From Nashville to Foxwoods
By Jonathan Hilton   
April 9, 2009
Jonathan Hilton and Shinsaku Uesugi are both fresh from the SuperNationals. Photo courtesy Masako Uesugi
Recently, I’ve been living my life on the move. I played two tournaments on back-to-back weekends before heading to the SuperNationals in Nashville, and the day after I returned from that, I boarded a plane and headed for Mashantucket, Connecticut for the Foxwoods Open (April 8-12). Upon my return from this event, I’ll have four days at home before I fly to Tegucigalpa, Honduras for a mission trip. The constant travel has provided me some much-needed relief from the travails of my senior year of high school. I’m thankful to finally have my college plans settled, and now, before I become a full-time student, I’m enjoying the opportunity to just go back to being a chess player and a writer for a little while.

Life as a traveling chess player is always rich in surprises. At the baggage claim of the Providence airport, I unexpectedly met up with GMs Yury Shulman and Varuzhan Akobian, who happened to be waiting on the same shuttle bus to the Foxwoods casino as I was. The three of us rode and chatted together for a half hour as the bus rolled from Rhode Island to Connecticut, picking up gamblers here and there as it ambled along. One of them took a seat in the row behind us. “Have you all ever been here before?” she asked us in a bubbly tone. Shulman, Akobian and I exchanged glances. “Yes,” we said tentatively, trying to somehow imply that we were still clueless about gambling in the actual casino. My voice betrayed that I wasn’t a native Rhode Islander. “You’re not from around here, are you?” the lady asked.

“I’m from Cincinnati,” I replied.

“Oh! Are all three of you from Cincinnati?”

The three of us chess players exchanged glances again and, as the bus came to a halt in front of the Foxwoods resort and everyone stood up in preparation to dismount, we began to lose track of the conversation in the bustle and noise. “I’m Jewish,” I heard Shulman volunteer.

“Oh! Are all three of you Jewish?”

“I’m Episcopal,” I said.

“I’m Armenian,” said Akobian.

The bus driver needed to know how long we were staying. “Five days,” we replied. The lady was ecstatic. “So we have an Episcopalian, a Jew, and an Armenian staying together at the casino for five days!” she exclaimed. “You must all be best buddies!” I looked at the current U.S. Champion standing a few feet in front of me and the famous Armenian Grandmaster standing just behind. Without hesitating, I subverted any hint of sarcasm in my voice: “Yes,” I declared, “We’re all best buddies!”

Such an incident could well lead one to reflect on the multicultural nature of chess, or how chess brings people of all walks of life together. But at the moment, I doubt that Shulman, Akobian, or I have had any time for such speculation. We’re too busy doing what we do best: playing the game! And in a strange twist of fate, I wound up losing my first-round game in less than two hours to one of my two “best buddies” in chess.

Jonathan Hilton in his first round face-off against GM Varuzhan Akobian, Photo courtesy Masako Uesugi


1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 c5 8.Be2 0–0 9.Rb1 b6 10.0–0 Bb7 11.d5

A good opening choice by Akobian, going for an aggressive, attacking sideline. I had long since forgotten any preparation I had for this relatively rare pawn sacrifice.
11...Bxc3 12.Bc4 Qd6?!
Poor judgment on my part. After calculating several possible variations I concluded that I did not need to waste time on the "safe" 12...Bg7 - a move I later discovered was the main line - and could instead focus on blockading the e5 square. It did not take Akobian long to spot the best way to take advantage of my dark square weaknesses.
The only move that gives White the advantage. Fighting for e4-e5 with 13.g3 Nd7 14.Bf4 Qf6 15.Bg5 Qd6 (15...Qg7!? 16.Bb5 is a bit awkward for Black) gives White sufficient compensation for his pawn, but probably not more.
13...Bg7 14.e5
14.Qd2 is adequately met by 14...Nd7, but I had expected 14.Bxg7 Kxg7 15.e5 Qd7 16.Qd3 for White. (See note to Black's next move.)
I felt this was a better try than 14...Qd7 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.Qd3 Qf5 17.Qxf5 gxf5, which allows 18.Nh4 with a dismal position for Black. Fritz points out that perhaps I could defend here by giving the pawn back with 18...e6 19.dxe6 fxe6 20.Bxe6 Be4 21.Rbd1 Nc6, with White keeping the initiative after 22.f3 Bc2 23.Rd7+. After the text move, Akobian proves that Black is fatally weak on the dark squares.
15.Nxe5 Qxe5 16.Re1 Qd6 17.Qe2!
Correctly turning down the opportunity to “cash in” with 17.Bxf8. I had seen this idea in advance, but I now commit a gruesome oversight.

Black's defense was 17...Rd8 18.Qxe7 (18.Qb2 Qf6 19.Rxe7 should eventually transpose) 18...Qxe7 19.Rxe7 Ba6 20.Rbe1 Nc6!, though White is still much better after 21.Bxa6 Nxe7 22.Rxe7 Rxd5 23.g3 with a powerful bind.
18.Qb2 f6 19.Re6
Black is completely lost! I played on a few more moves in the hope of some bizarre back-rank mate ideas.
Of course 19...Qd7 is met by 20.d6 or 20.Rxf6, winning on the spot.
20.dxe6 Nc6 21.Rd1 Rad8 22.Rd7
Akobian finds the most decisive route.
A beautiful finish.
23...exf6 24.e7+ Kh8 25.exd8Q

Here I resigned, making the game a 25-move miniature. Great play by Akobian! 1-0

Of course, I wasn’t the only player to be dealt a smashing blow by a top seed in Round 1. Foxwoods this year is something of a super tournament, with GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Loek Van Wely playing. Overall, there are 14 Grandmasters in a field of well over 100 players in the Open Section. The number of real “upsets” has been few and far between, but one of five recently named Scholar-Chessplayers,  Troy Daly of Florida pulled off a nearly 200 point upset over IM Jake Kleiman.


Daly is hot off a strong performance in Nashville, where he beat IM Marc Arnold in Round 4 and NM Adithya Balasubramanian. Only a last-round loss to the strong Shinsaku “Shin” Uesugi kept him from sliding into second or third place. Based on his recent performances, I think it is more than likely that Daly will walk away from this tournament with the National Master title securely in hand. But, only time will tell as the 2009 Foxwoods Open gets fully underway. Be sure to look for more reports throughout the week!

Follow results, live games and more on the Foxwoods Open website. Also check out details on the match between two of the aforementioned GMs, Shulman and Akobian.