Catching up with GM Joel: A Ticket to the Big Dance
By GM Joel Benjamin   
March 31, 2010
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GM Joel Benjamin at the 2009 US Championship, Photo Betsy Dynako
Sitting on  the bubble
Back in January, Jennifer told me she had looked at the USCF rating list and it appeared I had qualified for the 2010 U.S. Championship (Saint Louis, May 13-25).   My first thought wasn't one of relief; it was surprise that the last rating list for the U.S. Championship was already upon us.

I hadn't played a rated game since last September (I wasn't completely inactive, but my 11 games from USCL were not rated).  I certainly wasn't sitting on my rating.  I lost a few points from events last year and dropped into the 2620s.  That didn't seem like a safe rating for the U.S. Championship.  So I figured at some point I would find a tournament to play in.  With the constraints of teaching, my Internet Chess Club (ICC) work, and taking care of little Aidan, I didn't manage to do so.  Well, if Jennifer was right, it was just as well.

So I checked for myself, looking up the top 50 list on uschess.org.  The numbers didn't look good, and I told Jennifer that it seemed to me I didn't earn a spot after all.  She had looked up the contenders new February ratings by hand on MSA, which weren't yet compiled into the Top Players List.

Soon I got to see the list for myself.  The first thing I noticed was that my name was # 15 on the list.  That didn't look good, but my spirits improved as I looked more carefully.  Among the players ahead of me I noticed:

Hikaru Nakamura-he gets a seed for winning last year's Championship.

Alex Lenderman-he won a free spot from last year's U.S. Open

Ray Robson-he won the U.S. Junior

Larry Christiansen-he won the U.S. Senior

Yasser Seirawan-he hasn't played in the U.S. for several years (He lives in the Netherlands now).  I'm not even sure if he is technically eligible for invitation anymore.

That would move me up to #10, the last rating qualifier. (See the current list of confirmed players here.It wasn't yet the time of year for me to think of it then, but I was like a "bubble" team for the NCAA basketball tournament.  I could have been bumped like Mississippi State when UTEP and Utah State lost in the finals of their conference tourneys.  If Shankland or Lenderman had won the U.S. Junior, or Gulko had bested Larry in the U.S. Senior (certainly plausible possibilities), I would have been on the outside looking in.

Of course, there are four wildcard spots in the Championship.  I would like to think that I had a good chance of being offered one if it had come down to that.  Still, I wouldn't have wanted to sweat out the wait until "selection Sunday."  And I'm also proud that I have qualified for 27 consecutive U.S. Championships, all of them by virtue of rating or qualifying tournaments.

It's shaping up to be a very strong field, even tougher top to bottom than last year.  It's a bit strange that five qualifying spots were given out from one tournament (the 2009 U.S. Open), but at this stage I'm glad for it.  I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends Dmitry Gurevich and Alex Yermolinsky at the Championship.  It used to be we would run into each other all the time, but not now that I rarely make it to open tournaments, particularly outside the Northeast, I don't see a lot of my old colleagues anymore.

Now that I'm in, the challenge is to figure out how to get ready.  Chesswise, there are two issues.  The first is to be properly prepared in the opening.  Fortunately my work as an ICC analyst and host of "Game of the week" forces me to keep on top of most of the opening trends.  Still, having a general knowledge of the latest theory and fashioning a tight repertoire are different things.  I have a bit of work to do there.

The second is to get back into playing shape.    Obviously, I need to feel the Chronos ticking again.  The process has already begun, thanks to some timely urging from my lovely wife.

Stur it up

Recently Debbie pointed out that we needed to get out of the house more and take some occasional trips.  She was completely right of course, so I told her that we would have to make that happen in the near future.  The next time I went into my car, I noticed I had tossed one of those ubiquitous green postcards from Goichberg in the storage area next to the seat.  It was the TLA for Sturbridge (officially called the Eastern Class Championships).  Serendipitous timing to be sure.  The proverbial two birds with one stone was at hand.

"Honey, let's go to Sturbridge," I suggested.  And she agreed, quite nicely when you consider that she didn't get to play, having to entertain He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, our 17-month old son Aidan.  She went for it because our good friend Natasha Christiansen implores us to come to Sturbridge every year.  It's supposed to be quite scenic there...and I'm sure I could tell you, if I didn't spend all of the weekend huddled over chess pieces.  [That's how most weekend tournaments are for me.  I bet Sturbridge is a lot of fun in the summer; the weather for early March was quite mild.]

Natasha was happy, especially because she can never get Larry to go to Sturbridge.  Larry reportedly has a round the clock concession of students on weekends.

Friday is a big workday for me, so we had to drive up Friday evening.  I played two rounds at g/75 before merging with the main group.  In the first game I managed to win, with some difficulty, against a kindly older Russian gentleman named Pismennyy (that's really how it was spelled).  Next I got a great attacking position out of the opening vs. Jan van de Mortel, but completely overlooked a fairly obvious move and had to cheapo him in the time scramble.

Round three was Black against Kudrin, and like most of these match-ups in the last few years, it was an uneventful draw.  In the fourth round I played a visiting GM from Georgia, Mikheil Kekelidze.

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position after 23...Bd7

Here I thought I was winning with 24.Ke2, but he was able to simply take my rook.  After 24...gxh5 25.Bxb4 he had the annoying move 25...Bb5! which only offered me a perpetual: 26.Qxh7+ Kf7 27.Qxh5+ Kg8 and I can't mate him because my bishop is pinned!

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Instead 24.Bxb4 presented winning chances.  24...Qxb1+ 25.Kd2 Qb2 26.Rxh7 would be much better for me, but more complicated is 24...Rfb8!? 25.c3 Rxb4 26.Qxa8+ (26.cxb4 Rd8) 26...Rb8 27.Qe4 and it's hard to predict the result.

Alexander Ivanov won and Robert Hungaski drew to reach 3 ½ /4.  I had to win the last round to get in the money.  [I correctly surmised that Ivanov and Hungaski would play it safe with a draw]  Avid CLO readers will know from Marc Esserman's report that I managed to get it done. In the process I avenged a loss to Josh Friedel from last year's U.S. Championship.  There he played well while I was unrecognizable (I spent a lot of time considering a move that just lost a piece).  Here the roles were reversed, as Josh did not have a good day at the chessboard. 



I was pretty sure my prize (after the deducted entry fee) would be enough to pay for the weekend.  I got a special bonus when the other two contending games, van de Mortel-Kudrin and Shabalov-Kekelidze came out drawn.  Best-case scenario coming true is always a nice present.  How often does Shabalov, in a must-win situation, draw?

So I'm off and running.  I played in a couple of smaller events since and I can feel the competitive juices flowing again.  Hopefully I'll get my opening preparation done and maybe even get to start exercising again.  And if it's not too much to ask, I would like to be able to sleep at night during the Championship this time.

See Joel's article on the 2009 Championship, Sleepless in Saint Louis and the 19 players already confirmed for Saint Louis. Also consider a visit for the four-player quad final and to participate in the US Championship Blitz Open with a $10,000 Guaranteed Prize Fund.