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On Chess: 2012 U.S. championship preview

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - The 2012 U.S. Chess Championship will be held May 8-20 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. The event pits the top 12 American players in a round-robin (all-play-all) format. The event will be held concurrently with the 2012 U.S. Women's Championship, which was the focus of last week's article.

Similar to the U.S. Women's Championship, there are two favorites: Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky. Gata was one of the top five players in the world in the 1990s and St. Louisan Hikaru has been one of the world's top 10 players for more than a year now.

Normally, I am quite objective when evaluating the chances of the players, but since Woody Allen said objectivity was subjective, I’d like to insert my two cents here about the relative chances of the two favorites.

I believe Gata is the clear favorite to win this event for many reasons. First, Gata is the three-time and current reigning champion. Gata scores well against players who are slightly worse, as is most of the field here. Hikaru has been competing against players who are 2700+ FIDE rated (world's top 30) for more than a year now, and he will not be used to playing the 2575-2675 FIDE-rated competition that Gata usually faces.

Also, I think Hikaru will feel tremendous pressure to win, since he needs to score a victory to avoid losing rating points.

Having said all of the above, I still believe Hikaru is a superior player, but the conditions may be just right to favor Gata’s chances.

There are many other strong grandmasters in this year’s U.S. Championship, but I would be surprised if any of them have what it takes to win the event overall. Hikaru and Gata are simply too strong. Young upstarts like Robert Hess and incoming Webster University freshman Ray Robson will be fun to watch as the two junior players trying to upset the old guard. The best representative of the old guard is four-time U.S. Champion Yasser Seirawan, 51, who will be playing in his second consecutive championship after coming out of retirement last year.

Last year Gata won an exciting game against Varuzhan Akobian. Akobian played the French Defense, his favorite. The game was complicated right away, as Gata went all out, sacrificing a pawn as early as move eight with Qd2. Var was up to the challenge and accepted with 8...Qxb2.

Gata sacrificed another pawn with 13.Qe1 and Var once again accepted. Black's king was not terribly safe, but two pawns is two pawns! Next Gata threw in an exchange sacrifice with the brilliant 16.Rxb4!

The game was dynamically balanced most of the way, until Var erred with 21..Kg8? (21..Nxb4 was preferable). Gata was in complete control until Var sacrificed his queen (!) with 24..Rxc6 and Gata declined (!!) to capture the lady, which would have given him a winning game, and instead chose to capture the rook with 25.Nxc6. Gata won Var's queen later with the amazing sacrifice 27.Ng5+ followed by 28.Rf3 threatening the black queen and checkmate!

In mutual time trouble, Var missed a drawing chance with 31..b2 trying to promote his pawn, and instead went down in flames with 31..g4? This allowed Gata a forced checkmate and Var gave up rather than face 34...b2 35.Qh4+ Kg7 36.Qh6 checkmate. This was a fascinating struggle between two of America's best.