At the US Masters, held August 17-21 in Greensboro, North Carolina, eight players tied for 1st with a score of 6.5/9: John Burke, Jeffery Xiong, Evgeny Postny, Djurabek Khamrakulov, Yuri Gonzalez Vidal, Sergey Erenburg, Timur Gareyev and Hovhannes Gabuzyan. As the two top finishers on tiebreak, Burke and Xiong played an Armageddon game from which Burke emerged as Champion. Two GM norms were made in the event, by Djurabek Khamrakulov and Hans Niemann (Hans made his norm while facing all-GM opposition throughout the 9-round event!)
On the evening of August 17, the 86 competitors (including 28 GMs and numerous other titled players) filed into the stately conference room at the Embassy Suites which would be our home for the next five days. With so many strong players in attendance, who would emerge as the player(s) best able to concentrate, or most adept at taking calculated risks at the right moments?
Welcome pleasantries and rules reminders were extended by the organizer, Walter High, and the team of directors – IAs Thad Rogers, Corey Kormick, Rudy Abate and Grant Oen. As an indicator of the USA’s chess progress over the last few years, two teenagers – Jeffery Xiong and Sam Sevian, were seated by virtue of their ratings on boards 1 and 2. Surveying the field, another American teenager – Hans Niemann – had the fleeting thought that perhaps this tournament was “too strong” to be a likely generator of norms. It turned out that the disproving of that theory would begin that very night as Hans tripped up GM Niclas Huschenbeth in a rook and knight ending.
Hans here pictured in 2017, earned a GM and IM norm at the US Masters, Photo Vanessa Sun
By the next day, the rhythm of this tournament was set – a massive complimentary breakfast and rounds at 11:00 am and 6:00 pm. Somebody discovered a basketball court at a related hotel across the parking lot. Of course, most of the time between rounds would have to be spent on laptops researching the openings of the next opponent. Every attempt was made to post pairings two hours before the round. For those wedded to the silicon beasts, this was almost a digitized version of the paper chase (albeit with a different subject matter). Halfway through the event, I decided that no more preparation was necessary.
Round 2 saw Niemann rack up another win against a GM; this time Akshat Chandra was the victim. Jeffery Xiong was unseated from his post on Board 1, as he was defeated by Magesh Panchanathan. And unusual tactics popped up in the battle between IM Guillermo Vazquez and GM Evgeny Postny.
For some time now, IM Djurabek Khamrakulov has been absolutely wrecking it at the Marshall Chess Club in NYC. Usually, when a new guy comes to town, he does well for a while until the locals adjust, but Khamrakulov has maintained a great winning streak there. It is great to see Djurabek now branching out to more events in a drive to complete the requirements for the GM title (he holds a previous recent GM norm as well as an older GM norm), and nobody in New York is surprised to see his fantastic result here. In round 3 of the US Masters, Khamrakulov won against Hovhannes Gabuzyan. Gabuzyan, a student at UT Rio Grande Valley who had proved his mettle by winning the just-concluded Washington International. Then, Khamrakulov moved powerfully into sole possession of first place in round 4 with a win over Julio Sadorra.
Meanwhile, IM Kevin Wang, who had stepped into the limelight with a 3rd round victory against GM Sergei Azarov, followed this up in round 4 with a win over Isan Ortiz Suarez. Wang would remain in norm contention until the very end. And Niemann held steady, having drawn with Ortiz Suarez in round 3 and then Alexander Shabalov in round 4.
Round 5, the evening round on August 19, marked the halfway point in the tournament, and it is around this point in a tournament where many players either intensify or relax their efforts. The skittles room on the second floor saw increased activity as it also served as a stockpile for drinks, chips and salsa (the food, not the music). Usually, after the round one could find US Open Champion Timur Gareyev holding forth there, while his befuddled ex-opponents would shake their heads in wonderment as to how Timur could get away with some of his openings. A critical game was the matchup between Gabuzyan and Sam Sevian. Niemann scored a major win, leaving no doubt that he was having a fantastic event. I played Joel Benjamin, and, after some interesting moments, we battled to a draw. But our game was nothing compared to the firestorm brewing on the board right next to us where Carissa Yip was facing Akshat Chandra.
In round 6, Jeffery Xiong, with a win over Sadorra, and John Burke, with a win over Dragun, both pulled within a half-point of the leaders. At the conclusion of round 6, “plus 4”, e.g., 5-1 after round 6, 5.5-1.5 after round 7, etc., became the definitive pole position as the tournament grinded towards the finish line. With 5-1 after round 6 were Postny, Khamrakulov and Erenburg; Erenburg had dealt Niemann his first defeat of the event.
In rounds 7 and 8, the group on “plus 4” inched forward to stay tied for the lead, but more players were able to join them. Ominously, in round 8 both Burke and Xiong scored victories to join the leaders. And Gareyev had stopped with the experimental openings and was putting a nice streak together of 3 wins in a row with a critical round 8 victory against Bryan Smith.
In round 9, with other players drawing, the game Burke-Khamrakulov was capable of producing a clear winner to the event. But in an unbalanced ending, both players fought well and a massive tie for first was the result. Gareyev completed his late-tournament comeback with a victory over Dragun. And Yuri Gonzalez Vidal joined the winners’ circle with a victory over Alexander Shabalov.
As the top two players on tiebreak, Jeffery Xiong and John Burke played an “Armageddon” playoff for the championship title and the perpetual US Masters trophy.
The format was one G/15, delay 5 “Armageddon” game, with a bidding system. Xiong bid 14:59; Burke bid 10 minutes, and thus chose Black. Burke drew the game and thus was declared the US Masters Champion. All players involved in the tie received the same prize money.