All the smart money on the outcome of the 2017 US Women’s Championship at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis was going the way of a three-way fight for the title between defending champion Nazi Paikidze, and those two perennial top seeds and rivals, Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, the multi-time champions who between them have won ten of the last 11 titles. But nowhere in the script was there ever a mention of a fairytale ending.
Yet that’s just the scenario that panned out, as the unlikely figure of WGM Sabina-Francesca Foisor ended what was undoubtedly a heartbreaking period for the former University of Maryland student, as she defied the odds - and not to mention several bad positions! - to score the biggest win of her career, as she took the title and $25,000 first prize by a clear full point margin ahead of defending champion Paikidze.
Fosier, 27, was born in Romania and comes from a family steeped in chess tradition. Her parents, WGM Cristina Adela Foișor and IM Ovidiu-Doru Foisor, were multiple Romanian chess championship medalists and represented their country in numerous international chess events; and her younger sister, Mihaela-Veronica, is also a WIM. So chess is in the Foisor blood, you could say.
And Sabina credits her parents as being her biggest chess influence. But tragedy struck the Foisor family back in early February with the sad news that Cristina died, aged just 49, following a long battle with cancer, and just days before mother and daughter was due to play alongside each other in the Women’s World Championship in Tehran. And as a mark of respect, governing body FIDE didn’t replace Cristina in the tournament, allowing her name to go forward for the opening round.
And perhaps inspired by her mother’s memory and her legendary fighting spirit at the board, Foisor seemed to lead a charmed life throughout the 2017 US Women’s Chess Championship, as time and time again she staged several fight-backs from worse positions - and none more so came than in the penultimate round, as Zatonskih missed a sure-fire win in the midst of her self-inflicted time trouble, to give her opponent a crucial win at a critical stage in the tournament to go on to score an unlikely, fairytale title win.
1. S. Foisor 8/11; 2. N. Paikidze 7; 3. I. Krush 6½; 4-7. J. Yu, M. Feng, A. Zatonskih, A. Sharevich 6; 8-9. K. Nemcova, T. Abrahamyan 5½; 10. A. Virkud 4½; 11. C. Yip 4; 12. E. Nguyen 1.
WGM Sabina Foisor - WGM Anna Zatonskih
2017 Women’s US Championship, (10)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5, but this flexible move is not as innocent as it looks. It has an English pedigree, having been first played in 1887 by the leading English master, Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924). However, the player who did much to pioneer this line and bring it to prominence was, in fact, Hungary's Lajos Portisch, who in the late 1970s and 1980s won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the noughties by Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov - and then championed by Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian. 5...0-0 6.Rc1 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.e3 Nc6 9.a3 a6 10.b4 Ba7 11.Bg3 h6 12.Qc2 Qe7 13.Be2 This is a little timid with 13.Bd3 being slightly better, but it matters not as Zatonskih captures anyway on c4. 13...dxc4 14.Bxc4 b5 15.Ba2 At least from here, White has chances of creating problems down the b1-h7 diagonal. 15...Bb7 16.Bb1 Rfd8 17.Bh4 This is a too simplistic approach, with the threat being to capture on f6 and then play Qh7. Black is never going to allow this in a month of Sundays, so perhaps best was simply 17.0-0 with the idea of Rfd1 contesting the d-file. 17...g5 18.Bg3 Rac8 19.0-0 Nb8 20.Nd2 Nbd7 Black is beginning to unravel her pieces somewhat more efficiently, and White perhaps now regrets not having contested the d-file. 21.Qb2 Nh5! Black just gets on with the job of now actively moving her pieces into the attack - and somewhat hopefully, Foisor returns the queen to c2 to threaten h7, almost wishfully thinking that Zatonskih will play ...Nhf6 allowing a repeat of the position. But Zatonskih has a plan! 22.Qc2?! f5! Far from weakening the kingside, this move actually helps Black's attack gather pace now. 23.Ba2 Kg7 Simply moving out of the trap of the cheap trick of Qxf5. However, perhaps stronger was 23...Qf6!? followed by ...Ne5 and Black has the makings of a major attack coming. 24.Qd1 Nxg3 25.hxg3 Ne5! Foisor has categorically lost the early middlegame tussle by not contesting the d-file earlier - and now she is in a fight for her very survival, and only saved arguably by Zatonskih's habitual time-trouble. 26.Qe2 Nd3 27.Rc2 Qf6 28.Nd5 Not just a shot, but the only shot. If it wasn't for this, Foisor was lost - but even here her opponent has a wonderful position with the active pieces being better than the queen, the only saving grace being that Zatonskih has to use up even more valuable time working out all the complications. 28...Rxc2 29.Nxf6 Rxa2 30.Qh5! Fair play to Foisor for making the most of the complications available to her in her opponent's time scramble. 30...Bc6! But Zatonskih is more than a match - and this move, stopping a possible Ne8+, should simply win, as Foisor's knight is left marooned on f6. 31.Nf3 Nxf2?? Zatonskih, no doubt in her very familiar predicament of her flag metaphorically about to fall on her digital clock, goes for the spectacular hit, and all based on the fact that if White plays Rxf2, then there comes a cunning mating attack. However, if she had a little more time to look closely at the position, she would have realized by now that there was an easy way to take full advantage of Foisor's stranded knight on f6 with 31...Rf8! 32.Nxg5 Rxf6! (Careful not to full for 32...hxg5? 33.Qxg5+ Kf7 34.Nh7 Ra8 35.Qf6+ Ke8 36.Qxe6+ Kd8 37.Qxc6 winning.) 33.Nxe6+ Rxe6 34.Qxf5 Rd6 35.Qc8 Rc2! with a big material advantage and an easy win, as White doesn't now have 36.Qc7+ due to 36...Rd7 and Black will soon be coming over the top with the winning plan of ...Bxe3!! followed by ...Rxg2+ mating. 32.Ne5! But such are the vagaries of being a habitual time-scramble addict, all of this falls by the wayside as Foisor seizes her moment of glory amidst the mayhem, as she calmly plays the big table-turner of 32.Ne5! What Zatonksih thought she was going into was 32.Rxf2? Ra1+! 33.Kh2 (It's six-to-one and half a dozen the other here, because, if 33.Rf1 Bxe3+ 34.Kh2 Rxf1 35.Ne5 Bg1+ 36.Kh3 Black avoids the mate with the very simplistic answer of 36...Kxf6!) 33...Rdd1! leaving White with no alternative to avoid the mate on the h-file with 34.Kh3 Rh1+ 35.Nh2 Bxe3 36.Rf3 Rae1 leaving Black with a big material advantage that will soon be readily converted for the win. 32...Kxf6 Zatonskih has gone all-in with her flawed attack, and now she has no other option to stop Foisor's plan of Qg6+ mating - but this allows Foisor's rampant queen to now hoover up all of Black's loose pieces with a series of unavoidable checks. 33.Nxc6 Rdd2 There's always hope with doubled rooks on the seventh - but here, Zatonskih's hopes are dashed by her own knight getting in the way of saving the game. 34.Qxh6+ Kf7 35.Qh7+ Kf8 36.Qe7+ Kg8 37.Qxe6+ I can just picture the time scramble scene in my head here - but amidst the mayhem and confusion, Foisor missed here own forced mate with the clinical kill coming with 37.Ne5! Nh3+ 38.Kh1!! Nf2+ 39.Rxf2 Rxf2 40.Qf7+ Kh8 41.Ng6#. But the route chosen by Foisor is the safe way to the full point, as just about all of Zatonskih' cover for her king now fall with checks, and then she can come in for the mate with the extra time added to her clock after with the time control is made. 37...Kh8 38.Qh6+ Kg8 39.Qxg5+ Kh8 40.Qf6+ Kh7 41.Qxf5+ 1-0 Time control made, and both players now having extra time added to their clocks, Zatonskih resigns, faced with no answers to 41...Kg7 42.Ne5 mating, because now after 42..Nh3+ White can simply play 43.Kh2 etc. A fairytale ending to a game that led to a fairytale title win!