Saint Louis Blues: GM Joel on the STL Invitational
By GM Joel Benjamin   
April 6, 2011
I'm an elitist when it comes to the U.S. Championship.  I think it should be relatively small, with the very best players in the country participating.  It should be hard to get into, but financially rewarding for those who do make the cut.

The 2011 U.S. Championship will be a 16-player, split round-robin with four players qualifying for match play. It is the same system I advocated in the 1990s, and finished first and second in three tries.  The players will be put up gratis in the luxurious Chase Hotel.

The tournament is exactly as I want it to be.  Except I'm not in it.

I fully understood that I would have no guarantee of  participating in the Championship that I favored.  2010 was another baby year in our household, which meant almost no tournaments were possible in the latter stages of the year.  When I play so infrequently, my game is often not as sharp as I was accustomed to in the past.  So my rating suffered a bit, enough to fall out of contention for an automatic spot.  I figured there was a chance for a wildcard selection, though with fewer players qualifying by rating, there were far more strong candidates than in the last two years.  Whatever, happened, I would be okay with it.

The last thing I wanted was purgatory, in the form of a ten-player round-robin qualifier dubbed the Saint Louis Invitational.   The top two finishers would get the last two places in the field.  Before the tournament started, the CCSCSL announced the other two wildcards-Yasser Seirawan and Ben Finegold.  So if I didn't go to the Invitational, I would be spending more time with my family in April.

I didn't know what to expect of myself in such a tournament.  In proper form, I feel I should be among the top finishers.  But I could I overcome rust and distractions of my everyday life?  If my chances were no better that two in ten, 20%, would it even be worth going?  The tournament would only be a break-even proposition, with all expenses incurred by the players balanced against a modest prize fund.

So an obvious question emerges:  Why did I play?

The invitation came just before my trip to Sundance (the subject of my previous blog).  The World Chess Hall of Fame and Museum (to open across the street from the CCSCSL on September 8th) sent me on what was basically a paid vacation with a support staff of beautiful women.  I was thinking good thoughts about St. Louis when I sent in my acceptance, though sadly, none of those friendly faces came to cheer me on (Susan Barrett did stop into the club during the playoff for second place).

If I didn't play in this tournament, there would be no U.S. Championship for me this year.  In all likelihood these would be last opportunities for to play meaningful games for quite some time.  So I figured I might as well go for it.

I wasn't pleased to have to play two (full-length) games a day.  I play almost no open tournaments nowadays and don't miss the grind at all.  I did most of my preparation in New Jersey (the pairings were posted weeks before the first round) so I didn't work too hard outside of the games.  Still, the morning rounds killed any hopes I had of catching up on sleep, which pretty much never happens at home for me.

It was a very competitive, closely contested tournament...which is not entirely a positive.  When several good players are in good form, they will create some distance from the field.  Five players piled on a -1 score is the essence of mediocrity.

Now I will have a run through my games in the event, giving extra attention to the high and low points for me...the first and last rounds.

Jesse Kraai

250JoelJesse.jpgI got to know Jesse Kraai when we roomed together at the New Jersey Futurity in 2009.  He told me that my opening repertoire with White was "weird."  He didn't elaborate, and I didn't ask him to.  I don't think I wanted to know why; perhaps he was right.  For this game I played something for the first time, which I intended to do a lot in Saint Louis, especially with White.

Joel Benjamin-Jesse Kraai [E20]
Saint Louis Invitational Saint Louis USA (1), 04.03.2011
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3
4f3.jpg

4...0-0 5.a3
In my preparation I was a bit surprised to discover that 5.e4 d5 6.e5 Nfd7 doesn't offer White any advantage.
5...Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Nc6 7.e4 e5
Jesse had played this move before.  I thought I was ready to meet it but in retrospect I could have looked a little deeper into its implications.
8.Ne2 d6 9.Ng3 Nd7
This was an unpleasant surprise.  Not only does Black kill a potentially nasty pin with Bg5, he gives himself options on how to attack the c4-pawn.  I had only considered lines with b7-b6, after which White can usually sacrifice the c4-pawn and bring a knight into f5 with unpleasant threats.
10.Be3
The bishop can be a target here in lines where a black knight gets to c4. 10.Be2 Na5 11.0-0 could have been considered as well.
10...Na5 11.Bd3 c5 12.d5
12d5.jpg
I wasn't thrilled about this move but it seemed necessary due to Black's pressure on the center.
12...Nb6 13.Qe2 Na4 14.Qc2 Nb6 15.Qa2 Na4
I don't know if this was an attempt to draw or provoke me into a risky decision.  Since the c3-pawn isn't really attacked I didn't think of repeating.
16.0-0 Bd7 17.Nf5 Qc7 18.Rac1
I'm not crazy about this move but I didn't see a convenient way to defend c3 and didn't want to give it away.
18...b5 19.cxb5 c4 20.Be2 Rab8
The computer offers 20...Bxf5 21.exf5 Nb3 as slightly better for Black, though perhaps white could try 22.f6. On the immediate 20...Nb3 White has a promising continuation: 21.Ne7+ Kh8 22.Nc6!
21.Qc2 Bxb5
Not 21...Nb3 22.Bxc4! Nxc1 (22...Qxc4 23.Nxd6 Qc7 24.Qxb3 Qxd6 25.Qxa4 Bxb5 26.Qb4 Qxb4 27.axb4 Bxf1 28.Kxf1) 23.Qxa4; in both cases White has too much compensation for the exchange.
22.f4 Bd7?!
Objectively Black should hunker down with 22...f6 which looks fairly balanced to me.
23.fxe5 Rb2

Jesse threw this one down instantly, which surprised me because I thought he would be afraid of the piece sac.  23...dxe5 24.d6 would be similar to the game but Black's queen has to go to a more passive square.
23...Rb2new.jpg

24.Qd1
My intuition told me that 24.exd6! Rxc2 25.dxc7 Rxe2 would be good for White, but I couldn't see what to do next.  If I had seen the neat consolidator 26.Rf2! Rxf2 27.Ne7+ Kh8 28.Bxf2 I would have jumped for it!
24...dxe5 25.d6 Qb7 26.Ne7+ Kh8 27.Bf3 Nb3
Jesse finds an annoying continuation in my time pressure.  On the immediate 27...Rd8 I intended  28.Qe1.
28.Rc2 Be6
There are times when a game can hinge on one move, not because the right move is so strong, but because it is easy to make a bad one under pressure.  That's why I'm proud of my next move.
28...Be6.jpg
29.h3!
This pawn is destined for greatness.  29.Rxb2 Nxb2 30.Qe2 Na4 keeps me a bit tied up.
29...Rd8 30.Bg4

The computers jump on this move, but deeper analysis reveals White is holding his own in the complications.  With a big edge on the clock, Jesse felt the momentum was all in his favor.  This might have made him a bit slower to appreciate the potential problems in the position.
30...Qxe4 31.Rxb2 Nxb2 32.Qe1 Bxg4
32...Rxd6 33.Bxe6 Rd1 is an interesting try, but white has the miraculous 34.Rxf7!!
rf7.jpg
position after 34.Rxf7!! (analysis)
34...Rxe1+ 35.Kh2 Qa8 36.Nc8 Qxc8 (36...h5 37.Rf8+ Kh7 38.Bg8+ Kh8 39.Bxc4+ Kh7 40.Bg8+ Kh8 41.Bxb3+ Kh7 42.Bg8+ Kh8 43.Bd5+ Kh7 44.Bxa8+-) 37.Bxc8 and the future looks very pleasant for White's bishop pair.  I didn't see all that at the time but had an inkling there was something along those lines.
33.hxg4
The pawn begins its triumphant march
33...f6
In a brief post-mortem Jesse suggested the immediate 33...Nd1. White has various playable moves (the computer likes 34.Bd4).  I was prepared to play 34.Rxf7 Nxe3 35.Rf3 and White's position looks a bit easier. Best play is probably 35...Qc2 36.Rxe3 Rxd6 37.Rf3 Rd8 38.Qf1 Qc1 39.Nc6 with a likely draw.
34.g5 Nd1 35.gxf6! Qxe3+
35...gxf6?? 36.Bg5! is clearly out of the question.  35...Nxe3 36.fxg7+ Kxg7 37.Nf5+ is too easy for white: 37...Kh8 (37...Qxf5 38.Rxf5 Nxf5 39.Qxe5+ Kg6 40.g4 Nxd6 41.Qh5+ White picks up the rook.) 38.Nxe3 Nc5 and now  39.Rf7 appears strongest but other moves give White a big edge as well.
36.Qxe3 Nxe3 37.Nc6
37Nc6.jpg
37...Nxf1??
Jesse thought the game was already gone and missed the surprising resource 37...Ra8!! It's the only square that doesn't give White a decisive tempo.  After 38.fxg7+ Kxg7 I was trying to decide between Rf3 and Re1.  On 39.Rf3 comes another stunning rejoinder 39...Nc2!! (admittedly this is a computer move that could easily have been overlooked) 40.d7 Ncd4 41.cxd4 Nxd4 and now 42.d8Q 42...Rxd8 43.Nxd8 Nxf3+ 44.gxf3 c3 45.Ne6+ Kf6 46.Nc5 c2 can only lead to trouble for white, so 42.Nxd4 exd4 43.Rf4 Rd8 44.Rxd4 c3 with a dead draw.  That leaves 39.Re1 Nd5 40.d7 e4 41.d8Q (41.Rxe4 Nf6) 41...Rxd8 42.Nxd8 Nxc3 which doesn't look that clear to me.
38.Nxd8 Nc5 39.f7 Nd7 40.Ne6
40.Kxf1 Nf8 41.Ne6! Nxe6 42.d7 would have been an equally stylish finish.
40...Ng3 41.Nc5 1-0

After 41...Nf8 42.d7 Nxd7 43.Nxd7, the pawn formerly known as h queens.

I could not have hoped for more than winning a hard-fought, juices flowing, touch of brilliance game like that.  And against a player with two wins over me in recent years.  Sadly, the highlights end there.  I'm not surprised to lose two games; it's the sandwich of six draws that really hurts.  In my younger days I had many tournaments like that; people would look at the crosstable and assume I wasn't fighting.  [In the 1996 U.S. Championship I had twelve draws...But I sacked a piece on move four in one of them.]  When my form is off a little but not a lot, I can miss my opportunities to win, but not play (or blunder) badly enough to lose.  It's been a long time since I had a result like that, partly because I almost never offer a draw anymore.  In nine Championship games last year I had only one draw!

Melikset Khachiyan


My demise began in the very next game against Melik Khachiyan.  I've hardly seen the friendly Armenian native outside of St. Louis, but we've played there three times now.  After the tournament, Melik and I were lamenting the sad state of our game right now.  Like me, he has two children...older than mine, but younger than Kaidanov's.



I was feeling confident after a good first round and hoping to add another win to my total.  Unfortunately I made a number of poor decisions.  I could have played 18...c5, which both Melik and I evaluated as equal.  I totally underestimated the strength of White's simple plan of exchanging rook on the e-file. 

KhachBenj22.fe7.jpg

I had anticipated 22...f6 would give me a solid position, but only now did I see devastation after 23.Ne4! fxg5 24.Nfxg5 h5 25.gxh5 Qe8 26.Ne6 Qf7 27.Nf4.  Black's position is still playable but it required a complete rethink of the position, which ate up most of my remaining time.  My last chance was 24...Bxd4! 25.Nf6+ Nxf6 26.Bxf6 Bxf6 27.Qxf6 c5.  While I can't remove the e7-pawn, I might just work around it.  The final blunder, 27...c5, didn't make any difference-Black is lost anyway-but it was embarrassing considering I had seen 27...h6 would lose to the same tactic.

Julio Becerra




I prepared a rare sideline against Julio Becerra's King's Indian.  More and more I find, when I delve into the database, that unfamiliar moves have been played more often than I would have thought.  8.e3 seems most popular among women rated about 2350, which may not be a great recommendation, but I just wanted something simple to play for a slight edge.  Julio rarely goes into deep thinks in the opening, and he didn't here either. 
Becerradxe5.jpg
position after 12...dxe5

I was pleased with 13.Ba3 when I played it, thinking I was keeping my opponent a bit tied up.  13...Bf8 came as a complete shock; I hadn't registered the existence of this quite plausible move.  Exchanging my good bishop left my queenside pawns vulnerable and took all the pleasure out of the position.  [Even so my Rybka listed 13.Ba3 as the best move!  Go figure]  Groveling for a draw proved more difficult than expected, especially after the truly terrible 26.h4? (26.h3 would have served the cause).  26...Qe6! hit hard as I realized 27.Rd1 e4 28.Qe2 Rd3! would be most unpleasant.  I eventually made it into the rook endgame below

44.Rxa4.jpg
position after 44...Rxa4

Three connected passed pawns look quite intimidating, but White's fast runners make a win problematical.  The only improvement I saw was 52...Rxh5 53.e6 Kd6! 54.Ra6 Re5+ 55.Kf4 and the move Julio missed, 55...Kxe6! 56.Rxb6+ Kd5 57.Rb1 Re4+ 58.Kf3 c4 59.Rd1+ Rd4 60.Rc1 Kc5 61.Ke2 Kb4 and Black wins.  Later the peanut gallery suggested 59...b5, but 60.Ke5 b4 61.Rc7+ Kb5 62.Kd4 seems to hold.

I understood Julio's frustration, as many apparently winning rook endgames have slipped through my fingers, too.  Saving a draw after coming so close to losing took some edge out of totally wasting the White pieces.

Eugene Perelshteyn




The next game I might have won if I had kept my nerve at a few moments.  My opening strategy proved successful, as after 14...Rbc8 White could not maintain his center.  Still, I faced a typical unpleasant choice after 17.exd3:  Should I put my rook on c2 or c3?  On 17...Rc3 I calculated the following line: 17...Rc3 18.Ba3 Rxd3 19.Rfc1 Rxd4 20.Nb5 Rxa4 21.Bxf8 Rxa1 22.Rxa1 Bxb5

analysisBb5Joel.jpg
analysis diagram after 22...Bxb5

Black has three pawns for the exchange, but White's bishop pair troubled me.  Even if I lost my whole queenside I probably would still be able to draw, but I wasn't anxious to play this position.  The game continuation led to rough equality but Eugene pushed it too far and gave me chances.

28Rb2JoelPerel.jpg
Here 28...Bxb5 29.axb5 Nc3 is a critical continuation. 30.Rb4? N7xb5 31.Bc6 Rxd4! 32.Rxb5 Nxb5 33.Bxb5 a6! wins for Black, so White has to settle for 30.Bc6 Rxd4 31.Rb3 N3d5 (31...Rxd3? 32.Kg2).  I'm not sure how much I've achieved in winning one of the doubled pawns while activating his bishops.

I didn't regret that decision, but 30...Ne7 was a disaster.  With my clock running down, I noticed 30...Nf6 31.Bc6 Bxc6+ 32.bxc6 Rc7 33.Rc2 Nd5 34.Bd6 would be risky, but I needed to play something.  30...Rc7 31.Bb4 and only now 31...Nf6 or even just a waiting move, e.g. 30...g5 would have sufficed.  Probably Black won't win anyway but there would be chances.  After trading my knight the game is a dead draw.

Alejandro Ramirez




I wasn't aware of Alejandro playing 5...e6 in prior games, so I hadn't prepared specifically for this variation.  These days most of what I know about theoretical trends I pick up working on my Internet Chess Club (ICC) show, "Game of the Week."  As I put in way too much time every week preparing my show, I comfort myself in the knowledge that it will benefit me to study the openings of those games.  8.g3!? is an idea I picked up from that ICC work.  Probably White should just play against an isolated pawn; 12.Nh4 looked interesting to me, but after Alejandro's correct reaction the position looks dead equal.  I ended up having to play carefully to hold equality.  I was out of the woods when Alejandro offered the draw.  I could have played on to try to swindle him, but I was so tired I didn't see the point.

Darwin Yang




I found a bit of a hole in Darwin's opening repertoire.  He doesn't play 4.Qc2 in the Nimzo-Indian or against the Bogo-Indian at all, so the Black Knights Tango was a clever choice against him.  At some point tactics broke out (as invariably happens when talented youngster are involved) and I had to play down a pawn but with good compensation.  I felt that it was enough for a draw, but only after the weak move 34.Be4? did I have real hopes for a win.  The momentum was swinging my way until move 39.  With 39...Qb3, I could have kept the pressure on.  Probably White's best is  40.Kg1 Nxe4 41.Nxe4 Ne3 42.Re1 (42.Rc1 Rxc1+ 43.Qxc1 Qb6 or Qd3 is a more serious Black advantage) 42...Nxd5 43.f5.  White is not lost, but I can certainly enjoy this position.  And Darwin might well have blundered with just a minute or two to make his 40th move.  39...Qxd2 was the easy way out.  After the time control I couldn't find anything to work with.  Darwin sidestepped my dreams of mating nets, but even so, with 42...Rc4, I could have kept squeezing.  Once again my energy flagged late in the game.

Michael Brooks




This was one of the most frustrating games of a frustrating tournament.  Michael made no attempt to win this game, in stark contrast to his maniacal lunges against Kaidanov and Kraai.  The position was quite blocked form the beginning, but with a large advantage in space, White has enough control to carve out a long term plan to break through.  I felt like I didn't get anything right, and never came close to any serious winning chances.  My spirits were at a low point.  If I were to make a move, it needed to be today.

Gregory Kaidanov



I didn't feel confident of defeating an in-form Kaidanov with the Black pieces.  At any rate, I figured my game with Robson would decide matters anyway.  I was actually quite proud of the reasoning behind 10....Ne4!, which seems to force complete equality.  I had succeeded in meeting the demands of the position, which gave me more pleasure than just about anything that week.  Alas, it didn't help my tournament situation at all.  Ramirez beat Becerra, meaning that I would need him to lose, even if I beat Robson.

Kaidanov was the only contender that can feel truly satisfied with his play in the tournament.  Readers may wonder why I complain about physically and mentally breaking down when I'm four years younger than the tournament winner.  Gregory's children are in their twenties now, while mine are 2 ½ and three months.  I asked him if he had time to study; he shook his head and replied, "not much."  Still, it was not unusual for him have more time on his clock after fifteen moves then when he started.  He had to admit that the openings went very well for him.  Gregory has always been the kind of player that could make up his mind exactly what he wanted to do before the game, and he seems to have retained that skill.  He thus rarely gets into time pressure, while my whole life is time pressure.  My style is a lot more demanding, and so age and conditioning seems to play a greater factor.  In any case, I'm happy for Grisha, one of the nicest colleagues I've known over the years.  Perhaps this year he can beat the odds and lose the moniker, "the strongest American never to win the U.S. Championship."

Ray Robson


Joel  Benjamin-Ray Robson  [A05]
Saint Louis Invitational Saint Louis USA (9), 08.03.2011
1.Nf3
After the game Ray asked me why I played 1.Nf3.  I reminded him of his poor results against this move, though I phrased it rather undiplomatically (it was a hard day).  I am not surprised Ray was surprised, but I am surprised that Ray was surprised he was surprised.  Wily old veterans will typically try to zero in on young players' weaknesses (or at least avoid their strengths).  This is the one true way to take advantage of our edge in experience.  Ray would do well to critically analyze his results and anticipate areas of attack, patching them up as fast as possible.
1...Nf6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 c5 4.c4 e6
After the game Ray wondered about 4...d4 which I believe he opted for in the playoff with Ramirez.
5.cxd5 exd5 6.d4 Be7 7.0-0 0-0 8.dxc5
I decided on the variation normally entered in this manner: 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Bg5.  I assumed a sharp youngster like Ray would play the gambit line 9...d4, so I decided to sidestep it.
8...Nc6 9.Bg5 Bf5?!
9...Bf5.jpg
Clearly Ray didn't fancy playing the line without the gambit.  But Black can't afford to be so ambitious here.
10.Nbd2?!
My opening moves often come agonizingly slowly, but every now and then I rush out a move without sufficiently considering the options.  10.Nc3 d4 doesn't get Black into standard channels because White can play 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Nb5.  Also 12.Qb3 with 13.Nb3 to follow would give White a nice edge.
10...h6! 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Qb3 b6!
A moment ago I was in control, but now Black has very active play and his chances are not worse.
13.Rac1 Rb8 14.Qa4 Bd7
14...Qd7 was a solid alternative.  I intended to play 15.e4, when dxe4 16.Nxe4 Bxb2 17.Rcd1 Qc7 is equal.  Black can also play 15...b5) 
15.Nb3 Bxb2
We both thought 15...Nd4 16.c6 Nxe2+ 17.Kh1 Nxc1 18.Rxc1 would be good for White, though Black might be okay with a rook and two pawns for two pieces.
16.Rb1
I confess I didn't consider 16.Rc2!? Nd4 17.c6 when Nxc2 18.cxd7 looks good for White.   The computer, however, says Black is in charge after 17...Bxc6 18.Rxc6 Nxe2+ 19.Kh1 Qd7.  It's not the kind of stuff I was looking to get into anyway!) 16.Rcd1 Nd4 17.Qxa7 Nxe2+ 18.Kh1 Bb5 scared me, though 18...Nc3 19.Rd2 Nb5 may be rather stronger.
16...Bf6
16...Nd4 17.Qxa7 Nxe2+ 18.Kh1 would have kept the position messier.
17.Qf4 Qe7 18.cxb6 Rxb6 19.Nbd4
19Nbd4.jpg
This was the happiest I had been since my foolish tenth move.  The game has slowed down and become more positional, though objectively Black doesn't have any problems.
19...Nxd4 20.Nxd4 Ra6
I think this move is asking for it, but Ray felt he needed it to try to win.
21.Rb7 Qd8 22.e3
Just before playing this move I reached out to grab my rook, not to go to b1, which would be sensible, but to play 22.Rc1? walking into the skewer 22...Bg5 though shockingly I would still be well in the game after 23.Qc7 Bxc1 24.Qxd7.
22...Rxa2 23.Rc1 Ra5
This seems rather pointless to me.  He seemed to be floundering and I didn't know why.
24.h4 Bxd4 

24Bd4.jpg
Up until now I had been playing with great focus and patience, if not actually making spectacular moves.  But now I allowed myself to be psyched out like a rookie.  My breakdown was triggered by this move, or rather the way it was played-with just seconds on his clock.  While he was thinking I realized that this simple trade would be enough to neutralize my initiative, and with 30-second increment, he would be likely to make the time control as well.  Unfortunately, I never realized that his hesitation was caused by his desperation to win.  I should have given him a chance to hang himself if he would take it.  Instead I lost all rationality.
25.exd4
25.Qxd4 is more natural, safer, and stronger.  I'm not sure what I was thinking; perhaps it was some dream of getting in Rcc7-e7.
25...Be6 26.Rcc7 Ra1+ 27.Kh2 Qf6
Another last second forced but perfectly acceptable move, and my emotions were running wild.
28.Qxf6 gxf6 29.Rxa7 Rd1 30.Bh3 f5 31.Ra4 Rd2
31...Rd2.jpg
32.Rca7??
I was seized by the notion that I was in big trouble, and I could only save myself by swapping rooks.  All I could see was 32.Kg2 Rb8 33.Rc1 Rbb2 34.Rf1 Bd7 and I'm in big trouble.  Passive defense would surely be hopeless.  Yet as everyone pointed out after the game, I can retreat my rook to the third rank After 33.Rc3!, intending to defend (and attack) from f3, Black has to fight for a draw.  I could have gone down to the wire to find the necessary move and used the increment to build my time back up, as Ray had done.  Furthermore, White's position is immediately gone after conceding the f-pawn and having the king cut off.
32...Rxf2+ 33.Kg1 Rd2 34.Ra8 Rxa8 35.Rxa8+ Kg7 36.Ra4 Rd3 37.Kf2 f4 38.Bxe6 fxg3+
finaljoelray.jpg
39.Ke2 Rg3 is hopeless.  In a daze, I lost on time. 0-1

It goes down in the history books as a brilliant win for Ray Robson, and he parlayed his good fortune into more good fortune.  In the second playoff game with Ramirez, Ray hung a piece only to find sufficient compensation, ultimately winning the game and qualifying for the Championship alongside Kaidanov. 



Fortune seems to favor the young.  While I can't quantify it, I seemed to get luckier when I was young myself.

For the first time since I was in high school,  I will not be receiving an invitation to the U.S. Championship.  So I wait for next year...or perhaps a day when my house is free of diapers.

See full details on the Saint Louis Invitational on the CCSCSL website and stay up to date on the US Chess Championships at uschesschamps.com.