Showdown in Seattle

1/18/2003 – The US Championship in Seattle, Washington, is getting set for either stunning breakaway or one of the most even, boring tournaments ever. The ninth and final round is on Saturday the 18th. There is a lot of money (prize fund $253,000, first prize $25,000) at stake, and eight players are tied in first place: Kaidanov, Shabalov, Akobian, Stripunsky, Gulko, Ivanov, Benjamin and Fedorowicz, all at 5.5/8. Prepare for the showdown tonight.

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Showdown in Seattle

As with most strong Swiss-system tournaments there is a feeling during the middle rounds that the top players are biding their time. Everyone knows that +3 will be enough for thousands of dollars in prize money and +4 should win at least a share of the $25,000 first prize. The players who are close to or at that magic number are intent on not risking a fall and short draws are common among the leaders. Let's just say that +4 isn't as good as +2 is bad, and even a share of second place is a very nice payday.

The usual logjam at the top has formed here in Seattle, with no fewer than 15 players starting the seventh round within a half-point of first place. Three players have a narrow lead going into the final three rounds: Kaidanov, Shabalov, and Fishbein. Kaidanov is the top seed and has drawn three straight after winning his first three games. Shabalov (left) drew in just 16 moves in round six. Fishbein was the lone winner on the top boards in round six, polishing off defending champion Larry Christiansen in 86 moves.

(In last-second news, Shabalov beat Fishbein in round seven to take a firm hold on favorite status.)

If you have to tip another favorite to make a move in the final rounds, Joel Benjamin is a candidate. He's playing in his 21st US Championship (!) and knows what it takes to win one of these things. In round six he accepted an early draw offer instead of embarking on a risky continuation against up-and-comer and center of controversy Varuzhan Akobian. The 19-year-old Armenian IM is a recent arrival to the US and his special invitation to the event raised more than a few bushy eyebrows among the other players. There is usually a three year waiting period, and there are several strong GMs biding their time, including Alexander Onischuk, the new USA number one according to FIDE.

The slow pace has allowed a few dark horses to stay in the race. Before the tournament FM Stephen Muhammad got more attention for being (together with GM Maurice Ashley) the first black player ever to play in a US Championship. But he's clearly not content just to be here and is in the chasing pack at +2 after wins over Mulyar and Kudrin. He's undefeated despite being outrated by 100-200 points in just about every game so far.

With all the top US players in attendance, a huge prize fund, and a professional level of organization rarely seen outside of Europe, this would be the premier event on the chess calendar if it didn't conflict with Corus Wijk aan Zee in an idiotic scheduling move. The integration of the women's event into the same Swiss allows the ladies to play stronger competition, although it is a little depressing to see them all bunched up toward the bottom of the standings. Defending champion Jennifer Shahade, who ran away with the title last year, has tougher competition this year and the first prize will go down the final round.

There have been several noteworthy games that will be in the running for a the $1,000 brilliancy prize. Seirawan flexed his tactical muscles in dispatching Lapshun in round five. Ye olde Greek gift on h7 had to be declined but further sharp play left Black in ruins.

19...Kf8 [ 19...Kxh7 20.Qh5+ Kg8 21.Ng5] 20.Rce1 Qh4 21.Bg6 Qf6 22.Ng5 Rh4 23.Bxf7 Ne5 24.Qxb7 1-0.

The event has been well attended, with several hundred spectators coming each day to see the players and get free commentary from the fantastic Jeremy Silman, who has turned chess commentary into performance art.


Apart from a first-class chess event with big prizes, there are perks for players and staff alike, if you consider seeing the Seattle NBA team the Sonics a perk considering how badly they've been playing lately.

You can follow all 29 games live over the Internet at www.af4c.org.

Mig Greengard

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