Adventures of a Samford: Friedel on the 2009 U.S. Champs
By GM Josh Friedel   
June 22, 2009
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IM Sam Shankland and GM Josh Friedel, Photo Betsy Dynako
GM Josh Friedel gives us a blow by blow account of his ups and downs at the 2009 U.S. Championship, from sharing the lead early to a final and brutal loss to Nakamura. Friedel has also recently launched a personal website at joshfriedel.com.

I’m not a greatly philosophical person, but I do have thoughts on how one should approach things.  Take tournaments, for example.  I think it is important to go into each tournament with the same attitude, take every game seriously, etc.  But when it comes to the US Championship, I always put more emphasis on it than other events.  I put in more prep time both before the tournament and during, I socialize less, and get unusually nervous before games. Still, I was really looking forward to this year.  Not only was I coming off a couple strong performances, but I didn't have to worry about getting my last norm, like I did last year!  

The opening ceremony was quite interesting.  If you saw the pictures, you got the basic idea.  All the players plus a number of invited guests gathered on the lawn of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art.  The players drew colors by choosing pieces from a wine glass chess set.

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A Wine Chess Set, based on a set entered by Andre Breton and Nicolas Calas into the 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition

Of course, Robert Hess chose the glass with apple juice, and Ray Robson chose the one with grape juice.  Sam Shankland I cannot vouch for.  All of this was preceded by the national anthem, some speeches, and a debate between myself and Larry Christiansen on the proper recipe for New England Clam Chowder.  Overall it was very neat.  After lingering for about an hour to drink, eat hors d'oeuvres, and catch up with people, I went with Sam, Robert, and Joel Benjamin to a nice restaurant near our hotel.  After a relaxing meal, Sam and I went back to our suite.  We retreated to our separate rooms to prep a bit, read, and then sleep. 

If you recall my previous reports, you’d know I’ve had a bit of an issue with the first rounds of tournaments.  In both Foxwoods and Toronto it seemed like I corrected this problem, but I played down in those games.  In the US Championship, my first round opponent was the 2006 US Champion Alex Onischuk, so clearly I’d have to bring my “A Game.” We’d only played one time previously, in the 2004 US Championship and he ground me out in an ending.  This time we also found ourselves in an ending, quite quickly in fact, as he played the Berlin Defense as Black. 



I played this move 12. Bg5, which sent him into the tank.

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Position after 12.Bg5


I prepared this idea awhile back, but I wasn’t positive it was the proper position, so I thought awhile before playing it.  It worked well for me, and I got a very pleasant advantage.  I played a couple inaccurate moves, allowing it to slip a bit, but I was still better until I played the strange 25. a3.  I was trying to save a tempo on line 25… Kd7 26. f5  Ra6, but I completely missed he could move the king the other way!  After 27… f5! it was clear I had nothing.

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Position after 27...f5


 In fact, I had to play some accurate moves to secure a draw, such as 32. b3.  If I left the queenside closed, he could play a5-b5-c5-b4 with ease, and my idiotic a3 move would give him the b3 square for a rook!  As it was, I opened the center, and traded off all the rooks securing the draw.    

Next round I got white against Greg Kaidanov.



 He beat me quite badly last year in the first round, and so I was hoping for revenge.  Gregory does more teaching than playing these days, but he’s a very experienced and knowledgeable player who never goes down easily.  He chose his main weapon, the Open Ruy, but played a rare variation with an early Nxb3. 

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Position after 10...Nxb3


The main drawback to this move is that it frees white’s pieces a bit, and surrenders control of the c5 square.   I played  a bit too safely, with an unnecessary Re1 when I could have played Nfd4 immediately.  It seemed to me he had nearly equalized, but he got a bit ambitious with the move 20… b4.  I think he missed the shot 23. e6!  It led to an opposite bishop ending  where white was clearly on top, but I had to play accurately, and I was in slight time trouble.  I was doing fine until 35. Be3?  If I had simply played Bf4 followed by Rxd6, I think it is winning without too many further headaches.  As it happened, however, I got an ending with 3 vs. 2 on the kingside, and only a pair of pawns on the queenside.  With opposite bishops this should surely be drawn, but I can still set practical problems.  I managed to do just that, but threatening to penetrate with my king on the kingside.  He probably should have tried to set up the position with his rook on c6, bishop on c2, and black pawns on g6-h5.  Then breaking through would be nearly impossible.  As it was, I got good practical chances.  The game was still in the draw zone, however, until he blundered with 54… Rb5. 

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Position after 54...Rb5


This allowed me to win another pawn, and with connected passers on the kingside I won  fairly easily.

My next task was playing black against Joel Benjamin. 



Joel is also a veteran GM who’s been relatively inactive.  However, like many of these guys, he never seems to do badly when he does play.  He surprised me right away in the opening with 1. d4.  When faced with d4 from an exclusive e4 player (or vice versa), it is tough.  You don’t want to walk into their prep, but you’d rather not play something you don’t know either.  I decided to play my safest repertoire, 2… e6 and 3… d5 going into a Catalan.  This seemed to be the right choice, as he spent tons of time in the opening.  My guess would be he was expecting one of my early c5 lines.  He decided to play into the 8. a4 line of the Catalan, but played the dubious 10. Nc3, while Bf4 and Bg5 are the main moves.  It is a very natural mistake to make, but allows 10… b5!, and the pawn cannot be captured.  This frees black’s whole position, and after that I don’t have many problems.  It seemed to me Joel was getting a bit ambitious when he played 16. Ne5, when a simple move like Rc1 might be more advisable.  He clearly missed the strong 17… Rc8, and then dropped a pawn with 18. Rc1, though in my view his position is difficult already.  After a very successful opening phase, however, I started to go astray a bit.  24… b3 was asking a bit too much of my position, while after a5 I maintain a large advantage, though I have to play some accurate moves.  When he played 26. Nc5 I knew I had screwed it up, and after he took my bishop on f6 I was unsure if I had any advantage left.  Fortunately, I found the strong practical chance 29… d3, and it paid off.  The idea is to sac my f6 pawn to centralize my queen. 

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Position after 30...Qd4


He went wrong with the tempting 31. Qg5+, while if he had traded queens and played 32. Kf2 I think a draw would have been inevitable.  I win the a4 pawn, but his king becomes too active.  After the check, which was made in time pressure, it led to a rook ending that was much more difficult.  His best shot in my view was moving the king towards the queenside right away with 37. Kf2, but here it is much slower than in the previous position, and black has excellent chances to win.  He decided to leave his king on the kingside and try to make counterplay there.  I had to calculate some variations accurately and sidestep a few tricks towards the end, but I managed to reel in the point.

So, I was off to a running start!  Being tied for first, however, my road wasn’t about to get any easier.  The next challenge was having the black pieces against a world championship candidate, GM Gata Kamsky. 



He was surely disappointed after his Topalov match, but in my view it certainly wasn’t a blowout, and in fact he had very good chances in many games.  In any case, I figured if I held off the top player in the tournament as black, what couldn’t I accomplish?  Kamsky had shown considerable skill on both sides of the slow Spanish lines, so I decided to play a more aggressive system and one of my old specialties, the Archangel.  I knew it was a risky choice, and that Sutovsky might have prepped him with something, and that’s exactly what happened.  He thought for a couple minutes, then blitzed out this long line.  The strange thing is that it all felt very familiar, but I didn’t quite remember what my conclusion was.  I decided my best shot was to play natural moves and not spend much time.  Sound as that logic might seem, in hindsight I should have spent a bit more time.  After 20. b4 I had a feeling something had gone astray, and when he blitzed out 21. Na7 I realized things had not gone my way.

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Position after 21.Na7


  I sunk into deep thought, but it was too late, my position was already in ruins.  I realized if his knight got to c6 my bishop would be dead weight forever, so I reluctantly took his knight and gritted my teeth, knowing a long defense was in front of me.  Well, it might be short if he managed to mate me, but I was HOPING it would be long, sad as that sounds.  I tried some tricky queen maneuvers, but unsurprisingly Gata remained unfazed, and my position was on the verge of collapsing.  Luckily for me, he finally started to show he was human.  29. Bc4 looks completely natural, but is a mistake.  If he had played Be2 instead, I would have had to accept a pawn down ending for almost no compensation.  As it was, I managed to reach an equal material ending, but still a very difficult one.  He got a couple connected passers on the queenside, and once again I figured I was done for, but I fought on basically making only moves.  I think he brought his king into the game before pushing his pawns all the way, my defense would have been a bit tougher.  As it happened, I managed to eliminate his queenside pawns, and draw the rook and knight against rook, bishop, and h-pawn without too much trouble.  He made me play it the whole way though, and find some neat tactics towards the end.  So with a couple slips from my opponent and some tough defense, I managed to stay atop the leader board with three out of four!

I held off Kamsky with Black!  Next I would climb Everest, learn to fly, and manage to put a few sentences together without an awful joke.  At least this was my twisted logic.  OK I wasn’t that confident, yet I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t finish the tournament towards the top. 

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GM Josh Friedel faces GM Yury Shulman, Photo Betsy Dynako


Next up was a historically tough opponent for me, Yury Shulman.



  For a long time I had all losses against him, then last year I finally got a draw and a win, which was quite a relief.  However, this year I had only lost one game, and it was to him.  Yury’s openings are very predictable, but he knows them extremely well.  I found an interesting idea in the Bd3 poison pawn, and decided to go with it.  For the first and only time in the tournament, my opponent walked right into my prep!  Somehow I mixed up my lines, at least I hope so, otherwise I have no explanation for the move 18. Rfe1. 

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Position after 17...Rc8


Any normal person would have taken on c3 or played Qb4, and while winning would be quite difficult, I cannot lose.  Sadly, after one nonchalant move, I’m on the worse side of things.  I found some interesting idea later, sacrificing my e and f pawns for piece activity.  It was a real pleasure to play 28. e6+, and he can only capture with the knight or else he gets mated!  I was still on the defensive though, and got way too ambitious with 32. Rxa7.  If I had played Rb2, the danger to my king would have dissipated, and I’d have a reasonable chance to draw the ending.  Instead, I evened the pawn count, but left my king open, and actually completely missed he could check on g2 and take my g4 pawn!  I panicked instantly, and instead of fighting a long yet losing battle, I ended it quickly with 35. Rxe6 which loses a piece right away.  I resigned right away, giving me my second loss of the year.
 
My ego was dented but it was only one loss, and my dreams of winning the tournament weren’t totally wiped out.  In round six I was to play black against my first non-GM of the tournament, IM Michael Brooks.



 After a loss, especially if it was a very sloppy game, I find it important to tighten up a bit.  Therefore, while I really wanted a win, my first priority was to make sure I didn’t lose.  Brooks decided to play solidly himself with an Exchange Ruy.  It ended up in a rather typical Lopez ending, where he had the better pawn structure, and I had the two bishops and some pressure.  I was particularly proud of the move 16… Bxf3.  This seems counter-intuitive, as it gives up the bishops and releases the central tension.  I think it is best, however, as I can’t do anything concrete, and after 18… b5 I have plenty of counter play for my inferior pawn structure.  I felt like I outplayed him a bit, and after 23… Rb4 Black is the one who is pressing.

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After 23...Rb4


 We ended up in a bishop ending where I have the outside pawns which are farther advanced, and when you add better king position to the mix, it is easily enough to win.  If he hadn’t been in time pressure, I have no doubt he’d have put up more resistance, but as it was I converted fairly easily.  It was easily my cleanest game of the tournament, and it was a nice way to recover from the previous day’s disaster.

My confidence was back up, and I was very close to the lead once again.  My next opponent was a dangerous one, GM-elect Robert Hess.  This was a tough matchup for me, not only because he’s an extremely dangerous player, but because we are friends and had been hanging out most of the tournament.  His tournament up until then was unbelievable, beating and drawing one strong GM after another.  In fact, with black he’d faced Kamsky, Nakamura, AND Onischuk!  He must have seen this as his easier pairing ever.  He decided to play his trusty Steinitz Deferred.  One might think this is a strange opening choice for a young player, but Robert doesn’t mind defending a solid if slightly passive position, and his results with it have been quite good.



 I decided to go for the 5. 0-0 line, and he surprised me a bit with 6… Nxd4.  Previously he had only played Nf6 or Nge7.  I figured he probably saw the game I played against Korobov from Cappelle earlier in the year, and while I got a pleasant advantage that game, I didn’t want to walk into some prepared line.  I therefore mixed it up just a little with 11. Qd3 instead of Qe3, which I felt was a slight improvement anyway.  Even so, it was clear I hadn’t left his prep, as he played his next several moves quite quickly.  Up until 17. Rad1 I felt the game was progressing quite normally, and I thought he would continue with 17… f5 and I had hoped that with Qh3 I could at least have a little pressure.  He surprised me though with the strange-looking 17… f6.  I had to work to make Korobov play this move, and here black played it completely voluntarily.  While I don’t think f6 is the best move, it certainly wasn’t terrible.  His plan is to kill my c3 bishop, and later to play c6 and free his bishop the other way.  I smelled blood though, and decided to go for it with 18. h4, a move we both agreed later was awful.  

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Position after 18.h4


My idea was to play h5-h6, making his kingside vulnerable.  After I played the move, however, I had the feeling something was amiss.  Black could simply play f5, and after h5 he has f4!  Right away I realized that I was on the defensive, and after he played f5 I tried to find a way out.  In retrospect I probably should have just played h5 allowing f4, played Qh2 and gritted my teeth.  It’s ugly, but at least he has something to prove.  I just took on f5, and now it is a normal  position except I have this stupid pawn on h4, and very soon I was basically tied to its defense.  If he had played 23… b6 instead of Re6, I had no idea what to play.  Instead he let me play a5, after which I felt I had at least some chances for defense.  I wasn’t down anything, and now my rook wouldn’t run out of squares.  Sadly, I didn’t have a lot of time at that point, and I made things easier for him with 28. Kf2 instead of Kh2.  I didn’t see the strength of his Qa2 move, and soon it was over.  It was one of my worst losses in awhile, and while my play was disappointing, Robert played very well to win it as easily as he did.

The free day was scheduled after the 7th round, and for me it was most welcome.  I needed some time to relax and readjust.  I spent that night hanging out with Tony Rich and the other organizers and Chess Club staff, playing blitz/bughouse, drinking, and basically anything to take my mind off the day’s disaster.  It was neat getting to know the people involved in making the tournament happen, and also hearing the stuff they dealt with.  By the end of the night they were even saying what players were the biggest pains.  While I can’t mention names here, I will say there are clues scattered throughout my report as to who they are, and if you put them together and crack the code you will know all.  I got to bed about 3 AM, and slept through most of the following day.  I’m not much for sightseeing anyway.  I spent what was left of the day lounging around, chatting with friends, and introducing Sam to some of the most sophisticated comedic movies ever made.  By the time night came, I almost forgot I had to play a game the next day.  Almost being the key word, I opened chessbase and looked up some games of Jaan Ehlvest, the next day’s opponent.  I beat him the first time we played, but since I’ve had a lot of trouble, losing every time except for our last game which was drawn.  It is never easy playing after you’ve just lost, and especially so if you are playing a problem opponent for you, so to be honest I went into the 8th round with several worries.

Ehlvest plays pretty much every opening there is, but he tends to favor Sicilians.  This time he played the Najdorf, which while one of his main weapons, I’ve never faced from him before.  I was considering playing a different line, but I decided to go to my old standby, the f4 Najdorf. 



He followed a game I played against Hikaru for awhile, which was fine by me, as I got a crushing opening that game.  He played 9… Nbd7 instead of Naka’s Bg4, and then he surprised me by castling early.  Usually I think it is better to develop the queenside bishop first to keep flexibility, but it worked out for him and he got a decent position.  He got a bit too ambitious though.  After 15. a3 I felt chances were roughly equal, and that he should play the solid Bc6.  Instead he played Qc5, which is ok by itself but a step in the wrong direction, and followed it up with 16… b4.  I think he was happy with his position, and got a bit overexcited.  Or he just missed my response, 17. e5.

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Position after 17.e5


Then he should have minimized the damage with dxe5, after which I’m only a bit better, whereas after he took on c3 and his bishop got forced to h8 his position was on the verge of collapse.  After some dancing between his queen and my pieces, I grabbed an exchange and cleaned up without too much trouble.  Once again, I managed to recover from a tough loss with a nice win!

In the last round I got the inevitable pairing, black against Nakamura.  I’ve played Hikaru over a dozen times over the years, and we have an interesting history.  I haven’t kept track all that carefully, but we’ve been about even in the past 3-4 years I’d say, while he won most of the games when we were younger.  We’d played previously in two US Championships, I won the 1st and he won the 2nd.  Most of our games are long, drawn out affairs.  Our latest meeting was at Foxwoods, where I had to defend for 121 moves before holding a draw in R+N vs. R.  I knew this one would be a tough one and I’ve found he plays especially tough in last rounds.

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GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Josh Friedel


Preparing for Hikaru is usually next to impossible, but even so, he really surprised me by going for the two knights with Ng5.  He’d never played it before, and I hadn’t faced it in many years.  Amusingly, those are probably the very reasons he played it.



In the past I’d only played the b5 line, but I figured he prepared for that, so I decided to play the more “solid” Na5 move.  It turned out he had prepared this 8. Bd3 move.

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Position after 8.Bd3


I vaguely recalled it, but of course had no clue what to do.  I  decided to go  “solid” again with Be7 and 0-0.  Better might have been an earlier h6 followed by Nd5 and f5-e4 with counterplay.   

I didn't like my position after a few more moves and decided that normal moves would no longer do, so I tried a rook lift idea, covering the e4 square an extra time and getting another piece into play.  Everyone and his mother criticized Rb8-b4 after the game, but I think that considering my dubious position, it was a reasonable try.  I thought my risky play had paid off  when he resorted to playing g3 and letting me sack for his d3 bishop, but I underestimated how bad my a5 knight was.  I analyzed 19. Ng4 Nc6 with good play.  Instead he played 19. g4, which I assumed would be too weakening, but it turns out I cannot take advantage.  Best was probably 19… Qc8, but after that I’m clearly worse to losing.  I played Qf4 instead, and after the strong 20. d4! I was in big trouble.  I thought for thirty minutes and blundered my queen.  I could have played h5, hoping to get into a lost exchange down ending, but the result would likely have been the same.

So my topsy-turvy tournament ended on terrible note.  All the same, I tried to look on the bright side.  I performed well over 2600 FIDE.  I showed I could win against GMs and still be solid.  However, it wasn’t as solid a tournament as I’ve become accustomed to.  In future, I hope to be able to show both solidity and the ability to win games.  In conclusion, I’d like to thank the organizers in Saint Louis, who did an excellent job with the event.  I’d also like to thank my parents, friends, etc. who supported me throughout the event, you were all great. The next event on my calendar is the World Open in Philadelphia.   Perhaps a more hectic schedule will encourage more consistent chess!

Look for future CLO blogs by GM Josh Friedel, and check his personal website at joshfriedel.com.