The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis has once again received the bid as host to the annual U.S. Chess Championships: The 2015 event, along with the U.S. Women’s Championship, will be a 12-player round robin held March 31 through April 14 in the Central West End. It will mark the seventh consecutive year that St. Louis has hosted the national title event.
Confirmation of the bid came just last week, and not without an immediate dose of drama. Tournament organizers are no strangers to the annual scheduling dance of high-level events, careful steps that must bend around other big name tournaments and often bow to the availability of invited players. This delicate tango only gets more difficult as events grow in duration and prestige, and with so many players competing on differing levels of reputation, sometimes toes get inadvertently stepped on.
Scheduling alarms went off last week when U.S. Championship dates, arriving earlier than previous versions held in mid-May, were seen to be overlapping those of the President’s Cup -- otherwise known as the Final Four of collegiate chess. Despite some understanding on how such a conflict stayed hidden on the schedule for so long -- the President’s Cup final four teams were not determined until late December, at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championships -- the snafu turned out to be quite a doozy when it hit.
All four teams slated to appear in the 2015 President’s Cup included a national championship-bound player, which meant that five participants were suddenly faced with a choice between scholarships and salaries, and differing definitions of prestige. Grandmaster Ray Robson was invited to the U.S. Championships as the nation’s third-strongest player, not two weeks after confirming Webster University for its third-straight President’s Cup appearance. The same conflict arose with GM Conrad Holt, who led the University of Texas at Dallas back to the final four, despite earning his own seat at the national championship by winning the U.S. Open last August. GM Alex Onischuk, too: Our 39-year-old national champion from 2006, was slated as the fifth seed in 2015 -- and is coach of Texas Tech University’s chess program.
On the women’s side, the University of Baltimore-Maryland County’s advancing affected the status of IM Nazi Paikidze, a World U14 and U16 champion who was invited to her first U.S. Women’s Championship after switching federations from Georgia last October. And WGM Anna Sharevich, a local strength who once played for Lindenwood and is now part of the Webster program, found conflict with her invitation as the fourth-rated U.S. woman.
It all proved, however, to be a bullet dodged for top-level chess in 2015 -- thanks to veteran organizers dancing that familiar dance.
Credit the President’s Cup, and specifically the fancy footwork of sponsor/organizer Booz Allen Hamilton, for finding all the right moves. Pressed into quick action, Booz Allen found the emergency switch last week, coming up with adjustments to complete tournament logistics, including receptions and lodging, to once again host the President’s Cup at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan. The 2015 Final Four of Collegiate Chess will now be held during the last weekend of March, instead of its traditional first weekend of April.
The inclusion of all participants ensures both events will reach their maximum potential in competitive quality standard. The effect has certainly come as a sigh of relief for the U.S. Championships, which -- based on invitations that include two world top-10 players, GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So -- has the potential to become one of the strongest national championship fields ever assembled.
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.