Shulman wins U.S. chess title

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He came up just short the last two years, but Chicago GM Yury Shulman wouldn’t be denied this time.

With a dominating midtournament stretch, the Belarus-born Shulman won his first U.S. national title, winning the Frank K. Berry U.S. Championship tournament outright with an undefeated 7-2 score, a half-point ahead of GM Alexander Onischuk.

Shulman finished second in 2006 to Onischuk and third in the 2007 event, won by Alex Shabalov. This year, he put the field in his rear-view mirror with five wins and a draw in six games starting in Round 2. His victims in the streak included four grandmasters — Boris Gulko, Gregory Kaidanov, Sergey Kudrin and Julio Becerra Rivero.

A short final-round draw Wednesday with IM Josh Friedel clinched the title for the 33-year-old Shulman, while Friedel’s 5½-3½ score gave him his third and final norm for the grandmaster title.

Potomac IM Larry Kaufman, hurt by a slow start, finished with a 3-6 score, tying for 20th in the strong 24-man field.

There was high drama on the women’s side, as Anna Zatonskih caught front-runner IM Irina Krush with a last-round win over Tsagaan Battsetseg, and then prevailed in a winner-take-all blitz game after she and Krush split four previous rapid and blitz playoff matches. It’s the second U.S. women’s title for Ukrainian-born Zatonskih, who also won in 2006.

The final game of Shulman’s streak, against Becerra Rivero, featured his pet French Defense line and a sparkling final mating combination. The Winawer Poisoned Pawn line with 7. Qg4 almost always produces sharp, unbalanced play, and Shulman gives a virtuoso performance on how to handle the Black pieces.

After 14. Rb1 Na5 15. h4, a great fighting position has been reached. Black is down a pawn, but has the half-open g-and c-files to play on. White’s king has no safe harbor, but that h-pawn can often prove decisive if Black’s attack sputters.

But White’s bishops never get in the game, and after 20. a4 Qc5 (Nxe5!? 21. Qc3 Bxe2 22. fxe5 Bxf1 23. Kxf1 Qxc3 24. Rxc3+ was an intriguing alternative) 21. Ba3 Bc6 22. Qc3 Rg4!, Shulman later remarked that White has trouble finding useful moves.

The h-pawn runs but it can’t hide and Black establishes a winning bind on 27. Qb4 b5! (sidestepping the messy 27…Bxb3!? 28. cxb3 Nb6 29. Nd4 Nxd4 30. Qxd4 Kb8 [Rgxh7 31. Rxh7 Rxh7 32. Be3] 31. Be3 Nc8 32. Qd3) 28. Rh5 a5 29. Qc3 Rgxh7.

Now 30. Rxh7 Rxh7 31. Rb1 Rh1 32. Ra1 b4 33. Qd3 Nce3 34. Bxe3 Nxe3 35. Ng3 Rxf1+ 36. Nxf1 Nxc2 is lost for White, but his decision to sacrifice the exchange with 30. Rxf5 exf5 31. Qd3 fails to cut into Black’s edge.

With the h-file now firmly in his possession, Shulman administers the coup de grace: 35…Qb5 36. Kf2 Rh1! (with the idea of 37…Qb6+ 38. Ke2 Rxf1! 39. Kxf1 Rh1+ 40. Ke2 Qb1, with lethal threats) 37. Bd6+ Kb7 38. Be2 Qb6+ 39. Kg3 R1h3+!, when 40. gxh3 Qg1+ 41. Kf3 Rxh3 is mate.

Friedel not only achieved the grandmaster norm, he played one of the more attractive attacking games of the tournament in defeating Gulko in Round 4. White here allows his bishop to be trapped by Black’s advancing pawns, but launches an attack that never lets up until his opponent concedes.

Friedel rolls the dice with 13. Nc3 Ndb4 14. Qe4!? f5 15. Qe2 f4, when Black snares the bishop but opens up his king to a strong attack. After 16. Qc4+ Kg7 17. d5 fxg3, trying to recover the piece with 18. dxc6? gxf2+ 19. Kh1 bxc6 20. Qxb4 cxb5 just leaves Black with the better game.

Instead, White pitches a whole rook as the position becomes fiendishly complex: 18. hxg3 Nc2 19. dxc6! (Rac1? N6d4 20. Rfd1 Rxf3 21. gxf3 Nxf3+ 22. Kg2 Ncd4 is fine for Black) Nxa1 20. Rd1! Qf6 21. Ne4 Be6 (see diagram; on 21…Qxb2, White has 22. cxb7 Bxb7 [Bf5 23. bxa8=Q Rxa8 24. g4! Bxe4 25. Rd2] 23. Rd7+ Kh8 24. Qe6! Bxf2+ 25. Kh1, winning). Both queens are hanging, White is down a rook for a pawn, and Black has a knight trapped on a1.

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