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John Henderson
By John Henderson

After his epic Fischer-like perfect start of 5/5, Wesley So survived a near scare at the pandemic-hit online 2020 US Championship, organised and sponsored by Rex Sinquefield’s Saint Louis Chess Club, to clinch his second national title. The 27-year-old world #9 and former Filipino added to his 2017 US Championship title with an unbeaten score of 9/11 to finish just ahead of his nearest rival, Jeffery Xiong, to once again lift the coveted title and collect the $40,000 first prize.

But So was far from being the convincing runaway winner after his blistering start. He was doggedly chased all the way to the very end by Texan teenager Jeffery Xiong, who turned 20 on Friday, and could well have given himself the perfect birthday present of a first US Championship title, had he taken his chances.

The two leaders met in round 9 but Xiong missed his ‘golden shot’ against So by playing the automatic recapture 22…Rxb4 when the playing engine’s suggestion of 22…Qa5! may well have poleaxed the eventual tournament winner’s chances. Instead, in a cruel reversal of fortune, Xiong lost to So in a combative game that he should have at the very least have drawn – though the young US rising star did show true grit with a late rally on the final day to finish just a half-point behind the victor.

“Winning a second title is really big to me,” said the newly-minted 2020 US Champion in victory. “I’m really happy to have won it, this title is really prestigious. This year has been so different from previous years and I look forward to when we can see each other again over the board.”

Final standings:
1. W. So, 9/11; 2. J. Xiong, 8.5; 3. R. Robson, 7.5; 4. L. Dominguez, 6; 5-6. S. Shankland, A. Liang, 5.5; 7-8. H. Nakamura, S. Sevian, 5; 9. A. Lenderman 4.5; 10. D. Swiercz, 3.5; 11-12. A. Ramirez, E. Moradiabadi, 3.

GM Wesley So – GM Jeffry Xiong
US Championship, (9)
Sicilian Sveshnikov
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 This aggressive line started life as the Lasker/Pelikan variation, first named after the former world champion Emanuel Lasker (who brought it to prominence against Carl Schlechter in their 1910 title match) and then the Czech IM Jiri Pelikan. It became popular again in the 1970s and eponymously named after the Russian GM Evgeny Sveshnikov as it was his pet-line; though sometimes called the Chelyabinsk variation after the group of Russian players who also played a part in developing its theory alongside Sveshnikov. 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Nd5 Be7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.c3 Bg5 These are the themes to the Sicilian Sveshnikov: White looks to control the d5 square, Black looks to open the game up for his bishop-pair. 12.Nc2 Rb8 13.a3 0-0 14.h4 Bh6 15.g4!? Obscure and risky in the Sveshnikov – but So played it with a purpose, looking to make his opponent eat up clock time, which he did. 15…Bf4 16.Qf3 Bb7 17.g5 Re8 18.Nxf4 exf4 19.0-0-0 If 19.Qxf4? Nb4! and White’s in trouble. The best he can hope for is 20.0-0-0 (If 20.axb4?? Rxe4+ wins quickly.) 20…Nxc2 21.f3 Na1! 22.b4 Otherwise the knight escapes via b3 to c5. 22…Rc8 23.Kb2 Rxc3! 24.Rxa1 (Not 24.Kxc3? Qc7+ 25.Kb2 Qc2+ 26.Kxa1 Qxd1+ winning.) 24…Qc7 25.Rc1 Rxc1 26.Qxc1 Qb6 and Black is ready to play …d5 to further expose White’s precarious king. 19…b4! Xiong quickly spots the tactical possibilities  – and with it, So has to now tread very carefully. 20.axb4 Nxb4 21.Nxb4 Bxe4 22.Qxf4? Of course, the unbeating cold heart and clear logic of the silicon beast will find the most accurate – and highly unlikely – defence with 22.Qh3! Rxb4 23.cxb4 Qc8+ (The only move to stay in the game. If 23…Qc7+ 24.Qc3! and White is going to come out the other end with a big material advantage. Now 24…Qb7 25.Rh2 Rc8 26.Bc4 d5 27.f3! Qb6 28.b3 Bf5 29.Rhd2 and the body count is going to show White emerging with a decisive advantage.) 24.Qxc8 Rxc8+ 25.Kd2 Rc2+ 26.Ke1 Bxh1 27.Rxd6 Kf8 28.Bd3 Rxb2 29.Rd4 and a likely draw on the cards. 22…Rxb4? This is the natural reaction in the heat of battle, just recapturing the sacrificed piece and still have the slightly better prospects – but the engine finds the clinical kill that was lurking if only Xiong’s had sensed the blood in the water with 22…Qa5! and the deadly threat of …Qa1+ and …Qxb2+ and White is in trouble. The only way to try to hang on is with 23.Bd3 but there now follows 23…Bxh1 24.f3 (If 24.Rxh1 Qa1+ 25.Bb1 Re2! and there’s no way to defend b2 as the Nb4 is defending b2 against the …Rb8, and the White king is going to get mated.) 24…Bg2 and remarkably the engine tells you that the only move to stay in the game is 25.Kb1! (Going for the bishop with the White king under threat is dangerous, ie: 25.Qg3 Rxb4! 26.cxb4 Qa1+ 27.Kc2 Rc8+ 28.Kd2 Qxb2+ 29.Ke1 Re8+ 30.Be4 Bxf3! 31.Qxf3 Qxb4+ 32.Kf2 Rxe4 winning.) 25…Bh3 26.Nc6 Qxc3 27.Nxb8 Rxb8 28.Rd2 Be6 29.Qxd6 Qb3 and Black has the attack, but with accurate defence, it doesn’t look like there’s enough to win – but playing engines, don’t you just love ‘em? 23.Bd3 In the nick of time, So is back in the game. 23…Bxh1 24.Qxb4 Bf3 25.Rd2 d5 26.Bxa6 h6 27.gxh6 Re4 A little stronger was 27…Qf6! taking the tempo to hit the Ba6. And now 28.h7+! Kxh7 29.Bd3+ Kh6 and with both kings being vulnerable, it looks like both sides will need to proceed with care and a likely draw. 28.Qc5 Better was 28.Rd4! Qxh4 29.Qb8+ Kh7 30.hxg7 but once again, after 30…Re1+ 31.Kc2 Qxf2+ 32.Kb3 Kxg7 both kings are exposed. 28…Rxh4? Too hasty – the correct way to recapture the pawn was first playing 28…Re1+! 29.Kc2 and now 29…Qxh4! with the subtle threat of the sudden switch to the queenside with …Qa4+ picks up the loose bishop, meaning White has to now play 30.Qb4 Qxh6 31.Qb8+ Kh7 32.Bd3+ g6 and equality. 29.Qc8 It is turning into a perplexing and intriguing battle between the leaders, but So, probably realising he could well have dodged a bullet, now just wants to trade queens and the safer side of a small endgame advantage, though with it he fails to realise that he’d just missed his shot now with 29.hxg7! Kxg7 30.Be2! Bxe2 (If 30…Be4 31.b4 and not only does the king have an escape path, but the b-pawn is now running.; and if 30…Rh1+ 31.Rd1! Qg5+ 32.Qe3 Qxe3+ 33.fxe3 Rh3 34.Bxf3 Rxf3 35.Rxd5 Rxe3 36.Kd2 White has a technically won R+P ending.) 31.Rxe2 Qa8 32.Qb5! Stopping a possible …Qa4+. 32…Qa2 33.Rd2 and there’s no way to snare the White king, and meanwhile it looks as if the d-pawn is going to fall. 29…Qxc8 30.Bxc8 Rxh6 31.Bb7 Generally speaking, the equal material on the board should be a draw – but So has a couple of things going for him to press on: Xiong’s d-pawn is weak, and his own b-pawn can quickly run up the board, unlike Black’s g-pawn. 31…Rh5 32.b4! Passed pawns must be pushed! 32…Kf8 33.Kb2 Rf5 34.Kb3 Ke7 35.Ka4 g5 36.b5 Around about here, I was convinced this epic struggle was heading for ‘drawsville’ and a well-deserved share of the spoils – but short of time, Xiong misses a vital sequence to safeguard the draw. 36…Rf4+ 37.Ka5 Kd6 38.b6 Rc4 39.Rd3 Rc5+ Protecting the bishop with 39…g4! look good and strong. 40.Kb4 Rc4+ 41.Kb3 Rf4 42.c4 If 42.Bxd5 Bxd5+ 43.Rxd5+ Kc6! (Of course, the rook is taboo: 43…Kxd5? 44.b7 and the pawn can’t be stopped.) 44.Rb5 Kb7 45.c4 Rf3+ 46.Ka4 Rxf2 and the game is going to peter out to a draw. 42…Kc5 43.cxd5 Rb4+ 44.Kc3 Rxb6?! Oh dear, Xiong sadly snatches a lose from the jaws of a draw. There’s a fine line between holding the draw and losing here, and the safe way to hold is first playing 44…Be4! 45.Rd2 Rc4+ 46.Kb3 Rb4+ 47.Ka3 (just to force the White king away from the center of the board, as 47.Kc3 Rc4+ 48.Kb3 Rb4+ 49.Kc3 Rc4+ etc is a draw) and now Black can safely play as he does in the game, with 47…Rxb6 48.d6 Rxb7 49.d7 Rxd7 50.Rxd7 Bd5 51.Kb2 Kd4! The difference here and in the game is clear now, as the king can safely cross to the kingside to keep all the Black pieces working together as one cohesive unit. The likely scenario that will play out now is 52.Kc2 g4 53.Kd1 f5! 54.Ke2 f4 55.Ke1 Ke5 and White can make no progress. 45.d6 Rxb7 46.d7 Rxd7 47.Rxd7 f5? This further inaccuracy sadly seals Xiong’s fate. It’s a really tough endgame to have to find yourself defending with the title at stake and little time on your clock, but the engine also shows that, with best play, 47…Bd5 48.Kd3 Be6 49.Rd8 Bf5+ 50.Ke3 Be6 51.Ke4 g4 52.Rd2 the chances are that Black has realistic chances of digging in deep to try and hold the draw, as a rook sacrifice for the bishop should lead to a technically drawn K+P ending, so long as Black stays within striking distance of White’s f-pawn. 48.Kd3 Be4+ 49.Ke3 g4 50.Kf4 Kc6 51.Rf7 Kd6 52.Rxf5! 1-0 Xiong resigns, faced with the prospects of 52…Bxf5 53.Kxf5 Ke7 54.Kxg4 Kf6 55.Kf4 Ke6 56.Kg5 and White will gain the ‘opposition’ in the ensuing K+P ending to control the f8 queening square.

 

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