Who Will Be the 2017 U.S. Women’s Champion?

For 10 years, the U.S. Women’s Championship was dominated by two players: Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih. Krush won six times (in addition to her first championship victory in 1998) while Zatonskih won four times.

Last year, everything changed. The fight for the championship became much more than just a race between the two favorites, and even the lower ranked competitors played a critical role in determining the champion by winning major upset victories.

What will happen this year? Here are the 2017 competitors:

Reigning Champion

IM Nazi Paikidze

“I firmly believe that my physical conditioning contributed to winning the Championship. It showed towards the end of the tournament. When most of the players’ play was compromised due to fatigue, I was energetic and playing with full strength.”

-Nazi Paikidze, “Chess. Gym. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.”, Chess Life Magazine – August 2016

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 4
  • US Chess Rating: 2446 — Peak: 2446 (January 2017)
  • FIDE Rating: 2369 — Peak: 2455 (January 2011)

Entering the last round of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Championship, to the surprise of many, both Zatonskih and the defending champion, Krush, were completely out of contention for 1st. The championship had become a race between Tatev Abrahamyan and Nazi Paikidze. Abrahamyan was two full points ahead of everyone—except for Paikidze, who trailed by half a point. In addition, Abrahamyan was playing down while Paikidze had to face the top seed and only grandmaster in the tournament, Krush, with the black pieces. The odds were against Paikidze.

Due to a tough position out of the opening, Abrahamyan suffered an unfortunate loss, giving Paikidze a huge opportunity—A draw would lead to a playoff match between the two.

With the entire championship on the line, Paikidze showed a fantastic level of competitive spirit, fighting hard throughout the game, not for a draw, but for the win!

“In her last round game, I felt like I was watching Topalov during his prime. Topalov would just play these sharp and overly dynamic moves against everyone and just mow them down, one after another. Nazi did the same thing with Krush, constantly finding ambitious and provocative ideas until Irina couldn’t stand it anymore.”

-IM Greg Shahade, “Top Ten Lessons from the 2016 US Championships”

In the end, Paikidze was able to create a very strong attack and convert it into a victory, winning the championship without a playoff:

Here are Paikidze’s own reflections on the 2016 championship:

“Every game was very challenging. Despite playing very well, it didn’t look like I was going to win the title until the end of the last round. My friend FM Tatev Abrahamyan was having a wonderful tournament, leading throughout the event. Luck also seemed to be on her side until the last round. During that decisive last round, it was difficult to contain my emotions. There stakes were high, and there was tremendous pressure, but I succeeded. I am incredibly happy to say, I defeated the seven-time U.S. Women’s Champion GM Irina Krush, with the black pieces, and became the new U.S. Women’s Chess Champion.”

-IM Nazi Paikidze, “Chess. Gym. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” Chess Life Magazine – August 2016

Based on Paikidze’s excellent play last year and the killer instinct she demonstrated in the high stakes last round, I think she has very good chances of successfully defending her title.

Top Seed

GM Irina Krush

“For me, chess is a fight, sixty four squares where you lay out everything you have, and I believe in my ability to fight, because it’s really just a function of your ability to give everything you have…  I want to make the maximum effort, whether that means pushing myself to find the best moves, being resilient in defense, or overcoming any psychological weakness that can come up during a game: inclinations towards cowardice, towards giving up in difficult positions, or slacking off in better ones… I come into every game with the belief that I can give it 100%, and that’s probably not a lot less than what my opponents can bring. That’s where my confidence comes from.”

-GM Irina Krush, “Irina on Baku: Water from a Stone”, the 2013 Best of US Chess winning article

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 1
  • U.S. Rank: 62
  • US Chess Rating: 2524 — Peak: 2588 (June 2011)
  • FIDE Rating: 2444 — Peak: 2502 (November 2013)

Although Krush’s performance didn’t meet expectations last year, she’s been at the top of U.S. Women’s chess for many years. Defeat tends to inspire the best players to get stronger. I predict that she’ll be back with a vengeance. As the top seed, the only GM, and a seven time winner of the championship, Krush is still undeniably one of the favorites.

Here’s the game that earned Krush her final GM Norm at the 2013 Baku Open:

Four-time Champion

IM Anna Zatonskih

Anna Zatonskih at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Championship. Photo: Austin Fuller

“I’m trying to prove that it’s possible to have a family and kids and play chess, too, at a high level.”

-Anna Zatonskih in an interview at this year’s Gibraltar Chess Festival

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 2
  • U.S. Rank: 71
  • US Chess Rating: 2503 — Peak: 2590 (June 2011)
  • FIDE Rating: 2451 — Peak: 2537 (May 2011)

Anna Zatonskih is both a four-time U.S. Women’s Champion and a former Ukrainian Women’s Champion, making her another one of the major contenders for the championship.

At the recent Gibraltar Open, Zatonskih defeated Grandmaster Mikhail Antipov in what she considers one of her best games ever:

Fighting Spirit

Tatev Abrahamyan

Tatev Abrahamyan at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championships. Photo: Lennart Ootes

“She got Women’s Grandmaster, and she didn’t want that title. She thinks she deserves to get the men’s title—and she is right. She can do it all.”

-IM Armen Ambartsoumian, “Women’s chess champ Tatev Abrahamyan aims to put men in check”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 3
  • US Chess Rating: 2448 — Peak: 2490 (May 2014)
  • FIDE Rating: 2364 — Peak: 2396 (April 2014)

Beyond the three current and past champions (Paikidze, Krush, and Zatonskih), Tatev Abrahamyan also has strong chances of winning. She has many years of experience competing in the championship and is consistently in the fight for top places. She led the field for most of the event last year and, if it wasn’t for a very unfortunate final round, she may’ve won the championship.

In addition, Tatev has earned the three norms required for the International Master title and just needs to cross the 2400 FIDE mark to secure the title, which could be achieved with a good performance in the championship.

Abrahamyan won the Fighting Spirit Award at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Championship for consistent decisive results (only one draw in the entire event) and her hard-fought victory against Alisa Melekhina:

Abrahamyan has been very close to winning the championship on numerous occasions. In addition to last year’s clear 2nd, she’s finished as the runner-up in 2004, 2011, and 2014, missing the title by inches in rapid playoffs. Will 2017 be her year?

Sabina Foisor

Sabina Foisor at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championship. Photo: Lennart Ootes

“I know if there is some way I can promote chess in the U.S., I would like to do so because I really think it helps kids focus more, to become disciplined. It’s really something that I feel is positive.”

-Sabina Foisor, “Foisor ready to make her move”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 6 (tied)
  • US Chess Rating: 2364 — Peak: 2420 (May 2013)
  • FIDE Rating: 2272 — Peak: 2386 (January 2008)

Foisor is another one of the more experienced U.S. Women’s competitors, and she won the Fighting Spirit Award at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Championship for her “uncompromising style” and her victory against Irina Krush:

At their Peak

Katerina Nemcova

Katerina Nemcova at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championship. Photo: Austin Fuller

My father, he comes from a chess family. They all used to play chess. He said he wanted to pass it on to his family because he feels that chess imitates life. So, when you learn chess, you can also improve your life. I have a big family. I have six siblings, and all of us play chess.”

-Katerina Nemcova, “US Chess Championships coming to St. Louis”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 5
  • US Chess Rating: 2427 — Peak: 2439 (November 2016)
  • FIDE Rating: 2359 — Peak: 2382 (July 2013)

All chessplayers know how difficult it can be to consistently make rating progress year after year. Katerina Nemcova has impressively reached new rating peaks every year since 2014. She began 2014 with a US Chess rating in the high 2200s, ranking as #11 in the U.S. for women. Yet, she finished the year over 2350 and ranked 5th.

By the end of 2015, she crossed 2400. She reached her current all time peak of 2439 in November of last year. With such steady improvement, Nemcova has become a stronger candidate for winning the championship every year.

Carissa Yip

“Thank you, Caissa. I know it was you making this record snow so that I could show the world that girls are as good as boys in chess!”

-Carissa Yip on her journey to becoming a National Master at age 10 in the article, “Yip, Yip, Hooray”, Chess Life Magazine – August 2015

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 8
  • U.S. Age 14 Rank: 5
  • US Chess Rating: 2348 — Peak: 2349 (February 2017)
  • FIDE Rating: 2234 — Peak: 2234 (March 2017)

 At only age 14, Carissa Yip has spent her budding chess career breaking records and redefining the standards for American female players.

  • At age 9, Yip became the youngest American female to reach expert.
  • At age 10, she became the youngest American female to defeat a grandmaster, winning against GM Alexander Ivanov in the New England Open.
  • At age 11, she became the youngest American female to earn the National Master title.

Even though she has less experience than some of the other players, Yip is one of the young stars to watch out for in this event. Last year, she even began the tournament tied for the lead, scoring two wins in a row.

“Anything is possible if you try hard enough, like beating a GM.”

-Carissa Yip, “Carissa Yip: ‘Anything is Possible'”

Apurva Virkud

Apurva Virkud at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championship. Photo: Austin Fuller

“Besides the top finishers, it is important to also point out an outstanding performance: Apurva Virkud, entering the tournament at 2144, scored an amazing 5.5/9 and gained 158.40 (1) FIDE points. I hope that she can show the level of play that she did in Greensboro in future U.S. Women’s Championships!”

-Alejandro Ramirez in his report on the 2016 U.S. Masters Championship, Chess Life January 2017

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 17
  • U.S. Age 18 Rank: 20
  • US Chess Rating: 2258 — Peak: 2258 (March 2017)
  • FIDE Rating: 2262 — Peak: 2279 (January 2017)

Ever wonder if it’s possible to qualify for a U.S. Championship with just one excellent tournament? Apurva Virkud proves that it is.

In August of last year, Virkud entered the U.S. Masters Championship with a 2144 US Chess rating and a 2093 FIDE rating, at least 100 points short in both systems to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Championship.

Then, she went on to achieve a 2544 US Chess performance rating, gaining victories against IM Kaiqi Yang and IM Korley Kassa along the way.

Her spectacular performance earned her 114 US Chess rating points and 158 FIDE rating points from the U.S. Masters Championship alone—bringing her rating to an all-time peak. Although Airkud qualified by rating, I’d say that she’s one of the biggest wildcards of the tournament, capable of anything.

Four-time Belarusian Champion

Anna Sharevich

Anna Sharevich at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Championship. Photo: St. Louis Chess Club

“For me personally, I don’t play everyday because I have a full time job. Now, every chance to play chess is a big event for me. I try to train as much as I can.”

-Anna Sharevich, “US Chess Championships coming to St. Louis”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 6 (tied)
  • US Chess Rating: 2364 — Peak: 2378 (September 2015)
  • FIDE Rating: 2257 — Peak: 2378 (May 2011)

This will be Anna Sharevich’s second time competing in the U.S. Women’s Championship. At her debut in 2015, she finished 5th with victories against two of the tournament favorites, Tatev Abrahamyan and former U.S. Women’s Champion, IM Rusudan Goletiani.

In addition, Sharevich has won the Ladies Belarusian Championship four times in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2011.

World Youth Gold Medalist

Jennifer Yu

“Jennifer has all the key ingredients of a top player. She has great vision of the 64 squares, tactical alertness, superior memory, will to win and, most especially, strong mental stamina. She will no doubt reach the grandmaster level if she stays with the game.”

-GM Larry Christiansen, “At 12, Ashburn’s Jennifer Yu wins world chess title, first U.S. girl to do so in 27 years”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 12
  • U.S. Age 15 Rank: 8
  • US Chess Rating: 2304 — Peak: 2353 (December 2016)
  • FIDE Rating: 2196 — Peak: 2272 (December 2016)

In 2014, Jennifer Yu won clear first at the World Youth Championships Girls U12 section, the first American female to win gold in 27 years.

“I was most impressed with her last round game, where, after already clinching Gold, she simply crushed her opponent.”

-GM Ben Finegold, “Yu the Best at World Youth”

Her World Youth victory shows an ability to play well under pressure. Jennifer is also the reigning queen of the National Girls Tournament of Champions, and she tied for the same title in 2015. In addition, in last year’s US Women’s Championships, Yu was able to score a key upset victory against the tournament’s second seed:

National Junior High Champion

Maggie Feng

“I really like chess because it is challenging and fun. Chess requires tactics, strategy, planning, risk-taking, and bravery which makes it a perfect game to play. My favorite chess player is Magnus Carlsen because of his will to win, and he never gives up.”

-Maggie Feng before the 2014 U.S. Junior Girls Closed

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 10
  • U.S. Age 16 Rank: 16
  • US Chess Rating: 2317 — Peak: 2336 (June 2016)
  • FIDE Rating: 2162 — Peak: 2227 (June 2016)

Maggie Feng changed history last year by becoming the first girl to win the National Junior High K-9 Championship.

“Some past winners of the K-9 Championship include Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, so Maggie finds herself in great company.”

-IM Greg Shahade

Qualifying as a wildcard, Feng is a brand new competitor in the U.S. Women’s Championship, which will make her difficult for the other players to prepare for.

To get a sense of Feng’s playing style, here is a game where she draws fairly comfortably against GM Aleksandr Lenderman.

U.S. Junior Girls Champion

Emily Nguyen

“Two pieces of advice I would give: A) Do not lose. B) Do not draw.”

-Emily Nguyen, “Prodigies Return for ChessKid.com 2013 Online National Invitational”

  • U.S. Women’s Rank: 13
  • U.S. Age 14 Rank: 10
  • US Chess Rating: 2292 — Peak: 2294 (January 2017)
  • FIDE Rating: 2173 — Peak: 2206 (February 2017)

Emily Nguyen will be competing in the U.S. Women’s Championship for the first time. Although she’s an underdog by rating, she’s overcome the odds before. She entered the 2016 U.S. Junior Girls as one of the lower ranked competitors. Yet, she won clear first, defeating the top seed, Maggie Feng, along the way.

The U.S. Women’s Championship runs from March 29th-April 10th. Watch the event live with rounds every day at 1 p.m. CST except for the rest day, April 3rd. For more information, visit the Official U.S. Championship Website

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