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On Chess: U.S. chess championship felt like a tornado

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2011 - I wasn't at the airport last month, but I still feel like I got hit by a tornado. For some players, the 2011 U.S. Chess Championship concluded April 29, but unfortunately April 21 was my last game. On the bright side, I had a ringside seat for the remainder of the matches, including the heart-pounding women's finals, which went into an Armageddon round (that's triple overtime)!

The tournament featured an interesting format -- the top two players from two eight-player round-robin groups qualified for the semi-final matches. The two semi-finalists from the "A" group were no surprise. Reigning Champion and Grandmaster (GM) Gata Kamsky and last year's runner-up, GM Yury Shulman, easily qualified for the "semis." But my group, group "B," was a wide-open affair in which two 19-year-old upstarts, GMs Robert Hess and Sam Shankland, both had fantastic results. Hess had an amazing run with four straight wins, but Shankland had a much more difficult path. He tied for second place with former U.S. Champion GM Alex Onischuk. In the playoff that followed, few gave Shankland any chances, but, lo and behold, youth won the day as a piece sacrifice and the numerous passed pawns it garnered were too much for the veteran.

The semis saw experience win out over youth, however, as Kamsky and Shulman bested their young opponents. Kamsky went on to extend his reign as Champion, beating Shulman in game one of their two-game match, and easily holding with the black pieces in game two.

Speaking of easily holding with the black pieces (having black in chess is a slight disadvantage at the top levels, since white moves first), I managed to draw all three games with black in the preliminary round-robin group. Unfortunately, my luck with the white pieces was nowhere to be found, as I then scored one win and three losses, despite moving first.

I started the event losing to top-ranked Onischuk. I sacrificed a pawn but did not get enough compensation, and I quickly went downhill from there. In round two, I drew Hess as my opponent. I got lucky, because while he built up a winning position early on, I was able to equalize due to his time pressure (sometimes the chess clock is your greatest foe).

My best game of the event was against Kentucky GM Gregory Kaidanov. Kaidanov accidentally sacrificed a pawn in the opening (accidents happen -- some of my best moves have been accidents), and I wiggled my way through the complications to score my only win. As the lowest-ranked player in my group, I was happy to have 50 percent at this point.

Next was my game with GM Larry Christiansen. He had won his first two games, but a loss in round three meant he would be out for blood. I played solidly as black and drew a long game. Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends for yours truly.

I lost in round five to GM Yasser Seirawan, giving him his only win in the event. The game was likely to be drawn, but I made a terrible blunder in the fifth hour of the game and was immediately in the losing position. Drawing with Sam Shankland in round six was alright, but losing a six-and-a-half hour game to GM Alex Shabalov after I had a winning position out of the opening was not the finish I had hoped for. In fact, I would have scored 50 percent if I had won, and tied for fourth in my group, but losing meant equal last. Chess can be cruel!

On the players' rest day before the start of the semis, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis treated the players to a Cardinals' game at Busch Stadium. The Birds won 4-2, although not until after a long rain delay and many tornado warnings. Although thankfully the tornado did not hit Busch Stadium, I still felt like I was blown away.{jcomments on}

Grandmaster Ben Finegold, 41, has been playing chess since he was 5 years old. In 2009, he attained the coveted title of international grandmaster and, in January 2010, accepted a position as the Resident Grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Ben has played in seven U.S. Championship events and will compete for the title once again in April 2011. He has been a professional chess teacher for more than 20 years, and his engaging personality, passion for chess and extensive experience make him one of the most sought-after instructors in the nation.

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