Who Will Be the Next U.S. Champion?

This year’s US Championship has the strongest field ever with an average US Chess rating of 2739.

The Favorites

Hikaru Nakamura vs. Fabiano Caruana

Fabiano Caruana at the 2016 Candidates Tournament Fabiano Caruana vs. Hikaru Nakamura at the 2016 Candidates Tournament. Photo courtesy of World Chess.
After Caruana’s transfer to the US Chess Federation last year, the country has been waiting for a Nakamura vs. Caruana face-off to determine who the strongest US player is. Who really is the best? It’s hard to say because, although they have very similar ratings, they have vastly different strengths. While Caruana excels at opening preparation and elegant positional play, Nakamura is known for his “win at all costs” determination and tactical style. I’d say that Caruana has a slight edge due to his higher rating and recent performance as the runner-up at the Candidates. But, I wouldn’t underestimate Nakamura, who is the defending champion and known for his strength in open tournaments. Although the US Championship is a closed tournament, the rating range (over 300 points) is far greater than the super-GM invitationals that Caruana is used to.
Photo courtesy of World Chess Hikaru Nakamura at the 2016 Candidates Tournament. Photo courtesy of World Chess.

Wesley So

As the third American in the top 10 in the world, So will also be vying for the title. So has a vast amount of accomplishments for a 22-year-old: He won clear first at the Millionaire Open in 2014. He won Bilbao Masters last year over three of the best players in the world: Anish Giri, Vishy Anand, and Ding Liren. He also won the US Chess League’s MVP award in 2014, leading the Saint Louis Arch Bishops to victory.  In addition, he was one of the youngest players in history to achieve the grandmaster title. Recently, So won the prestigious Samford Fellowship, which is awarded annually to the nation’s most promising young player.
Wesley So Wesley So at the St. Louis Chess Club

Past Champions

These grandmasters are looking to regain their U.S. Championship crown.

Gata Kamsky

Gata Kamsky at the Grande la Capelle Open Gata Kamsky at the Grande la Capelle Open
Gata Kamsky is a five-time U.S. Champion. In addition, he can boast a feat that no one else in the field can: He was a Candidate for the World Championship in 1996, the first American since Bobby Fischer. As a warm-up for this year’s US Championship, Kamsky recently won the Cappelle la Grande Open.

Alexander Shabalov

Shabba440x Alexander Shabalov at the U.S. Open
Over the past year, the recent Hall of Fame inductee has proven that he is far from retiring from competitive chess. He won clear first place in the U.S. Open to secure his qualification spot. In addition, he is a four-time U.S. Champion. Shabalov is notorious for his attacking style and will to win. In the last round of the 2003 championship, Shabalov fought fiercely for a win while six of the other grandmasters who entered the round in a tie for first accepted early draws. His victory after six hours of battle secured him clear first place.

Alex Onischuk

Although Onischuk has only won the U.S. Championship once, he often finishes in the top three and has been ranked in the top 100 players in the world for the last two decades. He was a gold medalist at the World Team Championship in 2009.

The Experienced Underdogs

While not considered the favorites, each of these players is highly skilled--- and not to be underestimated.

Ray Robson, Sam Shankland, Alex Lenderman and Varuzhan Akobian

SONY DSC Sam Shankland at the St. Louis Chess Club
Robson is currently ranked in the top 100 players in the world and was the runner-up at last year’s US Championship.  Shankland was a gold medalist at the Olympiad in 2014. Last year, he placed third in the Tata Steel Challengers with a performance rating over 2700. He also broke into the top 100 in the world in 2015 and wrote about the experience in his Best of US Chess article, “Shankland on His Rise from GM to Top Hundred: Part I and II”. Lenderman has won nearly every open tournament in America at least once, including the World Open, the National Open, the U.S. Open, the North American Open, the Continental Open, and the Atlantic Open. He was also a gold medalist at the World Team Championship last year. Akobian came close to winning the U.S. Championship in 2014, tying with Kamsky and Lenderman and ultimately finishing as the runner-up in the playoff match.

The Youngsters

Jeffery Xiong and Akshat Chandra

xiong2015USJR Jeffery Xiong at the U.S. Junior Championships
Xiong has re-defined what it means to be an American prodigy. Over the last year, Xiong not only became a grandmaster, but proved to be a very strong one, gaining nearly 150 points in both the national and international rating systems---breaking 2700 in US Chess and 2600 in FIDE. Recently, Xiong won the Southwest Class open. This victory gave him a peak FIDE rating that makes him the highest rated player in the world born after 2000. Despite being the lowest rated competitor, Chandra is a very talented player, and I can’t wait to see how his debut to the championship turns out. He proved his strength when he won the U.S. Junior Closed (over the favorite, Jeffery Xiong) to qualify.  
Akshat Chandra at the US Junior Championships Akshat Chandra at the U.S. Junior Championships

Where to watch?

Live games and commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade, and GM Maurice Ashley will be featured at the U.S. Championship Official Website. Rounds are everyday at 1 p.m. CST from April 14th-April 26th (except for the rest day of April 19th). Don't miss my preview of the U.S. Women's Championship.

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