Halls Of Fame Swell As U.S. Champs Adds Luster To Jewel Box

Halls Of Fame Swell As U.S. Champs Adds Luster To Jewel Box

| 6 | Chess Event Coverage

Hall of famers have been coming to St. Louis for years, they just didn't know it at the time. Longtime U.S. Championship commentator GM Maurice Ashley and five-time champion (four times in the Gateway City) GM Gata Kamsky were both inducted in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame Wednesday night.

The honor doubled as the opening ceremony to the 2016 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship.

In addition, three famous players had their plaques hung at the World Chess Hall of Fame posthumously -- GM David Bronstein, Howard Staunton, and Sonja Graf-Stevenson. You can read more about them in our previous article, which announced their nomination.

The city's iconic Forest Park hosted the presentations and speeches. More specifically, the "Jewel Box" was used for the first time by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (no small feat considering it's been producing the event since 2009). The Jewel Box was built in 1936 and was the world's first "hail-proof" greenhouse -- all of the glass is perpendicular to the ground, with lateral surfaces made of metal. So unless it hails sideways, the glass remains intact; it has a perfect record since being built (something chess players can never claim).

Before we discuss who drew which lot and the matchups for round one, let's give two men their due.

In professional baseball, you have to be retired for five years to make the hall of fame. Kamsky showed that's not so in chess! Well, actually he called himself "retired" to afterward, then when asked about the numerous recent Swiss events he's played, he allowed, "Well, OK, semi-retired." He was referring to no longer competing for the world title or likely for the national team.

Hall of Famer: GM Gata Kamsky.

He said when he got the call, he felt a "complex" series of feelings. 

"It was very nice," Kamsky told "I was surprised. I sort of retired. I can understand their thinking. I don't see myself competing for the highest title anymore."

Last year, GM Alex Shabalov was inducted and predicted (correctly!) that he had not played in his last U.S. Championship. I asked Kamsky to make a similar Babe-Ruth-type prediction. Did he have another title in him?

He paused, smiled, chose his words carefully and said, "Let's be realistic."

Despite the guarded hopes, Kamsky was eager to see how things play out this year. In several past title runs, he said he was disappointed that the younger generation had not taken over yet.

"The changing of the guard is the theme of the recent championships," he said (this year is the strongest in history). "Now, I'm the guard."

Ashley gave a longer speech and became emotional at several mentions. Enshrined mostly due to his teaching and promotion efforts, but also his achievement in becoming the first African-American grandmaster, he focused on the people that got him to the podium.

GM Maurice Ashley accepts his plaque from U.S. Chess Trust Chairman Harold Winston.

First he recounted his beginnings sparring against park players in Brooklyn. Ashley had to collect himself when his list got to his friend, the late FM Ron Simpson (a past U.S. Chess League teammate of this author).

He added some family details that gave background to where he came from, including another near-tear moment when he reminisced about his mother leaving him in Jamaica at the age of two to go off in search of work in America (she was gone for 10 years before they were permanently reunited, settling in Brooklyn).

While Ashley didn't quite cry during the speech, he did when he found out he'd be honored.

"I've never been a truly great chess player," he said. "I've just been chess's biggest superfan."

He said that chess made him the "rose that grew through the cracks in the concrete."

GM Maurice Ashley's family all came to see his induction. Left to right are his daughter, mother, and sister.

Ashley is an engaged sports fan, and the idea of being in one's chosen profession's hall of fame was extra-gratifying for him. Fittingly, the bestowal came just a few hours after another giant ended his playing days. Later that night, Lakers forward Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points on the Jazz to end his career (many readers of these pages would have liked hearing Ashley's commentary as Bryant made repeated jump shots in the closing minutes).

Back to the chess tournaments, there are several storylines worth watching: 

  • GM Fabiano Caruana transferred back to the U.S. just after last year's event, so he'll be competing for the first time.
  • Defending champion GM Hikaru Nakamura and Shabalov will both be gunning for their fifth titles, in an attempt to get equal with Kamsky.
  • How will Nakamura and Caruana play after their mutual inability to win the Candidates'?
  • GM Wesley So will be playing his first championship since the scoresheet debacle in 2015.
  • Two first-timers and the two youngest players, world's youngest 2600 GM Jeffery Xiong and IM Akshat Chandra, will be looking to become long-term participants (how is GM Ray Robson already playing his ninth championship?).
  • Will one of the three players in their 40s take the title, or someone in their 20s or younger (GM Varuzhan Akobian is the only thirty-something in the field!).

Number one in the U.S. and taking lot number one. Is it a sign for GM Fabiano Caruana?

IM Akshat Chandra (left) and GM Jeffery Xiong await their first moves in the U.S. Championship. The two are the youngest in the open field.

GM Hikaru Nakamura will use the help of longtime second Kris Littlejohn in trying to defend his title.

One additional note about the champion's preparation, or perhaps relaxation. Prior to the evening's festivities, Nakamura played an eight-hour, 283 game bullet match on with Canadian GM Eric Hansen. He won 234.5-48.5, although that means losing 50 rating points!

"I can't feel my hand anymore," Hansen said during the match. He said it took him 222 games to finally flag the U.S. Champion. Want to train like Nakamura? Check out the entire "preparation" session here in the videos section.

And on the women's side:

  • Can defending champion GM Irina Krush (seven wins) get one closer to Gisela Gresser's record of nine U.S. Women's Championships?
  • How will IM Anna Zatonskih fare in her return after missing last year?
  • An even bigger youth movement: there are no fewer than five girls aged 16 or under!

The four teens and one preteen! Right to left beginning with flowered dress: WIM Agata Bykovtsev (16); NM Carissa Yip (12); WFM Jennifer Yu (14); WIM Ashritha Eswaran (15); WIM Akshita Gorti (13).

And the veteran: Seven-time champion (and winner of four consecutive) GM Irina Krush.

Players drew lots from mini-jewel boxes, which most of them couldn't open! After many failed attempts, some just gave their box to emcee WGM Jennifer Shahade to open.

Call in the arbiter! Actually it wasn't IA Carol Jarecki (center) who had the locksmith touch, but rather two-time U.S. Women's Champion WGM Jennifer Shahade (right).

By the time GM Alex Lenderman came up to select a box, he didn't even try. Lenderman simply picked up his choice, and handed it to Shahade without even a perfunctory attempt!

Pairings for round one in the U.S. Championship will be: Caruana-Akobian; Shankland-Chandra; So-Kamsky; Nakamura-Lenderman; Shabalov-Robson; Onischuk-Xiong.

In the U.S. Women's Championship, they will be: Abrahamyan-Bykovtsev; Yu-Eswaran; Yip-Gorti; Paikidze-Zatonskih; Nemcova-Krush; Foisor-Melekhina.

The tournament opens tomorrow, April 14, at 1:00 p.m. local time.

2016 U.S. Championship | Participants

# Name Title Rating Residence Age
1 Fabiano Caruana Grandmaster 2795 Saint Louis, MO 23
2 Hikaru Nakamura Grandmaster 2787 New York, NY 28
3 Wesley So Grandmaster 2773 Minnetonka, MN 22
4 Gata Kamsky Grandmaster 2678 Brooklyn, NY 41
6 Alex Onischuk Grandmaster 2664 Lubbock, TX 40
5 Ray Robson Grandmaster 2663 Saint Louis, MO 21
7 Sam Shankland Grandmaster 2656 Orinda, CA 24
8 Jeffery Xiong Grandmaster 2618 Coppell, TX 15
9 Alex Lenderman Grandmaster 2618 Brooklyn, NY 26
10 Varuzhan Akobian Grandmaster 2615 North Hollywood, CA 32
11 Alexander Shabalov Grandmaster 2528 Pittsburgh, PA 48
12 Akshat Chandra International Master 2477 Iselin, NJ 16

2016 U.S. Championship (Women) | Participants

# Name Title Rating Residence Age
1 Anna Zatonskih International Master 2470 Hartsdale, NY 37
2 Irina Krush Grandmaster 2465 Brooklyn, NY 32
4 Katerina Nemcova Women's Grandmaster 2367 Saint Louis, MO 25
5 Nazi Paikidze International Master 2346 Baltimore, MD 22
3 Tatev Abrahamyan Women's Grandmaster 2342 Glendale, CA 28
6 Sabina-Francesca Foisor Women's Grandmaster 2258 Lubbock, TX 26
12 Ashritha Eswaran Women's International Master 2225 San Jose, CA 15
11 Agata Bykovtsev Women's International Master 2219 Goleta, CA 16
8 Alisa Melekhina FIDE Master 2205 New York, NY 24
10 Akshita Gorti Women's International Master 2184 Chantilly, VA 13
7 Carissa Yip National Master 2164 Andover, MA 12
9 Jennifer Yu Women's FIDE Master 2157 Ashburn, VA 14
FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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