U.S. Chess Championships report by FM Mike Klein
Only a pair of rounds into the 2011 U.S. Chess Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship and already the whittling of the 24-player field is complete. Only two players have unblemished records – one in each tournament – but they got there in very different ways Saturday afternoon. Both events are taking place at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis from April 14-28.
Grandmaster Larry Christiansen, a three-time U.S. Champion, pushed his record to 2-0 first with another whitewash. This time his focus was the queenside and his opponent was Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. The two have played more than 20 times, including at 12 prior Championships (of the other matchups today, no other men had played more than twice). Seirawan had said before the tournament began that he hoped to survive the opening, where his mastery has dulled since his hiatus from tournament chess began in 2003. That fear came true.
“The three worst things that could happen to a chess player happened to me today,” Seirawan said. “First, the opening was bad. Then both my king and queen got checkmated.”
Christiansen offered his b-pawn in the same way that GM Sergey Karjakin did to GM Pavel Eljanov at last year’s Chess Olympiad. Seirawan, unfamiliar with the game, took the bait. Like Eljanov, he soon wished he had not. In the post-game analysis it was Christiansen showing off his knowledge of the variation. “[The move] Qb1 has been around,” Christiansen said. “You know, I did my homework. Not only do we have a mating attack, but let’s trap his queen too. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”
“From my side, I’m going, ‘Geez, I walked into this hurricane,’” Seirawan said.
While it took that game a mere 17 moves to produce a winner, Woman Grandmaster Sabina Foisor needed 79 turns to overcome the dogged determination of FIDE Master Alisa Melekhina. Foisor took sole possession of the lead in the women’s tournament, and her double pawn sacrifice of 25. f4 and 26. e5 showed a perspicacious understanding of the position. Many fellow players and spectators, several of which were higher rated, praised the idea. Still, after Foisor pried apart her opponent’s king’s shelter, Melekhina gamely repulsed the attack and set up a timely blockade. Foisor’s 70. a5 was not calculation as much as it was the last salvo, but without ample time to hold the fortress, Melekhina allowed a decisive breakthrough.
“I thought I was winning and then and then I gave her a lot of counterplay,” Foisor said. “In the end I thought that I’m not winning.” The game was a bit of revenge for Foisor, as Melekhina has won their matchup at the last two U.S. Women’s Championships. Foisor began the 2009 Championship 3-0 but faltered badly in the final six games. She promised no celebrations would occur until after the event. Since she is missing her college classes, Foisor joked that she wants to succeed so she can silence her professors’ entreaties about the worthiness of skipping classes.
The other miniature of the day came from an unlikely game. GM-elect Sam Shankland chose the normally-reserved Slav Defense against GM Gregory Kaidanov. The center pawns traded early, unfurling some open diagonals that Shankland rode to a devastating attack on Kaidanov’s castled king.
“I don’t know if Kaidanov has lost in 18 moves with White in the last 20 years,” Shankland said. “I got extremely lucky of course … I think it was more his doing than mine. It just wasn’t his day.”
Shankland’s sudden attack came from a queen lift, first up to d4, then across to h4, to join forces with his well-posted bishops. He said the maneuver would have been much more ineffective if Kaidanov had not played 14. Bxc4 and instead kept his light-squared bishop on d3. From there, it could generate a counterattack via the b1-h7 diagonal.
After settling in for the first round, the second round gave more decisive results. Seven of the 12 matches produced winners, including all four of the games in the U.S. Women’s Championship.
Defending Champion IM Irina Krush recovered easily from her first-round oversight, defeating WFM Tatev Abrahamyan. All of the women have played each other several times over, so Abrahamyan tried to spring a surprise on Krush with the rare Blumenfeld Gambit. Krush actually tried out the opening herself at last year’s championship.
“She clearly didn’t know anything about the Blumenfeld,” Krush said. “She took a gamble that I didn’t know anything. I knew just a little bit more than her.”
IM Anna Zatonskih, considered one the pre-tournament favorites, picked up her first win by netting some early material and beating WIM Iryna Zenyuk. Zatonskih is the only player with 1.5 out of two. Four women out of the eight will advance to the semifinals after round-robin play. WGM Camilla Baginskaite earned her first point by defeating IM Rusudan Goletiani.
Defending U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky bubbled over in the press room when showing his victory over GM Varuzhan Akobian. Like Christiansen, Kamsky left his b-pawn undefended and proceeded to show his opponent why it was poisoned.
“I spoke with Emil (Sutovsky) and told him I wanted to sacrifice some stuff today,” Kamsky said. “He told me, ‘Don’t do that!’” Sutovsky is Kamsky’s friend and in the past has also served as his “second.”
Kamsky enthusiastically showed some variations to the crowd. “Ne4 was, how do you say, beautiful?” He admitted to getting carried away with aesthetics and criticized his two-knight maneuver 26. Ne7+ and 27. Ng5+. He claimed to find an unlikely defense for Akobian. In showing it off to the audience, he ended with a position of perfect stasis for both sides. The result, he said, reminded him of something famed chess composer Leonid Kubbel might create.
All other round-two games ended in draws, including GM Jaan Ehlvest against GM Ray Robson, GM Alexander Stripunsky against GM Alexander Ivanov, GM Alexander Shabalov against GM Alexander Onischuk, IM Daniel Naroditsky against GM Yury Shulman and GM Robert Hess against GM Ben Finegold. Of the list, Hess had the best chance to win, but missed a winning knight invasion late in the game.
Every player in both tournaments now has at least one-half point. Leading the U.S. Championship’s Group One is Kamsky with 1.5/2, but six other players in that group trail him by a half-point. Leading Group Two is Christiansen, while Onischuk and Shankland are on 1.5/2. The top two men from each group will qualify for the semifinals.
Sunday the most important matchup will be Shankland – Christiansen, with the latter having Black for the first time in the event.