US Championship 2017 – So Good!
Even though he wasn’t very happy with his play, So won yet another tournament! Winning when not in top form is a sign of extra class, but we didn’t need that proof from So. This win is So’s first US Championship title.
The last two rounds saw wins by the rating favourites, Caruana and Nakamura, who as if woken up from a nightmare proceeded with “business as usual” and from 50% rose to +2, enough to share 3rd place. The only other player to win was Onischuk, who secured shared first with his penultimate round win against Xiong.
When the pressure to win was removed Caruana and Nakamura showed their usual standard and easily disposed of Shabalov and Robson (Caruana) and Zherebukh and Akobian (Nakamura). The game Nakamura-Akobian was especially important as it directly influenced the final standings – before the round Akobian was on shared first, had he drawn the game he would have been involved in the tie-break with So and Onischuk.
So’s last two games were typical of the modern understanding of chess and tournament strategy. Even though he wasn’t leading alone, he didn’t mind drawing and playing for a draw – the motto of “safety first” is the main one for many of today’s young players. I still remember the tournaments where Kasparov was trying hard to win last round games in order to win the tournament alone; more often than not he succeeded. Nowadays this is a very rare sight, the players usually choose to rely on the fact that it is so difficult to win in chess, the draw being the most probable result, especially in a last round when the stakes are high.
This reminds me of the last round of the Curacao Candidates Tournament in 1962. Keres blew his chance in the penultimate round by losing to Benko (against whom he had a score of 7-0 and no draws in the current and previous Candidates Touranment in 1959) and was trailing Petrosian by half a point going to the last round. He was playing Fischer with White while Petrosian was also White against outsider Filip. I would imagine a Kasparov going strongly against an outsider with White in order not to depend on anyone and win outright. Not so Petrosian – he drew in 14 moves and then watched Keres’s risky play rewarded when he built a big advantage against Fischer. But eventually Petrosian was right, Keres misplayed the position and the game ended in a draw, giving Petrosian a clear first.
That is what happened in the last round. So was Black against Naroditsky (a 176-point Elo difference) and they played a well-known repetition in the Berlin, ending the game in 14 moves (is it a coincidence that both Petrosian and So finished their games in 14 moves?). The co-leaders couldn’t do better – Akobian lost with Black from a perspective position against Nakamura while Onischuk couldn’t do much against Kamsky, also with Black.
I think the attitude towards these issues is deeply ingrained in the character of the player. Kasparov is an energetic character who likes to dominate not only in chess, but also in conversations (this is from personal experience), to impose his own style, ideas, thoughts. Petrosian and So are apparently different. They prefer to keep their energy, avoid conflict whenever possible and let things happen on their own accord. In the last period we have seen So being very pragmatic, not risking at all and it has bore tremendous fruits. Everybody must find their own way of doing things and So has apparently found his.
The tie-break proved him right. He was stronger than Onischuk and won deservedly, but it was far from easy. In the first game there were a couple of imprecisions and Onischuk missed his chances to keep the balance.
In the second game Onischuk went away from theory as soon as possible (and he said this was the only way to play for a win against So, who is excellently prepared) and it seemed to be working. He got the bishop pair against So’s knights, exactly the type of imbalance a player needs when forced to play for a win. Even though the position was equal, the fact that White had to win left trace on both players’ decisions. So was the first to err and he lost a pawn, then he made another mistake and Onischuk was winning.
A great fight by Onischuk, who has given up practical play for some time now. I liked how grounded he sounded after the tournament, realising that his chances weren’t great – he could do better than one, perhaps two, of the top trio, but to get the better of all three? Not very probable… And he was right. Eventually one of them claimed the title.
The So saga continues, as does his unbeaten streak. Soon enough (20 April) we will see him play in Shamkir, joined by Kramnik and Karjakin among others. And generally speaking quite a lot of elite chess coming up – Zurich starts tomorrow (Kramnik, Anand, Nakamura) and the Grenke Classic (starts 15 April) sees Carlsen, Caruana and Vachier as top seeds. Three top events overlapping is a bit too much I think, but at least we will be spoilt for choice.