U.S. Chess Championships report by FM Mike Klein
The first round of the 2011 U.S. Chess Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship concluded late Friday night at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. A scattering of wins greatly buoyed hopes of national titles for some, but most players got off to a walking start as eight of the 12 games ended in draws. The championships involve preliminary round-robins and finals and conclude April 28.
The most surprising result sprung from the Women’s Championship. Woman Grandmaster Sabina Foisor, playing Black, derailed defending champion Irina Krush’s attempt to get off to a fast start. Facing serious pressure on her king, International Master Krush slipped up and allowed a devastating rook invasion that netted Foisor a queen. Krush resigned the game but still has plenty of time to qualify for the finals after the preliminary round-robin portion of the event. Foisor said she was not happy that the drawing of placements earned her a first-round matchup with Krush. She said she fears being the last-place finisher but that ignominy will be unlikely after starting with a win.
Woman FIDE Master Tatev Abrahamyan joined Foisor atop the leaderboard with a long win against Woman Grandmaster Camilla Baginskaite. Abrahamyan, who is the most improved player in the field since last year’s event, used the centuries-old Evans Gambit to gain space. After a little more than five hours, she eked out a win in the endgame. The two played the longest game of the first round.
Other winners included one of the pre-tournament favorites, Grandmaster Alexander Onischuk. Ranked second, Onischuk grabbed a pawn and survived the complications against Ben Finegold, the Grandmaster-in-Residence of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. The local player initially thought his g-pawn was taboo until it was captured, then he changed his mind. Finegold tried to justify his early pawn sacrifice by tossing in two more pawns, but Onischuk coolly captured them all and lived to tell the tale. “I was happy that Ben played fighting chess, ” Onischuk said. “It gives me chances.”
The final decisive game came from two stalwarts of the U.S. Championship. Three-time winner Grandmaster Larry Christiansen united his pieces harmoniously and crashed through four-time champion GM Alex Shabalov’s defense. The 54-year-old Christiansen, who won his first championship in 1980, joked continuously about his advancing age. “The younger Larry would’ve sacked on f5 at some point, but with such a beautiful position, why?” he said. He said his daily routine is getting upset by the tournament. “I’m always getting up early. Spanish-time kind of guy. Only I can’t take a siesta here. This is grueling. I can’t wait for the free day already.” The player’s rest day will come after round seven.
In a case of the headline not explaining the story, the two-thirds of the games that resulted in draws produced their own dramatic moments as well. The younger players had a particularly incendiary day.
Tournament rookie and youngest competitor IM Daniel Naroditsky saw his h-file attack rebuffed. The 15-year-old then gathered himself to split the point in a worse endgame against GM Jaan Ehlvest, who was once the third-best player in the world. “Of course I was nervous,” Naroditsky said. Once the game began his focus quelled his jitters almost instantly he said. His gangbuster attack on the kingside ended with Ehlvest’s saavy queen-trade antidote. On missing 27…Qe7, the teenager chastised his own blindness. “I just told myself, ‘Okay, I’m an idiot.’” Then Naroditsky doubled down on defense and held the balance.
The most complicated draw of the day was turned in by reigning U.S. Junior Champion and GM-elect Sam Shankland and Samford Fellowship recipient GM Robert Hess,. In the analysis room after the game, Shankland spewed a multitude of variations rapidly, concluding after each that he had “no idea what is going on.” Hess has surprised opponents in the opening in St. Louis before, and this round was no different, as he essayed the King’s Indian Defense for the first time in his career. “The King’s Indian is essentially the only thing I wasn’t prepared for,” Shankland said. Reflecting on a decision late in the game to activate his rook with 25. Rc2, Shankland said, “The question is, ‘Do I get mated or do I queen my d-pawn?’ And I’m still not sure.” Both men seemed satisfied with the result.
In another heavily-anticipated match, GM Yasser Seirawan came out of retirement and played a fighting draw against longtime rival and friend GM Gregory Kaidanov. Seirawan had not played in a U.S. Championship or a tournament of any kind since 2003. “I fell for my old weakness of grabbing a pawn,” Seirawan said. Kaidanov is mostly a chess instructor these days but many pundits still claim him to be the best American never to have won a U.S. Championship. Speaking to his opponent after the game, Kaidanov joked, “I thought I would confuse you by playing recklessly and carelessly.”
Defending champion GM Gata Kamsky could not engineer much action as Black against GM Alexander Ivanov’s stale Four-Knights Opening, and the two earned a draw without much conflict. Other drawn games included past champions GM Yury Shulman and GM Alex Stripunsky. GM Varuzhan Akobian has a huge lifetime score against GM Ray Robson, but Robson was able to hold the draw in round one.
The final two women’s games also ended in draws. IM Rusudan Goletiani’s extra pawn was not enough against WIM Iryna Zenyuk. Top-rated IM Anna Zatonskih equalized against FM Alisa Melekhina, even though the latter carried a slight plus into the endgame.
After the first week of play, the two championships will advance their top players to the finals. The U.S. Championship is split into two groups of eight players each while the U.S. Women’s Championship has one group of eight players. The top two players from each group of the U.S. Championhsip advance to the finals and the top four women will advance to a quad knockout to determine the U.S. Women’s Champion.