“He took the bishop, you say?”

by admin on May 25, 2010

The U.S. Championship is now over, and the winner is Gata Kamsky. In the four-man playoff, he and Yury Shulman tied with 2-1 scores (each one had one victory — Shulman against Nakamura, and Kamsky against Onischuk). They played a regular time control playoff game, which was drawn, and then they played a single Armageddon game.

In an Armageddon game, Black is given less time but only has to draw. The two players bid on how much time they want on their clocks. Because Kamsky made the lower bid, 25 minutes, he earned the right to play Black with 25 minutes for the whole game, while Shulman had White and 60 minutes on his clock. Kamsky justified his decision by earning the draw, in a game that went down to the final seconds.

In my opinion, the novel format (a 24-player Swiss system to qualify for a 4-man round-robin playoff) was pretty successful, principally because of the events on Sunday. The four highest-rated players were playing against each other at the end, and on Sunday we had two dramatic and decisive games, which set up the final playoff between Kamsky and Shulman.

However, it’s disappointing that at the end, the tournament still had to come down to an Armageddon game. I’m not a fan of Armageddon; I think that it artificially changes the game. Kamsky never had to actually beat Shulman to prove his superiority. Why not just declare them to be co-champions?

The best moment of the playoff, indeed of the whole tournament, took place on Sunday. The game between Nakamura and Shulman got to this position, with Shulman (Black) to move.

The official tournament website has a priceless video in which Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley, the co-hosts, are talking about this position. Maurice says, “Black’s gotta play Nc6,” and just then Jennifer looks off to the side at someone out of camera range, and then says, “He took the bishop, you say?”

That’s right, Shulman played 24. … Rxg5!! This exchange sacrifice has two main points. Ashley quickly pointed out one of them: If Nakamura recaptures with the pawn, 25. fg, then Shulman can play 25. … Nf5! which cuts White’s queen off from the defense. The threat is 26. … Qd4+ followed by 27. … Ng3 mate, and there’s really not much that White can do about it.

The less obvious questions is: what happens if White takes with the queen, 25. Qxg5? (That is eventually what Nakamura played.) At first Ashley and Shahade didn’t quite get it. They looked at 25. … Qd4+ 26. Kh1 Qf2, but after 27. Rg1 it’s not so clear how Black can break through. Then, suddenly, the light dawns on Maurice: after 25. Qxg5 Qd4+ 26. Kh1 Black plays a queen sacrifice, 26. … Qe3!! This is surely what Nakamura had overlooked. Of course White can’t take the queen with 27. Rxe3 because 27. … Rc1+ leads to mate. But what else can White do? If he tries 27. Rg1, it no longer works because Black can still play 27. … Rc1 and mate next move. (That’s why it was important to put the queen on e3, where it defends c1, instead of f2.)

The other priceless part of the video is the moment when Nakamura realizes this. You can see him look around at the webcam (which was somewhere behind him and to his left) with a great big scowl on his face. Boy was he mad, although the only person for him to be mad at was himself. Unfortunately, it took him about ten or fifteen minutes to decide on his next move, even though there is really nothing to think about any more; the game is just over. From all appearances, he didn’t spend very much of that time thinking — he spent most of the time holding his head in his hands and making faces at the camera. I didn’t watch until the end of the video because I lost patience with waiting for Nakamura to move, but eventually he did decide to play 25. Qxg5 and allow Shulman to play his pretty queen sac, and then he resigned.

What drama! It very, very rarely happens in chess that the most important game of the tournament is also the most beautiful, and features such a spectacular combination. Shahade’s startled reaction and Nakamura’s world-class pouting just made it even better.

The other playoff game that was going on at the same time, Kamsky-Onischuk, also had a remarkable finish. It looked like a drawn endgame after the time control, but Onischuk actually declined Kamsky’s draw offer. Probably he wanted to play for a win because he would lose control over his own fate with a draw. (Remember, Shulman at this point had already beaten Nakamura, giving him 1½ points. If Onischuk drew against Kamsky, he would have had 1 point, and because he had already played Shulman he would not be able to catch up if Shulman won his final game.) But it often happens in chess that the player who tries too hard for a win ends up losing, and that is what happened to Onischuk here.

That set up the Kamsky versus Shulman finale, which unfortunately ended with the rather anticlimactic draw in the Armageddon game.

Among the 20 players who did not qualify for the four-man playoff, Alexander Shabalov finished first, with 6 points (including 4½ points in his final 5 games). Our Bay Area faves had kind of a ho-hum tournament. Jesse Kraai ended with 4½ points, Vinay Bhat had 3½, and Sam Shankland had 2½ (with zero victories and five draws). Also, Irina Krush, who had a great start, fell just short of a GM norm, losing to Shabalov in round eight and drawing Kraai in round 9 to end with 4½ points. What can you say? Tough competition! I’m sure she will be thinking about the points that she left on the table against Ehlvest and Akobian.

All right, that’s enough reporting at a distance! Tomorrow I will fly to Chicago for the Chicago Open, which I will report on in person. Probably some of the same players will be there. With nine games played in the last week and nine more coming up this weekend, I don’t envy them — I expect you’re going to see some tired grandmasters. Perhaps tired grandmasters who are ripe for an upset? We’ll see!

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