US Championship, after Round 7

by on May 15, 2009

I’m sure that it’s not news to many of my readers that the US Chess Championship has been going on in St. Louis this week. Seven rounds have been played so far, and a major surprise is brewing, as you can see from the standings:

1-4. Gata Kamsky (2798), Hikaru Nakamura (2757), Alexander Onischuk (2736), Robert Hess (2545) — 5 points out of 7

5-6. Yury Shulman (2697), Varuzhan Akobian (2664) — 4.5/7

All are names that you would expect to see — except for Robert Hess, who is tied for first with three former U.S. champions, all of whom outrate him by around 200 points! And it isn’t a fluke, either; he has already played against all three of the people he is tied with, so in the final two rounds he will have an opportunity to fatten his score against people who are trailing him in the tournament. Although you can’t exactly say he is being “paired down,” when his next round opponent is going to be Yury Shulman, who outrates him by 150 points.

Hess’s main claim to fame before this tournament is that he won the U.S. High School Championship for 2009. (In fact, he won with a Fischer-esque perfect score.) That means he has the chance to be both the U.S. high school champion and the U.S. champion in the same year! Has anyone ever done this before? Well, Hikaru Nakamura could have. He won the 2005 U.S. Championship (in 2004), when he was 16 years old. But as far as I can tell he never played in the high school championships. Bobby Fischer could have done it, but I doubt that he even went to high school. So Robert Hess would probably be the first.

It will still be a tall order for Hess to come in ahead of such formidable competitors as Nakamura and Kamsky. Nakamura may have a tiebreak advantage over him, having won their head-to-head matchup. Still, I think anyone who wants to see more homegrown American chess talent should be rooting for Robert in these last two rounds!

Other U.S. Championship trivia:

The Battle for Last Place: Unlike the battle for first place, the battle for last is pretty much over. Charles Lawton, the lone representative from Missouri, has a perfect score of 0 points in 7 rounds, which puts him 2.5 points behind everyone who has actually played all 7 rounds. (One player, Anna Zatonskih, had to withdraw after two rounds, and another player, Doug Eckert, substituted for her and has played 4 games. The “combined ticket” of Zatonskih and Eckert has scored 1.5 points out of 7, so Lawton could conceivably catch up with them.)

I have to admit a certain ghoulish fascination with the nightmarish tournament that Lawton is living through. I have dreams myself of someday, someway getting into the U.S. Championship. But if I ever did, I would almost surely be subjected to the same kind of abuse. As far as I can tell, Lawton has lost in every conceivable way. He’s been busted in the opening, he’s been out-combined in the middlegame, he’s lost in the endgame, he’s lost against higher-rated players and he’s lost against lower-rated players. He must be awfully discouraged by now.

This brings up another good question: Has anyone ever gone 0-for-the-U.S. Championship? The answer is yes. Kelly Cottrell-Finegold did it in 2006, with a score of 0/9. But the two cases are hardly comparable. That was one of the years when the tournament had 64 players instead of its present 24. Not only that, it was one of the years when there were several slots especially for women. Cottrell-Finegold qualified in spite of having a rating only a little bit above 1700. It is hardly surprising that she got pummeled. By contrast, Charles Lawton’s difficulties are a little bit more unexpected. He has quite a decent rating of 2350, which is actually higher than two of the players he has lost to.

It’s interesting also to look over the list of last-place finishers in the U.S. Championhip. If I hadn’t already told you, would you have been able to tell what these people had in common?

1992: Kamran Shirazi

1993: Boris Gulko

1994: Boris Kreiman, Alexander Ivanov

1995: Sergei Kudrin

1996: Igor Ivanov, Igor Khmelnitsky

1997: Alexander Ivanov

1998: Igor Ivanov

1999: Alexander Shabalov

2000: Gregory Serper

2002: Hana Itkis

2003: Anna Levina

2005: Olga Sagalchik

2006: Kelly Cottrell-Finegold

2007: Chouchanik Airapetian

2008: Sergei Galant

You can tell that there have been three different eras since 1992. From 1992 to 2000 the tournament was a round robin, and all of the players were GMs and strong IMs. From 2002 to 2007 the tournament expanded and had special qualifying places for women, and every year a woman finished last. In both 2008 and 2009 there was one space for a “hometown” player, and guess who came in last.

I’ve heard it said that some of the top players do not take the U.S. Championship quite as seriously since it abandoned the round-robin format and allowed lower-rated players to qualify, like Robert Hess … and Charles Lawton. But I think it’s great to have a few spaces open for qualifiers. It creates the possibility of a Cinderella story, like Robert Hess’s. And even when the glass slipper turns out not to fit, as in the case of Charles Lawton, at least he had a chance.

By the way, there ought to be a (dis?)honorable mention for Kamran Shirazi’s performance in 1992, back when the event was an “honest” round robin. He managed to score 1 point in 15 games, which put him 4 points behind the second-to-last player. That is probably the largest margin of futility ever.

Quick worker: Two of the three shortest games so far were played by Alexander Onischuk. And no, they weren’t “grandmaster draws.” He defeated Tyler Hughes in 21 moves and Sam Shankland in 22.

Working overtime: On the other side of the coin, the two longest games so far (93 moves and 91 moves) were also won by the same player: Jaan Ehlvest, who outlasted Irina Krush in a queen-and-pawn ending and somehow managed to hoodwink Michael Brooks in a rook-and-pawn ending.

Hasn’t anyone told them a rook is worth five points?: I haven’t gotten a chance to play over a whole lot of games, but surely the most bizarre and perplexing one I’ve seen was Ibragimov-Kamsky from round 1. This game featured no less than six exchange sacrifices! Kamsky offered three exchange sacs, of which only one was accepted; Ibragimov offered three exchange sacs, of which two were accepted. Maybe I’ll post some analysis here if I can figure out what was going on.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Voisov May 16, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Robin Ault made an 0-fer back in the 60s


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