ACM: American chess in the melting pot

by American Chess Magazine
6/21/2019 – Home run: Grandmaster and former U.S. Champion JOEL BENJAMIN muses on the effect of immigration on the US chess scene in an opinion piece reproduced with kind permission from American Chess Magazine #11. Plus ACM's reviewer FM CARSTEN HANSEN gives Yannick Pelletier's latest video series on an Anti-London repertoire the maximum five stars! It's one of "many interesting new titles and many more on the way", writes Hansen.

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Anti-London System Anti-London System

On this DVD GM Yannick Pelletier offers Black a repertoire against the London System that you can employ no matter which opening (Systems with d5, systems with g6, Queen's Indian, Queen's Gambit, Benoni, Benko, Dutch) you usually play against 1.d4 followed by 2.c4. Thematic games explain and illustrate the theory and ideas of the repertoire Pelletier proposes.


Musings of an American Grandmaster

by Joel Benjamin

Hikaru Nakamura won his fifth U.S. Championship title, eclipsing the four titles of Hall–of–Famers Alex Shabalov and Yasser Seirawan and putting Hikaru higher in the pantheon of American greats. Of course, Nakamura has many prime years left and could greatly add to that total, though in the current golden age of American chess you can’t take that for granted. 

NakamuraIn any case, Nakamura is a great American success story. He is a home-grown prodigy in a sport that has welcomed many immigrant champions. I was playing in U.S. Championships for more than twenty years before a U.S. bred player came along and became clearly superior to me. Hikaru’s trailblazing has inspired others, and we can see just from our 2019 Championship roster — Shankland, Robson, Xiong, Sevian, and Liang — how others have followed his path. But they may find their future career opportunities curtailed.

The last few years have brought whirlwind changes to U.S. chess. I have written about the absorption into the fold of Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana. Fabiano grew up in Brooklyn and became a great prodigy before he left the U.S. for his teenage years. His time representing Italy feels more like an aberration, and eventually chess fans will forget it even happened.

Wesley came to the U.S. as a student, and with his family life in the Philippines very much unsettled, staying in the U.S. was a clearly correct move.

Those two and Hikaru formed the so–called “Big Three” that brought the U.S. team to the level of a true Olympic powerhouse. Soon after Shankland overcame the triumvirate to win the 2018 U.S. Championship, we have a new entrant to question the number of “bigs” we truly have.

Lenier Development

Lenier Dominguez has been a world-class player with a rating over 2700 for many years, reaching a peak world ranking of #10 in 2014. He showed his class in his first U.S. Championship, coming within an eyelash of a playoff for or two accurate moves in the last round against Gareyev would have done it. Dominguez is clearly strong enough to make the national team.

DominguezBut it’s not a completely positive development. Spots on the Olympic team, which looked plentiful just a few years ago when Kamsky retired, are now filled. Shankland may be relegated to the alternate position. Ray Robson has been short of spectacular as a member of the U.S. team, but Xiong and Sevian have not yet had that chance. (Sevian played– and performed well on the U.S. team in the recent World Team Championship, but the U.S. has to qualify each time for that event.)

I have seen some negative comments from fans about the U.S. “buying” players. (This point of view may be particularly popular outside of the U.S!) I felt that charge quite ridiculous in regards to Caruana and So. I know little about Dominguez’s reasons for emigrating (I did some research but didn’t find any information), but I don’t see any reason to attach any nefarious purposes. I’m sure it’s a good decision for Dominguez and his family. Cubans still face obstacles in travelling and staying outside the country. Lazaro Bruzon was kicked off the national team for an extended absence from Cuba. He and Yuniesky Quesada are now 30– something freshman on the Webster chess team. Still, the optics of a 35–year old foreigner replacing a teen or twenty-something aren’t great.

The Dominguez situation at least recalls the question of how easy should it be for foreign players to enjoy the full benefits of American players. The answer has historically been: very easy. I don’t think any other country does not require citizenship to play for their national team; the U.S. never has. In my heyday I always fought against the USCF policy of one–year residency before eligibility for the U.S. Championship and Olympic team. (FIDE did not take a position on individual countries.) It is obvious now that the U.S. is an attractive landing spot for foreign players, with a highly lucrative U.S. Championship, system of strong round–robin tournaments in St. Louis, and nurturing college programs. But this was true in the past as well; we were certainly a much worse chess country than we are now, but our U.S. Championship and funded Olympic team were still prizes for foreign players. Living conditions were much poorer in Russia and Eastern Europe, with travel and financial opportunities much harder to come by. The lax rules enabled foreigners to try out our country with little risk if things didn’t work out for them.

I also felt that the USCF (and the American Chess Foundation, who wielded a lot of political power in the 80s) had more respect for players from other countries than the ones they already had. In the late 1980s, Tony Miles (not from an impoverished country) announced his intention to switch federations. Tony was suffering from a mental breakdown in those days, which did not deter the powers that be in U.S. Chess from falling all over themselves in welcoming Tony, allowing him to use a P.O. Box as his U.S. residency. Fortunately we don’t see that kind of meddling any more, and the current process is regulated by FIDE, so at least such egregiously cynical transfers will not happen again.

Some is good. Is more better?

Many people have told me we should do whatever we can to encourage players to come to the U.S. because every new player stimulates the American chess community. A lot of people believe that today, and while there is truth in that philosophy, there is a downside as well. The fact that the U.S. didn’t really get a world–class player in Tony Miles was not a harmless miss. I tied with Miles for the last Interzonal spot from the U.S. Championship in 1989 (losing to him in the tournament). I lost the playoff for that spot and missed out on the Interzonal. (To add to the indignity, the USCF/ACF petitioned for and won an extra spot in the tournament, not for me, but for a fresh–off– the–boat Gata Kamsky.) Who knows what I might have done in that tournament?

Chess melting potThere is no question that some immigration benefits the U.S. chess community. I remember when the first chess “pioneers,” Anatoly Lein and Leonid Shamkovich made their way to America in the late 70s. Suddenly young Americans had great sparring partners to learn from in open tournaments. I believe their impact so great that I nominated them for the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Today more players than ever come to live in our country and frequent our tournaments. This is due to the rise of American collegiate chess programs. It’s still a relative handful of schools giving chess scholarships, disproportionately centered in Texas (UT Dallas, Texas Tech, UTRGV, or University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) and Missouri (Webster, Saint Louis University). The arms race has gotten a bit out of control, with these schools heavily recruiting grandmasters from Europe and Asia. True, American teens are getting college scholarships (that’s great), but few of them occupy spots on the A and B teams (that’s not so great). Sometimes schools veer into the absurd — is there really a reason for 35–year–old freshmen on a college team?

If you look at any open tournament in the U.S. with decent prizes, the rosters are dominated by these imported GMs. They give a boost to the prestige of these tournaments (not clear if that matters  to Bill Goichberg), and increase norm opportunities for tournaments nine rounds and up. That’s definitely an important benefit, and I won’t try to minimize its value. But they also make it harder for anyone else to win these tournaments. I won’t pretend it’s the only reason why I travel to few open tournaments, but I can’t deny that these trips won’t be profitable.

The college players, as I understand it, have their travel subsidized, and can play with less financial pressure, but everyone else is persuaded to give more lessons.

With all these foreigners living the good life in the U.S., we can expect more players to settle here permanently. Yaroslav Zherebukh has already participated in the U.S. Championship, and Darius Swiercz just played board one in the World Team Championship. On an individual basis, each new player seems like a good development. With very few exceptions, imported players have turned out to be upstanding members of the community. Their chess strength speaks for itself. But every spot taken is one lost by another player. Playing on the national team and in the U.S. Championship are greater prizes than ever. The U.S. is producing grandmasters at an unprecedented rate. I think it is healthier as a chess community, and more interesting for fans, to see them get their opportunities. But they won’t have an easy time getting them.

On the other side of the room

The colleges have not affected the landscape as much in woman’s chess. The colleges recruit women from other countries, but not so many. In the last few years established immigrants like Nazi Paikidze and Sabina Foisor have won titles, but for the most part, the American girls are winning the battle. The near–championship run of Annie Wang in 2018 was pretty exciting — Jennifer Yu’s 10/11 this year was just exhilarating. Most of the field is made up of home —grown teenagers, and these players will no doubt be an inspiration to more girls coming through the ranks. I can’t quite agree with comments I saw from some fans that the Women’s Championship was more fun to watch because there are more decisive games. I’m sorry, but the quality just isn’t there! The storylines, however, are arguably more compelling. I’m looking forward to seeing who the heroine will be next year.

Review: Anti-London System

by FM Carsten Hansen

Review blurbIt has been a while since we last looked at DVD/download products from ChessBase. This is not because they have not published anything new or exciting, but rather a testament to how many other exciting titles that have been released by other publishers. However, I will try to include more of these in the future because there are in fact many interesting new titles and many more on the way. The London System (where White typically plays 1.d4 followed by 2.♗f4 or 2.♘f3 and 3.♗f4) has exploded in popularity over the last few years. It used to be a weapon of those who needed a reliable way to get out of the opening into the middlegame without any trouble or need to learn too much theory. That is hardly the case anymore. The London is played at all levels. World Champion Carlsen plays it, and so do countless other grandmasters and, of course, this rubs off on players of all levels of play. As a result of this new-found popularity several books and DVDs have been published, although the presentation has mostly been from White’s perspective. This DVD, however, focuses on the opening from Black’s point of view. On that note, I will repeat what a student of mine recommended to me when I constructed puzzles for him: why don’t you turn the board around so that it appears from Black’s perspective when it is his turn to move? It does indeed make perfect sense. Why make the student look at every position from White’s point of view when he or she will be facing it from the Black’s side of the board. 

In this DVD, Swiss Grandmaster Yannick Pelletier presents a repertoire for Black against the London System, no matter what your usual defense is against the d-pawn: King’s Indian, Queen’s Indian, Queen’s Gambit, Dutch, Benoni etc… He has a plan for you in each case! I’m very impressed with each of his recommendations, in fact, I have used several of these for the benefit of my students as well as myself, so I can vouch for both the quality of the ideas and the content in the presentation. Speaking of the presentation, for each set-up Pelletier has a theoretical overview where he discusses at some length the special features of the set-up and then in the main games he delves further into the inherent theoretical, strategical and tactical ideas. He discusses matters to which you have to pay particular attention, what you should avoid and potential issues that you might face.

The only negative aspect that might be raised is that Pelletier is not a native English speaker and so some of his pronunciation is a bit off the mark. You will, however, quickly get used to these particular “quirks” and never really be in doubt as to what he is trying to get across. Overall, a great product that will help those of us who love to punish White for playing this “tame” opening.

Anti-London System

On this DVD GM Yannick Pelletier offers Black a repertoire against the London System that you can employ no matter which opening (Systems with d5, systems with g6, Queen's Indian, Queen's Gambit, Benoni, Benko, Dutch) you usually play against 1.d4 followed by 2.c4. Thematic games explain and illustrate the theory and ideas of the repertoire Pelletier proposes.

Awards and Info for American Chess Magazine

A single issue costs USD $29.99, but to receive CBV & PGN files as well, you'll want to subscribe for a year (four issues) for $99, which includes free shipping for readers in the USA.

ACM cover

The "Letter from the Editor" column in the current issue notes with pride that ACM has won several awards from the group Chess Journalists of America, a not-for-profit organization that encourages and promotes chess journalism. Among them was a "Best Interview" award to Asik, "Best Chess Analysis" to GM Sokolov, "Best Instructive Lesson" for an article by GM Alex Fishbein, and — perhaps most noteworthy — "Best Magazine / Newsletter Layout".

A flip through any of the first four issues, and it's not hard to see why.


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