2002 US Championship (Seattle, WA)

2002 US Chess Championship is a History now! Congratulation to Larry Christioansen (winner on tiebreaks) and Nick Defirmian for a very successful result - 6.5 / 9. Below is a short summary of my impressions from the event.
I'd like to provide some inside view on the recent 2001/2002 US Chess Championship. I believe this is second championship that Seattle Chess Foundation (SCF) organized. I am not involved in any chess politics and just relay here my understanding on the events. As far as I know United States Chess Federation (USCF) was ready to pull the plug on the US Chess Championship which was consistently money loosing affair and SCF essentially saved the event. Now they have rights to organizing the event for the next several years. Already this year the total prize fund was approx. $100,000 (double from last year) and SCF is speculating that the next year fund might be doubled again. Just imagine - 4-5 years from now Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods may want to quit their sports and switch to chess.

In addition to their financial resources, the SCF brought several new ideas into the event. For better or worse, I am applauding to those innovations. Personally, I have mixed feelings about having men and women competing in the same event, but for different prizes. On the positive - obviously women can compete and there were plenty of single games were sensational victories
happen (Tsai - GM Brown 1:0; Shahade - GM Sagalchik 1:0 ). In turns that brings TV and Media coverage never seen before. Several times NBC had live coverage from the venue, NY times and many other leading newspapers had reports, even writer for "Vanity Fair" showed up to talk to the members of 3 families who competed in the event. Sagalchiks Gennady and Ol'ga, Alexander Ivanov and Esther Epshtein, Yermo and Camilla Baginskate were involved in some heavy fights. I noticed in the last round Camilla held Gennady to a draw. On the flip side, it was obvious that only the top women posed somewhat of a threat to the men players, others were gaining points mainly from the games with each other. Also, average rating and strength of opposition varied for women competing for their prizes. I don't think that the top three prize winners even played each other in the event. This is clearly inappropriate way to determine the champion. Also, a comment for "Vanity Fair" - did the paring have to be altered to avoid "fights within family"? What about the "family feud"? Was Gena Sagal'chik trying too hard against Shahade, Khan and Baginskate?

SCF is introduced another novelty - now the participation to the event is not restricted to the top few GMs in the country. Everyone, can and encouraged to try to qualify. In fact, the lowest rated player where not even a master - Vladimir Lipman (2100). From the personal standpoint, that was a welcomed change! After shifting my focus away from active playing for 6 years, I could never dream about qualifying to the US Chess Championship based on rating. However, once I learned that all I need to do well in one tournament, I was very interested and determined.

First, I played in a "training" event - NJ Open over the labor day - and scored 4/6 (loss to GM Novikov) good enough to tie for 4-10th in the field of 6 GMs and several IMs competing for astonishing $500 top prize in 3 day event! 

After the 9/11 tragedy I felt "deja vu" and thought my coming out of chess retirement is over. Fortunately, life went on and situation in the world, in US and in chess had stabilized.

Then came the qualifier! National Congress in Phila over the Thanksgiving weekend. I played solid and scored 5/6 winning my "money game" in the last round against dangerous young IM Justin Sakhar. Not only it brought me the qualifying spot, I also tied for 1st place ahead of 6 or 7 GMs and won approx. $1500. Even when I was playing professionally, I don't remember winning that much. Go figure.

On to Seattle. Do not ask me how was the weather in Seattle. Out of 10 days we were there - 8 days we had rain. The organizers did an excellent job! Nice playing area, plenty of spectators, live commentary, live games on large TV monitors and SCF www site. Majority of the participants kept the business dress code and looked very professional. Westin was one of the event's sponsors and I stayed there along with many other participants. However, since players were responsible for their own expenses, many participants stayed in the smaller hotels that were closer to the playing hall. Westin was superb, so was the downtown Seattle in general.

44 men and 12 women were competing for 52 total prizes and 4 women-only prizes. Everyone was guaranteed at least $1,900. Which would make the trip to Seattle a practically free affair.

Round 1 - Local fan favorite Mrs. Airapetyan didn't create any problems. Also, her husband Araz was very friendly and helpful. Courtesy of him I have a few pictures from the event.  After winning rather easily in my first game I was pretty happy. If I only knew that my Seattle "vacation" would actually become an army drill, where in every game for the next 7 rounds. I played 6 top GMs in the US and the highest rated WGM in the tournament. 

Round 2 - I was paired against one of the strongest players in the event GM Alexander Ivanov. I played solid game and, in my opponent's time pressure, I was able to convert some positional pluses into the winning rook endgame. 2 out of 2. Tied for 1st with several other players.

Round 3 - Another "shark" GM Stripunsky. We used to play in the same junior events back in Ukraine, but never played against each other. In Seattle, we had a real war! Once the dust settled and we were out of the time trouble each missing a great opportunity at some point, Stripunsky had to force to sacrifice his rook and force the perpetual. 2.5 out of 3. Shabalov is only one perfect 3 / 3

Round 4 - No rest for me - now I am facing several times US Champion Alex Yermolinsky with Black pieces. The game was very interesting. At some point with 4 rooks and most of the pawns still on the board I had a choice of having the opposite color bishops or keeping a knight instead of my passive light colored bishop. I believe I made a correct choice keeping the Knight, but wasted time and didn't sustain Alex's pressure in center and on K-side. Seems that my main mistake was when I rejected solid d6 and went for a sharper, but suspicious h5. 2.5 / 4. Shabalov outplayed Gulko in yet another suspicious position and keeps perfect 4 / 4.

Round 5 - well, after a loss I was looking forward to White pieces this  round. I did get White, but against Gulko. Boris is one of the more respected players in the world and I am glad I was able to put a nice game. At some point I even rejected his draw offer and tried to utilize his isolated pawn. Boris defended carefully and in the mutual time scramble his pieces suddenly started to poses threats. To avoid another disappointment, I offered a draw, which Boris accepted. (3 / 5). Larry Christiansen smashed Shaba and overtook the lead with 4.5 / 5.

Round 6 - another round another tough GM. This time I am playing Black against GM Kudrin. Slow opening quickly transformed into another sharp middlegame. Sergey sacrificed a pawn and achieved dangerous attack. I found a way to maintain my defense. Again, facing mutual time pressure, Kudrin offered a draw. I accepted it. I am having a blast! 3.5 / 6. Another change at the leader's position - Yermo demolishes Larry and is clear first with 5 / 6.

Round 7 - well, finally I was playing someone with a similar rating, yet that someone was always dangerous American legend - Walter Brown. After loosing to Cindy Tsai in the first round, Walter made TV news and paper's headlines across the country. However, with strong finish, Walter ended up with +3 out of next 8 and scored 5.5/9 altogether! I fall into his opening preparation and wasn't able to refute his suspicious position. Moreover, I was very tired and got myself into the time trouble. What a bummer!! 3.5 / 7. Larry won and caught up with Yermo.

Round 8 - After last round loss, I have really lost my interest. This is in addition to been tired and somewhat bored (been for so long away from my wife and my son). In the mean time, I have another serious opponent - WGM Akhmilovskay, who once was one of the top 3 women in the world. I managed to get some initiative, yet Elena accurately neutralized it. In the final position where she accepted my draw offer, I think here position was superior. 4/8. Yermo and Larry draw their games and with 6/ 8 keep the lead. Nick de Firmian, Benjamin and Kreiman  are all within the striking distance with 5.5. 

Round 9 - Last round. I am going out with a small bang. I had a nice game against solid opponent - IM Larry Kaufman. As most of my games, this one didn't go much past first time control. Final result 5 / 9. Larry made a quick draw with Benjamin, while Yermo clearly selected bad opening against Nick. De Firmian seized the initiative and virtually had no risk game. He ended up winning in the deep endgame and tied for first with Larry. However, in order to attract more media attention, organizers made "clear winner" provision about the title and prize awarding. So, tired Nick had to play rested (after a short draw earlier) Larry for the title and the money (the difference between the first prize of $14K and 2d of $11K). After playing heroically and winning the last of 4 blitz games to make score 2-2, Nick blundered in better position in the final ($3K) game.

Overall, I am very pleased with my result. After all I was competing well against professional players who spend anywhere between 6-10 hours each day studying or playing chess. I wish I could spend more than just 15-30 minutes on a good day! However, my friends and students know that I have a way to train very efficiently and effectively. Now, looking back, I certainly say that I want to qualify and play in Seattle again. However, I am not going to change my life around it. Chess has a very long way to go before business world would accept and make prize funds and playing conditions that would attract people skilled in other fields such as business, sport or art to devote their efforts to chess. SCF certainly making move in the right direction, but is this just a first move of many moves? We shall see...

Games can be viewed here. If you Java is restricted and you can view the games, download PGN file (the link is at the bottom left of that page).