US Championship 2016 - The strongest ever?

by Andrew Soltis
4/21/2016 – Three top ten players start in the US Championship 2016 and nominally it is the strongest US Championship of all times. But can you really compare today's tournaments with those of the past? Andy Soltis takes a look at previous Championships that were surprisingly strong and concludes that in a historical context 2016 might not be "the strongest ever".

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US Championship 2016 - The strongest ever?

The US Championship is once again being hailed as the “strongest ever.” It’s not just American-style hype. Every year brings a new international tournament or match that is promoted as “the strongest” of its kind. The proof is supposed to be the average rating of the players. The highest rating ever means the strongest players ever. Elo numbers don’t lie.

But Arpad Elo made clear that his rating system wasn’t very good at comparing players from different eras. Perhaps a better method is to judge a tournament by its historical context: How did its participants stack up in the world pecking order at the time the tournament was played?

For the 2016 US Championship, this seems easy. It must be “the strongest.” Was there ever a previous US Championship with three players in the world’s top ten?

Hikaru Nakamura (2787), number six in the world, and Fabiano Caruana (2795),
currently number three in the world at the Candidates Tournament 2016
in Moscow (Photo: Amruta Mokal)

Wesley So, with a rating of 2773 currently number ten in the world (Photo: Lennart Ootes)

Well, we can’t know for certain because FIDE didn’t adopt Elo ratings until 1970. But when I look over the last 60 US Championships I find several that could rival the 2016 tournament.

They start with the first modern-era tournaments, of 1936, 1938 and 1940. Sammy Reshevsky and Reuben Fine, young and rapidly improving, played in all three. They surely were in the world’s top ten after their great European successes of 1935-1938. Based on those results, Chessmetrics.com calculated Fine to be the world’s second best player for most of 1939-40 and the number one for several months after that. Reshevsky was close behind.

Reuben Fine (Photo: Wikipedia)

Samuel Reshevsky

The third elite American at that time is dimly remembered today. But Isaac Kashdan was considered a legitimate world championship challenger to Alexander Alekhine in the early 1930s. Chessmetrics has him in the world’s top ten from almost all of 1935-1938.

Isaac Kashdan

And if Kashdan is dimly recalled, Arthur Dake is virtually forgotten. Dake’s Olympic performances on the gold-medal winning American teams would have made him a top-20 player. He played in both the 1936 and 1938 tournaments.

For the record, here’s how the three tournaments finished:

1936 – 1. Reshevsky (11 ½- 3 ½), 2. Albert Simonson (11-4), 3-4. Fine and George Treysman (10 ½-4 ½), 5. Kashdan (10-5). Dake tied for sixth place.

 

1938 – 1. Reshevsky (13-3), 2. Fine (12 ½- 3 ½) – Kashdan was fifth and Dake again tied for sixth.

1940 – 1. Reshevsky (13-3 again). 2. Fine (12 ½-3 ½ again), 3. Kashdan 10 ½-5 ½).

The knock on these tournaments is the weak bottom of the score-table. These were round-robins of 16 or 17 players, at a time when the United States had fewer than a dozen international-level competitors. The tail-enders were mediocre masters. 

A better rival with the current US Championship are the ones Bobby Fischer won, from 1957 to 1966.

The main criticism of these tournaments is that, well…they were the Fischer tournaments. There didn’t seem to be anyone in them beside Bobby.

Bobby Fischer - No one dominated the US Championships like he did.

When he went 11-0 in the 1963-64 US Championship it was, by today’s standards, no big deal. His performance rating was estimated at below 2900. Bent Larsen dismissed it by saying Fischer’s opponents played “like children” against him.

Of course, Fischer did dominate. In his eight US championships he scored better than 82 percent. (That’s compared with 78 percent for Fine and 68 percent for Reshevsky.)

But consider how Pal Benko performed against those “children”. Benko tied for third place, with Tigran Petrosian and behind Mikhail Tal and Svetozar Gligoric, at the 1958 Interzonal. He qualified for the Candidates level again three years later. He was certainly a member of the world’s elite during this era.

Yet here’s how Benko fared in the US Championships in which Fischer played:

1958-59 – 8th place (5 ½ - 5 ½).

1959-60 – 4th place (7-4).

1960-61 – 8th-11th place (4 ½- 6 ½).

1962-63 –  9th-10th place (4 ½ - 6 ½).

 1963-64 – 3rd  place (7-4).

1965 – 7th-9th  place (5-6)

1966 – Equal 3rd place (6-5).

Overall, Benko’s record was 39 ½- 37 ½.  Good, but hardly what an elite player should score against "children." When Fischer didn’t play in the 1961-62 tournament, Benko tied for third through sixth place, behind Larry Evans and Robert Byrne.

Pal Benko

Somehow his opponents were a lot stronger than they seemed. Among the first games Benko played in a US Championship was this:

 

Bear in mind, Benko wasn’t the only elite American player of the Fischer era. True, Reshevsky was in decline. Yet he still qualified for the Candidates cycle in 1967. Robert Byrne qualified for the Candidates in 1973.

Add in other Americans who would have been in the world’s top 40 during the Fischer years – Evans, William Lombardy, perhaps Donald Byrne and Arthur Bisguier – and you have a very imposing crosstable.

Yes, the current US Championship has three top-ten players and that is a magnificent achievement. But there is no one else in the world’s top 60 in that tournament. In its historical context, it may not be “the strongest ever.”

About the author

Andrew Soltis (born 1947 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is an International Grandmaster and is author or co-author of more than 100 books. Since 1972 he has written a weekly column for the New York Post and since 1979 he has written "Chess to Enjoy", a monthly column for Chess Life. He was named "Chess Journalist of the Year" in 1988 and 2002 by the Chess Journalists of America. In 1971 he was number 74 on the world's ranking list and in September 2011 he was inducted into the United States Chess Hall of Fame.

He is author of The United States Chess Championship, 1845-2011, an entertaining and well reseached account of the history of the US Championship.

Andy Soltis, The United States Chess Championship, 1845-2011, McFarland 2011, 280 pages

His new book What It Takes To Become a Grandmaster (Batsford, 2016) will come out shortly.

Andrew Soltis, What It Takes To Become a Grandmaster (Batsford, May 2016)

 



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Wynand Wynand 4/23/2016 12:19
Isn't ironic that Larsen, who called the 11-0 Fischer victims "children", himself went down to Fischer 6-0. Guess he must have played like a child too.
RaoulBertorello RaoulBertorello 4/21/2016 05:52
To the Chessbase editors: Andrew Soltis earned his GM title back in the seventies, as he did with his previous IM title, yet again he is a GM not just an IM. Check this out:
https://ratings.fide.com/card.phtml?event=2000741
Hawkman Hawkman 4/21/2016 02:39
I have no problem with this. If you factor in ratings inflation, Carlsen would have been #3 in January 1984.
A7fecd1676b88 A7fecd1676b88 4/21/2016 02:26
"But can you really compare today's tournaments with those of the past? "

Sure you can compare them, but the game has changed, with less emphasis on skill. Keres wrote a nice chapter on how to analyze positions, and specifically how to analyze adjourned games.
Today's players have not had to learn that skill. It is not the same game.

THEUGHLIFE THEUGHLIFE 4/21/2016 12:07
HELLO
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