The Uncrowned: Fine, Benko and Kaidanov
By David Friedman   
March 25, 2009
This article adapts a title and theme from the 1994 book by IM John Donaldson and IM Nikolay Minev called Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King. Rubinstein is one of the strongest chess players who never won the World Championship, a title he may have captured if not for the intervention first of World War I and then of the worsening mental illness that hindered and eventually ended his chess career.

Reuben Fine, Pal Benko and Gregory Kaidanov are three of the most decorated and accomplished players in U.S. chess history but the U.S. Championship title eluded each of them.

FineCover.jpg
Fine on the cover of Chess Life in June, 1993, the year of his death.
Fine won the U.S. Open each of the seven times that he entered that event but the U.S. Championship was an entirely different story for him; in NFL terms, Fine played the role of the 1980s Cleveland Browns while Sammy Reshevsky was the Denver Broncos; three times Fine challenged Reshevsky for the title and each time he came up just short. The first U.S. Championship Tournament was held in 1936 (previously, the U.S. Championship had been decided by match play). Reshevsky powered his way to the first of his six U.S. Championship titles (seven if you count his challenge match victory over Horowitz in 1941) with 10 wins, three draws and two losses. Fine had the fewest losses of the 16 participants (one) but he also had the most draws (seven) and those peaceful outcomes left him tied for =3rd-4th, one point behind Reshevsky.

In the 1938 U.S. Championship, Fine’s aggressive play earned him the most wins (11) but he suffered two defeats and had to settle for 2nd place, a point and a half ahead of the rest of the 17 player field but a half point behind Reshevksy.

Those first two setbacks for Fine were nothing compared to the 1940 U.S. Championship, when he arguably came within one good move of dethroning Reshevsky. When those two titans battled in the final round, Reshevsky had Black but only needed a draw to secure the title. Fine built up a winning position but stumbled just short of reaching his goal:



1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.Bb5+ c6 7.dxc6 bxc6 8.Be2 h6 9.Nf3 e4 10.Ne5 Bd6 11.f4

AFter11.f4Fine.jpg
Position after 11.f4


What is the best approach to take when the tournament situation dictates that you have to win but your opponent only needs a draw? GM Anatoly Lein once told me something that a wise GM--I believe that it was Petrosian--said long ago in a post mortem: it is easier to play for a win from an equal position than a lost one. In other words, it is not a good idea to take too many risks. Fine struck the perfect balance by choosing this opening, as Andy Soltis writes in The United States Chess Championship, 1845–1996 : "...in this 4.Ng5 variation, Black is virtually forced to sacrifice a pawn and this places Reshevsky in the uncomfortable situation of having to play for sharp positions when he would prefer quieter ones. Also, he must do so in unfamiliar waters."
11...Qc7 12.0–0 0–0 13.Nc3 Bxe5 14.fxe5 Qxe5 15.d4 exd3 16.Qxd3 Ng4 17.Bf4!? 17.Rf4
 preserves a slight edge according to Fritz; Soltis suggests 17.Bxg4 Bxg4 18.Bf4 Qc5+ 19.Kh1 but admits that the opposite colored Bs would give Black drawing chances.
 17...Qc5+ 18.Kh1 Nf2+ 19.Rxf2 Qxf2 20.Rf1 Qh4 21.Qd6 Bg4? 22.Ba6!

Black will now have to reroute his B to e6 in order to extricate his precariously positioned N.
22...Bc8 23.Bd3 Be6 24.Qb4 Qh5 25.Bc7 Nc4
 Soltis reports that eyewitness accounts said that Reshevsky was in tears because of the dire nature of his position. 
26.Bxc4 Qh4

After26...Qh4.jpg
Position after 26...Qh4

"Now 27.Rf4 will win Fine a United States championship," Andy Soltis writes—but Fine lost the thread at the critical moment.
27.Bf4??  Bxc4 28.Qxc4 g5 29.g3 Qg4 30.Qxc6
Fine had intended to play 30.Ne4 to break the pin while threatening Nf6+ but at the last moment he realized that Black could save the game with 30...Qe6 31.Qxe6 if 31.Qd4 then Black can play f5 32.Nc5 Qe2 33.Rf2 Qe1+ 34.Kg2 gxf4 31...fxe6
30...gxf4 31.Rxf4 Qe6 32.Qf3 f5 33.Qd5 Rae8 34.Kg2 Qxd5+ 35.Nxd5 Re2+ 36.Rf2 Rxf2+ 37.Kxf2 Kf7 38.c4 a5 39.b3 Re8 40.a3 Rc8 41.Nc3 Ke6 42.Ke3 Ke5 43.Kd3 Rb8 44.Nb5 Rd8+ 45.Kc2 h5 46.b4 axb4 47.axb4 h4 48.c5 hxg3 49.hxg3 Kd5 50.Kd3 Rg8
and the players soon agreed to a draw. ½–½

“A miracle happened,” Reshevsky said after his great escape.

Fine did not participate in the 1942 U.S. Championship but made his fourth and final appearance in the event in 1944. Reshevsky sat that one out due to his studies to become a CPA, so Fine was the clear favorite, but Arnold Denker defeated him in their head to head encounter and won the tournament a point ahead of Fine.

In The Bobby Fischer I Knew And Other Stories, Denker offers high praise for Fine, declaring that Fine had “greater knowledge and deeper understanding of the game” than Reshevksy, citing Fine’s superior record in international tournaments as proof. “Fine lacked only Reshevsky’s bulldog tenacity and singleness of purpose,” Denker concludes.

Benko66cover.jpg
Pal Benko on the cover of the March 1966 Chess Life cover
Much like Fine, Benko had a tremendous record in open tournaments, earning the nickname “King of the Swisses”; he won the U.S. Open a record eight times. In U.S. Championship play, Benko achieved nine top five finishes in 16 appearances (including one runner up) but never wore the crown.

Benko first played in the U.S. Championship in 1958. Bobby Fischer had won his first U.S title the year before at the age of 14 and was trying to become the event’s first back to back winner since Reshevksy in 1942. Benko had just finished ahead of Fischer in the Portoroz Interzonal and also won their individual encounter there, so the Hungarian native who had only recently immigrated to the United States was expected to provide a serious challenge to Fischer. However, Benko drew six games and finished a disappointing 8th out of 12, while Fischer won six games, drew five and outdistanced the field by a full point.

Fischer proved to be untouchable in the U.S. Championship, playing the role of Michael Jordan while turning the other top U.S. GMs into ringless Patrick Ewings and Charles Barkleys. He won the title every year that he played (eight times in all) but when he sat out in 1961 to prepare for the upcoming Stockholm Interzonal the top six players scored between 6.5 and 7.5 points (out of 11), with Larry Evans emerging as the clear winner without losing a single game. Benko suffered two losses and thus finished a point behind Evans in a massive tie for 3rd-6th.

Fischer refused to play in the U.S. Championship after 1966 because the organizers would not meet his demand that the event be lengthened to at least 16 rounds. Benko finished =3rd-4th in 1966 and placed in the top five in the next five U.S. Championships sans Fischer. After 1961, Benko came closest to winning the event in 1969 (3rd, one point behind Reshevsky) and 1972 (5th, but only one point behind co-champions Robert Byrne, Lubomir Kavalek and Reshevsky). Benko tied for 2nd in 1974 but Walter Browne cruised to victory by one and a half points. Here is an example of the sharp play that enabled Benko to amass so many top five finishes:



1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 Bd7 7.Qd2 Nxd4 8.Qxd4 Qa5 9.Bd2 Qc7 10.Bc4 e6 11.Bb3 Be7 12.f4

In Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions by Benko and IM Jeremy Silman, Benko criticizes this move because it takes away the option of K-side castling, as will be seen shortly.
12...0–0 13.Rf1 
13.0–0 fails after 13...d5, when Black is threatening ...Bc5.
 13...b5 
After13...b5.jpg
Position after 13...b5

14.0–0–0
Benko says that White should have proceeded with his plan of playing f5, because after the text "Black's attack is clearly much faster than White's."
14...a5 15.a4 b4 16.Ne2 Bc6 17.Ng3 Qd7 18.e5 dxe5 19.Qxe5 Bd6 20.Qd4 Bxa4 21.Be3 Bxb3 22.Qxd6 Qxd6 23.Rxd6 Rfc8 24.Rd2 Rc6 25.Kb1 Bd5 26.b3 h5 27.Bd4 h4 28.Bxf6 hxg3 29.Bd4 gxh2 30.Rh1 Be4 31.Rxh2 Rd8 0–1


Jan09FC.jpgKaidanov arrived in the United States in 1991 and immediately made a big splash, winning the World Open and U.S. Open in 1992. Since that time he has won a host of other strong tournaments—including the Aeroflot Open in Moscow in 2002, when he bested a field that included 82 other GMs—but in 14 U.S. Championship appearances his best results are a pair of second place finishes.

While Reshevsky dominated the U.S. Championship during Fine’s era and Fischer stood above the rest during Benko’s prime years, Kaidanov has played during a period in which the U.S. Champion is truly primus inter pares (first among equals), to borrow Mikhail Botvinnik’s description of his reign as World Champion in the middle of the 20th century; a dozen different players have won the U.S. Championship (or tied for first place) since 1993, compared to just six different players winning or sharing the title between 1936 and 1969.

Kaidanov scored 5.5/11 and finished in 6th place in his first U.S Championship appearance in 1993. He dropped to 9th place in 1994 and =10th-11th in 1995 but in 1996 Kaidanov tied with Boris Gulko for =2nd-3rd, one point behind Alex Yermolinsky. Kaidanov would have shared first place if he had won his last round game versus three-time U.S. Champion Lev Alburt:



1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e3 e6 4.Bxc4 c5 5.0–0 Nf6 6.Qe2 a6 7.a3 b5 8.Ba2 Bb7 9.a4 Nbd7 10.Na3 bxa4 11.Nc4 Be7 12.d3 Nd5 13.Bb1 Bc6 14.Bc2 0–0 15.Bd2 N5b6 16.e4 Nxc4 17.dxc4 Bf6 18.Bc1 Qa5 19.e5 Be7 20.Bd2 Qc7 21.Bc3 Rfe8 22.Rfe1 Nf8 23.h4 Qb7 24.h5 h6 25.Nd2 Rad8 26.Ne4 Nh7 27.f4 f5 28.Nd2 Bh4 29.Rf1 Nf8 30.Kh2 Qf7 31.g4 Rd7 32.Rg1 Red8 33.Nf1 Kh8 34.Kh3
After34.Kh3.jpg
34... fxg4+?? 34...Be7= 35.Kxh4 g5+ 36.hxg6 Nxg6+ 37.Bxg6 Qxg6 38.Rxg4 Qf7 39.f5 Kh7 40.f6 Rg8 41.Rd1 Rxd1 42.Qxd1 Be8 43.Qd3+ Kh8 44.Rxg8+ Qxg8 45.Qg3 Bg6 46.Qe3 Kh7 47.Bd2 Qf8 48.Ng3 1–0

For many years, Kaidanov has been been among the top contenders to reign as "first among equals." Last year, Kaidanov only scored 4.5/9 and placed =11th-14th but he ranks seventh on the most recent Top 100 list—just one place and 15 points behind 2008 U.S. Champion Yury Shulman. In 2003, Kaidanov came closest to winning his first U.S. Championship, finishing =2nd-8th, a half point behind Alexander Shabalov. Kaidanov tied for 3rd place in 2005 and 2007.  However, with Gata Kamsky, Alexander Onischuk and Hikaru Nakamura all set to compete in 2009, the competition will be tougher than ever. This year, it may be most accurate to say that if someone outside the big three wins, such as Kaidanov, it will be a case of the slight underdog prevailing.   

Friedmanthumb.jpgDavid Friedman is a six-time Dayton (Ohio) Chess Club champion whose peak USCF rating is 2114. He is a professional sportswriter whose work has appeared in Lindy's Pro Basketball, Hoop, NBCSports.com, SlamOnline, ProBasketballNews.com and CavsNews. His short story “Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter”   and his article "Chess and Basketball" were published on CLO. Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com