Ten Things We Learned from the 2017 U.S. Championships

Wesley So and Sabina Foisor, Photo Lennart Ootes

Just like last year, I list the ten biggest takeaways from the 2017 U.S. Championships. It’s great to see this tournament becoming stronger and more exciting every year, and once again the event delivered.

  1. Sabina Foisor’s U.S. Women’s Championship is one of the greatest stories in U.S. Championship History

If you asked people before the tournament “Who do you think will win the U.S. Women’s Title”, there is no chance that Sabina would be mentioned as even one of the top four names. She was rated 6th in a field of 12, and had never had an especially impressive performance in the event before, despite many appearances throughout the years.

When you combine her underdog status with the personal tragedy she endured with her mother’s unexpected passing, her win against all odds was even more awe inspiring. The moment when she officially became the U.S. Women’s Championship and embraced with her fiancé, Elshan Moradiabadi, was the most emotional scene I’ve ever seen in my career in chess.

Not only did she win the tournament but she did so in fantastic style, with a queen sacrifice that is certainly going to go down as one of the most memorable combinations in U.S. Women’s Chess Championship history.

It was hard to find a single person rooting against Sabina, and I think this even includes many of her rivals in the tournament.

  1. The class and grace of the top finishers in the U.S. Championship was a great example to chess players across the world.

Up until the very end of the tournament, things looked great for Nazi Paikidze in her quest for a repeat as U.S. Champion. However her last round loss to the rising star, Jennifer Yu, put an end to her championship quest. I am sure that this loss must have been painful for her, but it seemed like it was just a matter of minutes before she logged onto Twitter to send a heartfelt congratulations to Sabina for winning the title.

U.S Champion Wesley So was a complete gentleman as always. In each of his post game interviews, the main impression you get was that his opponent was possibly the most talented and skilled chess player to ever play the game, and that it was an amazing feat that Wesley was able to win. Wesley always pays massive compliments to his opponents, and this is not something he does only when he wins. While it’s been a while since he’s lost a game (67 and counting), I am certain that you would see the same grace and class from Wesley should he have lost to Onischuk in the playoff.

Our new US Chess Champ, Photo Lennart Ootes

  1. Don’t ever underrate the veterans

I made a terrible mistake in my prediction piece, and I think it’s a common one. We are all mystified by the talent of young stars, but probably we are too biased in their direction. However a tournament like the U.S. Championship requires more than just talent. The experience of playing in this type of tournament for over a decade is really beneficial. It was clear that a veteran like Alex Onischuk relied on this experience and that they specifically used it to defeat some of their younger opponents.

Photo Lennart Ootes

Onischuk’s victories against the younger Jeffery Xiong and Ray Robson were pretty one sided games in which Onischuk’s preparation and understanding really shined through. While players like Xiong and Shankland are unquestionably very strong, it’s rare that you see them win games with the poise that Onischuk won those two games.

I am sure that Xiong, Shankland and other young stars have many bright U.S. Championships ahead of them, but it’s clear to me now that so do the veterans of U.S. Chess.

  1. The WildCard selection couldn’t have been better:

In both tournaments the Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center did a great job of choosing the wildcards. In the U.S. Championship, Yaro Zherebukh showed that he is a fearsome competitor who can knock off anyone in the event. His win over Fabiano Caruana was one of the turning points of the event.

Yaro finished up with a solid 50% score, which is well above the type of performance you’d expect from a wildcard selection.

Yaro Zherebukh, Photo Vanessa Sun

In the Women’s Championship, Maggie Feng got her first chance to play. There was no question she deserved it after her impressive first place finish in the National Junior High K-9 Championship. However she even managed to one up Yaro by finishing with an awesome +1 score. Maggie’s play was noticeably more solid than many young players, as she drew many of her games with relative ease, while taking advantage of small advantages in other games. Her play and attitude is so inspiring that she even has a fan club.

  1. The five young girls who competed in the U.S. Women’s Championship were an inspiration

Carissa Yip and Jennifer Yu at the World Chess Hall of Fame

While everyone is generally friendly at the U.S. Championships, they are sometimes a bit aloof until the tournament has concluded. This wasn’t the case with the young girls playing in the U.S. Women’s however. They are all great friends with each other, and it seemed as if they were not only playing in a major chess tournament, but also attending a summer camp and getting to spend time with their friends. It’s also clear that this attitude didn’t hurt them much, as both Jennifer Yu and Maggie Feng finished with impressive +1 scores. Feng even gained over 100 FIDE rating points at the tournament.

From their matching jackets to their fun trips to the World Chess Hall of Fame, it’s great to see people not just playing an important chess tournament but also having so much fun and building lifelong friendships!

Maggie Feng, Vanessa Sun, Emily Nguyen, Carissa Yip, Jennifer Yu and Apurva Virkud at the World Chess Hall of Fame POW exhibit.

  1. Not only can Wesley So win, but he can do it in style

It’s without question that the best game of the entire event was Wesley So’s fantastic victory over Jeffery Xiong in Round 9. Let’s keep in mind that Wesley was black in this game and was facing a talented young player. There were only three rounds to go, and it’s quite probable that without a victory Wesley would not have become U.S. Champion.

Much to the delight of chess fans around the world, Wesley produced an absolute masterpiece, which will go down as one of the greatest games in U.S. Championship history.

  1. Never Give Up

If there was one chess lesson to be learned from this tournament it was clearly that anything is possible. The second most memorable game from the event must certainly be the Round 9 showdown between Var Akobian and Fabiano Caruana. Fabiano knew that he needed a win to get right back into the thick of things, and managed to outplay Var from a relatively dry opening. With a clear two extra pawns in a late middlegame, it was obvious to everyone that Fabiano would win and be right back into the U.S Championship hunt.

I went to the gym at some point around that moment and came back to the almost impossible news that Fabiano lost. I knew that the Internet wouldn’t be lying to me but I just couldn’t fathom how such a thing is possible. Fabiano is rated above 2800 and was up a clear two pawns.

However Var kept fighting and fighting and eventually a common mistake occurred……in mutual time trouble, and unable to accept any result except for a win, Fabiano overlooked his opponent’s counterchances and lost the game.

In the U.S. Women’s Tournament you saw a similar example in the Round 10 game between Abrahamyan and Paikidze. Abrahamyan was up a pawn and looked well on her way to victory, when time trouble reared it’s ugly head and Paikidze pulled off a surprising comeback victory.

While Caruana and Abrahamyan certainly had some role in their tragic losses, it couldn’t have been possible without the determined resistance of both Akobian and Paikidze.

  1. The Broadcast gets better and better each yearAlejandro Ramirez and Lili Fuentes

Once again the live Broadcast is a fun and entertaining show. There is a huge staff of people working on it behind the scenes (Spectrum Studios and Silverback Productions) and the professionalism level is at an absolute high. Alongside the main commentary team of Maurice Ashley, Cristian Chirila, Yasser Seirawan, and Jennifer Shahade, there was a Spanish broadcast led by Alejandro Ramirez and Lili Fuentes and a live show led by Eric Hansen and Ben Finegold.

Jen Shahade, Cristian Chirila, Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan

One underrated aspect of the show is their intelligent use of breaks and switching scenes. I cannot tell you how mindnumbing it can be to comment on 4-5 hour chess games nonstop without a break. Some other shows use this format and it not only results in obvious fatigue from the hosts, but also makes it a less enjoyable experience for those hosts. If the hosts aren’t having fun, it’s harder to do a good job.

Kevin Duggin, Director of Photography at Spectrum Studios, working some of his magic.

In this show the commentators switch back and forth between the personalities: Yasser and Jenn will talk about the position, Maurice will come on with some exciting breaking news and engine analysis, then there may be an awesome quick segment by Christian Chirila, followed up by an interview led by Maurice Ashley. In the slow time control games I have even almost come around to the idea that using engine analysis isn’t a horrible idea, as it’s a long show and it’s nice to mix it up AFTER you have heard actual human analysis on a position.

My one criticism however is that using engine analysis on blitz, rapid games or during time scrambles presents an extremely unrealistic picture of what is actually happening in the minds of the players. I would recommend a lot more discussion of “the engine says this but there is no way that any human is going to recognize this in a fast game, and therefore the line basically doesn’t exist in reality”.

During the rapid playoff I felt that frequently the engine analysis overshadowed the real practical truth of what was happening in the game. Too often I heard a computer line being discussed and within seconds I thought to myself “Ok the computer says that but who cares, there’s zero chance either player is playing those moves”, yet precious commentary time was being wasted on these irrational variations.

So yes, I do believe there can be a place for engine analysis in broadcasts, but it requires a lot of careful explanation and understanding to present the practical meaning of what the engines are saying.

  1. Having a women’s tournament alongside an open tournament is a great idea 

Can you imagine how much more boring the tournament would have been if it was just the 12 players in the U.S. Championship? Fans around the world were simply captivated by all the stories in the U.S. Women’s Championship. This engagement should be a signal that the days of just holding one big tournament should stop.

An example of my idea: There shouldn’t just be a “Sinquefield Cup”. There should be a “Sinquefield Cup” and a “Women’s Sinquefield Cup”. I don’t know exactly what types of players should be in the Women’s event, but it’s clear that if Women’s tournaments are promoted properly, they engage and excite the fans just as much as the Open tournament does. Let’s use this obvious truth and build on it. Women should not always be playing segregated events, so I also like the idea of coming up with some mixed field events, i.e- Veterans vs. Women or the K v Q event that the Saint Louis Chess Club had in 2009, early in its organizing and broadcasting history.

Photo Eric Rosen

It’s so important for chess fans to see a mixture of both men and women playing. I cannot overstate how this helps build a stronger and healthier subculture.

  1. I can’t wait for the 2018 U.S. Championships!

Although the sad thing is that not all of the players who played this year will also get to play next year. I have no idea which players in particular will be left out, but in my mind they all played an important role in the Championship. While I am sure we will see some new names in 2018, and while that will be refreshing, it will also be sad to see which players don’t make the cut. Because as we saw from this year, it’s really not easy to predict who will win this event just by looking at their rating. Imagine what we would have lost if someone like Onischuk, Akobian, Foisor or spoiler extraordinaire, Jennifer Yu, didn’t even qualify for the event! Think about how much less interesting this year’s tournament would have been.

There is something special about the U.S. Championship that brings out the best in everyone. For nearly every American chess player it’s the most important tournament of the year. With all of their energy focused on this event, it’s possible for players to have results that far exceed what you would expect by just looking at their rating.

Bravo to the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center for putting together such an exciting field of players every year. To anyone who’s read my articles, it’s no secret that I enjoy watching rapid chess more than slower time control games, but the U.S. Championship is perhaps the one and only tournament where I still feel engaged by the storylines and intrigue even though the time control is so slow.

IM Greg Shahade playing blitz without a board against GM Mesgen Amanov, with Apurva Virkud, Emily Nguyen and Carissa Yip watching, Photo Eric Rosen

Follow IM Greg Shahade on YouTube, twitter and look for his takeover of the @USChess feed during SuperNationals VI in Nashville. 

Comments

  1. Lesson 11: You can’t win the championship if you can’t beat the kids.

    I note that three former U.S. Women Champions were in the field. One of them gave up two points to Yip and Yu and missed tying for first by two points. Another former champion gave up 1.5 points to Yip and Yu and missed tying for first by 1.5 points. And the third gave up 1 point to Yip and Yu and missed tying for first by, you guessed it, one point.

  2. As usual The U.S. Championship was well worth waiting for and Well WORTH ALL the TIME Watching it. Every year I try to figure out who will Win and am AMAZED at The FABULOUS GAMES PLAYED and watching HOW they got to the FINAL ENDGAME. My Game has improved by just Listening and Watching The Amazing “Play-by-Play” from YASSER and Company! Our CHESS CLUB has also gotten better by talking about and going over the recent games. St.Louis is The HEART of American CHESS!! Thank you to The St Louis CHESS Club for its SUPERB Hosting of this event and Constant supporting of CHESS in that area and Across The U.S.!

  3. […] against Jeffery Xiong, one of the most brilliant games in US Championship history, as pointed out by IM Greg Shahade in his recent article. But his 67 game undefeated streak and Championship success also owes much to his saves, turning […]

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