There’s just never a dull moment at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club. The always-innovative Midwest club – formed just over a decade ago by benefactor Rex Sinquefield – has a dedicated backroom team on a never-ending mission to not only better promote chess to the public but also to improve playing standards for all American players. The latest proving to be a first, as the club staged a series of simultaneous, multi-generational invitational tournaments that produced three new U.S. champions.
In a remarkable trifecta moment, 16-year-old Wisconsin GM Awonder Liang recovered from his misfiring start to go on to pick up a third successive U.S. Junior Championship title, as he edged out New Jersey GM Nicholas Checa in a playoff after the two tied for first place on 7-2 in the 10-player invitational.
The top star of the women’s game right now is 16-year-old WGM Jennifer Yu from Virginia, who last year won the U.S. Women’s Championship title. This year, she accepted a wild card entry into the Juniors but found the going extremely tough. And with Yu’s absence in the U.S. Girls Championship, the path was eased for top seed FM Carissa Yip, 15, to take the crown by a half-point ahead of WIM Rochelle Wu.
These two Junior titles have long been associated with being a qualifier into the marquee national event of the U.S. Championship. But now in the first-ever U.S. Senior Invitational, for American stars 50 and over, the young wannabes were joined in a new U.S. Championship qualifier by one of the “golden oldies” from the past.
All the stars of yesteryear were vying for the title and $50,000 prize fund, with the 10-player invitational including several past champions and rivals from the era when the U.S. Championship was sponsored by America’s Foundation for Chess/First Move, such as Larry Christiansen, Joel Benjamin, Gregory Kaidanov, Alex Shabalov and Alex Yermolinsky.
They may well be showing a little more gray on top, but they are just as fiercely competitive over-the-board as ever, in what proved to be a tough event. But there can only be one winner, and that was Pittsburgh GM Alex “Shabba” Shabalov who led from start to finish to take the title 6-3, a full point ahead of Kaidanov and Alexander Goldin.
Photo: The three-generational title-winners: Awonder Liang, Carissa Yip and Alex Shabalov | © Crystal Fuller / St Louis Chess Club
GM Alex Shabalov – GM Igor Novikov
US Senior Invitational Ch., (3)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 Novikov has played the Najdorf most of his life – and with that in mind, I had a sneaky feeling that his encounter with Shabalov, a player who likes the cut and thrust of daring sacrificial play, would be an entertaining affair…and it didn’t take long for the sparks to fly! 6.Be3 e6 The old-school Najdorf reply would be 6…e5 – but it seems nowadays that the Najdorf gurus prefer meeting the English Attack by transposing into a Scheveningen-type system. 7.f3 b5 8.g4 h6 9.Qd2 Nbd7 10.0-0-0 b4 11.Na4 d5 The game opens up to the delight of the fans watching. 12.exd5 Nxd5 13.Bc4 N7f6 14.g5 Did Shabba miss a trick with 14.Nf5!? It looks like it, as now 14…Qc7 15.Bxd5 Nxd5 16.Rhe1 Bb7 17.Bd4 White has a better version of what he gets in the game. 14…hxg5! The complications now seem to favour Black marginally – but he has to tread carefully. 15.Bxg5 Bb7 Inaccurate, as it gives White the opportunity to walk on the wild side. A little more accurate, though nevertheless still allowing for the walk on the wild side, was 15…Qc7!? 16.Qe2 Be7 where, although the human hearts will probably begin to start pounding furiously, the engines calmly flick in 17.Nf5!? Nf4 18.Nxg7+ Kf8 19.Qe3 Qxc4 20.Nb6 Ne2+ 21.Kb1 Qc5 22.Qxc5 Bxc5 23.Bxf6 Bxb6 24.Nxe6+ and tells you everything is about equal here! 16.Qe2 Be7 17.Nf5 Qc7 It’s a very brave man indeed who sits across the board from Shabba and plays into 17…exf5 18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Rhe1! 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Bxd5 Bxd5 20.Rxd5 Qf4+ A little forethought from Novikov would have realised that a better way to proceed was with 20…Kf8!? as it leads to a more acceptable ending after the forced line 21.Rc5 Qf4+ 22.Qe3 (This time 22.Qd2? is bad as Black’s pieces are better placed for the ending after 22…Qxd2+ 23.Kxd2 Rd8+ 24.Ke2 (No better is 24.Kc1 Rxh2! and again, Black’s pieces are very actively placed.) 24…exf5 25.Rxf5 Rh4 26.Ra5 Rhd4! and Black has a dangerous initiative with his active pieces; the big threat being …Bh4 and …Re8+.) 22…Bg5 23.Qxf4 Bxf4+ 24.Kb1 exf5 25.Rxf5 Rxh2 26.Rxh2 Bxh2 27.Rh5 Rd8! 28.c4! Rd2 and although White stands a little better still with the better pieces, 3 v 2 queenside majority, passed pawn and weak pawns to target on b4 and a6, with a little care and attention Black should really be able to hold this ending. 21.Qd2 Alternatively, 21.Kb1 forced the line 21…0-0 22.Nxg7! exd5 (It was too dangerous to try 22…Bxg7 as after 23.Rh5! White has a big advantage with Na4-c5-d3 coming, combined with Rg1, and Black’s king is in jeopardy.) 23.Nh5 Qh6 24.Nxf6+ Qxf6 25.Rg1+ Kh8 26.f4! Qh4 27.Nc5 Rg8 28.Rd1. 21…Qxf3 22.Re1 It’s a typical Najdorf mess – and both players are the type who likes to live on the edge, making this encounter all the more intriguing. 22…0-0 23.Nh6+ Kh7? Novikov blinks at the wrong moment. As an opponent across the board from Shabalov, it is never easy to see the defences being systematically stripped from around your king, but he had to continue living dangerously with 23…gxh6!? 24.Qxh6 Qg2 The only way to stop Rg1+ mating without a heavy loss of material. 25.Qxf6 (Unfortunately, 25.Rh5 doesn’t work. After 25…Rfc8 26.Qh7+ Kf8 the king runs to safety and Black has the advantage now with the better pieces.) 25…exd5 26.Qd4! Qg5+ 27.Kb1 Rae8 28.Rg1 Kh7! 29.a3 Qh6 30.axb4 Rg8 where despite being the exchange down for a pawn, White still holds the advantage with the loose Black king and pawns, but at least here, there’s a good chance of saving the game. 24.Rd3 Qh5 25.Nxf7! [see diagram] Despite it being the most obvious move, you just have to think here that, somewhere along his analysis, Novikov may well have miscalculated the full consequences of this move. 25…Rxf7 No better was 25…Qxf7 26.Qxb4 and White is a solid pawn to the better with his major pieces all central and ready to pick off the pawn weaknesses on e6 and a6. 26.Qxb4 Kg8 27.Kb1 Qxh2 28.a3 Stronger and more clinical was 28.Qe4! Rc8 29.c3 – but there’s a very human urge here before you think of attacking your opponent’s king, just to give your own king a little air in case of a backrank mishap, and this is what Shabalov does. 28…Rc8 There’s no use thinking of attacking here – you just had to grovel on by defending the weak pawns as best you can with 28…Re8 29.Nb6 Qh4 and hope you can perhaps save the ending. 29.Qb3 Rfc7? 30.Nb6 Time trouble may well have played a major influence here, but the clinical kill came with 30.Qxe6+! Kf8 31.Rh3! and Black can resign, as there’s no way to stop Rh8 mate without a heavy loss of material. 30…Rb8 31.Qxe6+ Kf8 The rest of the game is a “bit random” – and I’m assuming this is down to both players being in “zeitnot”. 32.c3? Rcb7? Shabalov was probably oblivious to his mistake in the mad dash to reach the time-control…but after the embarrassing 32…Re7! White is now forced into the very unclear 33.Qxe7+ Bxe7 34.Nd7+ Kf7 35.Nxb8 Bxa3 36.Rd7+ Kf6 37.Rb7 Bd6 38.Nd7+ Kg5 39.Nb6 where White is still better and to be preferred – but it is far from clear now if there are enough winning chances left on the board. 33.Rd7 Qxb2+ 34.Kxb2 Rxb6+ 35.Kc2 The ending is just lost for Black – and sure enough, when the dust settles with the time control being made, Novikov duly resigns. 35…Rxe6 36.Rxe6 Rc8 37.Rd3 a5 38.Kb3 Rb8+ 39.Ka4 Rc8 40.Kxa5 Bxc3+ 41.Kb5 1-0