The US Championship in Black and White
By GM Joel Benjamin   
June 21, 2010
The U.S. Championship (May 13-25, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis) has come and gone, and my own result has me scratching my head.  I made the same score as last year, though I had to come back with two wins at the end instead of fading with two losses in the last three games.  The good news:  Dominance with white (4-1, including the last four in a row), as many wins as the tournament winner, Kamsky, and only one draw.  The bad news:  The big white score and low draw total was achieved at the expense of the black pieces.  I managed just a half point out of four with black, and the losses were truly gruesome.

I'll start with a synopsis of my games and leave you with a few thoughts from St. Louis.

I started off against the #3 seed Alex Onischuk.  He is awfully hard to beat in his main lines, so I tried something a bit offbeat.  I didn't get anything, but I still reached a position I thought I could not possibly lose.

Joel Benjamin-Alexander Onischuk

US Championship Saint Louis
 
after32...ke7.jpg
Position after 32...Ke7


I thought I might even make something of my "extra" pawn.  Somehow I managed to get a lost position before I could make the time control.
33.Re1 Ke6 34.b3 b6 35.g4 c5 36.Ke3 Bd4+ 37.Ke2 c4 38.bxc4 Rc6 39.c5 Bxc5 40.Rf1 Be7 41.Nf4+ Ke5 42.Nd5 Bxh4 43.Kd3 Rd6 44.Rf8 Rd8 45.Rf5+ Ke6 46.Ke3 Bg3 47.Rh5 h6 48.g5 Rh8 49.Nf4+ Bxf4+ 50.Kxf4 Kf7 51.Ke5 Kg6 52.Rh2 Re8+ 53.Kd5 Kxg5 54.e5 h5 55.e6 h4 56.Ke5 Kh5 57.Rf2 h3 58.Rf3 Kg4 59.Rf7 g5 60.Kf6 Rh8 61.e7 h2 62.Rh7 Rxh7 63.e8Q h1Q 64.Qe6+ Kh4 0-1

finalkh4.jpg

That was frustrating, but still a somewhat typical game I might lose against a stronger player. 

The second round was perhaps the most normal of the event for me.  I played a bit inaccurately in the early middlegame and stood worse.  I think my 21st move was pretty cool.

Gregory Kaidanov-Joel Benjamin [A62]
US Championship Saint Louis
21xab5kaidbenj.jpg
Position after 21.axb5

21...Rd8!
You don't often move a rook from a half-open file to a closed one, but I'm preparing my next move.  21...Be5 looks okay here, but the pedestrian 21...Ne5 22.Bxe5 Bxe5 (22...dxe5 fails tactically to 23.d6) 23.Rc6 would leave me under pressure.  Greg now goes for a forcing sequence which lets Black solve his problems and even get a slight edge.
22.Rc6 Ne5 23.Bxe5 dxe5 24.d6 e4 25.Nc4 Ne6 26.Qd5 Qf7 27.Ne5 Bxe5 28.Qxe5 Nc5 29.Bf1 Rd7 30.e3 Qf6 31.Qd5+ Kg7 32.Rd4 Rfd8 33.Rc7 Kh6 34.Rxd7 Nxd7 35.Rd1 Ne5 36.Be2 Rd7 37.Qd4 Kg7 38.Kg2 Nf7 39.Qa4 Kh6
39..kh6kaidanov.jpg
I can grab the d-pawn with my knight, but I thought I would be so pinned up it wouldn't be worth it.  Perhaps I should have temporized for two moves to have more time to consider it.
40.Rd4 Rxd6 41.Rxd6 Qxd6 42.Qxa7 Ne5 43.h4 Qd2 44.Qe7 Qxe2 45.Qxe5 Qf3+ 46.Kf1 Qd1+ ½-½

Amazingly, this was my only draw in the whole event.  For most of my history I was a low-loss, squeeze out a few wins kind of player.  In the last several years the greater emphasis on fighting chess seems to have increased my risk factor.  In the U.S. Championship draw offers are not permitted in the first thirty moves, but in other tournaments I don't propose draws too often anyway.

I got my first win in the third round over Sam Shankland.  Sam started quite well and I got nothing out of the opening.  The most interesting moment came on move 33.

Joel Benjamin-Sam Shankland [B52]
US Championship Saint Louis
after33.re1.jpg
Here Sam tried to make something happen with
33...b5
This move strikes me as anti-positional; Black is giving White an outside passed pawn in the endgame. 
34.cxb5 axb5 35.axb5
It seems that 35.a5 is stronger.  After 35...b4 White can swap the a-pawn for the b4-pawn later, bringing about the same structure but with improved piece position.
35...Rxb5 36.b4 Rcb8?
afterrcb8shankland.jpg

Several days later Sam told me he had "Rybkaed" the position and the machine said that 33...b5 was okay and he was better later.  It's true that 36...Nd3 37.Re3 Nb2 is a substantial improvement, though I think the silicon evaluation is skewed in Black's favor.  For that matter, Rybka doesn't even give White a slight edge in the game until move 47.  After move 38, that's just wrong.  Sure, Black probably should hold, perhaps easily, with proper play. But the chances are all with White, who can hardly lose and might make something of the dangerous b-pawn.  I worry about how computers are warping the way players look at positions now.  Every time I'm commentating on ICC and I see someone ask for the computer "eval," I have to cringe.  Because evaluations are only useful if the variations show us something important about the position.  I'm afraid the emphasis on the "bottom line" distracts people from learning basic strategical truths about chess.
37.Re3 Na6?
Sam missed my next move, otherwise he might have found the superior 37...d5 38.e5 Ne4.
38.Ne1 R5b6 39.Nc2 Nc7 40.Na3 g5 41.Reb3 Nb5 42.Nxb5 Rxb5 43.Rc1 d5 44.Rc6 dxe4 45.Rc4 Ra8!?
after45...ra8.jpg
This is a creative attempt to create counterplay, but I think simply 45...Be5 36.Rxe4 Bd6 should hold.
46.Rxe4 Ra2 47.Be3 Ra1+ 48.Ke2 Ra2+ 49.Kf1 Ra1+ 50.Ke2 Ra2+ 51.Kf3 Rf5+ 52.Kg4 Ra4 53.h4 Bf6 54.h5 Rb5 55.Rc4 Be5 56.Bc5 Bd6 57.Rbc3 Bxc5?
after57Bxc5.jpg
This may have been Black's last chance to draw with 57...Ke8.
58.bxc5 Rbb4 59.Rxb4 Rxb4+ 60.Kg3 Ke8 61.c6 Kd8 62.Rd3+ Kc8 63.Re3 Rh4 64.Rxe6 Rxh5 65.Rxe7 Rh1 66.Rh7 Kd8 67.Rd7+ Kc8 68.Rh7 Kd8 69.f3 Rh4 70.Kf2 Rh2 71.Kg1 Rh4 72.g4 Rh3 73.Kg2 Rh4 74.Kf2 Rh2+ 75.Ke3 Rh1 76.Ke4 Rh3 77.Rd7+ Kc8 78.Rh7 Kd8 79.Rf7 h5 80.Rg7 hxg4 81.fxg4 Rc3 82.c7+ Kc8 83.Kf5 Rc5+ 84.Kg6 Kb7 85.Kh6 Kb6 86.Rxg5 Rxc7 87.Rd5 1-0
FinalShankBenj.jpg

The rest of the tournament was a roller coaster for me.  Jesse Kraai prefaced this game by taking a gulp from a glass of an unfamiliar green liquid that turned out to be cucumber soup rather than some sort of juice.  Jesse's yelp could be heard throughout the club.  He exclaimed that he was unprepared for the "cucumber explosion."

Jesse Kraai- Joel Benjamin

US Championship Saint Louis (4)
1.Nf3 c5 2.e4!?
"Melik (Khachiyan, Jesse's roommate at the Championship) told me you don't play the Sicilian.  True enough, for the last few years.  But I do have a history in this opening, particularly in the Taimanov.  I'm certainly comfortable playing the Sicilian any day against a non-e4 players.  So Jesse may have outsmarted himself, but it certainly works out well for him.
2...e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 Qc7 6.Be3 a6 7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3 d5 9.0-0 Nf6 10.f4 Bb7 11.Kh1 c5?!
The setup with a trade on c6 looks funny with the bishop on e3, which is a bit in the way.  That's a reason, but not an excuse for complacency.  Thus begins a stretch where my Spidey sense failed to tingle and I could not anticipate danger at all.
12.e5 Nd7 13.f5!
Black has chances to defend this position, but unless he is an exceptional defender like Kamsky, a slip is inevitable...especially when you have burned a lot of time in the opening.  Jesse explained his bold play to the audience as a conscious effort to "channel the Panda" (GM Josh Friedel).  Like so many individuals Jesse has so tagged, Josh does not care for his nickname at all.  Unfortunately, the catchphrase "channeling the Panda" seems to have some legs to it.
13...Nxe5 14.fxe6 fxe6 15.Bf4 Bd6 16.Bb5+!
after16bb5Kraai.jpg
16...Nd7?
This seems to be the worst of Black's plausible choices, though I'm not mad about 16...Bc6 17.Bxc6+ Nxc6 18.Qg4 Qd7 19.Bxd6 Qxd6 20.Rae1; or 16...Nc6 17.Qg4 Qd7 18.Bxd6 Qxd6 19.Rae1.
17.Bxd6 Qxd6 18.Ne4 Qe7 19.Qh5+ g6 20.Qe5
In my rushed calculations, I overlooked White could play this without trading the bishop.  Resigning is starting to look good.  I even considered 20...Kd8, but 21.Bxd7! Kxd7 22.Nxc5+! Qxc5 23.Rf7+ would be calamitous.
20...0-0-0 21.Nd6+
after21.nd6kraai.jpg
21...Kb8
Not 21...Kc7 22.Ne8+ Kb6 23.Qc7+ Ka7 24.Nd6 splat!
22.Bxd7 Qxd7 23.Nf7+ Qc7 24.Qxc7+ Kxc7 25.Nxd8 Rxd8 26.Rf7+ Kb6
26...Rd7 goes against the conventional wisdom of trading rooks when you are down the exchange, but it might offer some hope if Black can get the center pawns moving.
27.Re1 Rd6 28.Rxh7 d4 29.b3 Bd5 30.Rg7 Kb5 31.Rxg6 Kb4 32.h4 Rd7 33.h5 Rh7 34.h6 Kc3 35.Re2 c4 36.Rg3+ Kb4 37.Rh3 d3 38.cxd3 cxb3 39.axb3 a5 40.Kh2 Bxb3 1-0

That was a nice game by Jesse and an acceptable loss of blood for me, if only I didn't have future losses competing with it for ignominy.

I was able to rebound against a player who has been hot for several months but didn't have it going in St. Louis.  This time I got smart in my prep, picking a line that was played out in the mid-eighties, well before Lenderman sucked on his first chess piece.

Joel Benjamin-Alex Lenderman [D55]
US Championship Saint Louis (5)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bg5 0-0 6.e3 h6 7.Bxf6 Bxf6 8.Rc1 c6 9.Bd3 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Nd7 11.0-0 e5 12.Re1!?
I didn't forget 12.h3 is the move.  I figured if Alex knew anything about this line, it would be the main games.  So I went for a rare move.
12...exd4 13.exd4 Nb6 14.Bb3 Re8?! 15.Qd3 Bd7 16.h3 Nc8 17.Ne5 Nd6 18.g4 Re7 19.Re2 Be6 20.Bc2 g6 21.Nxg6 fxg6 22.Rxe6 Rxe6 23.Bb3
I actually agonized over this move, because I wanted to, but couldn't, make 23.Qxg6+ Kf8 24.Bb3 Re8 work for more than a perpetual.  As it turns out, even 24...Qd7 would be playable.
after23Bb3.jpg
23...Kg7
Here both players badly misjudged the situation.  I thought I had seen a winning continuation after 23...Qd7 24.Qxg6+ Kf8, but it doesn't seem to be there.  A draw, yes-- 25.Qxh6+ Ke7 26.Qh7+ Kd8 27.Qh6 etc-but no win.
In the post-mortem (with the help of Robert Hess) we analyzed 24.d5, but I think Black can defend: 24...cxd5 25.Nxd5 Kh8! (25...Kf8 26.Nc7 Ree8 27.Nxa8 Rxa8 28.Re1 Re8 29.Rxe8+ Kxe8 30.Qxg6+ Ke7 31.Qxh6 Qc6 is about equal) 26.Rc7 (26.Nc7 Ree8 27.Nxa8 Rxa8 28.Qxg6 Qg7 falls short for White) 26...Qe8 27.Nf4 Re4 28.Qxd6 Re1+ and Black suddenly has a winning counterattack.
Finally there is a possibility mentioned a lot in annotations--24.Na4.  Neither player saw this move during or after the game!  After 24...b6 25.Bxe6+ Qxe6 26.Qxg6+ Kf8 27.Rxc6 White has scooped up a lot of pawns, but this is way short of a knockout blow.
I completely expected 23...Kg7, but after 23...Qd7, anything could have happened.  Now White is clearly better.
24.Bxe6 Qb6 25.Rd1 Qxb2? 26.Bb3!
Suddenly Black has no defense against a crushing battery.  It was easy for me to foresee; this was the biggest part of my strategy for most of the game!
26...Kh7
after26...kh7.jpg
27.Rb1
Good enough, but 27.Na4! forces immediate resignation.
27...Qa3 28.Ne4 Nxe4
Or 28...Kg7 29.Nxf6 Kxf6 30.Re1and mate is coming.
29.Bg8+ Rxg8 30.Qxa3 Rg7 31.Qxa7 b5 32.Qb6 c5 33.Re1 Bd8 34.Qxd8 1-0

Then my tournament came crashing down.  My win over Lenderman is a flashy one that doesn't seem that impressive after scrutiny.  I think Finegold's win over me is the same.  Ben played very aggressively against me in a way that is dangerous to meet but feels somewhat unsound.  I don't think I played very well, but the game was still fairly even when I gave away the game in one move.

Benjamin Finegold- Joel Benjamin
US Championship Saint Louis (6)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 h6 4.Bxf6 Qxf6 5.e4 d6 6.Nc3 Nd7 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Qd8 9.h4 b5 10.g4 c5 11.Bh3 Qa5 12.Kb1 Bb7 13.d5 Nb6 14.g5 e5 15.g6 fxg6 16.Rhg1 Be7 17.Rxg6

FinegoldRxg6.jpg
Here 17...Bf6 is necessary for self-preservation, but I thought I could delay it one move. 
After
17...Rf8?? 18.Rxg7!

I wanted to resign, because 18...Rxf3 19.Qxh6 doesn't offer Black a semblance of a defense.

18...Bc8 19.Bxc8 Rxc8 20.Qxh6 Rf6 21.Qh5+ Kd7 22.Nxe5+ dxe5 23.Qxe5 Re8 24.Qxf6 1-0

FinegoldFinal.jpg

After that debacle I really wanted to have White to try to right the ship again.  But no, it's a second straight Black at the worst possible time.  I played into the absolute wrong opening.  I needed something safe and comfortable, but somehow did not castle.  I got to move seventeen and realized that the intended 16...b6 17.Ng3! left me once again defenseless.  My desperate sacrifice didn't help either.



Now I had reached total humiliation.  Other players were losing games, too, and I've had bad streaks before, but when does a grandmaster lose three games so quickly and decisively?  I still felt that I could scramble back to fifty percent, with the prospect of White in my last two games.  I resolved to play sensibly against Levon Altounian.  Just get a sensible middlegame position, Joel; you haven't lost one of those yet.  But no!  I improvised the opening at the board and shortly went crazy.

Joel Benjamin-Levon Altounian [D20]
ch-USA Saint Louis USA (8), 22.05.2010
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e3 c5 4.d5 e6 5.Bxc4 exd5 6.Bxd5 Bd6 7.e4 Ne7 8.Bb3 0-0 9.Qh5??
That's just a shockingly bad move.  I had been expecting 8...Nbc6, which might explain why I completely overlooked Black's next move.  Actually it hit me as soon as I let go, but it was too late to do anything.  Instead, DEVELOPING moves like 9.Ne2 Nbc6 10.0-0 produce a position that's unbalanced but about even.
9...Nd7!
Now I realized I would have to lose a few tempi from a position where I wasn't developing all that fast to begin with.  I was actually going to fail to castle for the third straight game.  If I could somehow get through this one, I just might be able to face my students again.
10.Nc3 Ne5 11.Qd1 c4 12.Bc2 N7g6 13.f4 Bg4 14.Qd4 Nc6 15.Qf2 Nb4 16.Bb1 Re8 17.h3 Bf5 18.Be3
after18be3.jpg
18...Qe7?
Levon has done everything right so far, but this is the moment for the lethal strike:  18...Bxe4! 19.Nxe4 Nd3+ 20.Bxd3 Bb4+! 21.Bd2 Bxd2+ 22.Qxd2 cxd3 23.0-0-0 Rxe4 with a clearly won game for Black.  At least in this variation I get to castle, albeit in a lost position, much like against Kraai.
19.Nge2 Nd3+ 20.Bxd3 cxd3 21.Ng3 Bxe4
Otherwise White has consolidated, but Black only has compensation now.
22.Ncxe4 Bb4+ 23.Kf1
Now Levon noticed 23...f5 24.Bc5; I intended 24.a3, which might be even better.
23...Rac8
after23...rac8.jpg
I was thrilled to get this far, but the position is still pretty intricate and I have only a couple of minutes on the clock, not counting the increment.
24.a3
My computer tells me 24.Bxa7! was the move, in order to open up a square for the queen on e3.  But that's not easy to see in zeitnot.
24...Rc2 25.Qf3 Nh4 26.Qh5 Nxg2 27.Bf2 Nxf4 28.Qg4 Qe5?

Levon was starting to run low on time himself He has to throw another sop to Cerberus, but not a whole piece.  Instead 28...Rxf2+! 29.Kxf2 (not 29.Nxf2? Qe1+ 30.Rxe1 Rxe1#) 29...Bc5+ 30.Kf1 Nd5 gives Black a raging attack and a likely win practically, if not by force.
29.axb4
Now I just have to keep my pieces huddled together until the inevitable counter arises.
Qxb2 30.Rd1 Nd5 31.Rxd3 f5 32.Nxf5 Qc1+ 33.Kg2 Nf4+ 34.Kh2 Qb2 35.Qxf4 Rxe4 36.Rd8+ Kf7 37.Nh6+ 1-0
FinalAlt.jpg

After a couple of shoddily prepared games, I went back to the marathon prep sessions that had been the norm earlier.  With my trusty Rybka, I went deep into a sideline from an earlier game in the tournament, Lenderman-Kudrin.  For extensive annotations and an amusing story behind the game check out my ICC game of the week show from May 28th.



This was my best game of the event, without the usual regrets about several moves.  Unfortunately, there were no more games to play.

 Don't Say There is No Counterplay for Old Men


I didn't get it done but I was happy to see several members of the older generation perform well in St. Louis.  Larry Christiansen came within a hair of qualifying for the quad finals and then fell heartbreakingly short in the consolation final as well.  Larry is more than seven years older than me and plays even more infrequently than I do.  So when I'm tempted to make excuses I think of Larry and resolve to do better next time.

LarrycKing.jpg
Larry couldn't quite rule the Championship, but he reigned at the Botanical Gardens.
Kudos also to Shaba and Strip, two good guys who had good tournaments.  It was good to see Yermolinsky again.  Yermo made a solid plus one, proving he can still play at a high level under the right conditions.

There were, by my count, six players in the tournament older than me.  It feels a little weird to be one of the old guys, even after all these years.  When I set the record for most consecutive US Championship appearances, I was still one of the youngest players in the field.  It looks like it will be difficult for someone outside the big four (Nakamura, Kamsky, Onischuk, Shulman) to win the Championship, but if someone can get in there, I hope it's one of us geezers.

 
FinalWatch.jpg
Joel Benjamin among the strong GMs watching the Shulman-Kamsky US Championship playoff, Photo Betsy Dynako for CCSCSL


Then and Now
On the way to the closing ceremony, I walked into the elevator and found Kamsky already there.  I congratulated him on his tournament win, and he said something that blew my mind.

Here I need to give a little history for our younger readers.  Kamsky beat me in the final match in the 1991 US Championship.  At only 16, Gata was already the top seed, but his victory wasn't entirely clean.  His father Roustam interfered greatly, culminating in a shouting fit while I was trying to find the decisive continuation in the critical game (I think he was claiming that Patrick Wolff was signaling moves to me).

Since then, Gata achieved great things, quit chess, went to college, and returned a new man.  In the last six years he has been polite and well spoken, even dapper.  I played him in the 2004-5 US Championship (a draw), and we went over the game quite cordially (I could just about say he gave me a chess lesson there).

I know Gata can't be held entirely responsible for acts committed by his father while he was a teenager.  1991 hurt, but it's water under the bridge.  I don't hold any grudge, but there is something...

So here's what he told me.  He said he wanted to apologize for 1991.  He always felt bad about it, and this year's Championship was his "first real win."  

Wow.  It was all I ever wanted to hear from him, though after so much time had passed, I didn't expect to.  I told Gata that I appreciated what he said, and I really meant it.

And at that moment I realized how hard these words were for him to say.  Gata carries the burden of knowing that some of his early achievements are tainted by circumstances beyond his control.  Especially the US Championship.  It's true that Kamsky sat out many of the intervening tournaments, but who would have predicted in 1991 that he would go so long without winning one?  This win gets the monkey of his back and allows him to let out a deep breath. 
JeanneGataRex.jpg
US Champion Gata Kamsky with CCSCSL founders Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, Photo Betsy Dynako for CCSCSL


Everybody Meet in Saint Louis
When the Saint Louis Chess Club hosted the tournament for the first time last year, it was a breath of fresh air, or as I wrote in New In Chess, "a new hope."  Rex Sinquefield, Tony Rich and many efficient and friendly staff members set the bar quite high, but they managed to raise it in several ways.  Money isn't everything, but it's nice to see the prize fund bumped up about $40,000 from year one.  The onsite commentary (Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley this time), sent out live on the ICC, included conversations with Kasparov, Anand, and Carlsen.  Not bad getting the "superfriends" on the phone.  The $10,000 blitz tournament was a fun way to wind down after the tournament.  I won my first three games, defeating Christiansen in round three.  Then I tossed away a winning position against Nakamura, and it was all downhill.  Hikaru won easily while Larry recovered for second place.

DebbieAidan.jpg
The Benjamins show their appreciation for Saint Louis. For the record, Maurice Ashley (Yankee fan) refused to buy Cardinal hats for his family.
The baseball excursion hit the spot for a large group of players and companions.  Busch Stadium is a beautiful ballpark (I think Citi Field was built with this place in mind), but I'm sorry, it's pretty difficult to get me to root for the Cardinals.  Okay, maybe if they played the Yankees.  I guess the Phillies would work, too.

Finally, it was great to decompress after a long, hard tournament with a fun dance party. Many took the opportunity to go a little wild, or should I say, "gaga" after the speeches and presentations at the closing ceremony.  FYI, it is a longstanding US Championship tradition to place one's tie around one's head during celebrations.  If Nicky D. is not there to rejoice with us, we must pay our homage to him.

joelincongaline.jpg
Joel Benjamin in the conga line, along with GM Maurice Ashley and Natasha Christiansen. Photo Betsy Dynako for CCSCSL