GM Kraai Wins Western States on Playoff
By Randy Hough   
October 29, 2013
The 31st edition of the Western States Open at Reno’s Sands Regency October 18-20, was a triumph for the favorites – and the (relatively) old guys.  

Six GMs, eight IMs, and eight FMs graced the Open section. The top five seeds, GMs Alexander Ivanov of Massachusetts (last year’s winner), Melikset Khachiyan of Los Angeles (champion in 2009 and 2010), Sergey Kudrin of Connecticut (who took the laurels in 2011), Jesse Kraai of the Bay Area, and Enrico Sevillano of Southern California, emerged in a tie for first with 4½ of 6. Joining them was FM Ron Cusi of the Bay Area. Kraai, the youngest of the group at 41, eventually won a four-way playoff, but let’s turn to the tournament results first.

Kudrin was fast out of the box with 3-0, including a second round win over IM David Pruess. 


Kudrin’s signature 6.a4 against the Najdorf evolved into a Scheveningen, where Black had easy equality until he overpressed with 15…g5, overlooking 16.e5! when 16…dxe5? 17.fxg5 would entail mayhem on the f-file. Black’s king eventually sought safety on the queenside, to no avail.

Khachiyan drew with IM Ricardo De Guzman in Round 2, but then beat IM Ray Kaufman nicely, employing a sideline, 11.dxc5 in the McCutcheon French, which temporarily gives White tripled pawns. Black jumped at the chance to trade queens before recovering the pawn, but then instead of the equal 14…Nxc5, he wrongly initiated kingside action with his bishop still on c8 and his rook on a8. Punishment was swift.


Khachiyan then defeated Kudrin with the Black pieces to reach a first place tie at 3½ /4. The stylish Giuoco Pianissimo led to a dynamically equal position where Black has two rooks for a queen, but Kudrin went awry with 30.Qa3?; 30.Nh6+ Kg7 31.Qf5+ Kxh6 32.Qxf7 Bxd4 would have resulted in a perpetual one way or the other. Instead, the White queen eventually gets trapped.


Kraai, a former philosophy professor and now a professional player who vigorously promoted his new novel Lisa throughout the tournament (see the CLO excerpt here), had drawn with IM Ganbold Odondoo in the second round; he faced newly minted IM John Bryant in Round 4. 


In an uneven game, Kraai got equality in Tarrasch French but wrongly sacrificed his d-pawn with 17…Nf4? Bryant then held the advantage until he underestimated the effects of Black’s h-pawn push after time control. After 44.Re5 Rc8 45.Qd2 White defends his king and the a6 pawn is a Sword of Damocles. In the game continuation, 46.Qa1 was the last chance to maintain equality.

Thus Kraai and Khachiyan sat atop the field after four rounds. Following a familiar pattern, the leaders drew quickly in Round 5, affording others the chance to catch up. Ivanov had beaten IM Ed Formanek in the first round after the veteran lost the thread with 39.Ka4? in a basically equal position.


Draws with Bryant and Sevillano followed, but Ivanov downed De Guzman in Round 5 to catch up sat 4-1. Sevillano followed a similar path; after drawing with Ivanov and De Guzman; he bear IM Justin Sarkar in another uneven game. White squandered an advantage against Benoni specialist Sevillano, and after 36…Nc2 threatening a four-way family fork, Black is equal. 39.Bxe8 instead of the catastrophic 39.Rh1?? would have kept it that way; looks like a time pressure blunder.


The 23rd seed, Cusi sneaked up on the leaders after losing to Khachiyan in Round One. He won against IM Vladimir Mezentsev in the fourth round in his favorite English Opening. 7…Qc7 is unusual, but Black is close to equal after 9…d6. . The erroneous 9…e5 definitely leaves White on top, and Cusi eventually cashes in on the c-file and light squares.


Round 5 also saw a draw between Cusi and Kudrin, while Ivanov beat De Guzman, leaving Ivanov, Khachiyan, Kraai, and Sevillano tied for first. The first two and the second two drew fairly quickly in the last round, clinching a tie for first. That left open the opportunity for a larger tie, and Kudrin (versus young FM Cameron Wheeler, who misjudged his chances and went into a bad ending) and Cusi (who downed another Bay Area youngster, Vignesh Panchanatham) exploited it.

Sevillano had respectable tiebreak points, but, dissatisfied with his play, opted out of the playoff. That left Khachiyan vs. Cusi and Kudrin facing Kraai in a 7-minute double round (games unfortunately not recorded for posterity). The first two split their games (Cusi winning an English with a pawn avalanche on the queenside); the second pair drew twice. Armageddon games at 5:4 with Black holding draw odds were then won by Khachiyan and Kraai. The atmosphere was a bit more relaxed than that of the tournament proper; Melik was not penalized when his cell went off (at least it has a melodious ring tone!),

Kraai then won the championship (as well as a plaque and a $100 bonus) in the playoff, outcalculating Khachiyan in a pawn ending. (Revenge was soon forthcoming, as Khachiyan beast Kraai two nights later in as critical US Chess League game.)

At 4 points, Mezentsev and Odondoo finished a half-point out of first. Cusi, though tied for first, was also the best Under 2400 player; Under 2300 honors were split by Panchanatham, Wheeler., and Kesav Viswanadha, Formanek, and Canadian FM Dale Haessel.

We’ve mentioned several of the young Northern Californians; also making a splash were Udit Iyengar (an upset of FM Alex Kretchetov and a draw with Odondoo), Allan Beilin (an upset of Pruess), Here’s Panchanatham’s fifth round win over Bryant. The IM has a slight edge, then equality despite White’s attacking chances, but blunders on move 40, allowing White’s attack to crash through. Transition into a won queen ending follows.


Finally, a reminder that even masters sometimes blunder in the opening. There are similar traps in the Queen’s Gambit Declined when Black plays …Nh5, allowing Nxd5 because of the threatened queen trap on c7. The damage after 11…b5?? Is much greater, and White cashes in quickly.

Class winners included Aaron Grabinsky, 15, of Oregon (a first place tie in Class A in 2012 and a win in a higher class this time – the kind of progress we admire); Drayton Harrison, 45, of Seattle; (Class A); Cailen Melville, 23, of Santa Cruz (Class B); Brian Burkhead, 45, of Santa Rosa, California (Class C); and Mike Farrill, 32, of Lafayette, California. Harrison and Burkhart both tallied perfect scores and led the field by 1½ points; they gained 105 and 168 rating points respectively. All final results can be viewed on MSA.  
The tournament attracted 205 players, up from last year’s 188. (The companion spring event, the Larry Evans Memorial, also had an increased turnout, this spring.) Let’s hope that organizer Jerry Weikel is right that the tournament is on an upswing; it did attract 257 players as recently as 2009.

The Western States paid out $20,080 in prize money. A traditional format tournament (no alternate schedule or reentries, though the third time control of SD/30 was dropped this year), it offers special recognition prizes also. Senior honors were split among Miroslav Stroukal, Bernard Spera, and Willie Campers Jr. The team competition, as usual, saw Seattle Chess Club and Mechanics Institute of San Francisco fighting it out for first. Seattle emerged on top, with Bay Area Chess close behind.

Thanks to the Weikel family for putting on another great tournament, and especially to Ernie Hong for his prompt inputting of the games. Reno’s next big event is the Larry Evans Memorial, April 18-20, 2014.