SANDS: Familiar faces capture national, women’s titles

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There were some upstart contenders banging on the door, but in the end, it was a pair of familiar names at the top of the wall chart at the U.S. national and women’s championships, which finished up last week at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

Top-seeded GM Gata Kamsky became the first American to successfully defend his U.S. crown in a quarter-century, defeating fellow GM Yuri Shulman 1 1/2- 1/2 in the knockout final. Remarkably, the last back-to-back titleholder was GM Lev Alburt, who repeated as champion in 1984 and 1985. Youth was served in the consolation match, as GM-elect Sam Shankland defeated fellow up-and-comer GM Robert Hess in overtime to nail down third place. We could very well see these two, both 19, in a title match in the coming years.

On the women’s side, it was IM Anna Zatonskih capturing her fourth women’s U.S. title and second in three years, holding off WFM Tatev Abrahamyan in a sudden-death “Armageddon” match after the two split their two-game final at classical time controls and traded victories in the two-game rapid playoff. In the consolation match, it was defending champ IM Irina Krush triumphing over WGM Camilla Baginskaite.

Kamsky had a few difficult moments but didn’t drop a game throughout his title run this year. In the decisive game against Shulman, the dogged Brooklyn GM made the most of a tiny endgame advantage to bring home a critical point. The only early drama in this Open Catalan is the fate of White’s advanced knight, but after 23. f3 Nc5 24. Nxc5 Bxc5+, the symmetrical pawn structure and dead-even material balance seem to suggest a draw is in the offing.

After 31. Kc2 Be7 32. Bc3, White has a minuscule edge because of his better-placed rook and bishop, and Kamsky said later he began to entertain thoughts of victory after Shulman’s committal 32…f5?! (better was either 32…Rb7 or 32…f6) 33. Rd1 Bc5 34. h3 h5 35. g4! hxg4 36. hxg4 37. fxg4, when suddenly White has a number of good files for his rook to enter the Black position.

Kamsky-Shulman after 32...f5.

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Kamsky-Shulman after 32…f5. more >

With 38. Rb1 Kd7?! 39. Rb7+ Kd6 40. Rg7 Rh8 41. Rxg6 Rh2, Black gives up a pawn to activate his rook, but White finds a neat way to simplify down to a won ending: 44. Kc2 Be3?! (this may be the last, fatal inaccuracy, virtually ensuring a rook trade; on 44…Rg2, White still has to work out a win) 45. Rd8+ Ke7 46. Rd3! Bf4 47. Bb4+ Kf6 48. Rxg Bxg3 49. Kb2.

White’s g-pawn is doomed, but now Shulman’s a-pawn is lost, and after 51. Kxa4 Bf2 52. c5!, both the Black king and bishop are sealed off from the queen-side. In the final position, Black resigned ahead of 58…Bg3 59. a6 Bb8 60. c6 e5 61. c7 Bxc7 62. a7 and wins.

Zatonskih and Krush have one of the best rivalries in American chess, with a long history and some bad blood in past encounters. Their semifinal match this year did not disappoint, with each player winning a game at classical and rapid-chess time controls, necessitating a single Armageddon finale. As Black, Zatonskih needed just a draw to triumph but had just 27 minutes to her opponent’s 45. In the end, she not only held the draw but won outright.

Krush chose an aggressive Queen’s Gambit Exchange line, but Black’s prepared 12. Rc1 c6 13. a3 Nd3+!? 14. Bxd3 Bxd3 appears to throw White off her game a bit, with the opposite-colored bishops making a win more difficult. The big question is whether White’s impressive pawn center will prove a strength or a target.

Even with draw odds, Black takes an admirably aggressive tack with 20. Rhg1 f5! 21. e5 Rad8 22. Bh2 Bf7, when White’s pawn center is frozen, her bishop lacks scope, and her king is awkwardly placed in the center. Those drawbacks end up costing Krush a pawn on 27. b4 a5! (with all of her pieces better positioned, Black stands to benefit from any opening of the position) 28. Kd3 Red8 (with the nasty threat of 29…Rxd4+ 30. Nxd4 Nxf4+) Bg5 Nxg5 30. hxg5 axb4 31. axb4 Rxe5, exploiting the pin.

Desperate to gin up some counterplay, White only makes things worse with 32. Rc5 Re7 33. b5?! Bd5 34. Rf2 (bxc6 Bxf3 35. c7 Rc8 36. Rf2 Be4+ 37. Ke3 Rexc7) b6 35. Rc1 axb5; down two pawns with no counterplay and an opponent who merely needs a draw to advance, White decided to pack it in.

Kamsky will have little time to celebrate, as the first game of his four-game world championship candidates’ match against Bulgarian star Veselin Topalov will be played Thursday in Kazan, Russia. Other quarterfinal pairings: Ex-champ Vladimir Kramnik (Russia) vs. Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan); Levon Aronian (Armenia) vs. Alexander Grischuk (Russia); and Boris Gelfand (Israel) vs. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan).

The survivor of the six-game final match later this month will meet reigning champion Viswanathan Anand of India for the world crown in a 12-game match set for the first half of 2012.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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