Greg on Chess: Handicapping the 2015 US Chess Championships Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
March 24, 2015
GM Hikaru Nakamura, top seed in the 2015 US Chess Championships 

IM Greg Shahade handicaps the US Chess Championship, from March 31 to April 13. These opinions don't reflect the USCF or the Saint Louis Chess Club. Feel free to comment with your own opinions and predictions in the comment section. 

A – Favorites
Hikaru Nakamura/Wesley So

Hikaru and Wesley are the two obvious favorites of the bunch, as both are currently top 10 players in the world. 

People may get caught up with the fact that Nakamura is ranked #3 in the world and So is ranked lower at #8. However in reality these rankings are only 10 rating points away, which is basically one or two bad games from flip flopping in the rankings. I would never presume that as a 2474, that I am in any way stronger than a 2464 (yet I may believe it about the average player in the 2425-2450 range), and therefore there is no specific reason to believe this about the top players in the world.

I still have to give the edge to Nakamura. Nakamura has maintained his rating playing the top players in the world for years now. Wesley has played many fewer elite events. I do expect So to get more such invitations, which is wonderful to see as he now represents America, and is extremely gracious, friendly and informative in interviews (check out some of his Tata Steel clips for evidence of this.)

Even though I expect So to hold his own as he gets invited to more elite tournaments, I still think that Nakamura is the player to beat in this tournament.

It's very close but Nakamura is the favorite, and I'll give him a 40% shot to win the event, while I'll give So a 35% chance. Yes, that means that I think these two players have a 75% chance to win the US Championship.

B – Knocking on the Door
Gata Kamsky

The defending U.S. Champion, Gata Kamsky, is definitely an elite player. However at this stage in his career you have to put the two top 10 players ahead of him. Despite that it would not be any surprise to see a player of Kamsky's magnitude win this tournament. I'm going to go ahead and give him a 15% chance to win.

GM Gata Kamsky
It's important to note that Kamsky has been counted out many times in his career and came through. He was an afterthought in the 2011 Candidates Matches, but he stunned the top seed, Veselin Topalov to reach the second round. Against Anand in his road to play for the championship in 1996, he was down by two games midway through the match, and made a stunning comeback to win and go on to face Karpov.

Kamsky's fighting spirit is tremendous and he is definitely the main danger to the top players.

C - The Darkhorses
Sam Shankland/Ray Robson

I'm no longer going to give percentages of victory to each individual player, as admittedly they are relatively low. However if you had to tell me that one of the top 3 didn't win, I would say that it's close, but the most likely candidate would be Shankland.

While Shankland is older than some of the other young stars in the event, a little known secret is that Shankland started chess at a much later age than the typical young player does these days. When Ray Robson started playing chess, Shankland probably didn't even know what the pieces were called.
GM Sam Shankland
This has led him to have a bit of a strange trajectory, making sudden leaps in strength at later ages than is normal in this day and age. Also helping his chances is that it seems he is a bit of an up and down player, more capable of great results, while also more capable of mediocre performances.

A great example is his blistering performance in the 2014 Olympiad, where he completely annihilated the field with 9 wins from 10 games, a 2829 performance rating, which included a powerful win over GM Judit Polgar. I don't know if anyone else is capable of such a dominant performance outside of the top three and that's exactly what will be needed to win this tournament.

Ray Robson is also a very dangerous young player who has been quietly moving up the rating lists to reach the 2650 FIDE mark. At the inaugural Millionaire Open he made it to the final match against Wesley So for the title. While he ended up losing to Wesley, I feel like that tournament was his announcement to the chess world that he's ready to step his game up a notch and make his move towards that 2700 FIDE mark.

For some intuitive reason I feel like Shankland is more likely to go crazy and shock the world. You know what? These two are so evenly matched, wouldn't it be great to see a match between them? I think so! Someone should make it happen.

D - The Cagey Veterans
Onischuk, Akobian, Naroditsky

All great and amazing chess players and the fact that these guys are not among the favorites is a testament to the growing strength of the field. Onischuk and Akobian have had many chances to win the U.S. Championship since it's been held in St. Louis, and while Akobian was super close last year, they have both failed to do so. This year, with the field more stacked than ever, is going to be tougher than ever. But these three have a chance, they are highly rated and very accomplished and experienced players. They are both capable of drawing or winning against the top seeds in the event.

And you may be like “what are you talking about Greg, why is 19 year old Daniel Naroditsky in the cagey veteran section?”. Mainly he's here because I think he's really strong, improving rapidly in the past year, and I didn't want to make a new seperate section for him. But in some ways he is a veteran. He's written a few books now, he has an extremely logical thought process, and I feel like his career trajectory has been a bit strange.

Naroditsky was an enormous talent at the age of nine, but his progress up until the age of 16-17 was quite underwhelming. It was taking him longer to reach Grandmaster than I'd expected from someone of his talent, and his peers were simply progressing faster than he was. While Robson just went up and up, Naroditsky seemed to stall for a few years.

For example:

Naroditsky's rating in May of 2011: 2472
Naroditsky's rating in July of 2013: 2486

That is a surprisingly long stretch of time for someone as talented as Naroditsky to gain virtually zero rating points. Now it's just a bit more than one and a half years later and he's rocketed up to 2633 FIDE, and trust me that these are a very tough 150 points to gain.

Perhaps it was maturity, or confidence that was holding him back, I really don't know....but he has been making gigantic progress lately and is now ranked number 7 in the United States and he is only slightly lower rated than Shankland and Robson. Any growing pains that Naroditsky had are now a very distant memory, and he has the potential as well to one day become 2700 FIDE.

The WildCards
Gareev, Troff, Sevian, Holt

This is a mixture of young, and established players who are either a bit too much lower rated than the other competitors, or a bit too inexperienced to have a real shot at winning now, but everyone in this field is capable of winning against anyone else, which is why this year's event is going to be so interesting.

Gareev is a fearsome imaginative, attacking player and can cause headaches for anyone.

GM Timur Gareev

Sam Sevian, at just fourteen years of age, will be in one of the top lists in this article in the 2017 or 2018 U.S. Championship, but he's still got some learning to do before he can actually win an event like this. If Sam, or anyone in this group, finishes in the top half of the event, it would be a success, and one I think he's definitely capable of achieving. This tournament should be an invaluable learning experience.

Troff has been steadily improving and is still only sixteen years old. His strong years of hard work, combined with occasional lessons with Garry Kasparov has paid off bigtime for this young star from Utah.

Holt, 21, has been a key part of the powerful UTD chess team and qualified from winning the U.S. Open. He is known for his sharp opening prepartion with white, and his extensive knowledge of the French Defense and Slav for black.

Big names who missed the cut:

I think the two biggest omissions in this year's field are GM Alejandro Ramirez and GM Alex Lenderman. In the past few years these two top stars have been on the verge of winning the title, but just missed either in the tiebreak or due to a late loss. It only goes to show just how strong the U.S. Championship has become when top stars like this aren't in the field.

US Women's Championship:
Irina Krush is definitely the big favorite to win the tournament, especially since her usual U.S Championship arch rival, WGM Anna Zatonskih, declined her invitation this year.

GM Irina Krush
The best chance to knock Irina off would have to be WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who took Irina to the tiebreaker in 2014.

We also have a bunch of newer players competing this year, most notably WGM Anna Sharevich, who is living in the St. Louis area and may get a boost from having the “home town advantage”. WGM/IM Nazi Paikidze is also a strong new to the field.

Another exciting addition to this field is three very young first time competitors, who hope to make their mark. Jennifer Yu just won the World U12 Girls Gold medal and will be playing her first Championship. The youngest female master of all time, Annie Wang, is in the field as well, although her record was beaten about one week ago by the even younger Carissa Yip. Lastly Apurva Virkud, the up and coming master from Michigan, will be taking part as well.

It should be a fun tournament, and while Irina is likely to come away with her 7th U.S. Women's Championship, there are a host of new challengers and plenty of chances for young players to make their mark.

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