The 27th Annual North American Open at Bally’s Las Vegas after Christmas featured both a record turnout of 805 players and a hotly contested battle for first place in the Open section. Fourth seed GM Robert Hess of New York, 26, had the best tiebreak among these 7-2 scores and got a $200 bonus added to his $3940 prize. The two of the top 16-year-olds in the US (and first and third seeds respectively), GMs Samuel Sevian and Ruifeng Li, were also in the tie, along with GM Arun Prasad Subramanian, 29, of India, and the veteran of the group, IM Dionisio Aldama, 49, who plays for Mexico but lives in San Diego.
Li instructively counters IM Michael Lee’s overly ambitious 5…f6 in Round 6; after 6.e4!, 6…dxe4 is well met by 7.Qh5+ g6 8.Nxc6 bxc6 9.Qe2, but the game continuation also favors White. 9…Bb4 would have minimized the damage. In the game, both development and pawn structure favor White in the ending, and Black blunders in a difficult position. After the knight moves, 21.Ba5+ would have followed.
The early running was actually made by another player, IM John Daniel Bryant of Southern California. Though seeded only 17th, he was 5-0 after upsetting GM Hovhannes Gabuzyan. A draw with Subramaian left Bryant still alone in first with 5½. But successive losses to Sevian and Li knocked him out of the race, though his fine start ultimately earned Bryant a GM norm.
Hess, Li, and Subramanian, who had all drawn their first round games, now moved into contention, as did Sevian, who had been upset by Michael Lee in Round 3. After beating IMs Denys Shmelov and Advait Patel, Sam had 6 of 7. His treatment of the White side of a French in Round 4 is instructive, though Black falters after the time control; 41…Bb3 would have kept him in the game. 41…Be4 simply loses, as White gets connected passers.
Hess, who had drawn with Aldama in the fourth round, downed Patel and IM Cameron Wheeler to reach the same score. Hess’s third round win over Under 16 Champ, WIM Annie Wang, features a queenside squeeze followed by an attractive kingside mating attack.
Subramanian, having drawn Bryant and Li, trailed by a half point along with Bryant, Li, and GM Eshan Moradabadi, who had just beaten Aldama. The latter was a full point behind. Also, at 5-2 were GM Eshan Ghaemmaghami (an Iranian who plays regularly in the US), GM Fidel Corrales Jimenez of Missouri, GM Andrey Gorovets of Texas, IM Shmelov, IM Wheeler, IM Nicolas Checa, and IM Artiom Samsonkin of Canada.
This murky situation naturally clarified itself in the penultimate round. Sevian and Hess drew a lengthy endgame, while Li moved into the tie by downing Bryant. Trailing these three by a half point were Subramanian and Moradiabadi (who drew with each other), Corrales (who beat Samsonkin), Aldama (a victor over Gorovets), and Wheeler (who disposed of Checa).
In the finale, Hess as White drew quickly with Moradiabadi to reach 7 points. Li and Sevian also split the point in short order to reach the goal line, though Stockfish suggests that 14.Nxd5 Bxd5 15.Rc1 would have given White some pull.
Subramanian outplayed Wheeler, who needed a win to tie first and secure a GM norm. White gets an advantage in a classic isolated d-pawn opening, but gives most of it away with 16.Bxd5; 16.Ne5 greatly improves. By move 20, the game is dead equal, but White regains a small edge which is magnified after the Black king steps into danger with 35…Kg6. After time control, 41.Qb4 would have cemented White’s advantage. Tired of passive defense, Wheeler makes the last error with the pseudo-aggressive 47…Qh1, which allows White’s d-pawn to progress toward the end zone.
Aldama won his second straight game with Black, defeating fellow Cuban émigré Corrales in a known line of the Scotch thought to offer little for White. Black has done well with 15…Qa5, but 15…Qa2 is good also, and should be answered with 16.Bd4, equal. After 16.Ke2?! d5!, White should retain near-equality with 17.Qc2. Instead, 17.exd6?? leaves the White king in danger as Black’s rook suddenly enters the game. Stockfish gives the line 18.Re1 Qa5 19.h3 cxd6 20.Bd4 c5 21.Be3 f5 22.Kf1 Nd7 when White’s awkwardly placed pieces leave him at a clear disadvantage. Instead, a shell-shocked Corrales walks into another deadly pin, and Black wins quickly. Aldama’s strong finish, which gave him a GM norm as well as a share of first, was reminiscent of his triumph in the 2012 Los Angeles Metropolitan International, when he won his last four games to tie for first and then won an Armageddon playoff against GM Timur Gareyev.
Thus, the five-way tie for first place materialized. Bryant, Moradiabadi, and Patel (who won his last two games to recover from a first round upset and a sixth round loss to Hess) tied for sixth place.
Among the Under 2400 prizewinners (6 points), it was youth all the way. IM Wheeler was joined by IM Craig Hilby (they respectively occupy the fourth and second spots on our age 17 list), Senior Master/FM Be Li (sixth among age 15 players), and FM Andrew Hong (first age 13). Hong, after a 1-2 start, stormed back with 5-1, and joined Wheeler among the few players with no draws.
Selective mention of non-winners always risks missing worthy players, but we note that FM Christopher Woojin Yoo, the top ten-year-old in the US, made an even score, beating one IM and drawing with another as well as a 2500, and increased his rating to 2316. Matikozyan began to go downhill on move 20 (20…exf3 or 20…Re8 are equal), and Yoo soon cashed in.
The Open section sported 14 GMs, 24 IMs, 27 FMs, and three WIMs. (There were another six players with FIDE ratings over 2300 – 116 points over in one case – who apparently are unwilling to pay the requisite fee for the title.) The Under 2300 section included another two IMs, ten FMs (including 85-year-old Tibor Weinberger of Santa Monica, who played in the US Championship 50 years ago), and two WIMs.
Unsurprisingly, the largest end of the year tournament had major ramifications for the 2017 US Chess Grand Prix. Moradiabadi went in with a 42 point lead over Li, and his three-way tie for sixth, as opposed to Ruifeng’s five-way equal first place, left the margin at 29 points. In 2016, Li’s three-way tie for first, had put the icing on a Grand Prix triumph.
All the class sections had clear winners! In Under 2300, WIM Megan Lee of Seattle (whose brother, IM Michael, had a less stellar result in the Open despite his upset of Sevian) brought home a victory as two of her rivals played a quick draw. Black’s acceptance of doubled pawns in this game is fine if properly followed up; the computer says 14…c4 or a doubling of rooks on the e-file are dead equal. Instead, Black’s ambitious 14…d4 secures the d5 square for minor piece placement but virtually assures the eventual loss of the c5 pawn. Stockfish prefers 20.f5, but White retained an edge. 26…Qf7 was another bad choice by Black, and his concluding effort to eliminate all the pawns led only to a self-mate for his monarch.
Under 2100 winner Colin Albert of Northern California tallied a perfect 7-0 score and racked up a 153 point rating gain. Nicholas Gross trailed by a point. In Under 1900, Nathaniel Albion Zhang, 12, another Northern Californian (Fremont) took the honors with 6½, barely ahead of Gerald Ruiz. Under 1700 laurels went to Khalid Shawkat of Kentucky, also with 6½ and at 48 the oldest among the class winners. Khalid knows Vishy Anand, but has never had a lesson from him! Froilan Daigan and Kally Wen trailed by a half point.
The biggest upset winner was 17-year-old Kaprao Fuegner of Scottsdale, Arizona, who started as the 95th seed among 128 players but went 7-0! He credits his victory (and 360 point rating gain) to extensive online practice. The only downside was that as a provisionally rated player, his prize was capped at $3000, leaving $2000 to be added to the next prize group. These six-pointers included Brian Yang of British Columbia (not to be confused with the prominent tournament director of the same name), Joseph Paolercio of Kansas, Bria Castro from Arizona, and Minnesotan Calvin Lee. Finally, in Under 1250, Byron Rios of Miami (but currently stationed with the Navy in San Diego), who recently emerged from a 20-year break, was tops with 6½, narrowly ahead of John Chen of Hawaii and Mexican Marco Hernandez.
The Mixed Doubles competition, combining the scores of one male ad one female averaging under 2200, is always a focus of attention, especially with 73 teams competing! GM Ruifeng Li and his sister Rachael finished on top (11-3) as they have many times before (they’re not sure how many, and this writer’s not gonna try to figure it out!). Rachael’s rising rating (she went from 1668 to 1870 in 2017) has already left their average above the threshold once, but with a FIDE rather than USCF rating in use for Ruifeng, they qualified for what may be the last time. The team of US Girls’ Junior Championship participant, WFM Thalia Cervantes, and Jaisuraj Kaleeswaran was second at 10½.
The Blitz drew 177 players for five double rounds that, alas, didn’t finish until 2:30 am. GM Ghaemmaghami and FM Hans Niemann topped the first group with 8½, while Langston Tillman and Bechly Buccat split the honors in Under 1900 with the same score.
Floor directors must deal with an array of questions/claims/complaints, and after the first two or three rounds they get less of “Can you set this clock?”or “Where’s the restroom?” and more exotic ones. There was the young rules maven we’ll call Player A, who complained that Player B had written A’s move down before it was made. The director (who occasionally does the same thing himself) observed that the move was de facto forced (the only other way to get of check would have entailed giving up a queen for a rook) and issued a mild warning. Then, there was the interfering parent who announced that his 16-year-old son’s opponent was tinkering with the clock. The director glanced over and observed that stopping the clock is an accepted method of resignation.
Another player complained that a neighbor was noisily munching potato chips. A bag was indeed observed by the neighbor’s board, but before another bite could occur, the director glanced over and saw that the complainant was dead lost and about to resign. The presumed muncher’s opponent had no complaints, so the director moved on. And yet another case involved a complaint that the opponent (not a novice player) had made an improper en passant move. Indeed, she had attempted to take Black’s pawn that had just advanced to b4 with her pawn on c4. The director resisted the temptation to deliver a lecture about how en passant is reserved for capturing pawns that have utilized the special privilege of advancing two squares on their first move, and the complainant graciously declined to invoke a time penalty.
Another tournament curiosity was the player who flew in from out of state, taking the permissible half point byes for the first four rounds, played one game, and took zero point byes for the remaining two games. Yes, the one game he played was a draw. Hope the investment was worth it!
Continental Chess organizer Bill Goichberg looks forward to another record-setter in Las Vegas in 2018! This writer thanks Dylan Quercia and Brian Glover for photography.
Tournament website at http://chessevents.com/northamericanopen/