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On Chess: Nakamura Declines U.S. Championship Invite

Gata Kamsky is seeking his fifth U.S. Championship title this year.
Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

Twelve of the top chess players in the U.S. just got fantastic news: Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura will not be fighting for the title of 2014 U.S. Champion.

Nakamura, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, declined his invitation citing his decision to prepare for, and compete against, only the world’s elite.

This isn’t surprising, really. A number of the world’s best players forgo their national championship for similar reasons. The last time World No. 2 Levon Aronian won the Armenian National Championship was 2002. Viswanathan Anand hasn’t claimed India’s title since 1988.

While Nakamura’s decision is certainly a blow to the prominence and profile of the U.S. Championship this year, it might actually make for a more exciting tournament.

I’m not saying he would have been a lock to win, but the format certainly favors a player of Nakamura’s caliber. The round robin ensures an even playing field with regard to pairings, and there’s no question he would have been the odds-on favorite.

Gata Kamsky, the reigning champion, is now the clear frontrunner, but he has demonstrated some vulnerability over the past year. In July 2013, Kamsky’s FIDE rating sat at 2763, good for No. 11 in the world. Since then, however, the four-time U.S. Champion has stumbled, and his rating has tumbled to 2709, which currently puts him at No. 40 overall.

Now Nakamura’s absence and Kamsky’s struggles have given a group of rising stars and seasoned veterans renewed hope to claim the crown.

The field for the 2014 U.S. Championship is nearly set. Eleven have gotten the call. One still remains, with only the wildcard yet to be determined.

The players (listed in rating order, highest to lowest) are:

  • GM Gata Kamsky, 39, New York/Moscow
  • GM Timur Gareev, 26, Las Vegas
  • GM Varuzhan Akobian, 30, Topeka, Kans.
  • GM Alexander Onischuk, 38, Lubbock, Texas
  • GM Sergey Erenburg, 31, Richmond, Va.
  • GM Ray Robson, 19, St. Louis
  • GM Sam Shankland, 22, Orinda, Calif.
  • GM Daniel Naroditsky, 18, Foster City, Calif.
  • GM Josh Friedel, 27, Milwaukee
  • GM Alex Lenderman, 24, New York
  • GM Alejandro Ramirez, 25, Garland, Texas

The U.S. Championship is the premier invitational chess tournament in the country and has been held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis since 2009. Because it is held concurrently with the U.S. Women’s Championship, there is a mistaken belief that it’s for men only. This is not the case. Each year the format changes, but the vast majority of the field is made up of the top players in the country by rating. (Irina Krush, the reigning U.S. Woman’s Champion and highest-rated female player in the U.S., is ranked 48th overall.)

This year’s tournament kicks off with the opening ceremony on May 7 and will run through May 20.

While the sometimes-brash-but-always-brilliant play of Nakamura would have been a treat for spectators, his absence makes for a more intriguing title fight for 12 deserving contenders.

Note: Mike Wilmering is a 2006 graduate of the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Journalism and serves as the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.