USCF Home Chess Life Online 2008 October Shulman Dominates Midwest Class
|Shulman Dominates Midwest Class|
|By Alex Betaneli|
|October 18, 2008|
The 17th edition of the Midwest Class Championships was marked by change of venue: instead of the traditional Doubletree in Oak Brook, IL the tournament was held at the classy WestIn in Wheeling, IL. This hotel is not new to many chess players as the most recent Chicago Open was held precisely there. This hotel is definitely not new to me: I will always remember this playing site as my FIDE Master title resulted from being a co-winner of the u2300 section of the Chicago Open. |
Continental Chess Association (CCA) appears to have found one of the most terrific playing sites indeed. Hotel staff are numerous, friendly, and quite helpful. True, when I asked about the nearest Boston Market, one staff member helpfully pointed out that indeed there are some sorts of farmer markets open on Saturdays, but they were rather far away! True, another staff member told us that a roll-away is on the way, only to be overruled by another--less helpful but far more knowledgeable member--by pointing out that it’s a fire hazard! However, early check-ins, late check-outs, refrigerators, print outs of maps, and lots of smiles still leave customers with a full positive experience.
As for the tournament itself, it was run very professionally by the chief tournament director Steve Immitt and his helpers. The playing rooms were large, well-lit, plenty air-conditioned, and with water supply. I am not sure if 228 people was above or below CCA’s expectations, but one can be certain that more players will play in the upcoming years: conditions are simply too good to pass up! Every participant can test his/her strength against his/her chess peers (thus the class championship), eliminating the common excuse of “she had weaker pairings!” after finishing well behind another person.
All crosstables with prize money details can be found on the chesstour website. This report will focus on games and personalities in the Master section. Out of the 22 participants, there were only three experts and no one lower! The rating favorites were our National Champion GM Yury Shulman, two well-known GM’s Dmitry Gurevich and Nikola Mitkov, and IM Ben Finegold. Two other IM’s fully capable of winning such an event were Angelo Young and Emory Tate. As for others, there were other place prizes, Under 2300 awards, and plenty of rating points to play for.
GM Shulman proved to be in the class of his own. Here is his “warm-up” victory against a 2300 opponent:
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 g6 4.Nc3 d6 5.e4 Bg7 6.Bd3 0–0 7.h3 Nbd7
Black goes astray and gets punished by strong central play from a GM
8.Nf3 Nh5 9.Bg5 Ne5 10.Nxe5 Bxe5 11.Qd2 Bg7 12.0–0 a6
13.Rae1! Bd7 14.f4! b5 15.Bh4 bxc4 16.Bxc4 Bb5 17.Bxb5 axb5 18.e5!
Black's position is beyond repair now
18...b4 19.Nd1 Bh6 20.g4 dxe5 21.gxh5 Bxf4 22.Rxf4 exf4 23.Bxe7 Qd7 24.Bxf8 Qxh3 25.Bd6 Qg3+ 26.Kf1 Qf3+ 27.Nf2 Rxa2 28.Qxf4 Qxf4 29.Bxf4 f6 30.d6 1–0
In round three, Yury Shulman had a six-hour fight against Cadet Champ Conrad Holt.
This was arguably the toughest game for Yury Shulman. His opponent, young and rapidly improving, went for one of the sharpest and one of the most-principled lines.
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 e6 7.f3 Bb4 8.e4 Bxe4 9.fxe4 Nxe4 10.Bd2 Qxd4 11.Nxe4 Qxe4+ 12.Qe2 Bxd2+ 13.Kxd2 Qd5+
Resulting positions are imbalanced and strong GMs appear to be divided on the issue of evaluation of this position. Computer engines are of little help as this position is much too irrational for their evaluation function.
14...0–0 15.Nxc4 Na6 16.Qe5 Rab8 17.a5 f6 18.Qxd5 cxd5 19.Nd6 Nb4+
19...Rfd8 20.Nb5 Rbc8+ 21.Kd2 Nc5 results in a finely balanced position with mutual chances.
20.Kc3 Nc6 21.Bd3 Rfd8 22.Nb5 Rbc8 23.Kd2 a6 24.Nc3
Now White has a slight pull.
24...Nd4 25.Ra3 e5 26.Ne2 Nc6 27.Rc1 Kf7 28.Rac3 Rd6 29.Rc5 g6 30.Bc2 d4 31.Bb3+ Ke7 32.Ng3 Rb8 33.Ne4 Rdd8 34.Ba4 f5 35.Bxc6 bxc6 36.Rxe5+ Kf7 37.Nc5 Rxb2+ 38.Rc2 Rb1 39.Nd3 Rg1 40.Re2 Rd5 41.Ne5+ Kg7
White could have reduced with: 42.Rxc6 Rxa5 43.Rc7+ Kf6 44.Rf7+ Ke6 45.Nc4+ Kxf7 46.Nxa5 resulting in a position where conversion should not be too difficult.
42...c5 43.Kd3 Rc1 44.Ra3 Rd8 45.Nc4 Rb8 46.Nb6 Kf7 47.Rc2 Rxc2 48.Kxc2 Re8 49.Kd2 Ke6 50.Ra1 Kd6 51.Rb1 f4 52.Nc4+ Kd5
White is coasting towards victory: his N is clearly stronger than the black pawns.
53...Re6 54.Rb7 Re1 55.Rd7+ Kc6 56.Rd6+ Kb7 57.Rb6+ Ka7 58.h4 Ra1 59.Rc6 Ra2 60.Rxc5 Rxg2 61.Rc7+ Kb8 62.Rxh7 f3 63.Rf7 Rg4 64.Rxf3 Rxh4 65.Rf6 Ka7 66.Rxg6 Rh5 67.Kxd4 Rb5
Black's tenacity pays off: White blunders his pawn!
And now, strictly speaking, Black should be able to hold the draw. However, with little time on the clock, the drawing procedure is complicated. It stands to point out that recently GM Onischuk lost an ending with R versus R+N (and many years ago Kasparov beat Judit Polgar in this ending). The extra pawn on a6 is of no help for Black here.
69.Rg6 Rh5 70.Rg7+ Kb8 71.Ne5 Kc8 72.Kd5 Rh6 73.Nc4 Rh5+ 74.Kc6 Kd8??
Black blunders; instead: 74...Rh6+ 75.Nd6+ Kb8 76.Rd7 Rg6! (but not 76...a5? 77.Kb6 Rh8 78.Nf7 Re8 79.Ne5! and White creates a mating net) 77.Kb6 Rg8 78.Rb7+ Ka8 79.Ra7+ Kb8 80.Rxa6 Rg1 and Black holds the draw.
In round four our champion defeated FM Stamnov and in round five he beat GM Mitkov with black. His record of 4.5/5 was well worth the $2,100 prize.
One of the biggest surprises of the tournament was the performance of Chicago-based FM Alex Stamnov. Of course, no competent chess players is surprised that Alex is capable of playing phenomenal chess (he has multiple GM scalps to his credit), but rather that he chose this strong event to show his true colors. Alex beat GM Mitkov, lost only to Shulman, gained 57(!) rating points, and collected a nice $1,000 for clear second place. Having known Alex for a long time, I can comfortably state that he has only one major “personality flaw”: his notation is utterly illegible. Therefore, I am just thankful to his one of his opponents for providing us with one of Alex’s victories:
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Bc4 Ngf6 6.Ng5 e6 7.N1f3 Nb6 8.Bd3 h6 9.Ne4 Be7 10.c3 Nbd5 11.Ne5 Qc7
11...Nxe4 12.Bxe4 0–0 and Black is close to being equal.
12.Qe2 Nxe4 13.Bxe4 Nf6?!
13...0–0 was much safer
14.Bc2 c5 15.Bf4 Bd6
Alex is unforgiving if he gets the initiative.
16...Qxc5 17.Ba4+ Kf8 18.0–0 Bxe5 19.Bxe5 Qa5 20.Bc2 Nd7 21.Bd6+ Kg8 22.b4 Qb6 23.Rad1 g6
Easy to spot, but still pretty.
24...fxg6 25.Qxe6+ Kg7 26.Qe7+ Kg8 27.Bc5 Qf6 28.Rxd7 Qxe7 29.Rxe7 b6 30.Bd4 Rh7 31.Re8+ Kf7 32.Rfe1 g5 33.R1e7+ Kg6 34.Rg8+ 1–0
Steve Szpisjak has not played in a major event for a while, so it was good to see him bouncing back from a tough loss and ending up sharing 2nd place for u2300:
Steve Szpisjak recovered in a very nice fashion by holding a 2400 player, Florin Felecan to a draw in this unpleasant endgame.
White trusts that his outside passer would provide enough counterplay to Black's assault on the K-side
47...Kxg4 48.b5 Ng5 49.b6 Kf3 50.Rf1+ Kg2 51.Rb1 f3 52.Rb2+ f2 53.Be1 Nh3 54.Bxf2 Nxf2+ 55.Kc4 Kf3 56.Kb5 Nxe4 57.Kc6 Nc5 58.Kxd6 Na4 59.Rb3+ Kg2 60.Kc6 with a draw.
A sample line runs like this: 60...Rxb6+ 61.Rxb6 Nxb6 62.Kxb6 e4 63.d6 e3 64.d7 e2 65.d8Q e1Q resulting in an equal ending ½–½
If Alex Stamnov is a well-established player on the circuit, then Conrad Holt can be coined as a nice discovery! Conrad is a young player (born in 1993) who has played in a total of 35 rated events in the past four years. He has clearly not reached his full natural potential and he was close to having a major break-through at this tournament. Even after being defeated by IM Finegold in the last round, Holt ended up with respectable 2.5/5 and gain of 13 rating points. He gave a tough time to Shulman (see above!) and scored a draw against another GM with black:
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.e3 Bf5 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Qb3 Qc7 6.Nc3 e6 7.Bd2 Nc6 8.Rc1 Nf6 9.Nf3 Be7 10.Ne5 0–0 11.Bb5 Rab8 12.0–0 Bd6 13.f4 Rfc8 14.Qa4 14...Qb6
Black reached equality with relative ease and actually begins to take over control of the game.
15.b3 a6 16.Bxc6 bxc6 17.Ne2 c5 18.Ba5 Qb7 19.dxc5 Rxc5 20.Nd4 Rbc8 21.Rxc5 Bxc5 22.h3 h5 23.Rc1 Bxd4 24.Rxc8+ Qxc8 25.Qxd4 Qc1+ 26.Kh2 Qf1
A precise move in a dangerous situation. The logical-looking 27.Bd8 turns out to be a horrible choice after the nice 27...Bxh3! 28.Qb2 (28.gxh3 Qf2+ 29.Kh1 Ne4 the deadly Q+N combo is just that: deadly!) 28...Ng4+ 29.Nxg4 Bxg4 leaves Black up a healthy pawn. 27...Be4 the game was drawn many moves later, but available notation stops here as black entered time trouble ½–½
Another strong performance was turned in by the pleasant young man by the name of Seth Homa (born in 1988). Seth started by punishing me for a couple blunders in round one and by holding the mighty Finegold to an easy draw with black. In round 3 Homa drew Marek Stryjecki (2445) and in round 4 he held GM Gurevich to a draw. And only the loss to Angelo Young in last round brought Seth back to 2.5/5: we can expect great improvements from Seth in the near future.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 a6 3.Nf3 c5 4.Nc3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 d5 6.e3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 e5 8.Nf3 Qxd1+ 9.Kxd1
A complicated endgame where all three results are possible has been reached
10...Bg4 11.h3 Bh5 12.Bd3 Rc8 13.Bd2 Bg6 14.Bxg6 hxg6 15.Rac1 Bd6 16.Rhd1 Ke7 17.Be1 Bb8 18.Nd2 Rhd8 19.f3 Ba7 20.Nde4 Nxe4 21.Nxe4 Rxd1 22.Rxd1 f6 23.g4 Bb6 24.a3 Ba7 25.h4 Bb6
Deep Junior insists on +/- (plus over minus) evaluation here, but I beg to differ here: this looks a lot more equality. I would take the liberty to speculate that the doubled pawns are somehow perceived as a huge weakness here, but they aren't!
26.Bc3 Ba5 27.b4 Bb6 28.h5 gxh5 29.gxh5 Nd8 30.Rd3 Nf7 31.a4 Rc4 32.a5 Ba7 33.Ng3 Nd6 34.Be1 Ke6 35.Rc3 Rxc3 36.Bxc3 f5 37.f4 Nf7 38.e4 fxe4 39.Nxe4 Kf5 40.Ng5
Why was this game worthy of your attention? The impression you gained is probably correct: both sides shuffled the pieces carefully and a draw resulted. I would carefully point out that Mr. Homa has a lot less experience (and a lower rating with that!) at this "shuffle and draw" game, so he is to be congratulated on the outcome! ½–½
Holt, Szpisjak, and Homa was joined by the expert Larry Cohen in a tie for second among the u2300’s. The first prize of $800 was taken home by my good friend Ashish Vaja. He has been working on chess recently and his victory against the legendary Emory Tate was a great reward for his efforts. Here is this game annotated by NM Vaja.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6
This the first time I have tried this line of the Sicilian in tournaments, I prepared it for the past month or so, but when I reached this position I realized I forgot to look up one line. As this thought went rushing through my head, White played the move I had forgotten to look up 6. g4, the Keres Attack.
6.g4 h6 7.h3
At this point I had no idea what to do, so I tried to steer it the game away from theory. I had a vague memory of trying to get d5 in, but that was about it.
The two main moves here are 7...Nc6 and 7...a6.
I knew this was not the correct move in the game, but figured it would take my opponent out of theory. It has been played a few times by strong players. It was not totally incorrect, I knew that one option for Black is to try to get a6,b5,Rc8, Bd7, Nc6 formation, but was not sure how to do so. It is not clear to me yet if White can take advantage of this move.
White is not really threatening anything, better is 9.f4 a6 10.Qf3; 9.Qd2 Nxd4 10.Bxd4 Qa5 11.0–0–0 e5.
9...Qb8 10.Bg2 a6 11.Bb6?
An interesting idea, but it does not hold up to accurate defense.
11...axb5 12.Nxb5 Ra5?!
Not the best move. 12...Ra4 For some reason during the game I dismissed this, but it gives Black a solid plus. 13.c3 a) 13.Bc7 Qc8 14.Bxd6 (14.Nxd6+ Bxd6 15.Qxd6 Nd4) 14...Nb4 15.Nc7+ Kd8; b) 13.Nc7+ Ke7 14.Nb5 Ne8; 13...Rxe4+ 14.Bxe4 Nxe4.
13. a4 sets Black up to make a serious mistake. 13.a4 Be7 (13...Rxb5 I cannot do this now because: 14.axb5 Ne5 15.f4 Ng6 16.0–0 Bxb5 17.c4 Bc6 (17...Bxc4 18.Qa4+) 18.b4 White seems to have some counter play.) 14.Nc7+ Kf8 15.Bxa5 Nxa5 16.Nb5 Nc6 Black has a solid plus.]
13...Rxb5 14.cxb5 Ne5 15.a4 Be7?!
15...d5! 16.0–0 (16.exd5 Nc4 17.Bd4 Bb4+ 18.Bc3 Bxc3+ 19.bxc3 Qe5+) 16...dxe4
16.0–0 0–0 17.Rc1 Ng6 18.Bc7 Qa8 19.Bxd6 Bxd6 20.Qxd6 e5 Black has solid plus.
16...Ng6 17.0–0 Nh4 18.Bh1 g5 19.Qe1
19.Rc1 Ng6 20.f5 Nf4 21.Kh2 Bd8 22.Bxd8 Kxd8 23.fxe6 fxe6 and Black will stick the king on e7 when White would have big problems on his hands.
19...Ng6 20.e5 dxe5 21.fxe5 Nxe5?
My opponent and I both missed that this was a bad move. 21...Nd5 22.Bxd5 exd5 23.Bd4 0–0 Black has a big edge.
Qc3! threatens Bc7 and if Ng6 Rxf6 so Black would be forced to play the somewhat awkward Qd6.
White is now forced into a lost ending. 23.Qd2 was better.
23...Nf4 24.Be5 Nxh3+ 25.Kg2 Nxg4 26.Bxb8 Nxe3+ 27.Kxh3 Nxf1 28.Rxf1 0–0 29.Bc7 Bc8 30.a5 f5
From the 24th move all of Black's moves were pretty much forced. Black's last move is important because it stops the pawns from immediately queening though tactical means:
This move prevents Black's Rf7 skewer in the line below.
31.a6 g4+ 32.Kg3 bxa6 33.b6 Bg5 34.b7 Bxb7 35.Bxb7 Rf7 36.Bc8 Rxc7 37.Bxe6+ Kg7 38.Rxf5 Re7 39.Bc8 Re4 40.Bxa6 Bd2
31...g4+ 32.Kg3 Bg5 33.Bf4 e5 34.Bd5+ Kh7 35.Rc7+ Kg6 36.Bxe5 f4+ 37.Kh2 Rd8 38.Be4+
38.Bxb7 Rd2+ 39.Kg1 Bxb7 40.Rxb7 f3 41.b6 Be3+ 42.Kh1 Rd1+ 43.Kh2 Bf4+ 44.Bxf4 f2
It only looks scary for the black king. It is really the white king that needs to be careful.
39...Rxc8 40.a6 bxa6 41.bxa6 Rc4
Only move, which required some calculation and evaluation of unusual material imbalances, but forces a win.
42.a7 I was quite proud of finding the details in this line over the board: 42...Rxe4 43.a8Q Rxe5 Black is still winning :) 44.Qb7 Re2+ 45.Kg1 Kh4 46.Kf1 f3 Black has made an impenetrable wall and can take all the time in the world. 47.Qa8 Kh3 48.Qc6 Bh4 49.Qc3 Rh2 50.Kg1 Bg3 Black wins.
42...Ra4 43.Bb5 Ra5 44.Bc3 Ra1
45.Bc4 f3 46.Be5 Be3 47.b4 Rc1 48.Bb3 f2 49.Bf6 White resigns. 0–1
As for the author of this report, it was an average performance for me: 3/5 with a loss of a few rating points. After the unfortunate loss in round one, I ran into underrated James Fagan (who is a known chess coach in Chicago area) who almost beat me. In the final position he was up a minor piece, but gave me a draw nonetheless! It’s not done out of pity though: his two Knights could not handle my Bishop as there were no pawns left. Round three was a quick draw against my friend NM Santarius. I did beat two masters on the last day however, and here is one of the victories:
My opponent inquired if we were going to draw quickly or not. Although it's not traditional to discuss such matters, in this situation it was fully justified: neither of us would win a prize in case of a victory and a quick draw would allow for a nice dinner! Unfortunately for my opponent, I had two students at the tournament, so I had to decline his reasonable offer.
1...d5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3
I teach beginners that Black's second move should not be played as after 3.cxd5 Nxd5 White has more central control; but of course, once one gets beyond the basics, it's worth pointing that after 3.cxd5 g6 White has been tricked into playing the line of the Grunfeld s/ he may not normally play!
3...e6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Nf3 Ne4 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.Qc2
A little of psychology was utilized here: presumably Black wants to equalize and get a quick draw, so his moves are somewhat predictable. Indeed, after
7...Nxc3 8.Qxc3 Nc6?!
with the idea of Q trade was somewhat easy to prognosticate
9.e3 Qb4 10.Rc1 Qxc3+ 11.Rxc3
But the problem for Black is that he is not equal just yet!
It is very telling that the "normal" 11...0–0 essentially loses after 12.cxd5 exd5 13.Bb5 Bd7 14.Rc5!? (14.Bxc6 Bxc6 15.Ne5 Bb5 16.Rxc7 is another option, but it's a little less convincing) 14...a6 15.Ba4 and Black is going down a pawn with no visible compensation; the most prudent approach lies in 11...a6 when after 12.Kd2 White is better, but it's not devastating for Black.
12.cxd5 exd5 13.Bb5?
Alas, I was somewhat on auto-pilot here, but this position was ripe for a kill! 13.Rc5! is a very easy move to find if one spends a bit of time here. Black is faces with choices of positions that range from "bad" to "hopeless" after this move! 13...0–0–0 13...Be6 14.Bb5 Rb8 15.Ne5+-; 13...Ke7 14.Rxd5 f6 15.Rc5±
14.Rxd5 Be6 15.Rxd8+ Rxd8 16.a3±]
and now, Black k is out of the danger zone. The positive thing, however, I didn't know Black WAS in the danger zone, so there is nothing to ruminate about!
14.0–0! Ne7 15.Bd3
White's Bishop is better, so it makes sense to keep it.
Here we have a nice position worthy of discussion. White doesn't want that much here, but he has a number of ways of "probing" Black's position: 1.advancing the Q-side pawns (the-so-called minority attack) in attempt to create weaknesses for Black 2. f2-f3 in conjunction with e3-e4: central advance 3.trading the B for the opponent's N in attempt to exploit the difference between remaining minor pieces Nevertheless, these are mere ideas at the moment. Reality is this instead: if Black exercises some caution, White won't have any advantage. Black has no permanent weaknesses, he is not down in space, and his King is not in any danger. Indeed, the only problem is that of constructive plan.
My preferred way to equality is 16...Nc8 17.Kf1 Nd6 as this improves N's scope of influence.; Deep Junior goes for 16...Bf5 when after my planned 17.Bf1 the B stands better. Either approach is fine, but not the move in the game! As the great World Champion Tigran Petrosian loved to say: "pawns do not move backwards!" (!!). Indeed, this simple observation contains a lot of wisdom: the squares that used to be protected by the pawn that just advanced will NOT be protected by this pawn until the next game.
17.Nd2 h5?! 18.Rb3 0–0–0 19.a4 g4?! 20.Ra3 Rh6 21.b4
White carries out the minority attack with an unexpected bonus: attack on the black King!
21...f5 22.b5 Kb8 23.Nb3 cxb5?!
After the better 23...b6 White would have to show creativity because his natural positive trend runs out.
24...Rb6!? I was this was my opponent's idea behind Rh6/f5 moves. The plan was to play 25.Rc5 with long-lasting advantage: black has was too many weaknesses to be comfortable here.
After this move, Black is faced with extremely annoying passive defense.
The knight is headed to f4 and e5 (I mentally thanked my opponent for the pseudo-active pawn charges on the K-side)
26...Be6 27.Ne2 Rd7 28.Nf4 Ne7
Black is clearly worse here, but the win still requires a bit of accuracy and tenacity on White's part. When I played this out in a simul against the students of 1200–1700 range, I was able to hold Black's "ruins." But then again, objectively speaking, I don't think it would be too difficult for me to win this against most people.
27.Ne2 Rf8 28.Nf4 Be6 29.Bf1
The Bishop wants to welcome the knight to a better square.
29...Rf7 30.Nd3 a5?
As often happens in difficult positions, Black exaggerates the lurking threats and makes another concession. After 30...Rc7 31.Nb4 Kb7 White still has a task--even if pleasant--to accomplish!
But now White is up a pawn while Black gains no conterplay at all for the sacrificed material
31...Rc7 32.Nb4 Ka7 33.Bb5 Ne7 34.Nd3
The Knight allowed the Bishop to activate for a bit and now heads back to its nice outpost.
34...Nc8 35.Ne5 Ne7 36.Be8
At the moment White is just "probing," asking Black to make another mistake.
37.g3 was more accurate, making sure Black has nothing on the K-side.
Black's last chance of activity lied in 37...f4!? 38.Kg1 fxe3 39.Rxe3± when White has a healthy edge, but Black is still kicking.
Again, 38...f4 was the best choice.
39.Bd3 Rc1+ 40.Ke2 R8c7 41.Kd2
White's monarch enters the game and the effect is decisive.
41...Rxa1 42.Rxa1 Kb8
This is a typical position that illustrates the "principle of two weaknesses": White has the a6 pawn, but it won't win the game by itself. Therefore, white needs to open up the K-side and decide the game there. Black is utterly helpless against this simple plan.
43.f3 Ka7 44.fxg4 fxg4 45.Rf1 h3 46.gxh3 gxh3 47.Rf6 Bc8 48.Rf7
The treats include Rxe7 and Ng6. In face of huge material losses, Black resigned 1–0
This tournament was also a nice preparation for the upcoming Continental Championships in Florida: Ashish Vaja, Erik Santarius and I will participate in this prestigious event. Ashish plans to qualify for the World Cup, while Erik wants a GM norm (his plan is to bypass the IM title), and I have the lowest desire of a mere IM norm.
For more info on the Continental Champs, check out recent uschess.org press release and look for blogs from Florida by the author of this report, as well as GM-elect Josh Friedel.
FIDE Master Alex Betaneli is currently in pursuit of an IM title. He is a professional coach and runs WI Chess Academy (www.wichessacademy.com).