2009 US Championship

2009 US Championship

May 9, 2009, 12:00 AM |
8 | Chess Players

The 2009 U.S. Chess Championship is here-- in fact, as I'm finishing this preview, the second round is just getting started.

First things first, the games can be followed live at noon daily at http://saintlouischessclub.org/US-Championship-2009-Live

You can find pictures (and brief bios) of all the participants at http://saintlouischessclub.org/US-Championship-2009-Player-Bios

I wanted to briefly give a sense of last year's event, as the U.S. Championship has been a protean event in the last years. Last year's Championship was held in Tulsa Oklahoma, with the sponsorship of Frank Berry and significant organizational support from his twin Jim Berry and Tom Braunlich. The event had 24 players (down from 32 in 2007), with seven coming from an open qualifying event held two months before in Tulsa. Concurrently the U.S. Women's championship with 10 players was held at the same site. The championship had a prize fund of about 50 000.

Two obvious differences for this year's event are 1) no qualifying event 2) a $200 000 prize fund. There were still two way to qualify: a tournament of state champions, won in the finals by young IM Sam Shankland, the youngest ever state champion from California over another very young state champion, Mackenzie Molner of New Jersey; and the top finisher from the 2008 U.S. Open, IM Enrico Sevillano. However, both qualification methods were announced after relevant events had already been completed (so someone hoping to play in the U.S. Ch would not have known to participate in those events). The lack of qualifying spots translated to more spots invited based upon rating. The increased prize fund increased the number of top-rated players accepting their invitations. These two factors combine to make this year's event much tougher than last year's. The two top-rated players in the U.S., Gata Kamsky and Hikaru Nakamura both chose not to participate in the 2008 event. The top seeds were Alexander Onischuk and Yury Shulman. Yury was in great form and won the tournament, half a point ahead of Alexander. Here is one game of his which struck my imagination when I watched him play it. Decisive wins with the black pieces are a big deal in such closely-fought competitions:



This year both of those players are back as favorites, but the abovementioned GMs Kamsky and Nakamura are both there as well, making it harder to predict who will win the event. Other strong players returning to the event after skipping a couple years include: GM Larry Christiansen, GM Joel Benjamin, and GM Ildar Ibragimov. Incidentally, the USCF is running a "fantasy chess" competition for the U.S. Championship, in which we are supplied pairs of closely matched players (eg Kamsky vs Nakamura; Onischuk vs. Shulman) and have to predict which one will finish better, then rank those picks in terms of our confidence (more points assigned based on how high you rank the pick), plus answer the question of who will win. My answer: Alexander Onischuk.

Usually, I would not pick Onischuk as such a likely winner of a swiss event. Onischuk has a very solid and correct style-- he doesn't lose too many games, but he also does not win as large a percentage of games, especially with black. Swiss events are more often won by players with somewhat wilder styles, such as Nakamura and Shabalov. At some events they may finish poorly, but when they are on form, they are more likely to make a large score required to win such an event. But Onischuk's recent results have convinced me that he is ready to win the event this year (he has won a previous U.S. Championship, I'm not implying otherwise). He won first place in two large swiss events in the last two months: first the extremely strong Moscow Open and then the Mexican Open.

Another player I consider to be in very good form is Yury Shulman. Having won last year, he should be pretty confident that he can win the event, but he also had a very important recent victory: the Foxwoods Open in April. This tournament had a very strong field with players like Nakmura and Loek Van Wely, but Shulman shot out of the blocks with 5 straight wins and really dominated the event, though a couple draws allowed Sadvakasov to tie him at the end. His terrific score there brought his USCF rating over 2700. However, I still think Onischuk is a little bit stronger than him. Also, since the whole field is so strong this year, I think that the scores will be a bit tigher, favoring Onischuk's solid, no losing style. Here's another Shulman game, a good one from his Foxwoods run to show his current form:



I know two other players who recently won tournaments as lead-up to the US Ch and should also be in very good form. #6 seed Julio Becerra recently won a tournament in the Dominican Republic with a good score of 7.5/9 that might have gained him enough points to move to #5 in the U.S. Readers of his Wednesday column here will probably be rooting for the friendly Florida GM.

Also, our new video author (and a personal friend) GM Josh Friedel, after a very solid performance at Foxwoods where he drew Nakamura and beat Akobian, won the Toronto Open with a 5-0 score. This should give Josh, seeded number 14, some confidence to aim for the top. Last year at the U.S. Championship he had a great result, tying for fourth place and earning his final Grandmaster Norm. Just one year later, he returns a much stronger player, and I think he could hope to improve on that result, even though the field is *much* stronger. Here is one of his games from Toronto (note that he analyzes part of this game in his video lecture: http://www.chess.com/video/player/how-not-to-play-in-your-opponents-time-trouble-1 ) :



Of course, Kamsky and Nakamura are also serious favorites to win the event. Gata is definitely the strongest American player right now. However, his most recent result, 6/13 at the Fide Grand Prix in Nalchik did not give me the feeling that he was in the best shape to win this tournament. My take is that, though that performance is quite strong, someone who has just won a weaker event will have more confidence than someone who has finished at the middle of such a strong event. Also, I would say that the field is just so strong overall that I don't think anyone player has a huge chance of winning it. I picked Onischuk, but I would give him about a 15% chance to win the event. With so many strong players though, one thing is for sure... we are in for some really great games! I'm looking forward to watching, and I'll be sharing some highlights in my blog throughout the event.

Who do you think will win the event?

Here are a few fantasy U.S. Championship picks I made:

Friedel over Hess (betting 12 points): Hess is also in great form, having made two GM norms in the last two months. So he definitely has the potential to do great at this event. I just think Josh is in really good form as well, and has performed well in an event of this strength before. I expect Hess to do quite well, but Josh to do something special.

Shankland over Robson (betting 10 points): I think right now Sam is the stronger player. Simple as that. I have nothing but good things to say about the youngest player in the competition 14 year old IM Ray Robson. And with the Samford Fellowship, his current level, and so much time ahead of him, he is probably currently the #1 prospect in the U.S. for another 2700 fide player. But right now, I'd expect the "older" 17 year old IM Shankland to defeat him in a match or to collect more points in a tournament.

Onischuk over Shulman (betting 9 points): my reasons were detailed above, and hey, I picked him to win the tournament, so I have to be consistent. Probably I should have put this as my 10 point pick and Shankland as my 9 point pick.

Alright, I'm off to watch the games!

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