So Shocked: Wesley Forfeited From U.S. Championship Ninth Round

World Top 10 GM Wesley So learned a FIDE rule the hard way Friday afternoon, after being forfeitted for improper notation on his scoresheet. // Lennart Ootes photo

By FM Kostya Kavutskiy

Sadly, a great day of chess in the U.S. Championship was marred by an unfortunate incident that happened within the first hour of play on Friday. GM Wesley So was forfeited after his sixth move against GM Varuzhan Akobian, for writing personal notes on a separate sheet of paper during their encounter.

According to Chief Arbiter Tony Rich, Wesley was writing words of “general encouragement and advice” to himself on a piece of paper below his score sheet – a detail forbidden per the laws of FIDE. Later revealed was that So had been given two prior warnings for the infraction in earlier rounds, and Friday came as So’s third offense.

“I mentioned to Wesley twice earlier in the event that using notes or other sources of information is not allowed and strictly forbidden, according to the FIDE laws of chess," Rich said. "After the second warning, I notified Wesley that, if it happened again, I would be required to forfeit him. Unfortunately, that was the decision that I had to make: Wesley's round 9 game was forfeited.”

The incident sparked a heated discussion over Twitter with many chess players, journalists, organizers and arbiters weighing in to debate the merits of the decision. One thing was clear—this was an incredibly regrettable occurrence that blemished an otherwise fantastic tournament.

While the distraction was serious, the rest of the players in the U.S. Chess Championships were still in the middle of a crucial ninth round, and produced some fascinating chess. Tournament leader GM Hikaru Nakamura was a bit lucky to draw with GM Timur Gareev, though his main rival in the Championship race, GM Ray Robson, couldn’t find a win either, in a long game against GM Sam Sevian.

The results left Robson (6/9) still a half-point behind Nakamura (6.5/9) – with the two set to face off Saturday in a critical Round 10 matchup.

In the women’s section, leader WGM Katerina Nemcova was unable to produce a decisive result with the Black pieces against WIM Viktorija Ni, allowing GM Irina Krush to finally catch pace with her win over WGM Tatev Abrahamyan in a queen and minor piece endgame. 

Veteran World Top-10 GM Hikaru Nakamura has led the 2015 U.S. Championships since Round 1. // Lennart Ootes photo

Not even Nakamura could expect that his 1.Nf3 would be answered with 1…b6?! from the consistently unpredictable GM Timur Gareev. Seizing the opportunity to grab space with 2.e4 and 4.d4, Nakamura followed with a controversial pawn sacrifice that didn’t seem to offer enough compensation. Later regretting his decision, Nakamura said: “I should have known better, I’ve played this e6-b6 probably 500 times on ICC, frankly.”

After grabbing the pawn and developing comfortably, Gareev then captured a second pawn with 20…Qxc3, allowing Nakamura to force repetition by repeatedly attacking Black’s queen with his bishop – and letting him off the hook after the dubious pawn sacrifice.

“I suspect, perhaps, my rating saved me today,” said Nakamura, realizing his fortune. “When you’re the top seed, I think your opponents tend to overestimate the position I have over their own position.”

Asked about his decisive pairing against Robson on Saturday, Nakamura said: “The onus isn’t on me to do anything special -- I just have to keep the lead.”

GM Ray Robson trails leader Hikaru Nakamura by a half point, with the two set to play in a pivotal Round 10 on Saturday. // Austin Fuller photo

Trailing Nakamura by a half point entering round nine, it was clear Robson needed to take some risk in order to defeat Sevian on Friday. With these intentions, Robson chose the Scheveningen Sicilian, inviting Sevian to play the aggressive Keres Attack with 6.g4 -- an invitation that Sam promptly accepted.

“I didn’t want to come under a huge attack on my king,” Robson said. “I was kind of worried early on when [Sevian] started playing 6.g4, 7.h3 and 8.f4, but somehow I managed to avoid it.”

In a tense middlegame, the two players played out a typical Najdorf structure with the kings castled on opposite sides of the board. After a few exchanges, Sevian was left with the better dark-squared bishop, but Robson had full control over the open e-file. Neither player could get an edge in the eventual time scramble, leading to simplification and a drawn rook-and-bishop endgame.

After the game Robson confessed his intentions for Saturday’s critical game against Nakamura: “I’m not going to do anything crazy because, even if we draw, we still have one more round to play. I’ll still have chances.”

GM Sam Sevian vs. GM Ray Robson Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

Reigning U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky essayed his beloved London System against GM Kayden Troff, who responded with a classical Fianchetto Setup. After both sides completed their development, Troff initiated complications with 17…cxd4 18.exd4 e5, leading to a series of exchanges that left him with a strong passed pawn on d4. Kamsky soon erred and was forced to give up a rook in exchange for the d4 pawn and one of Troff’s bishops. Despite being up the exchange, however, Troff was unable to convert and the players drew on the 41st move.

GM Gata Kamsky vs. GM Kayden Troff Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

Other results of Round 9 included GM Daniel Naroditsky’s first win of the event, finding a way to aesthetically crack GM Conrad Holt’s Winawer French Defense. GM Sam Shankland and GM Alexander Onischuk played 24 moves of theory to reach a difficult endgame, though Shankland was unable to utilize a slight material advantage and liquidated into a drawn rook-and-pawn endgame.

GM Irina Krush collected a win over WGM Tatev Abrahamyan in Round 9 and took a share of the lead for the 2015 U.S. Women's Championship. // Lennart Ootes photo

Though eventually earning the full point, Krush did not get much out of the opening against Abrahamyan. After several minor pieces were exchanged, Krush was left with a knight and a bit more space against Black’s bishop, with all of the major pieces still left on the board. Abrahamyan then placed a lot of pressure against White’s c-pawn, leading to a rook exchange and a simplified position.

With a queen and bishop against Krush’s queen and knight, Abrahamyan blundered with 34…b3, allowing a deadly attack against her king. Mate was inevitable by 40. Qh5.

GM Irina Krush vs. WGM Tatev Abrahamyan Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

WIM Viktorija Ni was able to hold leader WGM Katerina Nemcova to a draw in Round 9, allowing GM Irina Krush to catch pace atop the standings. // Austin Fuller photo

Hoping to keep the lead was Nemcova, who could not win against Ni in a complex English.

“I thought I was better after 20…Bh3, but I just misplayed it,” Nemcova said. “Maybe 22…f5 was too soon.”

Indeed, despite holding the advantage in the middlegame, Nemcova could not improve her position, with a rook trade leading to perpetual check and the draw. Nemcova has a tough finish to her tournament, set to play IM Nazí Paikidze in Saturday’s Round 10 and Krush in the final round.

“Tomorrow I have White, so I’m playing for a win,” Nemcova said. “Both of the rounds will be really tough.”

WIM Viktorija Ni vs. WGM Katerina Nemcova Annotations by GM Josh Friedel

Paikidze (6/9) stays within range of the front with her win today against WFM Jennifer Yu. In the 4.e3 variation of the Slav Defense, Paikidze sacrificed two pawns in exchange for a powerful center and good piece activity. Yu went down quickly, losing a piece by move 20 before resigning on the 36th move.

The final two rounds of the U.S. Chess Championships feature several critical matchups to the U.S. Championship races, beginning Saturday with Robson vs. Nakamura and Nemcova vs. Paikidze. Tune into at 1:00 p.m. CDT to follow play-by-play commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade and GM Maurice Ashley.