U.S. Championships: three rounds played in St. Louis

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
U.S. Championships started in St. LouisThe 2011 U.S. Championships took off on Friday in St. Louis. The tournament has two surprise leaders after three rounds, with Sam Shankland topping the preliminary B group of the men's section and Sabina-Francesca Foisor in first place in the women's section.

GM Larry Christiansen watches opponent GM Yasser Seirawan in round 2 | Photo © St. Louis Chess Club

General info

The 2011 U.S. Championship and 2011 U.S. Women's Championship take place April 14-28 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Live show

The games of the Championships can be followed live here. Like last year, there's a daily live show with GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade, produced by Macauley Peterson. On-demand replays from prior rounds are available on the videos page.
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2011 U.S. Championship

The 2011 U.S. Championship format features a preliminary stage with two round robins of eight players each. Once the dust settles, the top two players in each round robin will advance to a four-player knockout. These semifinal and final matches will consist of two games each.

Round Robin 1 Round Robin 2
No. First Name Last Name FIDE Rating No. First Name Last Name FIDE Rating
1. Gata Kamsky 2733 1. Alexander Onischuk 2678
2. Yury Shulman 2622 2. Yasser Seirawan 2636
3. Varuzhan Akobian 2611 3. Alexander Shabalov 2590
4. Jaan Ehlvest 2586 4. Larry Christiansen 2586
5. Alexander Stripunsky 2578 5. Gregory Kaidanov 2569
6. Alexander Ivanov 2540 6. Robert Hess 2565
7. Ray Robson 2522 7. Sam Shankland 2512
8. Daniel Naroditsky 2438 8. Ben Finegold 2500
Average Rating 2578.75 Average Rating 2579.5

2011 U.S. Women's Championship

The 2011 U.S. Women’s Championship format will feature a preliminary round robin with eight players. The top four players will advance to a four-player knockout. The semi-finals and finals will consist of two game matches. The players are IM Anna Zatonskih, IM Irina Krush, IM Rusadan Goletiani, WGM Camilla Baginskaite, WIM Tatev Abrahamyan, WIM Sabina Foisor, FM Alisa Melekhina and WIM Iryna Zenyuk.

Report rounds 1-3

By FM Mike Klein

Round 1 The first round of the 2011 U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship concluded late Friday night at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. A scattering of wins greatly buoyed hopes of national titles for some, but most players got off to a walking start as eight of the 12 games ended in draws. The championships involve preliminary round-robins and finals and conclude April 28.

The most surprising result sprung from the Women’s Championship. Woman Grandmaster Sabina Foisor, playing Black, derailed defending champion Irina Krush’s attempt to get off to a fast start. Facing serious pressure on her king, International Master Krush slipped up and allowed a devastating rook invasion that netted Foisor a queen. Krush resigned the game but still has plenty of time to qualify for the finals after the preliminary round-robin portion of the event. Foisor said she was not happy that the drawing of placements earned her a first-round match-up with Krush. She said she fears being the last-place finisher but that ignominy will be unlikely after starting with a win.

Krush vs Foisor

Woman FIDE Master Tatev Abrahamyan joined Foisor atop the leader-board with a long win against Woman Grandmaster Camilla Baginskaite. Abrahamyan, who is the most improved player in the field since last year’s event, used the centuries-old Evan’s Gambit to gain space. After a little more than five hours, she eked out a win in the endgame. The two played the longest game of the first round.

Other winners included one of the pre-tournament favourites, Grandmaster Alexander Onischuk. Ranked second, Onischuk grabbed a pawn and survived the complications against Ben Finegold, the Grandmaster-in-Residence of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. The local player initially thought his g-pawn was taboo until it was captured, then he changed his mind. Finegold tried to justify his early pawn sacrifice by tossing in two more pawns, but Onischuk coolly captured them all and lived to tell the tale. “I was happy that Ben played fighting chess, “ Onischuk said. “It gives me chances.”


The final decisive game came from two stalwarts of the U.S. Championship. Three-time winner Grandmaster Larry Christiansen united his pieces harmoniously and crashed through four-time champion GM Alex Shabalov’s defence. The 54-year-old Christiansen, who won his first championship in 1980, joked continuously about his advancing age. “The younger Larry would’ve sacked on f5 at some point, but with such a beautiful position, why?” he said. He said his daily routine is getting upset by the tournament. “I’m always getting up early. Spanish-time kind of guy. Only I can’t take a siesta here. This is gruelling. I can’t wait for the free day already.” The player’s rest day will come after round seven.

In a case of the headline not explaining the story, the two-thirds of the games that resulted in draws produced their own dramatic moments as well. The younger players had a particularly incendiary day.

Tournament rookie and youngest competitor IM Daniel Naroditsky saw his h-file attack rebuffed. The 15-year-old then gathered himself to split the point in a worse endgame against GM Jaan Ehlvest, who was once the third-best player in the world. “Of course I was nervous,” Naroditsky said. Once the game began his focus quelled his jitters almost instantly he said. His gangbuster attack on the kingside ended with Ehlvest’s savvy queen-trade antidote. On missing 27…Qe7, the teenager chastised his own blindness. “I just told myself, ‘Okay, I’m an idiot.’” Then Naroditsky doubled down on defence and held the balance.


The most complicated draw of the day was turned in by reigning U.S. Junior Champion and GM-elect Sam Shankland and Samford Fellowship recipient GM Robert Hess,. In the analysis room after the game, Shankland spewed a multitude of variations rapidly, concluding after each that he had “no idea what is going on.” Hess has surprised opponents in the opening in St. Louis before, and this round was no different, as he essayed the King’s Indian Defence for the first time in his career. “The King’s Indian is essentially the only thing I wasn’t prepared for,” Shankland said. Reflecting on a decision late in the game to activate his rook with 25. Rc2, Shankland said, “The question is, ‘Do I get mated or do I queen my d-pawn?’ And I’m still not sure.” Both men seemed satisfied with the result.

In another heavily-anticipated match, GM Yasser Seirawan came out of retirement and played a fighting draw against long-time rival and friend GM Gregory Kaidanov. Seirawan had not played in a U.S. Championship or a tournament of any kind since 2003. “I fell for my old weakness of grabbing a pawn,” Seirawan said. Kaidanov is mostly a chess instructor these days but many pundits still claim him to be the best American never to have won a U.S. Championship. Speaking to his opponent after the game, Kaidanov joked, “I thought I would confuse you by playing recklessly and carelessly.”


Defending champion GM Gata Kamsky could not engineer much action as Black against GM Alexander Ivanov’s stale Four-Knights Opening, and the two earned a draw without much conflict. Other drawn games included past champions GM Yury Shulman and GM Alex Stripunsky. GM Varuzhan Akobian has a huge lifetime score against GM Ray Robson, but Robson was able to hold the draw in round one.

The final two women’s games also ended in draws. IM Rusudan Goletiani’s extra pawn was not enough against WIM Iryna Zenyuk. Top-rated IM Anna Zatonskih equalized against FM Alisa Melekhina, even though the latter carried a slight plus into the endgame.

Games round 1

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Round 2 Grandmaster Larry Christiansen, a three-time U.S. Champion, pushed his record to 2-0 first with another whitewash. This time his focus was the queenside and his opponent was Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. The two have played more than 20 times, including at 12 prior Championships (of the other match-ups today, no other men had played more than twice). Seirawan had said before the tournament began that he hoped to survive the opening, where his mastery has dulled since his hiatus from tournament chess began in 2003. That fear came true.

“The three worst things that could happen to a chess player happened to me today,” Seirawan said. “First, the opening was bad. Then both my king and queen got checkmated.”

Christiansen offered his b-pawn in the same way that GM Sergey Karjakin did to GM Pavel Eljanov at last year’s Chess Olympiad. Seirawan, unfamiliar with the game, took the bait. Like Eljanov, he soon wished he had not. In the post-game analysis it was Christiansen showing off his knowledge of the variation. “[The move] Qb1 has been around,” Christiansen said. “You know, I did my homework. Not only do we have a mating attack, but let’s trap his queen too. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

“From my side, I’m going, ‘Geez, I walked into this hurricane,’” Seirawan said.


While it took that game a mere 17 moves to produce a winner, Woman Grandmaster Sabina Foisor needed 79 turns to overcome the dogged determination of FIDE Master Alisa Melekhina. Foisor took sole possession of the lead in the women’s tournament, and her double pawn sacrifice of 25. f4 and 26. e5 showed a perspicacious understanding of the position. Many fellow players and spectators, several of which were higher rated, praised the idea. Still, after Foisor pried apart her opponent’s king’s shelter, Melekhina gamely repulsed the attack and set up a timely blockade. Foisor’s 70. a5 was not calculation as much as it was the last salvo, but without ample time to hold the fortress, Melekhina allowed a decisive breakthrough.

“I thought I was winning and then and then I gave her a lot of counterplay,” Foisor said. “In the end I thought that I’m not winning.” The game was a bit of revenge for Foisor, as Melekhina has won their matchup at the last two U.S. Women’s Championships. Foisor began the 2009 Championship 3-0 but faltered badly in the final six games. She promised no celebrations would occur until after the event. Since she is missing her college classes, Foisor joked that she wants to succeed so she can silence her professors’ entreaties about the worthiness of skipping classes.

The other miniature of the day came from an unlikely game. GM-elect Sam Shankland chose the normally-reserved Slav Defence against GM Gregory Kaidanov. The centre pawns traded early, unfurling some open diagonals that Shankland rode to a devastating attack on Kaidanov’s castled king.

“I don’t know if Kaidanov has lost in 18 moves with White in the last 20 years,” Shankland said. “I got extremely lucky of course … I think it was more his doing than mine. It just wasn’t his day.”

Shankland’s sudden attack came from a queen lift, first up to d4, then across to h4, to join forces with his well-posted bishops. He said the maneuver would have been much more ineffective if Kaidanov had not played 14. Bxc4 and instead kept his light-squared bishop on d3. From there, it could generate a counterattack via the b1-h7 diagonal.

After settling in for the first round, the second round gave more decisive results. Seven of the 12 matches produced winners, including all four of the games in the U.S. Women’s Championship.

Defending Champion IM Irina Krush recovered easily from her first-round oversight, defeating WFM Tatev Abrahamyan. All of the women have played each other several times over, so Abrahamyan tried to spring a surprise on Krush with the rare Blumenfeld Gambit. Krush actually tried out the opening herself at last year’s championship.

“She clearly didn’t know anything about the Blumenfeld,” Krush said. “She took a gamble that I didn’t know anything. I knew just a little bit more than her.”

IM Anna Zatonskih, considered one the pre-tournament favourites, picked up her first win by netting some early material and beating WIM Iryna Zenyuk. Zatonskih is the only player with 1.5 out of two. Four women out of the eight will advance to the semi-finals after round-robin play. WGM Camilla Baginskaite earned her first point by defeating IM Rusudan Goletiani.


Defending U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky bubbled over in the press room when showing his victory over GM Varuzhan Akobian. Like Christiansen, Kamsky left his b-pawn undefended and proceeded to show his opponent why it was poisoned.

“I spoke with Emil (Sutovsky) and told him I wanted to sacrifice some stuff today,” Kamsky said. “He told me, ‘Don’t do that!’” Sutovsky is Kamsky’s friend and in the past has also served as his “second”.

Kamsky enthusiastically showed some variations to the crowd. “Ne4 was, how do you say, beautiful?” He admitted to getting carried away with aesthetics and criticized his two-knight manoeuvre 26. Ne7+ and 27. Ng5+. He claimed to find an unlikely defence for Akobian. In showing it off to the audience, he ended with a position of perfect stasis for both sides. The result, he said, reminded him of something famed chess composer Leonid Kubbel might create.

All other round-two games ended in draws, including GM Jaan Ehlvest against GM Ray Robson, GM Alexander Stripunsky against GM Alexander Ivanov, GM Alexander Shabalov against GM Alexander Onischuk, IM Daniel Naroditsky against GM Yury Shulman and GM Robert Hess against GM Ben Finegold. Of the list, Hess had the best chance to win, but missed a winning knight invasion late in the game.

Games round 2

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Round 3 Group Two of the U.S. Championship offered a bounty of surprises, turned in mostly by the younger players. Late in the day, GM Robert Hess, still yet to take his first college course, ground down the nearly unbeatable GM Alexander Onischuk. Hess offered a draw in a balanced endgame, but after the 2006 champion declined, Hess marched his king into the action to win some of the few remaining pawns to earn the point.

Some players debated if Onischuk would have accepted the draw offer against a different player, but Hess did not view it as an insult. He cited Onischuk’s premature pawn advance 39. f4 as too committal. Onischuk made the move shortly before the first time control ended. Later, facing a difficult defence, Hess said he declined Onischuk’s counter-offer. The resulting rook endgame with f- and h-pawns is a theoretical draw, but “with no time it is very, very difficult to draw,” Hess said.

For Onischuk, it is only his third U.S. Championship loss. He holds the second-longest unbeaten streak in championship history. The streak ended last year.

Although Hess’s endgame alchemy pushed him to two points, he still trails GM-elect Sam Shankland by one-half point. Shankland (2.5/3) dethroned group leader Christiansen (2/3) in the longest game of the day. In doing so, he joined his opponent as the only player in the U.S. Championship to win two games in a row. Shankland, who claimed he was close to quitting chess after the 2010 championship, said, “Today I thought I played extremely well. Last year it took me nine rounds to get 2.5 points.”

Hess vs Shankland

Local player GM Ben Finegold also won his first game of the tournament, beating GM Gregory Kaidanov. Spectators gave Finegold the loudest applause of the event as he entered the press room to discuss his game. Finegold is the GM-in-Residence of the club and many of his fans and students were in attendance. Kaidanov is scuffling with only one draw in three games. GMs Yasser Seirawan and Alexander Shabalov also drew their game in Group Two.

In Group One action, defending champion GM Gata Kamsky held his lead by defending a Breyer Variation for the second year in a row against GM Ray Robson. He now has company, as both GM Yury Shulman and GM Alexander Ivanov won for the first time to join Kamsky with two points.

Shulman, a Chicagoan, also had many fans at the club, and used the support to beat GM Jaan Ehlvest. “I looked at this position some time ago and I wasn’t sure if Jaan knows this,” Shulman said of his early c-pawn sacrifice. Shulman is a past U.S. Champion and knows the care it takes to win. He laughed off a near-blunder during the post-game analysis, showing the audience the tactic 35. Qe5+ f6 36. Qxd6 Qxd6 37. Rg8#, which was pretty, but illegal, since the rook on g3 was pinned.

Ivanov handed IM Daniel Naroditsky his first loss of the tournament. Ivanov, known to be dangerous in the Open Sicilian, said his young opponent must have missed the thrust e5. “After this he is objectively lost,” Ivanov said. He offered a candid assessment of his chances. “I would be happy to get to the semifinals. I have a return ticket before the finals! But of course I’m fighting.”

Arbiters Carol Jarecki and Tony Rich

Photos © St. Louis Chess Club

In the U.S. Women’s Championship, IM Irina Krush got back on pace to qualify for the semifinals with her second consecutive win. She questioned the wisdom of IM Rusudan Goletiani’s opening choice. “She just didn’t know the position,” Krush said. Goletiani is known to open with 1. Nf3 and save the fight for later in the game. “She probably didn’t feel like she had anything with her normal openings,” Krush said. “To play the White side of the Open Sicilian, when you don’t know anything, is very tough.” After accepting Goletiani’s sacrificed pawn, Krush stifled the attack and then praised her own decision to go for the jugular, which was “much stronger than playing in more solid ways.”

The only woman ahead of Krush is Sabina Foisor, whose win streak ended at two but who used a draw with WFM Tatev Abrahamyan to maintain her lead. IM Anna Zatonskih is tied for second with Krush. Zatonskih drew uneventfully with WGM Camilla Baginskaite to get to two out of three. WIM Iryna Zenyuk defeated FM Alisa Melekhina for the third consecutive year. “It just seems to me I’m not a comfortable opponent against her,” Zenyuk said. “I’m the lowest seed in the tournament. My advantage is that everyone wants to beat me.”

Games round 3

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Round four will offer even more perspective on who is likely to qualify for the semifinals in both tournaments. Monday’s games begin 2 p.m. local time (21:00 CET), 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Visit for live coverage and grandmaster commentary.

U.S. Championship 2011 | Preliminaries, Group A | Round 3 Standings

U.S. Championship 2011 | Preliminaries, Group B | Round 3 Standings

U.S. Women's Championship 2011 | Preliminaries | Round 3 Standings


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