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GM Joel: Sleepless in Saint Louis Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
May 27, 2009
GM Joel Benjamin, round four of the U.S. Championship. Photo by official event photographer, Betsy Dynako
I’m not the first to say that the U.S. Championship was great this year.  I was quite impressed by the design of the St. Louis Chess Club.  The playing conditions were outstanding of course, but I was most surprised by the quantity of staff and their commitment to excellence.  It seemed that every detail was anticipated and taken care of.

I was looking forward to meeting founder Rex Sinquefield, who was a mysterious figure to me before the event.  Then he told me how pleased he was to meet me, because he’s a big fan of my “game of the week” show on the ICC.  That’s very cool.  I hope that Rex will also enjoy my CLO blogs.

I had never been to Saint Louis before, and even though one of my grandparents came from there, I knew pretty little about it.  All cities have their good and bad points, but when you only see the posh Central West End, with its outdoor cafes and accessible parks and museums, it’s easy to get hooked on the city by the arch.

With the exception of a nice art excursion on the free day to the Saint Louis Museum and the University Museum, SLUMA, (Thank you to our host Susan Barrett, who I believe is a cool person even though she thinks the Mets are “pond scum)", I didn’t get out too much. 
The Saint Louis Museum of Art, featuring Marcel Duchamp: Chess Master was part of the free day art tour
People may have the idea that the hard-core theoreticians work harder at tournaments, but this is not necessarily the case.  They have a better foundation to work with.  Because I didn’t get to prepare before the tournament as much as I wanted to (other work and child care interfering), I needed several hours of work to get ready for each game.  Pretty much every day I was holed up with my computer in my hotel room, consuming breakfast and lunch supplies purchased from the Strawbs supermarket across the street from the Chase Park Plaza.  Often I was making critical decisions close to the round time, (sometimes even the first move of the game).
All that work went to waste day after day, as my opponents all avoided my preparation, as if they had a camera in my room.  My routine wasn’t working at all, but I couldn’t stop.   Living like a vampire and getting no exercise isn’t healthy at all, and possibly contributed to my biggest problem: the inability to get a full night’s sleep.  I never figured out why, but every morning I would wake up at six or seven in the morning, and I couldn’t get back to sleep.  It seemed I had become conditioned to my baby waking me up every day, and even with him back in New Jersey, I was stuck on the same schedule.  The sleep deprivation got progressively worse until I played the final morning rounds in a zombie-like state.  Now I’m quite capable of blundering when I’m bright-eyed, but it was extremely depressing to feel so feeble at such an important time.

My games were hardly an artistic success, but I was in contention until my collapse in the last three rounds.  So let me summarize my tournament round by round.

Round one: Black vs. Shankland draw


I really can’t explain why I decided, at the board, to junk the Ruy Lopez lines I had been working on and play a variation I hadn’t even looked at in months.  Sure, Sam didn’t know anything about the line, but it isn’t that difficult to play, and I just improvised myself into a bad position.  Luckily I held my own in a pawn down endgame and even entertained mild hopes of winning before the end.

Round two: White vs. Krush win


I hadn’t expected 3…Nd7, and couldn’t even remember my own games in the line.  The opening was a complete disaster.  I mistimed everything, and failed to bail out into an even or slightly worse position. 

Here I thought Irina should play something simple like 27…Bg7—after all, I can hardly move.  If she wants to take action, the right way is 27...Qc3 28.Bxc5 dxc5 29.e5 d3, which is not all that different from her idea, except it works!
27…Rb3? 28.Bxc5 d3
Black’s position is so good that even 28...Qxc5 29.Bxb3 axb3 30.Rxa6 is not very clear.  But that wasn’t the idea of course!
29.Bxd3 Qxc5 is just depressing for White.
29…dxc2 30.Qxf6 dxc5
It’s sad to let a pawn go when you can queen it!  However, 30…c1 (Q) 31.Bd4 sets up a mate threat that Black can only meet with a counterattack.
analysis after 31.Bd4

 Now 31…Qxf1+ 32.Kh2?? Rxh3+! 33.gxh3 Qxh3+ 34.Kg1 Qe1 is checkmate, but White takes the queen:  32.Kxf1 Rb1+ 33.Ke2 Qe1+ 34.Kf3 Rb3+ 35.Be3 kills the mate threat, but White has a clear advantage.
31.Rxc2 Rb1 32.Rc3 Rb3?
I was pretty confident of a win, especially considering where I came from to get this position!  Irina, who seems to be a pretty optimistic player, was still not feeling too bad herself.  But this is a big mistake.  32...a3! 33.Rf3 Be8 34.Qe7 Qa4! defends Black’s position.  I didn’t see the queen could defend from a4.  White has to bail out with 35.Rxa3 Rxf1+ 36.Kh2=.  White will either get a perpetual or a mass of pawns for a piece.
33.Rc1 a3 34.e5 Qb6

Better, but probably still losing, was 34...a2 35.e6 Be8 36.Qe7 Qa4 (that move again) 37.Ra1! (Gulko entered the post-mortem and produced the fascinating 37.Nd2 a1Q 38.Nxb3, but White can do better) 37...fxe6 38.Nd2 Rb6 39.Rxa2 and White should win.
35.e6 fxe6 36.Qe7 a2 37.Qxd7 Rb1 38.dxe6 Qb8 39.Qf7+ Kh8 40.e7 1–0

The finish was exciting, but I didn’t raise my level for the next game, and I paid for it.

Round three: White vs. Friedel loss


A complete disaster.  I decided to play 1.d4, but for some reason hadn’t considered he would play 3…d5.  I had no advantage at all, but compounded my problems with a stupid oversight.


After Josh’s strong move 17…Rc8, I startled to get an inkling that I was a little worse, not a little better.  But I burped up 18.Rc1? anyway.  Josh shrugged, thought a couple of minutes, and took my d-pawn off.  He didn’t even understand what I was thinking.  I was planning 19.Nc6 of course.  I noticed the possibility of 19…Rxc6, but somehow only moves like 20.Rxc6 Nc5 or Ne5.  My spidey-sense finally tingled and I caught 20…Qa8!, which offers Black, after 21.Qc2, five different ways to win the pinned rook.

I managed to stabilize and obtain pretty decent drawing chances, but Josh found a way to steer the game into a highly favorable rook ending.  I managed to lose by one tempo in the end, which I tried to console myself with.  Josh played really well, and saw a lot during the game, but it’s still a very embarrassing loss for me.

Round four: Black vs. Brooks draw


I know Brooks from way back and I wasn’t going to take him lightly.  He played it close to the vest and I couldn’t make anything happen.


Brooks played 16.Bb3, which I hadn’t concerned myself with because I can chase him away with 16…Nc5.  But then he retreated 17.Bc2, and I realized he would obtain an edge with 18.d4 if I didn’t retreat my knight, too.  I didn’t want to draw like this, but I wasn’t going to lose the game of “chicken” and be compelled to accept an inferior position.  I told the arbiters the situation and they decided the repetition was acceptable.  While I was concerned about the spirit of the thirty-move minimum for draws, Brooks was concentrating on the letter of the law, prepared to repeat until we got to move thirty.

Joel Benjamin in his game against IM Michael Brooks,
 Photo Betsy Dynako

Round five: White vs. Hughes  win


Things start to go my way.  Again I’m surprised on move four, but I’m happy to see 4…Na5?!  I don’t think the knight is good there, and I’m very comfortable with the setup I obtained in the game.  I’m back in the plus column.

Round six: Black vs. Khachiyan  win


Well, the hours I spent working on the Exchange variation in the Ruy Lopez will come in handy another day.  Melik told me after the game he just doesn’t play it anymore.  I felt I was walking into something, namely 4…0-0 5.d4!?, so I played it safe with 4…d6 instead.


Here I speculated with 14…Nxe4!?, the only chance to create some action.  Black has a lot of tricky play in the resulting position. Perhaps White is objectively better if he plays 18.Rad1 because 18…Nf3+? 19.gxf3 Bxb3 20.Rd6! doesn’t work for me.  Thankfully, Khachiyan blundered an exchange with 18.Rxe5?  He can’t take on f3 because 20…Qxh3 21 f4 (I actually didn’t see this move) Qf3! wins.  White will have to give his queen for a rook or part with the rook on a1.

The win wasn’t exactly in the bag until I managed to trade rooks.  Somehow I was a half-point out of the lead.  Why couldn’t it be a six round tournament?

Round seven White vs. Kamsky loss


I felt really tired and I let a perfectly good position slide downhill with listless play between moves 23 and 29.  Still, I had some chances to save the game that went by the boards.


Kamsky has just played 32..Rxb3, realizing that White has the unexpected shot 33.Qxd4!  Taking the queen leads to mate after 34.Rxc8+ Kh7 35.Ng5+ Kh6 36.Nxf7+ and 37.Rh8.  So Black has nothing better than 33…Rxf3 34.Rxc5 Qxc5 35.Qxc5 Rxc5 36.gxf3 Rxe5, but White should easily hold the rook ending.  The crippled pawns actually make the draw easier.

I played 33. Qe4 instead and after ...Rc3, I had intended to play 34.Ra4, but noticed he can simply exchange queens with 34…Qc6.  But I forgot the d-pawn would then be hanging!  34…d3 35.Qh4 (intending 36.Ng5) produces a totally unclear position.  After my second oversight…well, how many chances do you expect to get against Kamsky?
Gata Kamsky vs. Joel Benjamin. Photo Betsy Dynako

Round eight: Black vs. Akobian loss


I actually sort of anticipated the opening, and got a lead on the clock.  I thought at first he was crazy to grab the pawn with 13.cxd5 Qxd5 14.Qxc7, but it was not at all easy to refute.  

I blew a golden opportunity with the inexplicable move 23…Rc5??   I knew it would land me in a desperate situation, so I don’t know why I didn’t look deeper and find the obvious move 23…Bc5!!   We couldn’t find anything for White in the post-mortem, though upon further analysis White can still get a playable game with 24.e6 or 24.Kg3. [For deep analysis check out the May 22nd “game of the week” show on ICC or my upcoming report in New In Chess magazine]  Admittedly, Varuzhan blundered with 21.g4?, when 21.Rxc6 Rxc6 22.Qxe7 g4 23.Qg5+ Rg6 24.Qf5 would have given him the better game.  Still, the fact remains that the point was there for the taking.

Round nine: White vs. Shabalov draw


There are some moments that chess makes me want to cry.  An absolutely miserable opening led to an ugly middlegame with very little time on my clock.  I was staring a third consecutive loss in the face (earlier I had been pondering how that could happen to such strong players as Gulko and Becerra).  Then Shaba made an error—19…a5—and I managed to seize the opportunity to get back in the game by transferring my knight to b5.  Then after his 22…Nc5? (Black retains an edge by trading twice on b5) 23.c4! I was suddenly much better.  I managed to make the time control with seconds to spare, without blundering anything.  In fact I had not spoiled anything.


Shaba was most afraid I would simply play 42.Qd3 and maintain a large advantage; the b-pawn is a monster in the endgame.  I understood that, but felt better about calculating a complicated win with time on my clock then trying to wend my way through a longer game.  Objectively my decision was probably correct, if I followed it up properly.  The next two moves were forced; on 42…Nxe2, 43.Rxd7 Qb8 44.Bxf7+ Kh7 45.Bg6+ Kg8 46.Nc6 Nxg3+ 47.Kg2! is one winning line.  But I spoiled my chances with 44.Qh5.  I saw the exchange sacrifice coming and thought (correctly) that I wouldn’t really be able to win.  After looking deeply into all possible queen sacrifices, I didn’t properly process sacrificing the exchange.
I heard that 44.b6 was bandied about on the Internet, but I’m not sure if it wins after 44…Qc8! 45.Rxd4 Rxd4 46.Bxf7+ Kh8.  However, simply 44.Rxd4! Rxd4 45.Nc6 gives me a dominant position.  It wasn’t very complicated, and there really isn’t any excuse for not playing it.

I tried not to think about it, but eventually I saw that not winning had cost me almost $2000.  I should be steamed, but when I think about how close I came to “castling queenside” (0-0-0) to finish the tournament, I’m more relieved that I at least avoided that humiliation.

There’s nothing like nine days of chess to leave you broken and exhausted.  But I’m looking forward to next year’s tournament (hope I make it), and I’ll make sure to stay more active so I can put my best foot forward when it really counts.

At the closing ceremony: Josh Friedel, Natasha and Larry Christiansen and Joel Benjamin. Photo Betsy Dynako.

Ask Joel a question about anything from opening prep to next year's Championship at [email protected]. See his archive of questions+answers here.