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Irina Krush Wins U.S. Women’s Chess Championship

Report by Mike Wilmering, contribution from Katie Baldetti

St Louis

St. Louis, July 19, 2010 – After an IM Anna Zatonskih draw in round nine, IM Irina Krush won a wild one against WFM Abby Marshall to clinch the 2010 U.S. Women’s Championship title with a score of 8/9. This is her third U.S. Women’s Championship title, and her first since 2007.

FM Warren Harper bounced back from five straight losses to upset GM Ray Robson, which seemingly dashed his hopes at a repeat, but a late draw by Parker Zhao and a victory by IM Sam Shankland created a three-way tie atop the Junior Closed leaderboard at 6/9. An Armageddon showdown will be used to determine the Junior Closed Championship.

The playoff, which will take place at 10 a.m CDT, on Tuesday, will feature a unique set of rules. Robson, by virtue of being first on tiebreaks, has elected to receive a bye in the first round of the playoff. Zhao and Shankland will play a game to determine who will play Robson for the championship.

In this game, both players will bid on how much time they are willing to start with, between 1 minute and 45 minutes. Whoever bids the lesser amount of time has the option to choose his color, with the black pieces getting draw odds (meaning that in the case of a draw, black is declared the winner). Whoever loses the bid will receive a full 45 minutes, with both players receiving a five-second increment for each move.

The winner of that game will have his choice of color in the championship game, with black again having draw odds. This means that Robson will almost certainly have to play for a win with White. In the championship game, each player will have 45 minutes with a five-second increment for each move.

At the start of round nine play, tournament announcers GM Ben Finegold and WGM Jennifer Shahade said each thought the women’s event was more likely to go to Armageddon playoff than the Junior Closed Championship. As both of the top seeds in the Women’s Championship event had White in the final rounds, a rematch of the controversial 2008 Armageddon playoff between Krush and Zatonskih seemed imminent.

But tough opposition from WGM Sabina Foisor stymied Zatonskih’s chances at a three-peat, and Krush’s dynamic yet solid play helped her capture the crown.

After a disappointing 2009 U.S. Women’s Championship, Krush brought an upbeat, positive and focused mentality to this year’s event.

“I tried to be aggressive Black and kind of principled with White,” Krush said. “So no one was just going to get any easy points.”

In round nine, Krush got the benefit of playing with White against Marshall, who had a disappointing tournament going just 0.5/9. Initially, it appeared as though Krush would simply steamroll her opponent.

Krush pulled the aggressive 14.Qd4, stopping Marshall’s ability to fianchetto her bishop on g7. The book move, according to Krush, is to play Rg8 to prep Bg7, which attacks the queen and controls the long diagonal, but Marshall instead opted for 14…b5.

“After Qd4, she apparently didn’t know the position anymore,” Krush said. “You have to give up this pawn [on c4]. Trying to defend it with b5 just means the queenside will collapse.”

St Louis Krush

IM Irina Krush

But Marshall defended well, as she attempted to play the spoiler and salvage a win in her first U.S. Women’s Championship.

“After [22...]Be5, I realize she has a very good plan to consolidate,” Krush said. “My bishop on g3 is out of the game, she has all this good dark-square control, and its not even really clear what I’m doing. I suddenly realized that the whole position I was aiming for is not so good.”

Krush said after 23…Bc3, she was able to capture Marshall’s knight on d7 and a pawn on c7, which ultimately broke open the position to give her a winning advantage.

Although Krush called her game against Marshall her worst game of the tournament, she was able to convert the full point to clinch the victory, a victory she said she badly wanted.

Krush said an impromptu vacation may be in the works before she begins preparing for the Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia.

Although they will be teammates in Russia, Krush’s main rival in this tournament, Zatonskih, never got the opening advantage she needed to overwhelm a tough opponent in Foisor. Although she said she prepared for the a6 Slav, Zatonskih differed from the main line of 6.Bg5 with 6.g3. Foisor responded with 6…c5, a response that took Zatonskih by surprise.

Following a queen trade, each established a solid position, but Foisor did not allow Zatonskih to once again work her endgame magic. Numerous times throughout the tournament, Zatonskih demonstrated her uncanny ability to grind opponents down in a long, grueling endgame, often turning the slightest of advantages into winning positions.

Zatonskih, who found herself in time pressure frequently this tournament, went at least 50 moves deep in five of her nine games, including a grueling round four win against WIM Alisa Melekhina that lasted 82 moves.

“Of course, I got tired,” she said. “I’m not a robot … 58 moves is like a miniature for me.”

Zatonskih said she missed a lot of opportunities in this tournament.

“I’m in pretty bad shape, so I’m quite happy with the result,” Zatonskih said. “Even if in bad shape I was able to fight for first place, I think it’s pretty good.”

Her 7.5/9 performance was good enough to tie for second place with WFM Tatev Abrahamyan, who had another stellar tournament performance.

In the Junior Closed Championship, Robson needed only to draw with Black against Harper to ensure at least a playoff for the title, if not the outright victory. He began the day just a half point ahead of Zhao, and his opponent, Harper, was in the midst of a five-game losing streak.

Robson once again tried to surprise his opponent by pulling out the King’s Indian, but Harper said he looked over those lines in preparation after seeing Robson use it earlier in the tournament.

First, Robson tried to break open the position with 16…Bxh3, sacrificing his bishop to maneuver his Knight to f3, which forked Harper’s king on g1 and rook on d2. After trading the two pieces for the rook, the pivotal move, 23…b5, allowed Harper a passer on the a-file. Robson countered by marching his c- and h-pawns down to the second rank, but Harper had too many pieces, ultimately queening his a-pawn (39.a8=Q) and forcing Robson’s resignation.

A dejected Robson appeared resigned to the fact that his hopes of repeating as the tournament champion were all but finished.

“Probably not a good position out of the opening,” Robson said. “I tried to create some chances, but I think he played pretty well throughout the game.”

Harper said this was the most difficult round-robin tournament he had ever played.

“In open tournaments, you lose a couple games, you play a weak player and then you can boost your confidence back up,” Harper said. “But in this tournament, you lose five games in a row, and you play Ray Robson.”

“Nobody beats you six in a row,” joked Finegold.

After Robson’s loss Zhao needed a full point to claim the 2010 Junior Closed title. After an 0/3 start, FM John Bryant had scored 4/5 and continued his solid play this round to prove to he is a formidable opponent. Although Zhao appeared to have the advantage for most of the game, Bryant managed to successfully defend with just his king and knight against Zhao’s king, bishop and two pawns.

As the seconds ticked down Robson and Shankland, who pulled off a brilliant round-nine victory, were crowding around the board to see if Bryant could stave off Zhao’s attack. Finally, with time pressure too great, Zhao acquiesced to a draw.

St Louis Sam Shankland

IM Sam Shankland

A draw by Shankland in round eight seemed to shut the door on his chances at the title. After losing his first two games, a despondent Shankland, who announced he will soon be retiring from chess, seemed like he had all but given up on his final major tournament. After a remarkable turnaround, however, Shankland managed to score six points in his final seven games to qualify for the Armageddon playoff.

In round nine, Shankland blew his opponent, FM Conrad Holt, off the board in a game that truly demonstrated his elite ability.

With Shankland’s bishop sitting on f7, the move 15.Qb3 threatened mate in one and further blew apart Holt’s defenses. Shankland said he wanted to “go out in style.”

“This [15.Qb3] was an over the board inspiration,” he said. “I decided to have some fun with this one.”

Zhao and Shankland will have to bid on how much time each is willing to start with in order to win the ability to play with Black and draw odds in the first round of the Armageddon playoff. Then, the winner will have to take on the tournament’s only grandmaster for the title.

FM Darwin Yang drew tournament surprise Eric Rosen in a hard-fought game. If Yang could have pulled off the victory, the Junior Closed would have had a four-way tie for the lead.

The playoff begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. CDT. To follow the action live or for more details, visit www.uschesschamps.com.

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