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Zatonskih wins national tournament at St. Louis chess club

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2009 - Anna Zatonskih has successfully defended her title as the top American woman chess player. She just won the 2009 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, which took place from Oct. 3-13 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

Zatonskih, a 31 year old who lives in Long Island, N.Y., defeated nine others to garner a record $15,000 first-place prize at the tournament and to qualify for the Women’s World Championship in Istanbul next year. She had earlier competed in the U.S. Chess Championship, which was also held at the chess center in the Central West End.

Ten of the nation's top-ranked women chess players face off next week at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis for the U.S. Women's Chess Championship.

Competitive chess remains a male-dominated game, and there is some debate within the chess world as to whether or not a women-only tournament is warranted, says Tony Rich, executive director of the club and scholastic center.

"People said, 'Isn't it a little demeaning to continue having this separate event?' But for the female championship, we really see it as an opportunity to spotlight women in chess," he says.

One of the highest honors in the chess world is to be dubbed a grandmaster. There are 1,200 grandmasters worldwide, and 20 of them are women, says two-time women's champion Jennifer Shahade.

"Female chess players have just as good of a chance at winning a chess tournament as male players," says Rich. "I think really what it boils down to is statistics. Statistically, there are fewer female chess players than male chess players, so ... there are fewer very strong female chess players than there are male chess players."

Shahade is chair of the organizing committee for the event and will offer commentary on the matches in real time. Over the course of her professional chess career, she has made it a point to promote women in the sport through her book "Chess Bitch" and 9 Queens, a national organization she co-founded that offers chess education to at-risk youth and girls in particular.

More young women have taken up the sport over the past 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Chess Federation. In 1999, for example, less than 2 percent of 21-year-old players were women. Today, about 8 percent are.

Blind Chess and more

Not all the action will take place around the club's chessboards.

On Friday, jazz musician and Tony nominee Ann Hampton Callaway and Denise Thimes will perform at the Contemporary Art Museum as a prelude to opening day.

In conjunction with its fall exhibit, "For the blind man in the dark room looking for a black cat that isn't there," the Contemporary also will host a blind chess event on Saturday.

At the event, Anna Zatonskih will simultaneously play five opponents while blindfolded.

How does one play chess without seeing the board?

A moderator will announce the coordinates of Zatonskih's opponents' moves to her - A through H horizontally and 1 through 8 vertically on the chessboard. Zatonskih will then announce which piece she would like to move based on the coordinate system. The greatest challenge comes in remembering where the pieces are on all five of the boards as she alternates between them.

Tony Rich, the club's executive director, confirms that "blind chess" is just as hard as it sounds.

"I tried to do it one time with just one board, and I got 15 moves into it or 20 moves into it and I couldn't keep track of it any more," he says.

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Shahade says the dynamic of the game does not change depending on the genders of the opponents; but, like Rich, she sees the women's championship as a way to encourage women to play.

"I think it's important to get more women into the game because chess offers girls and women a lot of great qualities: confidence and self-esteem and the ability to concentrate so hard that you lose a sense of time," she wrote in an e-mail.

Like the co-ed U.S. Championship held in St. Louis earlier this year, the women's tournament follows a round-robin format that allows every player to face off against each other at least once. The first place prize of $15,000 is the highest award in the women's championship history.

Defending champion Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush are regarded as the first- and second-place favorites based on rankings. As in any sport, however, fans know an upset is always possible. In this year's co-ed U.S. Championship, for example, Gata Kamsky came into the tournament ranked number one. Second-ranked Hikaru Nakamura, however, employed more risky strategies than his conservative counterpart and ultimately edged out Kamsky for the championship, proving that you can never underestimate the scrappiness of a gutsy underdog.

What's certain, says Rich, is the fact that everyone has his or her own theory as to what makes a champion.

"The running joke is if you ask nine people their opinions, you'll get 10 answers," he says.

Like Kamsky and Nakamura, the top two women for this tournament are no strangers to dramatic interludes. In a controversial tie-breaking match at last year's women's championship, Zatonskih won an Armageddon match over Krush to cinch the title, says Shahade.

In an Armageddon-style game, whoever is playing as white has to win to secure the match, but black needs only to draw. There is also a time limit - white has a total of six minutes of play, while black has four minutes, 30 seconds. Zatonskih on black won with one remaining second of playing time when Krush's time ran out.

After the match, Krush claimed Zatonskih had been moving her pieces before Krush hit the timer ending her turns, thereby using more than her allotted time to play.

"It turned out to be some kind of crazy fireworks where they're both moving so fast you can't tell what's going on," says Shahade. "Although both women would be worthy champions, it seemed like a very strange way to decide the U.S. women's championship."

The rules have been changed since last year: Instead of a blitz game such as the Armageddon, a rapid game will determine a tie. In a rapid game, each side has at least five seconds to move.

Additionally, Krush and Zatonskih played together on the U.S. Women's Olympic team to secure a bronze medal, the second team medal in the history of U.S. women's chess. Still, many in the chess world will be watching closely to see if sparks fly when they go head-to-head again, says Shahade.

Chess for Life

The chess club will also kick off its "Chess For Life" program in conjunction with Barnes-Jewish Hospital's Siteman Cancer Center on Oct. 9. The club will be donating both magnetized and non-magnetized boards for patients undergoing chemotherapy at the center. The idea for the program was prompted by a former patient, Jim Corbett, who used chess as an outlet when he was undergoing long hours of chemotherapy.

A Touch of Roulette

The day after the official tournament ends, a game designed by Shahade and artist and writer Larry List will be played by the crowned champion and a guest that has not yet been announced at the Kemper Art Museum. The game combines the chance of roulette with the strategy of chess, and players will be required to spin a large wheel on which all the pieces will be pictured and then move the piece the wheel lands on (as long as it's a legal move).

Chess City

As host of the tournament, the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center continues to build upon its national reputation. In August, the U.S. Chess Federation named St. Louis chess city of the year, in addition to bestowing awards on founder Rex Sinquefield and executive director Tony Richfor their efforts to promote chess in the city.

The club has also been chosen as the site for the 2010 U.S. Championship.

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.

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