By FM Mike Klein
The action got a running start today as the majority of the first-round battles at the 2013 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship produced a clear victor. Half of the men’s games and 80 percent of the ladies’ skirmishes gave decisive results, kicking off nine rounds of chess at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
Two notable upsets highlighted the U.S. Championship in the opening round. A pair of tournament rookies, IM Kayden Troff and GM Conrad Holt, both defeated their higher-ranked grandmaster opponents.
Troff, who will turn 15 later in the tournament, is the second-youngest player this year but is already a world champion, as he won gold at the Under-14 section of the 2012 World Youth Championship. Those credentials helped give him the confidence to snatch a pawn from Stripunsky, who sacrificed his b-pawn to get pressure on the open file and secure a tidy outpost on b5.
Troff called the sacrifice typical and probably the best continuation for both sides. He said he studied a previous game in which Stripunsky pushed his queenside pawns to a6 and b5 to defeat IM Greg Shahade. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to run into that,'” Troff said.
The compensation dried up quickly, however, when Troff grabbed space with the critical 17…e5. Stripunsky admitted to Troff after the game that he simply missed the shot. From there Troff said he was probably better, and the extra b-pawn in the endgame could always be used to create a passed a-pawn.
It turned out not to be necessary, as Troff pried open the kingside with ease to earn the point. This is the second straight year that Stripunsky has opened the championship with a loss as white.
Two collegiate grandmasters, Holt and Sam Shankland, gave the other upset of the opening round. Shankland’s higher rating and more championship experience made him the nominal pre-round favorite, but Holt had white and never let Shankland get in the game.
Unlike Stripunsky’s offering, Holt’s pawn sacrifice to create an outpost and half-open file turned out to be a sage and theoretical maneuver. Shankland gave back his material and liquidated to an endgame, but Holt had all the chances with the pair of useful bishops and the only passed pawn on the board. Shankland’s knights could do nothing but roam in circles as Holt eventually pushed up for the point.
Other winners included three-time champion GM Gata Kamsky, who had white but chose not to play the Torre Attack for the third straight game against GM Alex Shabalov. Kamsky instead opened with 1. e4, explaining that he wanted to play a solid variation against the French.
He planted a knight on e5 on move 21, and the rest of his position revolved around the dominating steed. A knight stood guard there for the remaining 23 moves, never having to leave its proud post as Kamsky broke through with his other pieces.
Another tournament favorite and colorful personality that fans wanted to see was GM Timur Gareev. Though seeded second, he played his first-ever U.S. Championship game, taking black against fellow newbie GM Marc Arnold.
Gareev had no problem dispatching his younger opponent, as there were too many open lines aiming at white’s king. Arnold had the disadvantage of writing a final African Studies paper shortly before his round. He also said he has not played competitively since August, 2012, and he was rusty. “I didn’t expect to play this badly,” Arnold said. “I just played like a disaster.”
Gareev, whose recent regimen includes yoga and meditation, said, “I have this vision for this championship of just winning, winning, game after game.” He missed the pretty 14…Ng3+, which decimates white’ king, but even so he only needed nine more moves to force resignation. “I need to practice my tactics muscle,” Gareev joked.
Also winning in round one was GM Larry Christiansen, who defeated yet another rookie, Yaacov Norowitz. Recent U.S. Chess Hall of Famer GM Gregory Kaidanov, still seeking his first U.S. title, won against FM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun, who hung a piece in time pressure. “I was nervous obviously,” Sammour-Hasbun said about playing in his first championship in more than a decade and a half. “I think losing may be the best thing that happens to me. After losing you have to go all-out.”
The other six games in the U.S. Championship ended drawn, including the all-GM matchups Alex Onischuk-Joel Benjamin, Robert Hess-Ben Finegold, Alexander Ivanov-Ray Robson, and Varuzhan Akobian-Melik Khachiyan.
Two non-grandmasters held GMs to draws – 12-year-old Sam Sevian against GM Alejandro Ramirez, and FM John Bryant, who pushed for 130 moves but conceded the split to former champion GM Yury Shulman.
With five spirited opening games, the four decisive results in the U.S. Women’s Championship came as no surprise, and the drawn game may have been the most exciting.
First to finish was WGM Camilla Baginskaite, who weathered the storm created by WIM Viktorija Ni’s thunderous 13…Ndxe5! The resulting king walk showed bravery, and eventually Ni cashed in her chips to reach an equal ending with a meaningless extra pawn.
The next game to finish was no less dramatic. WGMs Anna Zatonskih and Anjelina Belakovskaia, who have won seven titles combined, represented the battle between women who dominated in two different decades. Zatonskih’s 2000s were as good as Belakovskaia’s 1990s, but the two had never faced each other before this encounter.
With each woman in severe time pressure, having only one minute plus increment remaining for 21 more moves, a wild queen sacrifice left the commentators flummoxed. The smoke cleared quickly, as Zatonskih returned her lady, only to push her pawn to force a new one. The simplification earned the win.
Also winning was IM Irina Krush, who chastised herself for allowing her advantage to simmer for more than 80 moves before defeating WFM Alena Kats. Fellow WGMs and Olympiad teammates Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabina Foisor, the third and fourth seeds respectively, played a close struggle before Abrahamyan squeaked out a rook-and-pawn nail biter.
WIM Iryna Zenyuk survived an early onslaught from WFM Sarah Chiang that began with 15…Qd4. “I know about this idea but I forgot about it during the game,” Zenyuk said. Despite Chiang’s queen, rook and two bishops all aiming at white’s king, Zenyuk fought back the attack and invaded Chiang’s own king later in the game, forcing resignation.
For round two, the winners play the winners in the U.S. Championship, while the women continue their round-robin. Tune in to see who makes it to 2-0, and who crawls back into contention. Live games and grandmaster commentary will be streaming at www.uschesschamps.com daily at 1:00 p.m. Central, 2:00 p.m. Eastern.