 and White emerges with a decisive advantage.) 29.b4 and White has a little space advantage to work with.) 26.Qe2! and it all gets a little 'random', something perhaps Onischuk didn't want to happen, such as: 26...Ba6 27.Bxg5! (Not 27.Qxa6?? Rxd1+! 28.Bf1 Nxf2!! winning.) 27...Qxg5 28.Qxa6 Nxf2 29.Nxf2 Qxg3 and Black looks to have enough compensation for the piece, but this is all sort of speculative and random, and you can understand Onischuk wanting to avoid all of this chaos - however, the 'messy line' suggested by the omnipresent and all-knowing silicon Gods may well have been his best chance here to compete with So. 23.Na4 As 23.Rac1? fails to 23...Nd3, Onischuk lets his guard down here, perhaps relaxing a little by thinking he's close to securing a draw by repetition against the hottest player on the planet right now. 23...Qb5 24.Nc3 Qc5 25.Na4 Qb5 26.h3!? So want's to fight on, but he has at least used the old Soviet Chess School trick of repeating a position twice to get nearer to the time-control - and this seems to somewhat throw Onischuk off-kilter a little. 26...Nd3?! More accurate first was exchanging a set of rooks with 26...Rxd1+ 27.Rxd1 and now 27...Nd3 28.Rxd3 Qxd3 29.hxg4 Bxe4 30.Bxe4 Qxe4 31.Qc3 Rd8 which looks the better route to safeguarding the draw here due to the back-rank mating threats. 27.Rxd3 Rxd3 28.hxg4 Qxb3?! Yet another little inaccuracy and they all soon begin to mount up. Onischuk had to now play 28...Rxb3! 29.Qd4 Rc8 30.Bf1 Qe8! and he's still in the game, as there's chances on offer here for both sides. 29.Bf1! Ouch! Onischuk may well have missed this shot that suddenly brings all of So's pieces dramatically to life. 29...Qxb2 30.Nxb2 Rb3 31.Nc4 Rd8 If Black could safely play here 31...Bxe4 then he would be OK. But unfortunately, it loses on the spot to the fork with 32.Nd2! winning a piece. 32.Nd6 The knight has 'suddenly' become a monster in the heart of Onischuk's position. 32...Ba8 No better was 32...Bc6 as after 33.Rc1 Be8 34.Nxe8 Rxe8 35.Bd6! sees the monster knight now being replaced with a monster bishop. 33.g5 Just holding up for now ..f6 and ...e5. 33...Rc3 34.a4 Rc5 35.e5 Rd7 36.Be3 The game is effectively over here; Onischuk is simply lost, as So's pieces spring to life thanks to the back-rank mating threats. 36...Rxe5 37.Rc1 Rd8 38.Rc7 Rd5 39.Nxf7 Rf8 40.g6! hxg6 41.Ng5 One back-rank mating threat makes way for another, this time the knight covering escape squares of f7 and h7. 41...Rd1 42.Nxe6 Re8 43.Rxg7+ Kh8 44.Rxg6 Be4 45.Bd4+! 1-0 The final act, and Onischuk resigns, faced with the prospects of being forced into 45...Rxd4 46.Rh6+ Kg8 47.Nxd4 Rd8 48.Bc4+ Kg7 49.Ne6+ Kxh6 50.Nxd8 and a hopelessly lost endgame.