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On Chess: Superstars dazzle at 2011 U.S. Open

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2011 - The 2011 U.S. Chess Open was by far the strongest U.S. Open in recent memory. This traditional event, won in 1957 by chess legend Bobby Fischer, has finally regained its spot as one of the top open events in America. Lately this event has been overshadowed by the magnum World Open, which is held in Philadelphia each year. This year, however, the 112th U.S. Open had a field full of chess stars that made it comparable in strength to any event in the world.

As most major American tournaments, the U.S. Open consists of different schedules in which the players can enter, with a big merger between the groups somewhere along the road. In most of these events, the top players prefer the shorter sections (fewer days of play with quicker time controls in the early going) and avoid the longer ones, preferring to get the early rounds out of the way quickly. This year was no exception, as the tournament's traditional schedule started off with only three grandmasters: GM Alonso Zapata from Colombia, GM Kidambi Sundararajan from India and GM Larry Kauffman from the U.S.

The ante was really taken to a new level in the six-day section. As the defending champion, I joined this section expecting to be the first seed. However, this was not the case, as Dutch superstar GM Loek Van Wely joined the event -- attracting a lot of talk. Van Wely is more commonly seen in the closed, invitation-only circuits in Europe. Besides the two of us, many-time U.S. Champion GM Alexander Shabalov, GM Alex Lenderman and GM Julio Sadorra, as well as a series of strong international masters, joined the field.

After a few days of playing, there were very few upsets. Shabalov was held to a draw in round one, but besides that, the tournament proceeded very smoothly.

The bloodbath that proceeded in the four-day section, however, was unheard of.

The four-day event was joined by nine more grandmasters. It was not so much the sheer number of grandmasters that was so impressive, but their strength was without precedent. From Georgia (the country), GM Giorgi Kacheishvili and GM Tamaz Gelashvili joined the fray; from Denmark came GM Lars Bo Hansen; from Uzbekistan GM Timur Gareev. This field was already a daunting group of grandmasters for any event, especially in America. But the cherry that really topped this event was the return of world No. 6 and America's No. 1, GM Hikaru Nakamura.

Contrary to expectations, this was not a clean sweep by Hikaru, as he was held to a draw as early as round three by Floridian local IM Daniel Fernandez. He recovered quickly and led the four-day section when it merged with the other two during round seven. At that point, the tournament was up for grabs for any one of the grandmasters who entered the event. After many strong and sometimes surprising games, the last round pitted GM Lenderman against GM Nakamura for the first spots. A win would give either player clear first place, but after a long struggle, Lenderman managed to hold a draw, opening the event for any player that had half a point less to catch them.

A cascade of decisive games happened on boards two through five: Gelashvili over GM Julio Becerra; Kacheishvili over GM Alex Goldin; Gareev over GM Dmitry Gurevich; myself over Sadorra. At the end, no less than seven grandmasters ended tied for first with a massive 7.5/9 score.

Because every good championship deserves a clear winner, a tiebreak playoff was played between those who had played against the strongest opposition. That happened to be GM Lenderman and myself. I was presented with a beautiful chance to repeat as U.S. Open Champion, but alas, this would not be the case as I was soundly outplayed in the five-minute playoff.

It is a pleasure to have played an event that caught the world's attention. On top of that, I feel I had a good event, and that the level of chess exhibited at this event will continue boosting tournaments around America. And, of course, there is the added benefit of having played and won a tournament alongside superstars of Hikaru Nakamura's magnitude.

Alejandro Ramirez, 23, was born in San Jose, Costa Rica, and has been a grandmaster since the age of 15. He is attending the University of Texas - Dallas on a chess scholarship where he is pursuing a masters degree in Arts & Technology. Ramirez is filling in as the Resident Grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis while Ben Finegold is traveling.

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