2018 USA Championship
Saint Louis, USA
April 18-30, 2018
1. Samuel Shankland 2671, 8.5/11
2. Fabiano Caruana 2804, 8.0/11
3. Wesley So 2786, 6.5/11
4.-6. Hikaru Nakamura 2787, Aleksandr Lenderman 2599, Ray Robson 2660, 5.5/11
7.-8. Zviad Izoria 2599, Jeffery Xiong 2665, 5.0/11
9.-11. Awonder Liang 2552, Yaroslav Zherebukh 2640, Varuzhan Akobian 2647, 4.5/11
12. Alexander Onischuk 2672, 3.0/11
Average Rating 2674 in category 17
Time Control: Players receive 90 minutes for the 1st 40 moves then 30 minutes play-to-finish with 30 seconds added to their clocks after every move starting move 1.
Wesley So was the defending US Champion and duly showed up in Saint Louis to do battle with the challengers to his crown. GM Fabiano Caruana, having recently won the Candidates’ tournament to sew up a match for the world title with Magnus Carlsen in November, was the favorite to win in Saint Louis. The chances of GM Hikaru Nakamura are not to be counted out either as he is a player of a very high standard and, notwithstanding his relative inactivity for the last two months, he always comes up with something extra when it comes to vying for the US title.
They were all not prepared for Sam Shankland who just suddenly starting winning all his games. I already told this story last week.
Wesley So won his first two games but then drew his remaining nine, good enough to finish solo 3rd but perhaps not good enough for his legion of fans not only in the USA but also in the Philippines. After all, it seemed like Wesley wasn’t pushing for the win in his games and just content to let it flow smoothly from the opening to the middle and sometimes to the endgame and if he’d see an opening he’d go for the kill, but if the opponent played solidly then they’d shake hands and go back to their rooms.
Several of our readers wrote me to ask what I think happened. My opinion is that Wesley worked very hard and prepared from morning to night for the Candidates’ tournament last March — he came off the starting line pushing very hard but was rewarded with two losses in the first two games. This was devastating for the Cavite native and he had to revert to damage control and played solidly for the rest of the event to finish with a respectable score.
Here in Saint Louis he was perhaps unsure of the approach to take and decided to just swim with the tide and hope for the best. It didn’t work in the US Championship, but don’t worry — as he has done many times in the past, Wesley will figure it out and come back stronger.
Here are his two wins.
His first opponent was 24-year-old GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, originally from the Ukraine. He was a member of the Ukrainian national youth team which won the 2006 Under-16 Chess Olympiad in Turkey. His best performance to date was in the 2011 Khanty-Mansiysk World Cup (this is the one won by Peter Svidler) where he reached the Final Round-of-16 by upsetting superGms Pavel Eljanov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in mini-matches before being knocked out by David Navara. Zherebukh switched his affiliation to the USA in 2015. He is a very strong player and I imagine he will soon be a mainstay in the US national team.
Zherebukh, Yaroslav (2640) — So, Wesley (2786) [B51]
USA-ch 2018 Saint Louis USA (1), 18.04.2018
Back in 2015, during the 2015 Sinquefield Cup, Wesley, on the Black side of a Sicilian, lost a very exciting game to Magnus Carlsen. Since then he has almost exclusively reserved the Sicilian only for rapid and blitz games. That he uses it again now shows that, at least here in the beginning of the tournament, he is willing to fight.
2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+
Zherebukh chooses a quiet line.
3…Nd7 4.Ba4?! Ngf6 5.0–0 a6
Black can take the e4 pawn but of course Wesley refrains from it fearing some sort of preparation. Indeed, after 5…Nxe4 6.Re1 Nef6 7.d4 cxd4 (Or 7…a6 8.c4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 e6 10.Rxe6+! fxe6 11.Nxe6 Qa5 12.Bd2 Black’s position looks very dangerous although there is no immediate knock-out) 8.Nxd4 e6 9.Nb5 White wins back the pawn right away.
Taking the pawn on e4 is still very dangerous.
7.Nc3 Bg7 8.d3 0–0 9.h3 b6 10.Rb1 Bb7 11.Bg5 h6 12.Be3 Qc7 13.Qd2 Kh7 14.b4 Rac8 15.Rfc1
White bolsters his defense of the knight on c3 to prevent Black’s counter of…cxb4 followed by…b5.
15…e6 16.Ne2 Rfd8 17.Ng3 Ba8 18.a3 Nb8
This reminds me of the games of the Philippines’ new IM John Marvin Miciano — he is always contorting his knights to get them to their most ideal positions. Here this knight wants to go to d4.
19.Nh2 Nc6 20.f4 Nd4 21.Rf1?
A mistake — the rook is needed on c1 and you will soon see why. I believe White’s best bet is to challenge the strong knight on d4 with Ng3–e2.
21…b5! 22.cxb5 axb5 23.Bd1
[23.Bxd4 is refuted by 23…Nxe4! 24.dxe4 Bxd4+ 25.Kh1 bxa4]
23…Qa7 24.Ra1 <D>
POSITION AFTER 24.RA1
No harm done, but a pity that Wesley missed 24…Nf5!! 25.exf5 Nd5! and now the threat of …Nxe3 followed by Bb4 means that White has to give up his a1 rook. The Fil-Am GM was completely oblivious to this possibility and was shocked when it was pointed out to him after the game. He then joked, “that’s why I’m only no. 7 in the world!”
[25…Ne2+ is met by 26.Kf2]
Black wins the cucial pawn on d3. Some will say that the “rest is a matter of technique,” but what technique! Wesley’s handling of the knights and bishops is really beautiful. Please go over the final phase carefully.
27.Bxa7 Nxb4 28.Rb1 Nxd3 29.Rxb5 Bc6 30.Rb1 Ra8 31.Be3 Rxa3
White has to act quickly otherwise Black will play…Nd3–c5 and win the pawn on e4.
32.Bf3 h5 33.Ne2 N3c5 34.Bxc5 Nxc5 35.e5 Ba4!
Keeping an eye on d1.
36.exd6 Rxd6 37.Rbc1 Nb3 38.Rc7 Nd2
See? The white rook can’t go to d1.
39.Re1 Rd7 40.Rxd7 Bxd7 41.Rd1 Ra2 42.Nc1 Ra1 43.Nd3 Rxd1+ 44.Bxd1 Ne4 45.Nf3 Bb5 46.Nfe1 h4 47.Kh2 Bc3 48.Bc2
White is still trying to untangle his pieces. If 48.Bf3 Ng3 with the follow-up f7–f6, e6–e5 and e5–e4.
48…Bd2 49.Nf3 Bxd3 50.Bxd3 Bxf4+ 51.Kg1 Be3+ 52.Kf1 Ng3+ 53.Ke1 Kg7 0–1
Zherebukh now realizes that 53…Kg7 54.Nxh4 is not possible because of 54…e5 followed by e5–e4 and his knight on h4 is trapped.
So, Wesley (2786) — Onischuk, Alexander (2672) [C87]
USA-ch 2018 Saint Louis USA (2), 19.04.2018
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Be7 6.d3 d6 7.c3 0–0 8.Re1 Bg4 9.Nbd2 Nd7 10.h3 Bh5 11.Bc2 Nb6 12.Nf1 d5 13.Ng3 Bg6 14.Qe2 Re8 15.Be3 Qd6 16.Bxb6 cxb6 17.h4!
Setting up action along the a2–g8 diagonal.
17…h6 18.Bb3 d4
Onischuk wanted to keep the d-file closed although, as the sequel will show, he does not succeed. Maybe 18…dxe4 19.dxe4 Rad8 was better? I don’t think so for White will continue 20.Rad1 Qc7 21.h5 Bh7 22.a4 and I can’t think of a constructive plan for the second player while White can just build up an attack on the enemy kingside.
19.cxd4 Nxd4 20.Nxd4 Qxd4 21.Qg4
21…Qd6 22.d4! Kh8
[22…exd4 23.e5 Qb4 24.e6 Black loses a piece]
23.Rad1! Qf6 24.h5 Bh7 25.dxe5 Qxe5 26.Bxf7
Wesley has won a pawn, just like in the previous game. And just like in the previous game it is enough for victory. “Just a matter of technique.”
26…Rf8 27.Qe6 Bf6
Now we see why White’s 23.Rad1 has an exclamation mark. Onischuk cannot counter against the f2 square with 27…Qf4 because now 28.Qxe7 Rxf7 because the back rank is exposed. 29.Rd8+ Bg8 (29…Rxd8 30.Qxd8+ Rf8 31.Qxb6 defends f2 quite satisfactorily and now Wesley is two pawns up) 30.Qxf7! Qxf7 31.Rxa8 White has Re1–d1–d3 which wins quite easily.
28.Qxe5 Bxe5 29.Rd7 Rad8 30.Rxd8 Rxd8 31.b3 Rd7 32.Be6 Re7 33.Bd5 Bxg3 34.fxg3 Bg8 35.Kf2 Be6 36.Bxe6 Rxe6 37.Ke3 Kg8 38.Rf1 g6 39.hxg6 Rxg6 40.Rf3 Kg7 41.e5 Rg4 42.Kd3 b5 43.e6 Rg6 44.e7 Rd6+ 45.Ke2 1–0
After 45.Ke2 the end is clear: 45…Re6+ 46.Re3 Rxe3+ 47.Kxe3 Kf7 48.Kf4 Kxe7 49.Kf5 Kf7 50.b4 Wesley will advance his g-pawn and exchange it off for Black’s h-pawn, followed by advancing his other g-pawn.
Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant, he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.