Pre-tourney favorites pull ahead at U.S. Championships

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Pre-tournament favorites and former winners Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky are sharing the lead after three rounds at the U.S. Championships in Saint Louis, USA. In this first report we focus on the men's event and give you the daily reports by FM Mike Klein. 

Round 2: Ray Robson vs Gata Kamsky, who is defending his title in Saint Louis

EventU.S. ChampionshipsPGN via TWIC
DatesMay 8th-20th, 2012
LocationSaint Louis, USA
System12-player round robin

Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Alexander Onischuk, Yasser Seirawan, Robert Hess, Varuzhan Akobian, Ray Robson, Gregory Kaidanov, Alejandro Ramirez, Aleksandr Lenderman, Yury Shulman, Alexander Stripunsky

Rate of play40 moves in 90 minutes followed by 30 minutes to finish the game, with a 30-second increment from move 1

Videos by Macauley Peterson

By FM Mike Klein

Round 1

There were running starts and standing starts and very little in between to open the 2012 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship. All but three games in the events produced a decisive result. The tournaments are being hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for the fourth consecutive year.

In a turn of the unexpected, the grandmasters in the U.S. Championship played more provocative chess than their female counterparts. Their early imbalanced positions meant the first three games to finish came from their event.

The first result shocked everyone. GM Alex Stripunsky overlooked a simple capture on move 11 and resigned immediately against GM Alexander Onischuk. According to U.S. Championship statistical guru Ed Gonsalves, the game was the third shortest to produce a winner since the modern tournament began in 1936. Onischuk felt some of his playing partner's chagrin and was disappointed with the way he won. “We are really good friends, and I feel sorry for him,” Onischuk said. Several other players offered various possible reasons for the blunder, but at the end they were simply left guessing. Onischuk took a walk with Stripunsky afterward but could only speculate on whether Stripunsky could recover mentally. “It depends on the personality,” he said. “Some people will never recover.” The loss is particularly handicapping for Stripunsky, as he squanders one of the cherished opportunities with the white pieces. Onischuk's good fortune allowed him to be the only player to win as black in either championship.

Top-seeded GM Hikaru Nakamura scored the second point of the day by converting an opening advantage against GM Robert Hess. Nakamura skipped last year's championship and came prepared this time, opening with 1. e4 and making his unsuspecting opponent think on move one. Hess took three minutes before playing his usual 1...e5 but the next surprise lurked only a few moves later when Nakamura played 4. b4, the Evans Gambit, an opening only a shade younger than the incorporation of Saint Louis as a city.

“I just felt like trying something new,” Nakamura said. “It's almost like when [Nakamura] plays 1. e4, you know he's got something up his sleeve,” said Jennifer Shahade, one of the two on-air commentators. Nakamura questioned 9...Ba3, which was only played one other time in 1967. Hess was attempting to free his light-squared bishop and give back his extra pawn, but Nakamura suggested 9...b6 as a possible improvement. Hess said he was weary of playing a more topical variation against the Evans, especially since he had not studied the opening in a long time. He added that while his 12-page college paper analyzing the writings of Jorge Luis Borges was turned in prior to the game, that was not an excuse for his theoretical shortcoming. “Nakamura is so hard to prepare for anyway,” Hess said. “I lost because he completely outplayed me.”

Defending champion GM Gata Kamsky finished next, besting tournament newcomer GM Alejandro Ramirez. Kamsky played in the style that has allowed him to elude defeat for the past several U.S. Championships. “My style of play is called constrictor,” Kamsky said. “I'm a great admirer of (former World Champion Tigran) Petrosian. He came up with that style of play.” With Ramirez's backward pawn on d6 sitting helplessly, Kamsky marshaled all of his pieces into position, then pushed a pawn one square on the edge of the board. The move was cunning in its subtlety, and Ramirez admitted that he could not find a good move afterward.

In other round one action, two of the younger players squared off. GM Alex Lenderman played the most attacking-minded game against GM Ray Robson. He got a pawn to f7 early, opened the file his opponent's king sat on, and jettisoned a piece into the foray to gain time for the whirlwind. Robson complicated the issue by walking his king to f6, an unexpected maneuver for Lenderman. “It's such an unusual idea,” Lenderman said. “I just didn't see it. I kind of underestimated it.

“I was actually trying to steer the game away from dynamic complications, but Ray went for it, so I had to. I'm a little surprised I won this game.” Robson survived until the endgame, when Lenderman claimed he won by a single tempo.

In their first-ever meeting, GM Varuzhan Akobian and GM Yasser Seirawan faced each other. The two are at opposite ends of their chess careers. Akobian is seeking his fist U.S. Championship title and a return to qualifying for the U.S. national team, while Seirawan already has a handful of titles and has returned after a long layoff to play in the tournament for the second straight year. Like 2011, he got off to a slow start, as Akobian edged him out today. “Somehow I was slipping, and I just couldn't stop slipping,” Seirawan said. Akobian's pieces overwhelmed his opponent's, but the timing of when to convert his activity into a material advantage was crucial. “I was better,” Akobian said. “But you never know if you win the pawn, if you're going to win the game.” Still, his position was devoid of risk, and allowed him to ease his way into the tournament. “I was definitely enjoying the position.”

GMs Yury Shulman and Gregory Kaidanov played a see-saw affair that ended in the only draw of the championship. “I'm sure Yury was worse,” Kaidanov said. “I just couldn't find ...” and the end of his sentence was as elusive as the clinching move of the game.

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Round 2

In the U.S. Championship, everyone now has a pocked record, leaving a collection of players leading with 1.5/2. Defending champion GM Gata Kamsky surprised everyone with the exceedingly rare 2...b6 in the Sicilian Defense. While he had played it before online, Kamsky decided only at the last minute to essay it over the board. “It's fun to play away from theory on the second move,” Kamsky said. His opponent, GM Ray Robson, was not aware of Kamsky's Internet repertoire, but was unfazed by the choice. He reasoned that if he played normally he should not be worse against such an obscure choice.

In the post-game analysis, Kamsky marveled at Robson's analytical celerity. “This guy is really good at tactics,” Kamsky said. After 24...Ra8, Kamsky said he initially did not see Robson's king oscillation between b1 and c1, which is the only way to hold the draw. The last try for an advantage was 24...Bxe4, which simultaneously wins a pawn and brings a much-needed piece to the defense of Kamsky's king.

GM Hikaru Nakamura, widely considered Kamsky's biggest hurdle to winning three championships in a row, also drew. GM Alejandro Ramirez had his pressure on f7 quickly rebuffed, then scrambled after Nakamura's knight infiltrated to the center. “I kind of underestimated his position,” Ramirez said. “After ...Nd4 my position sucked ... my time management was atrocious.”

Now with better prospects, Nakamura spent a lot of time prior to 27...f5, believing that his opponent could unearth the inventive resource 28. Qd1 Re7 29. exf5 Rxe1 30. Qxe1 Bxg2 31. Bxd4, followed by a queen invasion on e6 to hold the balance by either continuously checking or grabbing a handful of pawns. During the game, Ramirez assumed Nakamura had something up his sleeve in the variation, and instead pitched the exchange to reduce the pressure. It worked, as his dark-square pressure was enough to prise Nakamura's king out in the open for a draw by repetition.

Also on 1.5/2 is GM Robert Hess, who bided his time in an uncomfortable position against GM Yasser Seirawan until the tactic 18...Rxg4 appeared. Hess presumed Seirawan simply overlooked the pin to the rook on h1. While still not without pressure, the worse was then behind him. “I misplayed the opening as per usual,” Hess said. “I didn't remember the line very well." Seirawan's loss was his second in a row.

GM Gregory Kaidanov also has a win and a draw, as his active pieces created too many problems for the luckless GM Alex Stripunsky. Kaidanov's bishops, knights and rook harassed the enemy queen relentlessly unless she had to be given up. Kaidanov later offered his own queen in return to achieve the notorious outside passed pawn, which duly marched to victory.

GM Varuzhan Akobian used nearly all of his time in the opening, at one point only keeping six minutes with a 30-second increment for the next 23 moves. “I made all logical moves – in principle it should be better for me,” a frustrated Akobain said. “I'm not happy with my play today.” GM Yury Shulman tried all he could to keep the position complicated to stress Akobian, but had to settle for a static position that allowed his opponent to make easy choices and hold the draw. The split point also gets Akobian to 1.5/2.

In the day's only battle of first-round winners, GMs Alex Onsichuk and Alex Lenderman played an exciting draw that also got them both to 1.5/2.

The lack of perfection means that no player will win the $64,000 Fischer prize for a perfect score. Fischer was the only person to achieve the feat, scoring a perfect 11-0 in 1963.

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Round 3

The bell curve of scores began to take shape after today's round three of the 2012 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship. With six of the 11 games pitting first-time opponents against each other, a lot of unknowns preluded the afternoon. The top two rated players pulled ahead in both competitions, with one surprising party crasher in the women's tournament.

The ascent of GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Gata Kamsky, who are joint leaders with 2.5/3, took divergent yet typical paths. Nakamura used investigative research of a topical variation that led to a swashbuckling game. Kamsky avoided a rigorous theoretical test and slowly took over the board with his bishops. A chess fan could probably guess which player was which without even seeing the names attached to the games.

Nakamura played 1. e4 for the second time in the championship, and hoped to steer his match with GM Ray Robson into a prepared line. Repeating the moves of an earlier Robson game from this year's Aeroflot Open, Nakamura unleashed a powerful kingside attack in the Yugoslav Dragon, an opening Robson plays frequently. “I've played the Dragon quite a bit recently with both colors,” Nakamura said. “I figured it would lead to a sharp position and there's certainly play for both sides, but I just felt this suited my style a bit more.”

Robson had not focused as much on 1.e4 during his preparation. “I wasn't sure what to do against 1. e4 because all of the lines I thought about, somehow there are some small holes I thought [Nakamura] could play into,” he said. His prescience proved accurate. Robson was forced to invest a small amount of material to quash the h-file invasions. He then became resourceful in his counterplay given his limited material. Nakamura's king hiked up the board to avoid the relentless checking, and in a study-like position he allowed Robson to promote to a queen. But as is often the case, a friendly knight shielded any further checks and soon Robson's chances were exhausted, forcing him to resign.

For the defending champion Kamsky, no such bravery was needed to beat third-seeded GM Alex Onischuk. In only his second win ever against him (the first was during the quad finals of the 2010 Championship), Kamsky used the London System, an opening rare at professional levels due to its benign reputation. Eventually he acquired the two bishops, or the “mini exchange” as GM Garry Kasparov once termed it. In the final position, Kamsky can deftly avoid the threats to his own king by trading queens on d7, whereupon his pawn becomes unstoppable. Onischuk has the burden of playing the other frontrunner, Nakamura, tomorrow. Earlier in the tournament, GM Alejandro Ramirez also had the daunting one-two punch, scoring one loss and one draw.

Looking ahead, Nakamura and Kamsky are slated to meet in round 10.

GMs Alex Lenderman and Gregory Kaidanov, two of the lowest-rated players in the tournament (and for Kaidanov, the oldest), continued their unbeaten ways with a 30-move draw agreement, which is the shortest allowed under the rules. They both sit on 2/3 and are in a tie for second. Lenderman had a second consecutive rook and bishop ending. “In the end I feel like I was lucky to draw,” Kaidanov said. He added that ignorance is bliss when it comes to others' perception of his play. “I try to forget about the outside world when I play in tournaments ... I don't think about what other people think about my play. I think this is the most important part of being a chess player.”

Lenderman claimed he was not at his best, but for a reason not heard much in chess circles. “I felt like I wasn't seeing the board clearly today; I think I overprepared,” he said, adding that he planned to study less for the next games.

Joining Lenderman and Kaidanov with two points was GM Yury Shulman, the only player of that trio to have won a U.S. Championship. Shulman squeezed the veteran GM Yasser Seirawan, who is still without any points.

GM Alex Stripunsky earned his first win, springing the unpredictable piece sacrifice 10. h4 and beating GM Varuzhan Akobian, thus puncturing Akobian's chances of a first championship. Stripunsky said he is recovered from his first-round blunder. “I fought back, and I am OK now.”

Young GMs Robert Hess and Alejandro Ramirez drew in their first matchup ever, not counting a quick draw at last year's Thanksgiving Open in Saint Louis.

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U.S. Championships 2012 | Round 3 Standings


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