US Chess Championship — final four set

by admin on May 20, 2010

The first seven rounds of the U.S. Chess Championship are now in the books, and it’s time to see whether the new format will live up to its promise. This year, instead of a regular 9-round Swiss System, the tournament has an extra twist. After 7 rounds, the top four players qualify for a four-man round-robin playoff: a “quad.” Meanwhile, the remaining 20 players are left to play two more games with nothing better at stake than fifth place. For some players, that is a rather underwhelming prospect. “The real tournament is over,” said Larry Christiansen, who missed out on the top four. “It’s hard to get psyched up now.” (Would anyone like to bet that he is going to take two quick draws in the last two rounds?)

While the format may be sort of a wet blanket to those who miss out on the playoff, the value of this format is that the top players will be facing each other in the final three rounds with a lot at stake, and they can’t just draw their way to the finish line. Somebody will have to take some risks.

Fortunately, one potential source of controversy was averted. No tiebreaks were needed to determine the Final Four, as four players separated themselves cleanly from the pack. They were also the four who went into the tournament with the highest ratings: Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Yuri Shulman, and Alexander Onischuk. Each of them scored 5 points in the first 7 rounds. The “also-rans” who came closest to the Final Four were Christiansen and Alexander Stripunsky, who had 4½ out of 7. In a normal Swiss System they would have plenty of opportunity to catch up to the leaders, but with the new format they are out of luck.

My rash prognostication that one of the juniors would make waves turned out to be a little bit too optimistic. Robert Hess, who finished second last year, is doing the best of the three juniors; he has a score of 4-3 but suffered an upset loss to Irina Krush, the only woman in the field. Ray Robson had a rough start, losing his first two games, and has come back to stand at 3-4. Sam Shankland has yet to win a game, and is in last place with a score of 1½-5½.

The real story of the tournament, aside from the Final Four, is Irina Krush. Even though she is only an International Master (one of three IM’s playing; the other 21 players are GM’s), she has an excellent score of 4-3 with wins over GM’s Kaidanov, Hess, and Lenderman. The amazing thing is that she could easily have had 5½ points, because she had winning positions against Ehlvest and Akobian in rounds 2 and 3, but ended up drawing the first and losing the second. Imagine what a media sensation it would be if she were leading the tournament!

Still, her excellent play has put her in excellent position to get her second GM norm. She needs one point in the last two rounds to pull it off. It won’t be easy, as she will be facing four-time U.S. champion Alexander Shabalov in the next round.

For Bay Area chess fans, and ChessLecture fans, the biggest excitement was that Jesse Kraai got off to a good start, with 3½ points in his first 5 games, and had a real shot at making the Final Four. Unfortunately, he lost two in a row to Nakamura (whom he has beaten before) and Stripunsky. I’m sure he is somewhat disappointed, but at least he is playing and not still recovering from the broken rib he suffered in the car accident last month. Another Bay Area player and blogger, Vinay Bhat, has struggled a bit, with a score of 2½ out of 7 and only one win, against Shankland.

It will be interesting to see how many of these players, after finishing up on Sunday, will trek out to Chicago for the Chicago Open, which starts on Thursday. There could be some tired people on the top boards of that tournament. A chess player’s work is never done!

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