They made it interesting for the longest time, but in the end it was the favorites raising the trophies at last week’s U.S. national championship tournaments at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.
Top seed GM Gata Kamsky, who needed a last-round win against GM Josh Friedel just to get into the playoffs, defeated GM Varuzhan Akobian 11/2- 1/2 in the rapid finals to capture his second straight U.S. crown and fifth overall. On the women’s side, it was GM Irina Krush also coming through in a playoff against WGM Tatev Abrahamyan to claim her third straight women’s crown and sixth overall.
Neither took an easy path to the title. Kamsky, who turns 40 next week, complained of being tired and endured a string of colorless draws before getting it into gear late in the tournament. He had to run down both Akobian and young GM Alex Lenderman, the early front-runner whose plus-three score portends even better results down the line. (We misread the scoreboard at deadline and mistakenly had Daniel Naroditsky also reaching the playoffs in last week’s column, but the young California GM came up a half-point short.)
Krush fell ill in mid-tournament and needed a win over archrival IM Anna Zatonskih in the penultimate round to ensure her slot in the playoffs. Although clearly the class of the American women’s game right now, Krush said afterward, “This one was definitely hard. I felt like I had one obstacle after another.”
While not exactly setting the world on fire, Kamsky was rock-solid, never really coming close to losing during the event. He also employed his trusty London System to good effect, both in the must-win game against Friedel and his title-clinching encounter with Akobian. As the Akobian game shows, the modest London System contains real bite in Kamsky’s hands.
White gets only a modest spatial edge out of the opening, but Black’s dilemma is that every option he has to break the bind comes with real risks. That’s evident on 20. Rxd4 Nf6 21. Rcd1 c5?! (an impatient move that doesn’t work out; White also has pressure after 21Red8 22. Na5 Rxd4 23. Qxd4 h6 24. Qa7! Qc7 25. Nxc6 Rc8 26. Nd4, so Black’s best here might have been the modest but useful 21h6) 22. bxc5 Qxc5 23. Nd6 Rf8 (Re7 allows 24. Bxa6!) 24. Nxb7 Qa7 (Be4 25. Nxc5 Rxb2 26. Bxa6 Bg6 27. a4 and White is better) 25. Rb4 Be4 26. Nd6 Rxb4 27. Qxb4, and White has won a pawn.
Akobian may have thought White’s cluttered kingside pawns would give him drawing chances, but an oversight gives Kamsky a second pawn and Black’s game collapses: 29. Qf4 Be6? (Qb6 30. a3 h6 makes White work for the win) 30. Nxg7! Kxg7 31. Qg5+ Kf8 32. Qxf6, when 32Bxa2? 33. Bg4! sets up the killer threat of 34. Rd7. One last mini-tactic hands Kamsky the crown on 36. Bf5 Bxf5 37. Qxf5 Qc5? (losing at once, while 37Qa6 38. a4 Re8 39. Qc5+ Kg7 40. Rb4 merely loses over the longer term) 38. Rd8+!, and Black resigns because a rook is lost after 38Kg7 39. Qxc8 and a queen is lost after 38Rxd8 39. Qxc5+.
The most exciting game of the playoffs was the “Armageddon” preliminary game between Abrahamyan and Zatonskih for the right to take on Krush in the finale. After the players made their bids, Zatonskih got the White pieces, but Black enjoyed draw odds and a significant edge on the clock. In a sharp Classical Nimzo-Indian, White found a promising piece sacrifice that comes close to mating her opponent, but the time deficit may have kept her from working out the winning path.
With 5. e5!?, White is already signaling her desire for an unbalanced game, and things get very interesting after 11. cxd5 exd5 12. f3 (Bxe4 dxe4 13. Qxe4 dxc3 is better for Black) Nc5 13. Bxh7+ Kh8 14. 0-0 dxc3, when there is an alarming lack of defenders anywhere near the Black king.
White rolls the dice with 15. Nxc3 Be6 (see diagram) 16. Nxd5!? (this generates a lot of chances, but even better may have been 16. Rb1! Nbd7 17. Rb4, with opportunities for Abrahamyan to go wrong in lines such as 17Nxe5? [d4 is better] 18. Rh4 Rfe8 19. Bg5! f6 [with the bishop covering e7, the threat was 20. Bg8+ Kxg8 21. Qh7+ Kf8 22. Qh8 mate] 20. Bxf6! gxf6 21. f4 Nf7 22. Qg6 Qd8 23. Bg8+ and wins) Bxd5 17. Qf5 Qb6 (Re8 18. Qh5 Rxe5 19. Qxe5 Nbd7 20. Qxd5 Kxh7 21. Qxf7 Qc3 22. Qh5+ Kg8 23. Qd5+ Kh8 24. Rb1 and White is clearly ahead) 18. Qh3 Ne6+ 19. Kh1 Rd8, and now White should have tried 20. Be4+ Kg8 21. Qh7+ Kf4 22. a4, and the coming bishop check on a3 looks lethal; e.g. 22Qc6 23. Ba3+ Nc5 24. e6! fxe6 25. Qh8+ Ke7 26. Qxg7+ Kd6 27. Bxd5 exd5 28. Rfe1 Qd7 29. Bxc5+ Kxc5 30. Rac1+ Kb6 31. Qb2+ and the Black king will soon be mated.
But White goes with 20. a4? first, allowing 20Nf8! 21. Bf5+ Kg8 22. Rb1 Qa6 23. Bg5 Re8 24. Rfd1 Be6, and Black’s knight on f8 is covering all of her previous weak squares. Needing just a draw to advance, Abrahamyan skillfully combines offense and defense with moves such as 28Qa2 and 30Qe2! (to meet 30. Qh6 with 30Qe1+), keeping White’s still-ominous mating attack from breaking through. After 31. h4 Qf2! 32. R6d4 (h5 Qh4+ 33. Qxh4 Nxh4) Nd7!? (quicker was 32Re1+! 33. Kh2 [Rxe1 Qxe1+ 34. Kh2 Qe5+] Rxd1 34. Qh6 Qg1+ 35. Kg3 Qe1+ 36. Kh3 Qe6+ 37. Kh2 Qxf6 38 Rxd1 Qxh4+ and wins) 33. h5, White’s desperate efforts to keep her attack alive only land her in a losing position.
Black could have taken the full point (38Qxd4 39. gxf7+ Kxf7 40. Qg7+ Ke6 41. Qe7+ Kf5 and the Black king is safe) but goes for the bird in hand with a perpetual check that punches her ticket to the finale.
Kamsky-Akobian, Playoff, U.S. Championships, St. Louis, May 2014
1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 c6 3. e3 Bf5 4. Nf3 e6 5. Be2 Bd6 6. Bg3 Nf6 7. Nbd2 O-O 8. c4 Ne4 9. Qb3 Bxg3 10. hxg3 Nd7 11. Nxe4 Bxe4 12. O-O Rb8 13. Nd2 Bg6 14. Qa3 a6 15. Rac1 Re8 16. b4 Qe7 17. Qb2 dxc4 18. Nxc4 e5 19. Rfd1 exd4 20. Rxd4 Nf6 21. Rcd1 c5 22. bxc5 Qxc5 23. Nd6 Rf8 24. Nxb7 Qa7 25. Rb4 Be4 26. Nd6 Rxb4 27. Qxb4 Bd5 28. Nf5 Re8 29. Qf4 Be6 30. Nxg7 Kxg7 31. Qg5+ Kf8 32. Qxf6 Kg8 33. Qg5+ Kf8 34. Bd3 a5 35. Bxh7 Rc8 36. Bf5 Bxf5 37. Qxf5 Qc5 38. Rd8+ Black resigns.