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On Chess: The 2015 U.S. Chess Championships kick off in the Central West End

Commentators Jennifer Shahade and Yasser Seirawan host the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships, which kicked off Wednesday at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
Austin Fuller | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

The 2015 U.S. Chess Championships feature the strongest player lineup of all-time.

This year’s 12 player round-robin will run through April 13 and holds an average rating of 2732, higher than any other national championship in U.S. history. But of course this event isn’t just strong by U.S. standards: Two of the participants, GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Wesley So, are ranked No. 3 and No. 8 in the world, respectively.

Even more exciting, these championship fields are also the youngest in U.S. chess history, with more than half the field under the age of 25. What makes young chess players so fun to watch is, while they’re on their way up, they are hungry for success and salivating at the chance to pull off a huge upset. Running concurrently is the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, featuring GM Irina Krush, who has won the title six times since first winning as a 14 year old in 1998.

Since St. Louis first hosted these events in 2009, the U.S. Championships have become some of the more-anticipated chess events of the year, with much owed to the huge efforts of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, and specifically Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield. The club has turned both the U.S. Championship and the Women’s Championship into extremely well-run, prestigious tournaments, with the prize fund this year totaling $175,000 and $75,000 respectively for the two events. In addition, the $64,000 “Fischer Bonus,” named after Bobby Fischer’s sensational 11-0 win in the 1963-64 U.S. Championship, is promised to any player who can match the feat.

High-ranking guys

There are quite a few players to watch. The obvious favorites are Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, both at the peaks of their career. Nakamura is a two-time U.S. Champion, but hasn’t participatedsince winning in 2012 so that he may focus on international events with intentions of pursuing the World crown. Nakamura’s participation this year may have something to do with the second-seed, Wesley So, who switched to the U.S. Chess Federation last year and now plays in his first U.S. Championship. So, originally from the Philippines, is a phenomenal talent, earning the GM title at the age of 14 and ultimately breaking into the world top-ten at the start of 2015 at the age of 21.

Although either Nakamura or So is likely to win the event, several other players in the field are just as dangerous. First off is current U.S. Champion GM Gata Kamsky, who was won the past two U.S. Championships and five titles over his career. Kamsky also has more experience at the top level than anyone else in the field, having competed in the World Championship cycle throughout the 1990s and for the past several years. The only thing going against Kamsky is his age: At 40 years old, he may have a hard time keeping his energy up throughout the entire two-week event.

Also noteworthy is GM Sam Shankland, at 23 showing huge progress over the last few years. Shankland made headlines in the 2014 Chess Olympiad, where he scored 9/10 and won an individual gold medal. Shankland is my personal “dark horse” pick for the event, as he is capable of those huge winning streaks and could wind up as a serious contender for the U.S. title.

At 13, Sam Sevian broke the record as the youngest-ever American Grandmaster and now competes for the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship.
Credit Lennart Ootes, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
At 13, Sam Sevian broke the record as the youngest-ever American Grandmaster and now competes for the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship.

Finally I’d have to mention the two youngest players in the field: GM Kayden Troff, 16; and GM Sam Sevian who, at 13, became the youngest Grandmaster in U.S. history just last November. Troff and Sevian are fearless and with good reason: They are constantly improving and won’t view the tournament as just another “good experience.” No, both having already competed in the 2013 U.S. Championship, they’ve gotten their feet wet and return in 2015 in it to win it.

Seven for Krush?

The U.S. Women’s Chess Championship should also be an exciting event to follow. GM Irina Krush will be looking to capture her seventh title, as her main rival IM Anna Zatonskih is not participating this year. Instead more eyes will be on WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who has come extremely close to winning the title in the past few years (losing a final day playoff both to Krush last year and Zatonskih in 2011).

This year, the women’s championship also has several new faces, including IM Nazi Paikidze, WGM Anna Sharevich and WGM Katerina Nemcova, all recent transfers to the U.S. Chess Federation who will be forging new paths to victory.

Similar to the championship section, the women’s event has several talented youngsters who have earned their spots in their field, including Annie Wang, who, at 12, won the U18 girls section of the 2014 North American Youth Championship. Wang also broke Krush’s long-standing record last year as the youngest American female chess master. Other young highlights this year are 16-year-old Apurva Virkud, who tied for first in the first-ever U.S. Junior Girls Championship in 2014; and Jennifer Yu, the reigning U12 World Youth Champion, and the first world title holder for an American girl since 1987.

As usual, the Chess club and Scholastic Center will be providing two forms of live coverage: Online viewers nationwide will tune in towww.uschesschamps.com daily at 1 p.m., featuring the world-class commentary team of GM Yasser Seirawan, WGM Jennifer Shahade and GM Maurice Ashley. St. Louis fans who want to watch the action in person can witness the games at the St. Louis club and also catch live commentary from local GM Ben Finegold and 2013 U.S. Championship runner-up GM Alejandro Ramirez. Live commentary is set up next door to the club at the brand-new Kingside Diner, which will hold its grand opening April 1,7 after the championships clear out, but is allowing chess fans an early sneak peak.

Kostya Kavutskiy is a FIDE chess master and a former player on the Lindenwood chess team. As a chess journalist, Kostya writes for Chess Life and Chess.com, and recently co-authored a book titled “Modernized: The Open Sicilian.” He is the director of marketing for Metropolitan Chess Inc. in Los Angeles, and is back in St. Louis as the event journalist for the 2015 U.S. Chess Championships.