The 2017 U.S. Chess Championship in St. Louis featured 12 of the best players in the United States, including Knight Raider coach Alex Onischuk.
Chess Grandmaster and Texas Tech University Chess Coach Alex Onischuk didn't expect to make it to a tiebreaker for the top spot in the 2017 U.S. Chess Championship. But after two weeks and 11 rounds in St. Louis, that's exactly where he found himself on Monday, across the board from Grandmaster Wesley So, the No. 2 player in the world and No. 1 player in the U.S.
"We had the No. 2, which I played today, the No. 3 and No. 6 players in the world in this tournament," Onischuk said. "They are just extraordinary players."
After two final matches against So, Onischuk found himself in second place after losing the first and ending in a draw in the second. Though he didn't take the top spot, he said he was pleased with the outcome.
"It's a long tournament," Onischuk said. "It's not like you just play one game and you might win one against anyone. It's an 11-game tournament. To get as far as I did, you really have to play the whole tournament well and I'm happy that I did."
Onischuk began the tournament on March 27 seeded No. 8. After nearly two weeks of eight-hour-per-day chess, Onischuk and So began Sunday in a three-way tie for first place with Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian, ranked No. 10 in the U.S.
A loss by Akioban left him with 6.5 points, while draws in Onischuk's and So's matches tied them at 7 points each.
On Monday, Onischuk and So faced off in two rounds of rapid chess, with the possibility of an Armageddon match, where black automatically wins in a draw and white gets more time on the clock, in the event of a tie.
"Normally, each player gets two hours per game, but today we only got 25 minutes," Onischuk said Monday. "It's two short games, basically,"
He played black pieces for the first game, which ended in a win for So. In the next round, Onischuk played white.
"I absolutely had to win that round and I was very close to winning the second game," Onischuk said. "But in the time pressure, I missed a few chances and he built something called a fortress."
The move left So's king behind an impenetrable line of pieces protecting it.
"I couldn't win and it ended with a draw," Onischuk said.
Since So won the first round, the draw meant he also won the tiebreaker and was named the 2017 champion.
Going into the 2017 championship, Onischuk was ranked No. 81 on the international list and No. 6 in the U.S. A win would have given Onischuk his second national title to go with the one he won in 2006.
"In that tournament, I was one of the biggest favorites. It still was huge to win; not everyone can do it," he said. "But this time, I was not even close to the favorites. So it's a little bit of a different feeling. I really exceeded most of the spectators' expectations."
Onischuk's age was a factor in those expectations – most of the top players now are in their 20s or younger. Onischuk is 41.
"Many people told me I have inspired them, that I've shown them you can still play chess when you're over 40," he said. "It's quite unusual that someone older would give this performance."
Once it came down to the tiebreaker, Onischuk began receiving texts and emails from friends and supporters all over the world. His wife joined him for the final rounds in St. Louis, and at Texas Tech, students, faculty and staff gathered to watch the livestream of the showdown.
"It was a good match," said Paul Frazier, associate vice president for the Division of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. "I'm happy that the No. 2 player in the U.S. is a Red Raider."
The end of the competition closed three weeks of daily chess competition for the Texas Tech Chess Program. During the last week of March, the Knight Raiders took second place at the 2017 President's Cup, also known as the Final Four of College Chess, in New York City.
"It's been a good year for chess," Frazier said. "Our program has grown significantly, and the students and Coach Onischuk are ambassadors for the university, particularly in the world of chess."
This summer, Onischuk will compete again at the World Team Championship in Russia. For now, Onischuk said he's looking forward to getting back to Lubbock and coaching.
"I'm a professional coach, not a professional chess player anymore," Onischuk said. "Between the 2016 and 2017 U.S. championships, I played only one tournament myself. My job is to be a coach, to teach people to play chess."
Still, he said he was grateful for the experience of playing against the top-ranked player in the country.
"I got a little hungry for chess myself and almost played the tournament of my life here," Onischuk said. "It was a very close match, but I'm crazy happy that I gave my all against such a great player, Wesley So."