January 6, 2011 was a day I will remember well for a long time. I was currently playing in the Berkeley International, and I needed half a point from my next 2 games for my final GM norm. Although that day I lost to GM Erenburg and it wasn’t until the next day that I secured the norm, the 6th was the day that I received my official invitation to the 2011 US Championship, along with all the official information regarding the format, prize structure, and dates. I pushed it aside for the moment, still unsure of my intentions to participate or my intentions with chess at all in the near future; I was just 3 games away from finishing off my last pending contract. I pushed the envelope really far, waiting until the last possible moment to decide, but ultimately I felt optimistic enough about chess in general that I thought getting my butt kicked by the best players in the country when I should be studying for finals would be a wonderful thing to do, prompting me to write the following short note to Tony Rich, the executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis:
This may be the biggest mistake of my life, but I accept the invitation and I will get the contract to you asap.
And his response came within the hour:
Lol - it may also be the best decision of your life - you're on fire lately! Glad to hear you can join us, and I'll see you soon.
If only I had any idea then just how right Tony was…
Wednesday, April 13th at some horrible hour…
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!
OH SHUT UP YOU ALARM CLOCK ITS LIKE 4AM!
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!
Ugh, guess I should get dressed and make my flight. The next few hours I was a walking zombie, not sure what I was doing, why I was doing it, where I was, who I was, or anything of the sort. But somehow I ended up at the Chase Park Plaza, greeted by the ever-smiley Tatev Abrahamyan in the lobby. It had only been 9 months since I had last been there, winning the US Junior Championship, but somehow it felt like a lifetime ago. I was expecting to feel nervous coming back into the strongest event of the year, and the strongest US Championship in American History, but really I felt relaxed, like I was at home.
I wasn’t expecting much from the tournament, I just figured it would be fun and would give me some perspective on how I was feeling about playing chess with the big boys. I knew there was very little to lose, so the pressure would really be on my opponents' shoulders rather than mine. And it was really nice to see some of my chess friends again, they don’t sniff out my oddities as well as “normal” people do. After a very agreeable opening ceremony which included hanging out with my virtual twin sister, watching a 10 year-old rap phenom perform live, and listening to speeches by the mayor of Saint Louis and other esteemed figures, it was time to prepare for my first game- White against GM Robert Hess, one of the other top young American talents. Ironically, I played black against him in round 1 of the 2010 US Championship and horribly miscalculated and lost a much better position, so I was in the mood for some revenge. It was one of the wildest games I have played in recent memory, ending with a perpetual check, and I refuse to annotate it because to fully understand what is going on would take much more time than I care to put in!
I was somewhat disappointed with the result, feeling that I had a nice position but was unable to convert it into a win. However, there was no time to mope around because up next was black against Kaidanov, one of the top American players and coaches for longer than I’ve been alive- Surely a very difficult pairing. However, while the game was supposed to be very difficult, Kaidanov had an off day and it was actually pretty easy.
After being the recipient of a gift (18 move victory in one of my three black games), I realized that I should try to make something of it. GM Larry Christiansen was the only player to have won both of his games, and he was sitting in clear first with myself and second-seeded GM Alexander Onischuk half a point behind on 1.5/2. And, as fate would have it, I got the white pieces against Larry in round 3. He seemed a bit unsure of what his plan should be, and ultimately I found myself in a perfect situation- I had a better position that was easier to play, with 0 chance to lose. LarryC is a very good player, but passive defense has never been his strong point- he has always been an aggressive player who thrives on complications. With the white bishops ravaging the open board, he eventually cracked under the pressure and allowed a decisive penetration.
I had struggled with the US Championship in the past, so it was a very new and very pleasant feeling to be in clear first. My next game was another gift, as Yasser Seirawan, a multi-time US Champion and one of the most accomplished players in the tournament, was unable to break down my solid system and I achieved an effortless draw with the black pieces. However, while things were going great, setbacks were soon to come.
I have beaten just about all of the top GMs in America, and I had decent scores against them in the long run too. Some I have even score, some +1, some –1, etc etc. However, there are a few top American players where the score is really unbalanced, and one of them is GM Alex Shabalov. Shabba had been really having a rough time so far and only had 1 from 4, two full points behind me, and he lost a couple really miserable games. However, just like every other game we play these days, I had white, and I lost like a baby. This time, the culprit was being too anxious to punish an unfamiliar opening that looked dubious at first sight, but entering the sharpest possible variations knowing that I would be playing against Houdini for awhile was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
The next game was no better, as I blew a much better position against the GM-in-residence Ben Finegold, letting him escape with a draw.
Only scoring one point from my last three games, I had let a very dangerous opponent catch up with me in GM Onischuk, and ironically we were slated to play in the final round. Hess had already clinched first in the division, so Onischuk and I had to duke it out to see who would take the second spot in the semifinals.
However, I got another stroke of good fortune- the night before that last game, a very tired Norwegian came knocking. Upon opening the door, I was delighted to see the face of GM Jon Ludvig Hammer, my training partner. He had planned his trip to Saint Louis as a vacation- after I got eliminated, we would hang out, go shopping, play tourist for a week while the semifinalists were fighting it out. However, he decided to help me for my round 7 game, and his help and new opening idea was invaluable. My opponent got absolutely nothing from the opening as white, and I was even slightly better toward the end but I decided not to press it because I thought Onischuk could probably defend without too much trouble and the risk-reward benefit wasn’t right- a blunder would cost me a spot in the world cup. With peace being agreed after 30 moves, I had to prepare to fight him again the very next day in a tiebreak minimatch.
$7,000 is a pretty high stakes for a 2-game rapid match, and this was the minimum prize differential among the second and third place finishers in the group. However, I did not feel that much pressure. Holding the draw with black extremely easily the previous day had helped give me the confidence I needed, and my routine stayed largely the same- a lot of prep, but still a lot of sleep as well and a nice excursion to my favorite bagel shop for breakfast. Once the action started, little could make me lose my cool as the first rapid game was another repeat of what had happened so often throughout the event- I made a very easy draw with black, and I even could have had an edge if I had found the right move at one point.
In game 2 I would have white, and if that was a draw we would go to Armageddon. I had been working on the f3 Nimzo with Hammer earlier in the year when I was helping him in Corus B and the Aeroflot Open, so it only seemed natural to play it here, when Onischuk couldn’t possibly expect it. Although I achieved some edge out of the opening, a sharp sequence led to an equal position where I had three very healthy pawns for a piece. However, Onischuk overestimated his chances, even spurning a chance at repeating moves, and once the pawns got rolling his demise was imminent.
So much for Hammer’s big vacation plan! In a fairy-tale sort of way, I had made it to the semifinals, and now I would face… The top seed. GM Gata Kamsky, rated 2733 FIDE and #15 in the world, who would be off to play the candidates' matches for the World Championship just 2 weeks later. In the first game I was to have white, and I tried as hard as I could to lose in 20 moves by mixing up my variations and allowing a temporary knight sacrifice. However, when the 'lose-in-twenty-moves' plan failed, I ended up with an extra piece in the endgame for 2 pawns. However, I didn’t react too well to the change of pace, and I wasn’t able to pose Kamsky any serious problems.
The second game I had black, and while the opening went fine, very quickly I started to go astray. I made a very bad choice to trade queens (Qc7 was prudent and black should be fine) and I ended up having to passively defend a miserable endgame. I played it poorly, and had to kiss my chances to win the US Championship goodbye as Kamsky effortlessly put me away.
However, despite being out of contention for first place, the tournament was far from over. The match for third place, with a $5000 prize fund going solely to the winner, had to be played. Hess had succumbed to Yury Shulman in the Semifinals, so he would be my adversary. The first game was going really well for me, until I played the overly patient 17. Rac1?! When 17. Nb3! Should have been preferred- transferring the knight to c6 would leave white with a clear edge. Soon the game got very messy, and when the smoke cleared I actually had to find some accurate moves to maintain the balance. However, I managed.
The final slow game of the tournament to me was the same story as so many others were before- My opponent got nothing with white and had to succumb to giving me an easy draw.
The match being tied 1-1 meant that we had to go into a playoff, and in a different format than the previous one- a strange Armageddon system where there is a silent auction to see who is willing to play with the least amount of time to have black and draw odds against white’s 45 minutes. Robert and I had drawn our last 4 games, and moreover I had held draws in my 2 black games using a combined total of negative 2 minutes on them as in both games Robert entered sharp variations where I had some new ideas that forced complete equality.
I bid 20 minutes, but to my shock Robert had perfectly predicted my bid and had bid 19 minutes and 55 seconds! I had expected bidding such a small amount of time would get me the black pieces so I did most of my prep for black, but now I suddenly had to play white. Robert had a couple issues with the Catalan from our regulation game, but I figured he must have prepared it and decided to go with the f3 Nimzo again, looking for a sharp position where the extra 25 minutes on my clock would really matter. I got exactly the kind of position I wanted, and with Robert having very little time he made a couple inaccuracies, leading him to get blown off the board in less than 30 moves and ending my tournament with a third place finish. I refuse to annotate this game because I really liked it and it was a lot of fun and very dynamic, but if I have to be objective about all the moves I won’t be so thrilled with it… The one insight I will give is that black is in big trouble after 15. h4!
So, when all was said and done, I ended up with a third place finish, $20,000, and a spot in the World Cup. It was so much better than I ever could have expected or even imagined, but I also learned a lot from my minimatches with Kamsky and Onischuk and my prep sessions with Hammer—I started to understand what it takes to be a 2700 player. I know I’m not there yet or even close, but seeing what it took to play with them gave me a sense of what I needed to do to get to their level, and I don’t think it’s completely out of reach.