U.S. Chess Championship – Round Six

Usual suspects poised to advance to quad final, by FM Mike Klein

Saint Louis, May 19, 2010 – With one round to play before the field splits for the three-round quad finale, four of the top five seeds from the 2010 U.S. Championship have given themselves the best chance of qualifying.

An uneventful draw between the pre-round leaders and two decisive games on boards two and three have landed GM Gata Kamsky, GM Alex Onischuk, GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Yury Shulman atop the tables with 4.5/6. The four players, which comprised 80 percent of the last U.S. Olympiad Team, are all undefeated with three wins and three draws each.

Onischuk and Kamsky played for the fourth time in their careers and the result went the way of the previous three. The duo played a pedestrian game, though Kamsky tried to explain that he pressed a little. “We had opposite-colored bishops and his king was open,” he said. “I played …h6 and I was thinking, ‘Maybe (there are chances).’ I play this stuff as Black all the time. I know the nuances.”

Nakamura, entering the round for the first time not in first place, caught back up with an endgame swindle against GM Jesse Kraai. Most fans expected more of an aggressive opening system. “I played the Catalan,” Nakamura said. “Generally speaking that is a draw. I just felt like playing something simple rather than going for complications.” Nakamura fell behind on the clock for one of the first games in the event and became worried that Kraai’s celerity meant some home cooking. “I didn’t want to walk into anything,” Nakamura said.

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Jesse Kraai and Hikaru Nakamura interviewed by Jennifer Shahade, all photos courtesy of Betsy Dynako

Kraai said he simply missed the pin 26…Rc8, which offered better resistance. He claimed even before the wholesale trades Black should have played …a5 before White played it. “But okay, I can defend passive positions,” Kraai said. Understanding Nakamura’s reputation, Kraai said he did not feel comfortable crouching into a ball and defending for several hours.

Also winning to tie for the lead was Shulman, who beat GM Alex Stripunsky. Like Nakamura, Shulman won a rook-and-pawn endgame due to his more active rook.

GM Varuzhan Akobian, the fifth member of the Olympiad team, could not join the leaders. He played the longest game of the round but was unable to win with his extra pawn, despite GM Larry Christiansen’s claim that “Armenians have great endgame technique.” In one of the most studied endgames, GM Alex Yermolinsky was up to the task and held the draw without too much difficulty.

In addition to Kraai’s falter, another unlikely player doing well also had a slip in round six. IM Irina Krush lost to Christiansen. While her chances of making the quad are gone, she still has a lot to play for. With two out of her last three she will earn a grandmaster norm and she even has good chances with only 1.5 out of three.

Meanwhile Christiansen, with four out of six, still controls his own destiny. When told he would likely get White against one of the leaders, possibly Nakamura, Christiansen said, “I can live with that.” Commentator GM Maurice Ashley said that during his playing days he preferred to not be in that kind of situation. “You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to win in the last round,” Ashley said.

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GM Larry Christiansen pondering on his next move

So with the four players at 4.5 and Christiansen at 4, a group of players at 3.5 will need to win and some luck. That list includes GM Alex Shabalov, who defeated GM Gregory Kaidanov, GM Ben Finegold, who defeated GM Joel Benjamin, Akobian, Stripunsky and Yermolinsky.

The pivotal round seven match-ups include Shulman – Onischuk on board one, Christiansen – Nakamura on board two, Kamsky – Shabalov on board three, Kraai – Stripunsky on board four, Yermolinksy – Finegold on board five and Hess – Akobian on board six. Click here for a complete list of pairings and rankings.

Only one of these players will control his own destiny, as he will play someone in the 4.5 score group. Not everyone with 4.5 can be paired with each other for round seven since there have been too many head-to-head matchups already.

“I’ve reached a similar situation to last year where I’ve played everyone at the top,” Nakamura said. “I’ve been the wrong colors against the wrong people.” Nakamura seemed resigned to bad pairing luck going forward. “I’m pretty much expecting the worst,” he said.

The round featured three Grunfeld Defenses. Despite relatively good results for Black in the first five rounds, White won six of the eight decisive games in round six. This is the third round which featured eight winners. Overall, the championship has had a draw rate so far of 39 percent, up slightly from 2009, which was 34 percent.

Players with three points are officially eliminated from contention for the quad finals.

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GM Joel Benjamin moving

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Aleksandr Lenderman interviewed by Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley

Also winning was GM Robert Hess, who recovered from two straight losses. GM Aleksandr Lenderman got his first win of the tournament, beating GM Sergey Kudrin’s Grunfeld, which he has played for years, but which Ashley said is “like putting a target on your back.” Lenderman’s non-traditional 4. e3 he learned from an online video authored by none other than Benjamin, who actually beat Lenderman in round five. GM Vinay Bhat beat IM Sam Shankland.

The 2010 U.S. Chess Championship is open to the public and will feature Grandmaster commentary by GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade. Live Spectators can access the event by purchasing a membership to the CCSCSL, which costs just $5/month for students and $12/month for adults.

The championship quad finale will take place May 22-24 and will culminate with the $10,000 U.S. Championship Blitz Open at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 24, an event that will feature U.S. Championship competitors and some of the top players from across the country.

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Editor’s note:

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Round two report by FM Mike Klein

Round three report by FM Mike Klein

Round four report by FM Mike Klein

Round five report by FM Mike Klein

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