A Victory for Alexander Shabalov and Fighting Chess in US Championship
Riddle me this... Which two veterans of the 1992 Latvian Olympiad teams won US Championship titles in 2003? A hint: both came to the USA around the same time less than year later and were a romantic item for a while. Alexander Shabalov of Pittsburgh (and Moscow?!) and Anna Hanh of New Jersey are your 2003 US Champions. (If her name sounds familiar but not quite, Anna is an ex-Khan. Her family changed the English spelling of their last name a few years ago.)
Shabalov as Batman and Varuzhan Akobian as Robin came to the rescue of the 2003 US Championships in Seattle. When a pack of jokers threatened to push the title fight into the nightmare of a ten-player blitz playoff, our heroes saved the day with a thrilling battle that left the 35-year-old Latvian-born Shabalov as the sole winner. (Thankfully, the Penguin didn't show up.) Shabalov had entered round eight as the clear leader but lost a brilliancy prize game to Benjamin. He vowed to come back and throw caution to the wind on the final day.
The 6.5/9 score netted Shaba $25,000 and his second US championship title. He shared the title with Yermolinsky in 1993. In 2000 Shabalov tied for first with Benjamin and Seirawan but the playoff for the title was dominated by Benjamin. Hahn's previous best was a second place finish behind Krush in 1998.
Going into the ninth and final round eight players were tied with 5.5 and the prospect of a massive blitz playoff for 25 thousand dollars was looming large. One of the press room jokes was that the rest of the event had just been a qualifier for the real championship, which was going to be a round-robin blitz playoff if required.
Things looked even worse when Fedorowicz-Benjamin and Stripunsky-Gulko were drawn before their chairs were warm. The Fed and Benjamin are old New York buddies who have trained together in the past and no one expected them to play longer than the 13 moves their game lasted. (The first game between them to make the Megabase was 10 moves long. The last few games between them have lasted 11, 12, 16,15, 10, and 14 moves. As far as I can tell they've never played a game of over 23 moves and all have been draws.) At the closing ceremony Shabalov congratulated the arbiters for managing to avoid pairing Benjamin and Fedorowicz for as long as possible!
Stripunsky-Gulko lasted all of seven moves, a slightly more overt smack in the face to fans and sponsors. Ivanov-Kaidanov lasted eight moves, but at least one of the players was annoyed about it. The top-seeded Kaidanov had hoped to play for a win but Ivanov, just happy to be there, quickly swapped things off and offered a draw. The game actually lasted longer than the others because Kaidanov sat there for a while kicking himself for allowing such a sterile position.
The Saturday crowd at the Seattle Center was huge. It was standing room only in both the playing hall and the commentary room. The disgusted audience thinned quickly as the top boards emptied as if someone had set off a fire alarm that only Grandmasters could hear. The sponsors heard things loud and clear and the AF4C have promised a shake-up next year to try to avoid such things.
Next year there will probably be a mix of carrot and stick approaches to encourage fighting chess and discourage (or even prohibit) short draws. This year there was only a carrot, and it was a surprise that came at the closing ceremony. Along with the big checks, both champions received engraved watches from Bailey Banks & Biddle and custom-made gold medallions (one a king, the other a queen). Then things got interesting.
Erik Anderson is the mind and money behind America's Foundation for Chess. He spends a great deal of time raising sponsorship for the event as well as putting in a lot of cash out of his pocket. Clearly dismayed by the lack of fight on the top boards in the final round, he stunned the crowd with a personal gesture at the closing ceremony. He praised Shabalov and Akobian for their fighting spirit and announced he was giving them each a five thousand dollar bonus for their effort! A stunned Shabalov could only shake his head and the earnest young Akobian, who missed a GM norm by half a point thanks to the final round loss, was delighted.
We'll have to see next year if the players can be bribed into doing what they should be doing in the first place. Changes in the scoring system could be made, such as the 3-1-0 win-draw-loss formula used in several professional football leagues. Even though Shabalov walked off into the sunset alone with the big prize, the final round peaceniks still came away with over nine thousand dollars each, almost double what Akobian got for losing. In rectifying this, Anderson's gesture was surely the incarnation of good karma.
We all know you can't force players to play if they don't want to. (And it's not as if the players who finished at +3 didn't work hard to earn their scores. If those draws had occured in round four nobody would be talking about it at all.) Minimum move counts and minimum time spent can both be trivially ignored by colluding players. The trick is to get them to want to play. Changing the scoring and/or the prize distribution would be steps in the right direction. Basing a percentage of the prize money on number of wins, maybe? This discussion goes around every year or two with little action ever being taken in major events.
Take pack of seven players who finished 2-7 in Seattle with 6/9. Five of them finished undefeated with three wins. Goldin and Fedorowicz had four wins and a loss each. Under a 3-1-0 point system they would have finished ahead of the others. A more familiar way to do things would be to use number of wins as a tiebreaker that is relevant to prize money. This would have a similar effect where it counts without distorting the standings.
The women's championship is integrated into the same Swiss tournament as the men's and the champion is the woman with the highest score. The obvious problem with this is that they usually finish in the middle-bottom of the standings and the middle pack in a Swiss-system tournament is incredibly random. One point can often mean a difference of 20 places! And as so often happens, the three women who ended up tying for the top score with 4.5 played very different tournaments.
Jennifer Shahade, last year's big winner, was at or near the top of the women's field for most of the event. She faced a field with an average rating of 2466 in her nine games. This is well over her own 2330 rating and she was the lower rated player in all nine of her games. If she had drawn against Finegold in the last round instead of losing she would have won clear first. (As I reported in the Daily Dirt at ChessNinja.com the day it happened, Shahade was originally paired to play Irina Krush, her nearest competitor. She challenged the slightly irregular pairing and the arbiters reversed it. Follow the link for the full story.)
Krush played against a field that averaged 2386, lower than her own 2433. She drew her final game to edge into the playoff when Shahade lost. Anna Hahn had a bizarre tournament that was only made more surreal when she won the playoff and the title on Sunday. Her opponents' rating average was 2280 compared to her own 2219. (It would have been difficult to face a weaker field in this event.) She defeated only other women players, she drew only one game during the entire event, and seven of those eight games were won by black! She won her two last games, including a gift-wrapped mate in the final round handed to her by former champion Elina Groberman. But none of that mattered on Sunday.
From a clear leader we went to a three-player playoff. There were three games and the time control was fifteen minutes plus a five seconds per move increment. First up was the big rating mismatch, Hahn-Krush. Afterwards when I interviewed her on video for ChessBase Magazine, Hahn said she had played "free and easy, I hadn't expected to be there and I had nothing to lose. I think Jen and Irina were more nervous." In a very complicated game Hahn ended up with a rook + knight versus two knights + bishop with passed pawns on both sides. Krush couldn't find the exact moves required and then blundered the bishop away. Hahn's king escaped the knights while her own pawns marched down the board to victory.
Krush had to play again immediately, this time with white against Shahade, who was visibly a bundle of nerves. The defending champion sacrificed a piece for some attacking chances but Krush defended well and her counterattack was lethal. This meant that Shahade would have to beat Hahn to leave them all with one point and in another playoff round.
This looked like what was going to happen after Shahade found the nice 26.Ra5! that took the queens off the board and left her with a winning advantage. Hahn was just hanging on when Shahade blundered by forcing the rooks off the board. Suddenly Hahn's bishops were slicing up the white knights and pawns and we had a new US Women's Champion. Not that SHE knew about it! Hahn thought that there was another round to play and it took a few minutes before she realized that it was all over and she had won the title and $12,500.
Say what you will about her route to the title, but Hahn produced when it counted and defeated two former champions head-to-head. Shabalov was the only top board player who had the guts to play for a win in the final round and it paid off big time. (Since it takes two to tango, partial credit goes to his dance partner Akobian.)
The Paul Albert Jr. brilliancy prizes were awarded by Jeremy Silman, well known for his best-selling books. Two games shared the $400 third brilliancy prize: Serper-Ippolito and Seirawan-Lapshun. As Silman put it, "in both games Black was blasted off the board." Second brilliancy prize and $600 went to J.Donaldson-Kudrin, a very nice squeeze. As mentioned above the $1000 first brilliancy prize went to Benjamin-Shabalov, a thrilling counterpunching affair in round eight. Download the four brilliancy prize games in PGN.
Benjamin accepted the check and quipped, "It wouldn't have been a great game if not for the way Alexander played and I feel in part that this should be shared with him. Except that he's won so much money here already I'm going to keep the whole thing!" It was a nice bonus for a Joel, who was playing in his 21st consecutive US Championship!
Yes, you read that correctly. Benjamin has qualified and participated in every US Championship since his first in 1981, when he was 17. This is a remarkable tale of consistency when you consider that until recently they were all closed events and that dozens of very strong players have emigrated to the US in the past 25 years. He won the title in 87, 97, and 2000. I'm not sure what it says about the state of US chess development, but six other players from that 1981 event (which included Reshevsky!) were playing in Seattle. Browne and Seirawan (who shared first in 81), Christiansen, Fedorowicz, Kudrin, and Lein (at 71 the oldest player in Seattle).
Shabalov made some interesting comments during his acceptance speech. He singled out a few "players who impressed me." He mentioned Nakamura for his rapid progress and Muhammad as the biggest surprise of the tournament. (He made his IM title in Seattle and several other players received norms.)
Shabalov also praised Akobian. The 19-year-old Armenian recently received the Samford scholarship, which means he can work full time at chess. Shabalov said, "not to offend Michael, Boris, and Dean, but after many years it looks like something will come out of the Samford. I mean, we're going to have another Grandmaster in a year or two." They would be Michael Mulyar, Boris Kreiman, and Dean Ippolito, all former Samford winners, none of whom have become GMs yet and all of whom were in attendance.
You can't have big chess without big sponsors and you don't keep sponsors unless they get something for their money. A group called 'Chiropractors for a Healthy Mind and Body' were the title sponsors of the tournament. JP Morgan and Chessmaster were two others. Erik Anderson put in enough of his own money to make a dent in balancing the Argentine economy. America's Foundation for Chess focuses on scholastic chess and on making the US Championships a world class event. You can read more and even donate online at www.af4c.org.
The event was run very well thanks to Yvette Nagel Seirawan and her team. They treated players, press, and spectators with limitless hospitality. There is talk of putting the Championships on the road in the future, but no matter where it takes place you couldn't have a better chess experience than to come visit the event. Kudos to AF4C director Michelle Anderson and everyone involved. Special thanks to AF4C press officer John Henderson for the use of his photos, his fridge, and his futon!