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On chess: 2011 U.S. Chess Championships are about to start

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2011 - The buzz is starting in St. Louis - the equipment is primed, the players are working on their best moves and the doors are ready to open to the public. Oh, I'm not talking baseball, I'm talking chess. Chess's star is rising, and St. Louis is fast becoming a chess hub to newbies, veterans and future chess legends via the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

The Club, which opened in 2007, is so well appointed that it could beckon players on its looks alone. This year marks the third time it has been selected to host the U.S. Championship Tournament. The tournament is the big event for chess in the United States - think of it as the World Series of chess - and this year's event is notable in that it is the first time that the U.S. Championship will be held concurrently with the U.S. Women's Chess Championship.

On April 13 through 28, our city will welcome the best chess players from around the U.S. as they vie for prizes ranging from $18,000 to $40,000. The championship features 16 formidable players, 15 of whom have attained the highest title a player can attain: grandmaster (or GM). The Women's Championship has eight participants, all strong players capable of capturing the crown.

Defending U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky and defending U.S. Women's Champion Irina Krush will be playing to retain their thrones. Kamsky's main threats will be former U.S. Champions Alex Onischuk, Yury Shulman and Yasser Seirawan - think Albert Pujols going head to head with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jim Thome.

Seirawan has been U.S. champion several times but has been retired for a number of years. He decided the chess scene in St. Louis was too good to pass up and aims to prove that a player north of 50 years old can still compete with the young guns in this competitive field.

The two youngest U.S. championship competitors are 16-year-old GM Ray Robson, and 15-year-old International Master (IM) Daniel Naroditsky. Robson was the last one to qualify for the U.S. championship after winning a close playoff with Texas GM Alejandro Ramirez in a qualification event.

Rounding out the field are GMs Varuzhan Akobian, Jaan Ehlvest, Alexander Stripunsky, Larry Christiansen, Robert Hess, Alexander Shabalov, Gregory Kaidanov, Alexander Ivanov, Sam Shankland and yours truly.

The Women's Championship usually comes down to one of the two favorites: Krush and the International Master Anna Zatonskih. Despite having been teammates representing the U.S. women's team on many occasions, Krush and Zatonskih are bitter rivals, continually sparring for the top U.S. women's ranking - to bring it back to my baseball analogy, their competition is at the Cards vs. Cubs level. The other six players are IM Rusudan Goletiani, WGM Camilla Baginskaite, WIMs Tatev Abrahamyan, Sabina Foisor, Iryna Zenyuk, and FIDE Master Alisa Melekhina.

Following an opening ceremony at the Missouri History Museum, the first round of play for both tournaments will begin at 2 p.m. on April 15. Tournament updates and events to come - the matches are open to the public, so feel free to stop by the Club and root, root for your home team and your favorite GM (that would be me).

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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