Saint Louis, May 20, 2010 – Four players have survived and advanced to the quad finals of the 2010 U.S. Championship, but the results of round seven do not tell the full story. Though a casual glance will show that the top three boards ended in draws, the uncompromising play brought the tournament to within a whisker of a large tiebreaker for the four-player round robin.
Board one was the first to finish, but the relatively peaceful draw between GM Yury Shulman and GM Alex Onischuk that qualified both for the quad did little to portend the action on the next two boards. “I had a little advantage, typical for a Queen’s Gambit Declined,” Shulman said.
GM Gata Kamsky, needing only a draw as White against GM Alex Shabalov to earn his spot, began shaking his head in disbelief when he overlooked the cunning defense 22…Bg6 at the end of a long variation. He had only considered 22…Kg8, which wins for White after 23. Qd5+. Though short on time, Kamsky gathered himself and found a way to capture several pawns whilst simultaneously weakening Shabalov’s king. “It was a pretty unpleasant scenario,” Kamsky said. “I was looking to minimize the damage.”
Kamsky then found what he called an “extremely strong defensive maneuver” – bringing his rook to the fourth rank to defend his king on the g-file. Black then ran low on time and after Shabalov whispered “draw,” Kamsky ran his clock down to 1:20 and agreed.
In the post-mortem, Kamsky rattled off a multitude of variations. In case of 16…b5, Kamsky prepared 17. Nfxe5 Nxe5 18. Nxe5 Qxe5 19. h4! with the dual threats of 20. Bxh5 and 20. Bf3. Shabalov nodded in quiet appreciation of the cute move.
The last qualifier for the finals would come down to board two. GM Larry Christiansen, a veteran of decades of championships, needed to win as he began the round one half point behind defending champion GM Hikaru Nakamura. Known for his attacking style, Christiansen built up a strong center and spatial advantage. “I was guardedly optimistic,” Christiansen said. Nakamura was not content playing passively and struck with the strange-looking thrust 8…g5. World Champion GM Viswanathan Anand, calling in from Spain live during the on-air commentary, questioned the move. “I’m not sure if Nakamura knows how to (play solidly),” Anand said. “But he doesn’t lack confidence, that’s for sure.”
As the game petered out into a pawn-up endgame for Christiansen, the crowd at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis gathered around the monitors. Players who generally left the club after their games stayed to see the result. GM Maurice Ashley, commentating on the game, saw Christiansen move his rook around to press for the win. “You’re going to sit here and you’re going to suffer young man,” Ashley said of Christiansen’s mindset. Eventually, too many pawns were traded and Nakamura held on to qualify.
“Basically I just forgot my preparation, but even so the result was pretty good,” Nakamura said. “I made some inexactitudes, as they say,” said Christiansen. “It’s kind of a letdown. The real tournament is over. It’s hard to get psyched up now.”
The four players advancing to the finals are also the top four seeds. They also all enter the event with five points. “Everyone is in even conditions,” Shulman said. “Whoever will have some luck on his side will win the tournament. I’m still considered the underdog.” Nakamura agreed and cited himself, Kamsky and Onischuk as having all the pressure.
The players now enter a rest day before the quad begins on Saturday. Shulman said he plans to attend a St. Louis Cardinals game, while Kamsky looked forward to the human chess match planned for the street outside the club. After rebuffing WGM Jennifer Shahade’s preference to see Kamsky as an f-pawn, the grandmaster said, “I prefer to be a knight because knights get to hop all over the place.”
Nakamura also planned to rest on Friday, at least from chess. “I think I’m probably going to go out and buy some furniture for my apartment,” he said. Nakamura moved to downtown St. Louis less than two weeks ago.
Six players entered the round with 3.5/6 and were mathematically alive, but their chances were dashed when Shabalov could not convert against Kamsky. The most disappointed was surely GM Alex Stripunsky, who would have qualified for the playoff as he beat GM Jesse Kraai. GM Alex Yermolinsky held a draw against GM Ben Finegold on board five. GM Robert Hess rebounded from several losses to take out struggling GM Varuzhan Akobian, who remains the highest-rated player in the country never to win the U.S. Championship, though he remains younger than most of the field.
In the tournament’s subplot of making grandmaster norms, IM Irina Krush is now within sight of her second norm. She took out GM Aleksandr Lenderman in round seven to get back to plus one. The two players share the same coach, but that did not prepare her for the opening. Krush said she was shocked to see Lenderman play the Grunfeld Defense. She is assured of a norm with one point in the final two games.
After tomorrow’s rest day, the top four players begin their three-round event on Saturday, while the rest of the field will play two more games starting on the same day.
“We deserve a little break,” Kamsky said, the relief evident.