Berkeley International, round 1

by admin on December 15, 2008

 Yesterday the Berkeley International 2008 chess tournament got started, with a field of 18 players including six grandmasters. Although I am not playing in the tournament (my current FIDE rating being too low to qualify), it isn’t every day that an international all-master tournament comes to town, so I got into my car and drove an hour and a half up to Berkeley to watch the action.

I suppose I could have watched online at ICC, but being onsite has its advantages. You get to see the players’ reactions, you get to talk with them after the games, and you get to distract them by accidentally stepping on the squeaky floor board at crucial moments. What fun!

The tournament is being held at the Berkeley Chess School, which is an amazing place that I did not really even know about. Specifically, what I did not know is that it is an actual, physical, school and not just a fancy name for somebody’s after-school chess enrichment program. It has an office, it has classrooms, and it has (volunteer) teachers.

As the founder, Elizabeth Shaughnessy, explained to me, it is located in a building that was constructed to be a public school. However, someone discovered after it was built that a fault line runs straight underneath it, and therefore it could not be used for public education. There was a Montessori School on the site for a while, but then it moved to a new building and this grand old school building, with halls wide enough to play a football game in, was standing vacant. Shaughnessy, who was (1) a former Ireland women’s chess champion, (2) a mother of two chess players, and (3) a member of the Berkeley school board, saw a great opportunity, and in 1982 she started renting out the second floor of the school building for classes. The school now provides chess classes that are taken by 5000 kids a year, and it boasts three young masters as alumni: International Master David Pruess, the new World Youth Co-champion Sam Shankland, and National Master Andy Lee. Their master certificates are proudly posted on a bulletin board in the hall.

I was amazed. I would not have thought that such a place existed in the United States.

But let’s get back to the tournament. The Berkeley International is the third event of its kind, basically a norm-opportunity tournament for American masters on the west coast. The first two were in 2005 and 2006, and they provided new grandmasters like Jesse Kraai and Josh Friedel with some of their norms. In those two years the event was associated with the East Bay Chess Club, which is now unfortunately defunct. But David Pruess had the idea of reviving the event this year, holding the games at his chessic alma mater.

I’ve already mentioned the high caliber of the players he attracted. The two headliners are grandmasters from Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the U.S. state), Zviad Izoria and Giorgi Kacheishvili. Also, GM Sharavdorj of Mongolia is playing. The roster of American GM’s includes “Sensei” Jesse Kraai (I’m calling him that because a commenter on one of his recent chess lectures said that “Jesse is my sensei”), Josh Friedel, and Vinay Bhat. As you can read here, the three of them along with David Pruess and Irina Krush are now living in the same block of the small town of El Cerrito, in the “GM House.” I pointed out to Jesse that this is actually a variation on a long-established tradition in Santa Cruz of the geek house, a place where a bunch of computer nerds live and hang out and plot how they are going to take over the universe. Jesse didn’t seem to be very impressed. I guess that you have to be from Santa Cruz to understand Santa Cruz.

The first round of the tournament featured frigid temperatures and hot chess action. The freezing temperatures came courtesy of Alaska, which sent us a cold rain that lasted all weekend. The cavernous school building was, shall we say, rather chilly inside. The organizers turned on heaters to warm the room up, but when they tried to plug in a computer as well, the electricity went out! So the games had to move to another room, which was not heated at the beginning.

After a while, the space heaters brought the room temperature up to more livable conditions, just about the same time that the action started heating up over the chessboard. (I did notice, though, that Irina Krush kept her coat and hat on throughout the entire game.)

The first game to finish — and really the only rout of the round — was the game between Daniel Naroditsky and GM Kacheishvili. In a Najdorf Sicilian, Naroditsky (as White) sacrificed a pawn at e5 for less than zero compensation. I don’t know if it was an oversight or just overly optimistic thinking, but I’m sure that this is a game that Danya would just rather forget.

Next to finish was the game Izoria versus Pruess. David played a very effective Caro-Kann Defense. I don’t know and he didn’t know whether 12. … Bb5 was a novelty, but he seemed to get a great position out of it, and probably had a winning advantage by move 20. At that point he also had a huge advantage on the clock, with 48 minutes remaining to Izoria’s 1 minute and 27 seconds. (The games are played with a 30-second time increment, though, so Izoria’s time trouble was not that bad. According to John Donaldson, he is one of those players who regularly lives on the time increment.) Unfortunately, it was right around this time that David screwed up, and his 21. … Nd5? allowed Izoria to equalize effortlessly with the pseudo-exchange sacrifice 22. Rxd5! So even though the draw looks like a good result for David on paper, I’m sure that he regretted the fact that he didn’t take advantage of his opportunity. A win against a GM would have been a great start towards getting his third GM norm.

The Pruess-Izoria game seemed to set the tone for the round, as two other games that seemed headed for an upset petered out into draws. In the “battle of the Irinas,” Iryna Zenyuk won a pawn against Irina Krush, but in the time scramble I wonder if she took the wrong pawn. Anyway, Irina held on somehow. (I didn’t stay for the end of the game.) Another upset denied was Haessel against Sarkar. The lowest-rated player, Haessel, seemed to have very good winning chances throughout and eventually got to an endgame with R+N+2P against R+4P. But again, he couldn’t cash in; maybe the win was never there.

However, two people did score full-point upsets. I thought that Josh Friedel was completely in control against Marc Esserman, but he missed 21. … Qa5! I really want to look at this game carefully to see where Josh went wrong. I have an idea, but I could be wrong, so I want to run it through Fritz first. On the next board to them, Daniel Rensch beat Vinay Bhat in a much less mysterious game. It was a Scotch Game where Rensch got a pawn majority on the kingside, while Bhat’s pawn majority on the queenside was stymied by doubled c-pawns — a pawn formation very much like the Exchange Ruy Lopez. Vinay tried to create some trouble on the queenside, but it just seemed to backfire on him. Although I haven’t looked at the game carefully, I have to think that Vinay’s decision not to trade knight for bishop with 37. … Nxe3 was a key moment. I wonder if Vinay, as the higher-rated player, was trying too hard to keep the position complicated instead of trying to equalize.

The other game I watched closely was Jesse’s draw against Hungarian IM Sandor Kustar. For a while I thought that Jesse was going to “massage” him to death. Kustar got one piece out of position, a rook that was stuck in front of his pawns with no good way to retreat. In very logical fashion, Jesse was able to convert this advantage into another advantage — domination of the c-file. However, Kustar just refused to be squeezed. The out-of-position rook turned into an active rook, and Kustar’s queen also was unpleasantly active, and so Jesse called it a day with a draw on move 35.

I may post some more specific analysis of the games in my next entry, but you can play them over yourself (with no analysis) at the U.S. Chess website. The tournament will continue with one round a day through December 23. I will probably go up to watch again next weekend, for round nine and maybe the last round as well. Next time I will try to remember to put new batteries in my digital camera; I took it with me yesterday, but unfortunately it was out of juice.   🙁

Stay tuned for more fun in Berkeley!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

thadeusfrei December 15, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for the feed back. 🙂


chesstiger December 16, 2008 at 4:53 am

Nice report! Who is your favorite to win this tournament and why?


admin December 16, 2008 at 9:55 am


You’re putting me on the spot! Well, of course I would favor the three highest-rated players: Izoria, Kacheishvili, and Kraai. Izoria, to say the least, was unimpressive in his first-round game, but he obviously is a player to be reckoned with. He had a great run of success when he first came to the U.S. in 2005 (?), including first place in the huge HB Foundation tournament that was the richest Swiss-system tournament ever. Kacheishvili was very impressive in the first round, but I don’t know much about him otherwise. Kraai is the hometown favorite — I’m rooting for him both as a fellow ChessLecturer, and as a fellow American (and Californian!). But that might make my assessment of his chances a little biased. He won his most recent tournament, which is a sign that he is in good form. So … I’m rooting for Jesse, but it would be not at all surprising for Izoria or Kacheishvili to win. If you’re looking for a non-GM dark horse, David Pruess is a good choice, because he has two GM norms and is highly motivated to get a third, and he is on home turf, and he got off to a very good start except for his tactical slip that let Izoria off the hook.


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