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Two U.S. champions crowned in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2011 - After an opening miscue led to a struggle for equality, Grandmaster Yury Shulman conceded a draw to Grandmaster Gata Kamsky and with it the title of 2011 U.S. Chess Champion. Kamsky was the defending champion, and he won the title last year in another final-round game with Shulman. This year Kamsky took home $40,000 for first place, plus $2,000 more for winning his preliminary group. In the U.S. Women's Championship, International Master Anna Zatonskih survived 19 matches to claim her fourth title. She was awarded $18,000 for first place.

Kamsky won the first of two games against Shulman, forcing Shulman into a must-win situation in round two of the finals, but Kamsky maintained control the entire game. "I had to survive all game," Shulman said. Shulman, the 2008 U.S. Champion, earned $30,000 for his second-place finish this year.

"He should have done what he did last year against me in the rapid game - played slowly to build up pressure," Kamsky said. "After he played e4, I realized it was almost done." Shulman agreed that his seventh move was imprecise. "I should have shown some fight," Shulman said.

Prior to Kamsky, the last American to successfully defend his national championship was Grandmaster Lev Alburt in 1984-85.

After two weeks of almost non-stop playing, Zatonskih needed a few more hours to win the 2011 U.S. Women's Championship. She won her first rapid game as Black on Thursday against Woman FIDE Master Tatev Abrahamyan.

In that game, Abrahamyan sacrificed an exchange early but got good pressure. Zatonskih gave the material back and entered an endgame with an extra pawn but without an obvious breakthrough. On her 58th move and with only seconds left for both women, Abrahamyan slid her king out of check to the left, allowing Zatonskih's bishop to attack from behind. Abrahamyan resigned a few moves later.

Zatonskih seemed as though she would cruise to the title, but in the next round she spoiled a better position and lost. The two had to play a deciding Armageddon playoff match that Zatonskih drew to claim the title.

Zatonskih had draw odds by virtue of playing Black and with less time. In accordance with the rules of an Armageddon playoff, prior to the game's commencement, Zatonskih entered a secret bid of 19 minutes, 55 seconds. When Abrahamyan's bid of 24 minutes, 28 seconds was revealed, it meant that Zatonskih's lower time would give her a time handicap but the advantage of only needing a draw to win. Abrahamyan started with 45 minutes but took the White pieces. She chose to repeat her opening from the first rapid game.

The final game saw Zatonskih aim for an opposite-colored bishop endgame. Her control of the light squares stifled any chances for Abrahamyan to advance any pawns to make progress. After admitting that progress was impossible, a reluctant Abrahmyan looked up and signaled that she would concede the draw. Zatonskih immediately agreed, which gave her a fourth championship in six years.

"I don't have enough energy to celebrate," Zatonskih said, as she slid down into a chair in relief.

Mike Klein is a FIDE Master, freelance journalist and the director of Young Master Chess, a scholastic chess instructional program based in North Carolina. He has traveled the world covering chess events forChess Life Online and Chess Life Magazine, the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation.