So, Foisor claim top honors in unpredictable U.S. title fights
With his top rivals falling by the wayside, GM Wesley So held off an unexpected challenge to claim his first U.S. national championship Monday at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
The 23-year-old Philippine native defeated surprise finalist GM Alex Onischuk 11⁄2-1⁄2 in a rapid playoff, barely holding off Onischuk’s attempt to tie the match in the decisive second game. The playoff was needed after the two topped the 12-player field with identical 7-4 scores.
On the women’s side, WGM Sabina-Francesca Foisor, seeded sixth in the 12-player field, earned her first U.S. title with a 8-3 score, a full point clear of 2016 women’s champ NM Nazi Paikidze.
Coming up short on the men’s side were defending champion GM Fabiano Caruana and fourtime former champion GM Hikaru Nakamura, both of whom were expected to contend with So for the title. Round 9 proved fatal to both players’s chances, as Caruana was jolted by a loss to GM Varuzhan Akobian and Nakamura’s hopes were derailed by an untimely loss to Onischuk.
On the women’s side, Virginia WM Jennifer Yu had a massive say in the standings en route to a fine 6-5 result, defeating Paikidze and top seeds GM Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih — both multiple past champions — during the event.
The 41-year-old Onischuk was not a favorite coming into the tourney, but he won the title a decade ago and still is the sixth highest rated player in the country. His veteran savvy and technical skill were both on display in his win Saturday over U.S. junior champ GM Jeffery Xiong. Black mishandles the opening (12 ... Nc6? is rarely played for a reason) and soon coughs up a pawn to White’s bishop pair. The game’s best move may be 40. Rf2!, allowing the opposite-colored bishop ending after 40 ... Bc3 41. Rxb2 Bxb2 42. Ke4.
Black expertly uses his assets on both sides of the board to force a won position. Xiong resigns after 51. Kf3 Kg7 52. Kg4 — White can either push the f-pawn and use his threats on both wings to activate the a-pawn or just sacrifice his bishop for the g6-pawn and the Black bishop can’t hold back the three White pawns.
Foisor, who was born in Romania and played for the powerhouse University of Maryland/Baltimore County chess team, finished in style with a dominating win over 16-year-old Michigan NM Apurva Virkud in Sunday’s Round 11. An opening mistake (9. a3 was better than Virkud’s 9. Bd2?! d4!) gives Black an overwhelming pawn center that quickly rolls up the White position.
Black cashes in with 23 ... e3! 24. fxe3 Qxe3+ 25. Kh1 (also losing was 25. Rfd2 Rf6 26. dxc5 Rxf2 27. Rxf2 Nd3 28. Qd2 Qd4! 29. Nc3 Re2! 30. Nxe2 Qxf2+ 31. Kh1 Bxe2) Rf6 26. Rg1 (see diagram; on 26. Qxc5, Black has 26 ... Rxf1+ 27. Bxf1 Bf3+ 28. Rg2 [Bxg2 Qe1 mate] Qf2 29. Nd2 Qxg2+ 30. Bxg2 Re1+ 31. Nf1 Rxf1 mate) Qxg1+!, leading to a mating attack.
White resigns after 31. Ke3 Rf3+ facing 32. Ke2 (Ke4 Re1+ 33. Re2 Rxe2 mate) Rf6+ 33. Ke3 Re1+ 34.