This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 25, 2011 - Having competed in six prior U.S. Championships, including the past two here at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, it is certainly an unusual feeling to be a casual observer this year. Over the past few months, I have raised my rating to number eight in the world, and I elected to not play in this year's event to focus my energy on preparing for the world elite and the next World Championship cycle.
This break has allowed me to witness the U.S. Championships from the perspective of a chess player and fan. I've enjoyed following all of the games at the same time and watching the great commentary from Grandmaster (GM) Maurice Ashley and Woman Grandmaster (WGM) Jennifer Shahade. Typically, when I compete in such events, I will occasionally peruse the various games, but never have I had the opportunity to pay such close attention to the event as a whole.
Prior to the start of the 2011 U.S. Women's Championship, many people assumed that it would be a big showdown in the finals between the two previous champions, International Masters Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush. However, the tournament has been full of surprises.
In round one, Krush blundered away her queen against WGM Sabina Foisor, and Zatonskih got off to a terrible start with just one win, one draw and two losses. Krush regained her form and rattled off a string of wins. Meanwhile, Zatonskih staged a remarkable comeback to qualify for the Quad Finals.
After a preliminary round robin between eight players, the top four advanced to the quad finals, and because of Zatonskih's slow start, the marquis match-up between her and Krush came in the semi-finals. The two square off today in a rapid playoff to determine who will advance to the finals.
In the early going, I was quite impressed by the play from the 22-year-old Foisor, who started off with two wins and a draw and was leading for most of the way. Unfortunately two costly losses, in large part due to nerves, cost her a shot at the title. She will certainly have gained valuable experience from this event and will look for more next year.
In the U.S. Championship, there have been quite a few surprises as well. Much like the women's tournament, this championship featured two preliminary round robins of eight players, and the top two players from each group advanced to the quad finals.
Many people were predicting the favorites to qualify for the quad finals, such as reigning and two-time U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky, and former U.S. Champion GMs Alex Onischuk and Yury Shulman. But similar to the chess world in general, there are more and more younger players who are rising to challenge the veterans.
Robert Hess, now 19, came within a hair's breadth of winning in 2009 and has continued to develop into a solid GM and a contender every time. I doubt that many people expected him to play solidly throughout the qualification stage and advance to the semifinals without any trouble at all.
On the other hand, many people (myself included) were highly disappointed in the play from Onischuk (ranked number three in the United States by rating) who failed to advance after losing a playoff against 19-year-old Sam Shankland.
I must give a special mention to 15-year-old International Master Daniel Naroditsky. Although he lost several games, he left no doubt that he is capable of competing at this level and that with more experience he can be expected to grow into a formidable contender.
Last night, Kamsky managed to outplay Shankland to advance to the finals of the U.S. Championship, but Shankland's performance demonstrated his continued improvement. Hess and Shulman will play a rapid playoff today to determine who will take on the Kamsky in the finals.
Catch all of the action live at www.uschesschamps.com to see if the youth will trump experience as the U.S. Championships continue to unfold.
Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, 23, is the highest-rated player in the United States and is currently ranked number eight in the world. At age 15, he broke Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest American grandmaster and just one year later, secured his first U.S. Championship title. He won the U.S. Championship again in 2009. Last year, Nakamura moved to St. Louis in response to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis' promotion of both top-level and scholastic chess at the local and national level.