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Chess in Las Vegas! Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
June 27, 2006
Macauley Peterson

Heralded as "the chess event of the year" by its organizers, the National Open, held annually for over 40 years, is now the centerpiece of the multi-event Las Vegas International Chess Festival. This year's festival included a chess camp, grandmaster simuls, a blitz tournament, two scholastic events, and a quick chess championship.

A new American norm event

The National Open was notably strong this year with 23 grandmasters and 17 international masters participating in the field of a hundred and four. Contributing to the titled turnout was the success of a brand new event dubbed the Las Vegas Masters, organized by Chris Bird of the Clark County Chess Club.

Held a few days prior to the National Open, the L.V. Masters was designed to offer players the opportunity to earn GM and IM norms, and thus required the participation of numerous FIDE-titled players from outside the U.S. All together, eleven countries were represented in the Category 5 (2362 avg. rating) field.

FM John Bartholomew of Minnesota (now a UTD student) earned his third IM norm by scoring 5.5 points. FM Robert Hess also garnered an IM norm, his second, scoring 4.5 points.

None of the International Masters in the event was able to reach his required point total for a GM norm. Canadian IM Thomas Roussel-Roozmon had a shot in the last round, but lost to the German GM Leonid Kritz, inevitably nicknamed "Fritz".


The tournament's brilliancy prize went to FM Daniel Rensch for his loss, oddly enough, to IM Enrico Sevillano. (See Game above.) Rather than go down the exchange after 17.Bf4, Rensch opted for 17...dxc4! 18. Bxc7 Kxc7 19. dxc4 Bd3, but after 20.Qf3 black was never able to reclaim the material. However, had Rensch tried, 19...Rhe8 instead, the sacrifice might well have panned out.

Of course someone had to win this tournament, and in fact, three GMs: Kritz, Fontaine, and Dejan Antic shared the honors (and the $1900) of the Top 3 spots finishing with 6.5 points. GM Antic was undefeated.

Following last round action, players were treated to a celebratory barbecue, poolside, at organizer Bird's Las Vegas bungalow. In addition to enjoying the food, drinks, and general merriment, players channeled their uncompromising competitiveness into Hungry Hungry Hippos, and a 1-minute bullet-fest which ran well into the night. Renier Gonzalez's impressive winning streak against all comers, including several GMs, cannot go unmentioned, but I'm not sure which was more entertaining: The chess, or his mellifluent trash-talking throughout.

Las Vegas Masters crosstable

Las Vegas Masters participants, IMs Dean Ippolito, Justin Sarkar, Alan Stein and Monori representative Zeljka Malobabiic enjoy a game that is arguably easier than chess.

Arbiter Carol Jarecki unwinds with her dog, Cricket at the closing barbecue. Photos Macauley Peterson

The National Open
The next day, players began arriving at the Riviera hotel and casino."The Riv" is an "old-school" casino, built in 1955 as the first high-rise on the Las Vegas Strip. The original version of the "rat pack" film Ocean's Eleven (1960) featured The Riv, as did Casino (1995), Austin Powers (1997), and Go (1999), more recently. On the first day of the Chess Festival, however, the featured players were of the cerebral persuasion. The day kicked off with five hours of chess camp starting bright and early at 9 AM. GM Susan Polgar headed a staff which included GMs Sergey Kudrin and Dmitry Gurevich and IM Ben Finegold.

The afternoon was dominated by simultaneous exhibitions by GM Walter Browne, and Ms. Polgar. Polgar tackled 37 boards yielding just one loss and two draws. Browne took his time going undefeated with three draws on 23 boards, the final victory coming after over six hours of play!

As the simuls wound to a close, two rooms down, the Blitz ramped up. Seven grandmasters partook in the seven double-round Swiss tournament. Twenty-one year old Georgian GM Merab Gagunashvili was the only player undefeated in the open section and, not surprisingly, finished in first place with 11.5 out of 14. His two to nil win over GM Jaan Ehlvest in the last round sealed the deal.

Watching Dimitry Gurevich mate Ehlvest with just king, bishop and knight, in less than twenty seconds flat, is truly something! Dimitry was amusingly blase about this grandmasterly feat. Apparently, when he was twelve years old, he drew a crucial game because he didn't know the pattern. After that humbling experience, he made a point, not just to learn it, but, to learn it cold, testing himself until he could mate in thirty seconds! It came in handy Thursday night.

Girls just want to win computers

There was new a suite of National Open events for girls and young women under 21, co-sponsored by the Susan Polgar Foundation. Batchimeg Tuvshintugs was the undefeated winner of the Under 21 section, with Abby Marhsall a close 2nd. Janice Chen won the Under 15 section by a full point, as did Victoria Zhang in the Under 10 group, while Serena Zadoo aced her way to victory by an even greater margin in the Under 13 category. Altogether seventy-two players took part, vying for serious prizes like computers, gift certificates, digital chess clocks, and, oh, college scholarships (for those predisposed to Texas).

Link to complete crosstables

Could she be the next Susan Polgar?

The real Susan Polgar gave out prizes to all the winners, including computers and scholarships to the lucky few!

Female only tournaments are controversial, but the girl bonding that comes out of them is pure fun.

Sixteen girls played in the section for girls 16-21. 13-15 is the age at which many girls drop out of chess. Photos Paul Truong.

Final Round

Sunday, the drama of the National Open was front and center, culminating in an exciting final round. A whopping thirteen players were tied for first on 4 points after six rounds heading into Sunday afternoon. All of the grandmasters in the five-way tie for 1st that emerged had to win their last games to make the cut, and all but two of the top ten boards had a decisive result in the final round!

Alex Wojtkiewicz scored a pretty victory in defeating Enrico Sevillano. A reminder to everyone rated under 2600: Don't mess with Wojt in the Najdorf!


Once Alex won the e-pawn on move 14, everything went downhill for the friendly Filipino IM. White has nothing to compensate for black's super center and bishop on b7. 24...Ne2! is a pretty move. 25. Ne2? Qg2# or 25. Rxe2? Rd1+ 26.Nf1 and Qg2 mate. The tactical motifs don't stop after White succeeds in trading bishops. 32... Rd2 is a bone-cruncher. Qxd2 loses to Nh3+ while Qc8 is just a spite check. After Kh7, white's g2 pawn- and his game are lost.

In one of two all-GM match-ups (game above), Lubomir Ftacnik (pronounced: fTACHnyik) beat Zviad Izoria on the white side of a Classical Pirc (incidentally, pronounced "peerts" after Yugoslav grandmaster Vasja Pirc [1907-1980]). Ftacnik cultivated a minute edge until finally breaking open the position with 30.f4, when after 30...exf4 31.Bd4, Izoria would have been forced to concede a pawn after 31 .. Qf7, but instead blundered with 31...Nd7? Ftacnik's reply 32.Qe7+ forced black's resignation as 32...K-anywhere is met by 33.Bxf6 with crushing momentum.

Joining Ftacnik atop the leader board were Nikola "The Client" Mitkov, Varuzhan Akobian, Merab Gagunashvili, and Aleks Wojtkiewicz, who was awarded the ceremonial Edmondson Cup (named after the tournament's founder) on tie-breaks.

Alexander Wojtkiewicz, Winner of the National Open

What began at the Stardust hotel in the mid-60s has gradually morphed into one of the preeminent events on the American chess calendar. The organizers and staff worked hard to provide a festive atmosphere, with prizes for all plus scores, daily guest lectures and analysis, a great bookstore, chess memorabilia, and a daily raffle which included, as its grand prize, free entry, plus airfare and accommodation, to next year's L.V.C.F.! Even as a National Open neophyte, I can safely say, I'll be back!

Macauley Peterson is a writer and filmmaker from New York. He will be learning Dutch and watching movies in Amsterdam soon, but will continue to be reachable at www.MacauleyPeterson.com To hear from a non-National-Open-neophyte, look for Jerry Hanken's full report in the September issue of Chess Life Magazine.