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Lubomir Kavalek Headshot

Chess Champions in America

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Many past and present chess champions were attracted to America, mostly to New York. William Steinitz won the first official world championship match in 1886 in the United States and spent his last days there. The world champions Emanuel Lasker and Jose Raul Capablanca, both died in New York in the early 1940s. Alexander Alekhine made several trips to the New World and married an American lady. Garry Kasparov now lives in New York where he played two world championship matches: in 1990 against Anatoly Karpov and in 1995 against Vishy Anand. The current world champion Magnus Carlsen loves to teach children chess in New York. The best American, Hikaru Nakamura, who also holds the number one spot in the world in Rapid and Blitz chess ratings, spent most of his youth in the Big Apple.

Today, however, the center of professional chess in America is Saint Louis, Missouri. For the last six years the U.S. championship was held at the local Chess Club and Scholastic Center. With Nakamura absent this year, all eyes were on Gata Kamsky, the defending champion and the oldest participant. Could he still defend the title at the age of 39?

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Although Kamsky was the top rated player, he was not among the early leaders, almost conceding the title at one point. While squeezing out the last round victory, he needed help. Only a draw between his main rivals, Varuzhan Akobian and Aleksandr Lenderman, kept Kamsky's chances alive. When the desired result came through, Kamsky won his fifth U.S. title in the playoffs. Irina Krush prevailed at the Women's championship, claiming her sixth title.

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The U.S. title was literally hanging on the following game:

Lenderman - Akobian
U.S. Championship, Saint Louis 2014

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22.f3

We can pick up the critical game from move 21. Lenderman just protected his e-pawn with the move 22.f3. It didn't belong to the Catalan opening. The wonderful light bishop was now pegged behind white's pawn chain.

Yasser Seirawan compared it to the second game of the 1990 World championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. It was a big stretch because Kasparov played it in one of the Spanish Main lines, a very unusual occurrence, but not completely original. In San Juan in 1969, the idea of f2-f3 was performed in the Spanish Breyer as early as on move 14.

After 22.Nxc4 Bxe4 23.Bxe4 Rxd1+ 24.Rxd1 Nxe4 25.Qd3 Lenderman might have been afraid of 25...g4.

22...g4!

Because the g-pawn is not on g2, black is able to break the white pawn chain.

23.Be3
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23...gxf3

The rook invasion 23...Rd3!? was better, for example: 24.Re1 (After 24.Nxc4?! Rxe3! 25.Nxe3 Bxe4 black has a big advantage.) 24...gxf3 25.Bxf3 Rcd8 26.Nxc4 (26.Bxh6? Bb4!-+) 26...Bxe4 27.Bxe4 Qxe4 black keeps the queens on the board.

24.Bxf3 h5

Black does not gain much with 24...Rd3 25.Nxc4 Rxd1+ 26.Rxd1 Bxe4 27.Bxe4 Nxe4 28.b3 with equal chances.

25.Rac1 Bb7 26.Nxc4 Rxd1+ 27.Rxd1 Bxe4 28.Bxe4 Qxe4 29.Qxe4 Nxe4 30.b3 Bc5 31.Bxc5 Rxc5 32.Rd8+ Kg7 33.Ra8 Rc6 34.Ra7 Nd6 35.Nxd6 Rxd6
The game fizzled out to a draw in 58 moves.

GM Seirawan mentioned the following game in his comments:

Kasparov - Karpov
World championship, New York 1990

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19.f3!

The move was praised and rightly so. By protecting the pawn e4, Kasparov freed his knight on d2. But it was not a sudden inspiration during the game. Kasparov admitted that he has been preparing it since his first match against Karpov in 1984/85 but did not have chance to play it.

19...Qd7 20.Nc4 Qb5 21.Rc3 Bc8 22.Be3 Kh7 23.Qc1 c6 24.Ng4 Ng8

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25.Bxh6!

A winning combination based on overprotection. Black's dark bishop cannot cover the pawns on d6 and h6 at the same time. It required a precise calculation of the next five moves and good judgment afterwards.

25...Bxh6 26.Nxh6 Nxh6 27.Nxd6 Qb6 28.Nxe8 Qxd4+ 29.Kh1 Qd8

Black wins the knight back but his queenside pieces are out of play, unable to help the king.

30.Rd1 Qxe8 31.Qg5 Ra7 32.Rd8 Qe6 33.f4 Ba6 34.f5 Qe7 35.Qd2 Qe5 36.Qf2 Qe7 37.Qd4 Ng8 38.e5 Nd5 39.fxg6+ fxg6 40.Rxc6 Qxd8 41.Qxa7+ Nde7 42.Rxa6 Qd1+ 43.Qg1 Qd2 44.Qf1 Black resigned.

The move f2-f3, played in the following game, prevented black from his usual action in the center. Surprising moment came on move 20.

Kavalek - Martinez
San Juan 1969

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3

The Spanish Main line.

9...Nb8 10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nh4

The idea of bringing the knight to the square f5 originally belongs to Vladimir Simagin, one of the most creative Soviet grandmasters. It gained popularity after it was adopted by Bobby Fischer in the late 1960s.

11...Bb7

The pawn sacrifice 11...Nxe4 12.Nf5 gives white some compensation, but nothing more.

12.Nf5 Re8 13.Nxe7+

White plays for a long-term advantage of a bishop pair. I have analyzed this plan with Robert Byrne in 1969. A smooth development 13.Bg5 Bf8 14.Nd2 is another option.

13...Rxe7

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14.f3

A very unusual move in the main line Spanish, although it is almost forced here. Not only white wants to strengthen the center, but intends to meet the central break 14...d5 with the paradoxical 15.f4!?

14...c5

Forcing white to close the center. Other options are:
A. 14...d5 15.f4!? and white gains a strong pawn center.;
B. 14...h6 15.Nd2 d5 16.f4!? exd4 17.e5 dxc3 18.bxc3 Ne4 19.Nxe4 dxe4 20.Qg4 (20.Be3 Nb6 21.Qg4 seems better.) 20...Nc5 21.Ba3 Nd3 0-1 (63) Byrne,R-O'Kelly de Galway,A San Juan 1969.

15.d5 h6 16.Nd2 c4 17.Bc2 Qb6+ 18.Kh2 Nh5 19.Nf1 g5 20.f4!

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A pawn sacrifice, allowing white to take full control of the light squares on the king side.

20...Nxf4 21.Ng3 Nf6

The queen invasion of white's camp is not dangerous: 21...Qf2 22.Rg1 Nf6 23.Nf5 Rd7 and white can seal his advantage with 24.Bxf4, for example
A. 24...Qxf4+ 25.Ng3 Qe3 (25...Qh4 26.Rf1 g4 27.Rxf6 Qxf6 28.Qxg4++-) 26.Rf1 Ne8 27.Nf5 wins;
B. 24...exf4 25.Rf1 Qc5 26.Nxh6+ Kg7 27.Nf5+ Kh8 28.h4 breaking the defensive wall.

22.Nf5

White is winning, pushing black forces back and weakening the king.

22...Ree8 23.Be3 Qd8 24.g3 N4h5 25.Nxh6+ Kf8 26.Rf1 Kg7 27.Bxg5 Kg6 28.Nf5 Rh8 29.Nh4+ Kg7

Black resigned before I was able to play 30.Qd2.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game.

Images by Lennart Ootes

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