In less than one month, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis will once again become the most interesting chess club in the world. That is not because of some fluke; the American chess crème de la crème is set to step foot in the venue and engage in an unprecedented war over the chessboard.
Thanks to the U.S. Chess Federation, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center will host its 8th consecutive U.S. Championship and U.S. Women's Championship. This year’s event will be the strongest U.S. Championships in history, and plenty of fireworks are promised to the eagerly awaiting fans all over the world. Let’s look at the fields and try to understand who the favorites and underdogs are.
2016 U.S. Championship
This year’s dynamic championship lacks a clear cut favorite. With three players in the world’s top 10, it would be a mistake to say any one of them will clearly dominate the field. The defending champion, Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, will have to overcome fresh obstacles if he wants to keep his title and cement his national domination.
The return of world-number-three, GM Fabiano Caruana, to the U.S. Federation will see him contesting the title for the first time. However, he is not the only one aspiring to become the U.S. Champion.
GM Wesley So has used his first year as a chess professional to hone his skills against top competition and learn how to handle the pressure a tournament of this magnitude will throw at him. Despite his unfortunate U.S. Championship campaign in 2015, he remains one of the most dangerous players in the world circuit and will undoubtedly be among the top contenders when the event reaches its final rounds.
The top three warriors will surely have the lion’s share of the spotlight, but let’s not forget about the young and upcoming talents of Ray Robson, Alex Lenderman, Sam Shankland, Jeffrey Xiong and Akshat Chandra. These young guns will try to bring their A-game and use their soaring energy levels and hunger to fight for the title.
Alex Onischuk, Gata Kamsky and Alexander Shabalov share 10 U.S. Championship titles among them, which by itself shows how big of an impact this trio will have throughout the 2016 U.S. Championship. Varuzhan Akobian has yet to claim the top American laurel, yet he is an experienced veteran and will surely be a tough nut to crack.
2016 U.S. Women's Championship
The Women’s Championship will likely be a less balanced affair than its counterpart. We can safely say that there are two clear favorites in the race for the national title: GM Irina Krush and IM Anna Zatonskih. These are most likely to be the names on every chess enthusiast’s lips heading into the final rounds, as the two ladies have dominated the U.S. Women’s Championship for the last decade, with Anna winning it four times and Irina winning six times since 2006.
Despite these dominant stats, the favorite duo will surely have a challenging time facing an opponent with one of the most uncompromising styles of play in the tournament, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan. Coming in as the third seed, Tatev is currently warming up at the strong Reykjavik Open where she is facing GM-level opponents on a daily basis. The audience can expect Tatev to come prepared and eager to claim her spot at the top of the national hierarchy.
Katerina Nemcova and Nazi Paikidze follow closely and are likely to be a decisive factor in the tournament standings. The young and upcoming talents completing the field will try to assert as much pressure as possible on the favorites. And if recent history is an indicator, we can expect some upsets along the way.
There is no doubt that the strongest U.S. Championships in history will provide an electrifying experience for fans all over the world. These dynamic and competitive players will throw everything they have at their opponents. Novelties, middlegame and endgame mastery, as well as clutch time trouble situations will be the ingredients that will crown the 2016 champions.
The countdown has begun; who will claim the largest-ever prize fund in U.S. Championship in history ($194,000 for the men, $100,000 for the women)? Following the closing ceremonies, the top three players from the U.S. Championship will face off in two days of blitz round robin with legendary chess World Champion Garry Kasparov.
Tickets and information on side events or live commentary can be found at www.uschesschamps.org.
Cristian Chirila is an International Grandmaster.