Just one problem with being at the absolute peak of your game: There is nowhere to go but down.
Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, the longtime American No. 1, is on absolute fire. A man on a mission, he spent the last half of 2014 making good on his intentions to become a World Champion candidate, and has spent the early portion of 2015 trampling on some of the world’s finer events.
During his global stomp, he surpassed a mark ambitiously pursued for many years -- only the 10th player in history to surpass the super-elite 2800 rating threshold -- and, though today he sits just slightly under the number, he basks in his career-best for each of FIDE’s rankings: Third in the world for Classical chess, and second on the globe for both Rapid and Blitz chess, trailing only the world champion.
Which brings us to the problem: The 2015 U.S. Chess Championship, to be played at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis from March 31 to April 14, will be the strongest in the history of our national title. The all-Grandmaster field averages a 2732 rating and features two players ranked within the top 10 in world, six within the top 100.
There will be blood. And some of it is certain to be Nakamura’s.
While the rest of the field fights each other as near-equals, Nakamura will likely be the only contender with a clear target on his back. His name alone will be circled on every player’s schedule, and they will each be well-prepared when that frightful day arrives. But with Nakamura at such a distance in front of the field, however, it won’t be his scalp they’ll be after -- many players will just be happy to get out of that day alive.
Draws may be what brings Nakamura down, a slow bleed in a tournament that will demand several victories from its winner. And the idea of an entire field of opponents who only want to split hairs works twofold against him: If every player is intent on playing it safe, the onus will be even heavier on Nakamura to go find the full point.
There’s no doubt he has the talent to handle this field just as well as he’s handled that of the world’s. But the forced strategy switch will, at best, be a double-edged sword: Constant aggression against any grandmaster -- let alone 11 of them -- is a dangerous path, indeed.
Robson and college chess
Webster University should have GM Ray Robson in full stride entering the 2015 U.S. Championship. America’s third-best by rating will begin the national title fight just days after joining Webster in the 2015 President’s Cup, also known as the Final Four of College Chess, which begins next weekend at the New York Athletic Club.
This year’s President’s Cup marks the third consecutive for Webster, which won the collegiate title both years and now seeks a three-peat. The squad qualified again in 2015 by winning the Pan-American Championship last December and, since 2012, Webster’s “A-team” has collected an undefeated record of 21 wins and 3 ties. They have maintained status as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation for more than 135 weeks, a college chess record.
Ultimately, next week’s President’s Cup will offer a great primer for the 2015 U.S. Championship, as each of the final four schools features a player also pursuing the national championship: the University of Texas-Dallas’ GM Conrad Holt; the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s WGM Nazi Paikidze; and Texas Tech coach GM Alex Onischuk, the 2014 “Grandmaster of the Year” who has maintained his status as one of the world’s top 100 players for more than 20 years.
Krush in Russia
Last week, we discussed reigning U.S. Women’s Champion GM Irina Krush and her potential pursuit of the $64,000 “Fischer Bonus” prize, awarded for a perfect 11-0 sweep of this year’s championship. This week, we may have found an answer to what might foil those plans: Krush’s own selfish intentions for world domination.
Krush is currently active in the Women’s World Chess Championship, which began Tuesday in Sochi, Russia. Featuring the same bracketology fever that the NCAA has whipped into a frenzy here in the U.S., the Women’s World Championship follows a 64-player knockout format, with each head-to-head round requiring three games across three days -- one game for each player as black and white, and a third tiebreaker day if needed. Krush, ranked the 27th strongest woman in the world, has entered as the 21st seed, alongside fellow Americans Tatev Abrahamyan (52nd seed) and Camilla Baginskaite (59th seed).
Doing the math, we can see what may alter Krush’s intentions to conquer the U.S. Women’s Championship: If America’s top woman advances to the World final four, she’ll miss the bell back here in the States. The last time the Women’s World Chess Championship featured a 64-player knockout bracket was 2012, and Krush advanced to the Sweet 16 before being eliminated on the tiebreaker day.
The potential absence could also be said for Abrahamyan, who has a chair reserved for her back here in St. Louis, as well -- though the knife is certain to cut one way: Assuming they both advance out of the first round, the bracket has set up the two Americans to meet in the second round, beginning tomorrow.