Will this glorious run ever end for Wesley So? The Minnetonka-based Filipino Grandmaster added the coveted title of 2017 U.S. Chess Champion to his over-bulging trophy cabinet, as he proved to be so precise in winning a two-game, tie-breaking playoff against veteran former champion Alexander Onischuk at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, as he dramatically captured the first in what could well be many U.S. titles, as both players finished tied at the top on 7/11.
But these days there’s no sharing of titles, nor the very generous first prize cash on offer and - much like golf’s exciting Masters' clash at the weekend - both players had to come back for a dramatic playoff for the title and the $50,000 first prize, which, despite some stiff opposition from Onischuk, So precise play saw him emerge victorious, winning 1½-½. "I really wanted to win this one this year … because it's the strongest national competition in the world," So commented after the playoff. "All the great [U.S.] players have won this one.”
In the past year, So has had a rapid rise to world No2 with a phenomenal streak to become one of the biggest threats yet to both Magnus Carlsen’s world title and world No1 ranking in the game. The 23-year-old has won the Sinquefield Cup, team and individual gold at the 2016 Chess Olympiad in Baku, the London Chess Classic (and with it, also the Grand Chess Tour title), the 2017 Tata Steel Masters (ahead of Carlsen), and now the title he readily admitted he coveted most of all, the 2017 U.S. Chess Champion.
And along the way, while his unbeaten streak of 67 games is impressive, it remains well short of Sergey Tiviakov’s remarkable feat of 110 games without loss set in 2004-05, and that of Mikhail Tal’s double standard of 95 and 86 games back-to-back without loss set, respectively, in 1973-74 and 1972-73 - but So is currently the man-of-the-moment with his unbeaten streak still in-play.
Much is made in the annals of Bobby Fischer’s influence over the U.S. Championship with his record of winning all eight of his appearances. There’s also the added legend of Fischer winning his sixth title in the 1963/64 U.S. Championship with 11/11, the only perfect winning score in the national tournament’s history. And in that famous victory, Fischer won arguably the most brilliant game ever to be played in the long and storied history of the U.S. Chess Championship.
That famous game was against Robert Byrne (which you can view by clicking here) involved a dazzling tactical twist of Black (Fischer) playing …Nd3 followed by …Nxf2 for a surprise mating attack that rightly won the brilliancy prize. But now Wesley So, in winning his first U.S. title, also emulates his hero Fischer with a brilliant game against World Junior Champion Jeffrey Xiong that's equally worthy of a brilliancy prize win - and, remarkably, it also involved the same dazzling tactical twist of a knight sacrifice with Black playing …Nd3 followed by …Nxf2 for an unexpected mating attack!
1-2. W. So*, A. Onischuk 7/11; 3-5. V. Akobian, H. Nakamura, F. Caruana 6½; 6. Y. Zherenukh 5½; 7-9. D. Naroditsky, S. Shankland, G. Kamsky 5; 10. R. Robson 4½; 11. J. Xiong 4; 12. A. Shabalov 3½. (*So wins title after beating Onischuk in a playoff)
There will be a full recap of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Championship in the next First Move column.
GM Jeffery Xiong - GM Wesley So
2017 U.S. Championship, (9)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Rd1 Bc6 10.Nc3 Bxf3 So far, so very Catalan. This is all standard fare in the Catalan, and if Black doesn't play this now, then White comes in with Ne5 to capture the c4-pawn for material balance and a more comfortable game. The end result after 10...Bxf3, though, is that Black holds onto an extra pawn, but White gets the bishop-pair and cripples Black's queenside pawn structure as compensation.. 11.Bxf3 Nc6 12.Bxc6 bxc6 13.Bg5 Rb8 The tripled c-pawns at least opens up the half-open b-file for So's rook. 14.e3 c5!? Wesley is a man with a plan and a new novelty! More standard has been 14...a5 here, but with the pawn sacrifice, So is looking to find an activate outposts for his knight, specifically c5, from where it can hone in on the weak b3 and d3 squares. 15.dxc5 Qe8 16.Rd4 Nd7! 17.Bxe7 Qxe7 18.c6 Perhaps Jeffrey thought this might save his skin? It's certainly a complex position, and White can't be too hasty and play 18.Rxc4, as after 18...Ne5! suddenly White's rook is short of squares and Black's pieces come alive after 19.Rf4 (19.Re4? Qxc5 20.Qe2 f5 21.Rf4 g5 22.Rd4 g4 with a decisive advantage. And also note that 19.Rd4?? Nf3+! is winning.) 19...Qxc5 20.Qe2 a5 and Black has the advantage with his dominant knight on e5 sticking in white's throat like a sharp bone. 18...Ne5 19.Qe4 Qc5 20.Nd5 Xiong really had to mix it here with So, because if he holds back, his opponent will consolidate his position with the advantage, picking off the c6-pawn and sticking a big target on the b2-pawn. Trouble is, is that by 'mixing it', it looks as if he may well have underestimated So's potential here. 20...Nd3!? 21.Nxc7 Nxf2!! 22.Kxf2? Playing engines have no nerves and can blithely ignore the sacrificial knight on f2, with the very silicon approach to the problem with 22.Nxa6!? which, at least, introduces a further complication by immediately attacking Black's queen and clearing a path to threaten to push home the c-pawn. However, it doesn't look as though it is enough to save the game - but it certainly looks a better effort than what happens in the game. Play is likely now to continue with: 22...Qg5! 23.Qf3 (Unfortunately, White doesn't have the saving idea of 23.Qf4 due to the little matter of the knight fork with 23...Nh3+ winning.) 23...Rxb2 24.c7 Nh3+ 25.Kh1 (If 25.Kf1 Qa5! leads to much the same as the main note.) 25...h6! This quiet move is the killer waiting move, as it gives Black's king not only an escape route from any pawn promotion trick (coupled with a hit on f7), but also offers support for a potential retreat with a later ...Ng5, as meanwhile White finds his knight somewhat short of escape squares. The best continuation now seems to be 26.Rf1 a) It's much tha same after 26.Re1 Nf2+ 27.Kg1 Nd3 28.Re2 Rb1+ 29.Kg2 Qa5 The knight is somewhat embarrassed for squares. 30.Rd6 Rd1! and White can't avoid the loss of a piece.; b) And if 26.Rxc4 Rf2 27.Qc6 Rc8 28.Rd4 (Not 28.Qd7 Qf6!! 29.Qxc8+ Kh7 and there's no way for White to prevent both ....Qf3 and ...Qxa1 mating.) 28...Qh5 29.Qe4 Rxh2+ 30.Kxh2 Ng5+ 31.Qh4; 26...Qa5! The queen not only targets the errant knight on a6, but it also stops white from playing Rd8. 27.Rd6 c3 28.Qc6 (If 28.g4 Ng5 29.Qf4 c2 and Black wins.) 28...Nf2+ 29.Kg1 (No better is 29.Rxf2 Rxf2 30.c8Q c2!! (threatening ...Qe1 mate!) 31.Qxf8+ (There's no escape from the mate. If 31.Nb4 Qxb4! 32.Qxf8+ Kh7! and that killer little waiting move of 25...h6 comes in very handy indeed!) 31...Kxf8 32.Qc8+ Ke7 33.Nb4 Qa8+!! 34.Qxa8 c1Q+ 35.Rd1 Qxd1#) 29...Qf5! forcing the win, as now, if 30.Qg2 Nh3+ 31.Kh1 Rb1! 32.Rdd1 Rxd1 33.Rxd1 Nf2+ 34.Kg1 Nxd1 and White is now a rook and a position down. 22...Rxb2+ 23.Kf1 Qh5! This stretches Xiong to the very limits - but to appreciate how good this move is, So had to have at least spotted 26...e5! well in advance; so Kudos to Wesley for doing this! 24.Qg4 Qxh2 25.Qf3 c3 26.Rc1 The Black c-pawn is the more dangerous. If 26.Rad1? c2! 27.Rc1 Rb1 wins quickly. 26...e5! 27.Rh4 The real beauty behind So's 26...e5! is that it quickly, and very powerfully, forces home the win, as now, if 27.Rc4 Rfb8 28.R4xc3 e4! takes full advantage of the overworked queen defending against the many mates. And alternatively, if 27.Rdd1, once again the same overworked theme re-appears with 27...e4! and White can resign. 27...Qd2 28.Rd1 Rd8!! With the culmination of the offer of the queen sacrifice, we can now officially award Wesley's very imaginative game with the sobriquet of being a 'brilliancy' - and one that is equally as brilliant as Bobby Fischer's famous brilliancy win over Robert Byrne, in the 1963/64 US Championship. 29.Nd5 Xiong is resigned to his fate now, as there's a forced win if he accepts the queen sacrifice: 29.Rxd2 Rdxd2 and now there is no answers to ...Rb1+ that doesn't either involve a heavy loss of material, a mate or perhaps even both! 29...Rxd5 30.Rd4 Rxd4 31.exd4 Qxd1+ 0-1