No surprise: So sets pace in early rounds of U.S. title fight
So young. So talented. So successful. That pretty much sums up the recent record of the 23-year-old Filipino-born U.S. GM Wesley So, who has been perhaps the world’s most successful tournament player of the past year. He’s looking to extend that run — and an unbeaten streak that has now reached nearly 60 games — at the 2017 U.S. championship tournament at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. With two early wins, So, now ranked second in the world behind only world champ Magnus Carlsen, was once again setting the pace in St. Louis with a 3½-1½ start through Sunday’s Round 5, though his main challengers — world No. 2 and 2016 champ Fabiano Caruana and world No. 6 and four-time U.S. champ Hikaru Nakamura — lurk right behind.
So has employed a tried-and-true method for tournament success, drawing against his peers and beating up on the players lower down the scoreboard. He opened the tournament with an impressive crush of veteran Pittsburgh GM Alex Shabalov, a four-time former champ himself but a player not considered a prime contender in this year’s tourney.
With a broad opening repertoire, So can be hard to prepare for. Here in a classic QGD Slav, White gets a small but nagging initiative after 13. Qg4 a6 (GM Alex Yermolinsky suggested here 13...Nb6 14. c5 [cxd5 is also an option] Nd7 15. b4 b6, with balanced play) 14. 0-0-0 dxc4 15. Bxc4 c5 16. dxc5 Bxc5 17. Be2!, keeping his powder dry for the coming clash.
Things go downhill for Black after 18. Kb1 Qb6?! (Black’s development is clunky and his king isn’t safe on either wing, but this move does nothing to help; on 18...Rc8, 19. Qa4 keeps the pressure on) 19. Na4 (even stronger might be 19. e5! Nd6 [Nd4 20. Be3 e5 21. Nd5 Qd6 22. Bxd4 exd4 23. Rxd4] 20. Be3 Qc6 21. Bd4 and the bishops dominate the board) Qc7 20. Rc1 Qd6 21. Ba5!, with 22. Rhd1 already an awkward threat for Black to meet.
Shabalov is no pushover, so it’s striking how White’s pieces seem to gravitate to powerful squares while Black’s game gets uglier and uglier. Desperation is already setting in for Black after 22. Qe4 (with the nasty threat of 23. Bc7) Nc6 23. Rhd1! Rxh4 (Black’s back-rank woes are already evident in 23...Qe5 24. Qxe5 Nxe5 25. Bc7 Nc6 26. Nb6 Ra7 27. Bb8!, winning material as 27...Nxb8?? 28. Rc8+ Bd8 29. Rcxd8+ Ke7 30. Nc8 is mate) 24. f4 (making the rook on h4 look foolish) Qb8 (Nxa5 25. Rxd6 Bxd6 26. Nb6 Rd8 27. Qa4+ Nc6 28. Bxa6! is great for White) 25. Nb6 Nd6 26. Qa4 Ra7 27. Bf3, when all of White’s pieces are poised for the denouement.
It’s not a long wait: 27...Nb5 28. Qc2 Qc7 (on 28...Nd8 [Nxa5 29. Qc8+ Qxc8 30. Rxc8+ Bd8 31. Rcxd8+ Ke7 32. Nc8 is once again mate], White has the sneaky 29. Rh1 Rxh1 30. Rxh1 Bf8 31. Rh8 Nd6 32. Rxf8+! Kxf8 33. Nd7+ and wins) 29. Rd7 — Black is busted in lines like 29...Qb8 30. Bxc6 bxc6 31. Qxc6 Kf8 32. Qc8+ Bd8 33. Rxd8+ Ke7 34. Re8+ Kd6 35. Bb4 mate.
In the concurrent U.S. Women’s Championship in St. Louis, the big early news is being made by young Virginia WM Jennifer Yu, who beat two former women’s champs — veterans GM Irina Krush and NM Anna Zatonskih — in a most unexpected way, in long endings where technique and experience tend to matter most.
We pick up Yu’s Round 5 game against after Krush as Black has just played 41...h7-h5 to lock up the kingside. White proceeds to go badly astray with 42. Ke3 h5 43. Be6?! (giving Black a valuable tempo to improve her game) Ke7 44. Bd5 Bh3 45. Kd3 Bf5+ 46. Be4?? (throwing away the draw; White had to try 46. Kc4 Be6 47. Bxc5+ bxc5 48. Kxc5 Bxd5 49. Kxb4 Bxa2 50. Kxa4 and hope) Bxd4! 47. Bxf5 (Kxd4 b3 wins for Black) b3 48. axb3 a3!, and shockingly, White has to resign as the pawn can’t be stopped.
So-Shabalov, U.S. Championship, St. Louis, March 2017
1. c4 c6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e3 Nf6 4. d4 Bg4
5. h3 Bf5 6. Nc3 e6 7. g4 Bg6 8. Ne5 Nbd7 9. Nxg6 hxg6 10. g5 Ng8 11. h4 Ne7
12. Bd2 Nf5 13. Qg4 a6 14. O-O-O dxc4 15. Bxc4 c5 16. dxc5 Bxc5 17. Be2 Be7
18. Kb1 Qb6 19. Na4 Qc7 20. Rc1 Qd6 21. Ba5 Ne5 22. Qe4 Nc6 23. Rhd1 Rxh4 24. f4 Qb8 25. Nb6 Nd6 26. Qa4 Ra7 27. Bf3 Nb5 28. Qc2 Qc7
29. Rd7 Black resigns