Playing White and needing only a draw to clinch clear first place is every chess professional’s dream scenario. It’s not so simple for GM Alex Shabalov. There was a moment Sunday when Shabalov, ever the maximalist, tried to go 9-0 at the U.S. Open in Phoenix, Arizona.
Witness 17. d6! in the game below against GM Illia Nyzhnyk. Practicality eventually won out and his draw was secured.
With his 8.5/9 first-place score, he won the 116th U.S. Open outright, a $7408 check (a 93 percent payout), and a spot in the 2016 U.S. Championship. Shabalov hasn’t played in it since 2013, and he wants all three top Americans to play (GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So).
Although the format and size of field has yet to be determined, he said his goal if they attend will be to finish near the top of the tables. “If I play like I played here, the top three is reasonable.” Well, then the maximalist kicked in again. “I’m in a close race with Gata [Kamsky] and Hikaru for number of titles.” Shabalov knows the score without having to look: Kamsky five, Nakamura and himself, four.
Although his reason for flying to the desert was “absolutely 100 percent” for the automatic U.S. Championship invite, he quickly went for the win in round nine. He thought Black’s play was refutable, and the principled hall of famer saw no reason not to try to win. At some point Shabalov recognized his perceived advantage had dissipated, and then had to “bail out” into a draw with a series of precise moves.
The veteran nearly regretted his attempt to win against Nyzhnyk. Shabalov’s thoughts turned to the dark side as the endgame continued. He was thinking about late-tournament failures earlier in 2015 (needing only a draw at the Dubai Chess Open but failing and leading until late at the American Continental Championship in Uruguay). As he was wrestling with the thoughts of perhaps another last-round disappointment, Nyzhnyk saw that his extra a-pawn wasn’t decisive and the players agreed to a draw.
“It was such a pattern this year that I couldn’t close it out,” Shabalov said.
Had Shabalov not held the endgame, several Rube Goldberg-esque scenarios could have unfolded. In the worst-case situation, he loses and board two is decisive (Molner-Holt). Shabalov would then play one Armageddon tiebreak with Ukrainian Nyzhnyk for the U.S. Open title, then another against the other American for the U.S. Championship bid. He said he would have likely missed his midnight flight too! (As it turned out, board two drew after his game ended.)
Instead, Shabalov was all smiles at the hotel bar, relaxing before his ride to the airport. Fittingly his celebration drinks were shared with an employee of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, where he will be competing for two weeks next spring.
Going back to the final game, perhaps his professional standards shouldn’t have been so surprising. Players with longer memories may recall his lengthy last-round win in the 2003 U.S. Championship (one of his four titles) when all other leaders agreed to quick draws.
Shabalov said he learned 20 years ago that Black can’t play …Re8 and …b5 in the Exchange Variation of the King’s Indian, because after a4, bxa4, Bxa4, the rook is aligned with White’s bishop.
But a funny thing happens when youngsters combine old theory with computers: seemingly refuted lines that look unplayable visually are revived by computers, who don’t “feel” or “see” rules being broken at the chessboard.
“I was surprised he played that,” Shabalov said of the …Re8, …b5 combo. “I thought he handed it to me.” Nyzhnyk played the opening very fast, leading Shabalov to mistakenly think his opponent was unaware of the opening’s reputation. “I thought he was nervous but he prepared well.
“It’s the modern computer prep versus my knowledge of 30 years ago.” Shabalov added that he doesn’t begrudge this change in top-level chess. “This game is a huge lesson. You can resurrect an old line that is thought to be bad.”
Shabalov said he had some luck in his wins against GMs Bartlomiej Mecieja and Alejandro Ramirez.
His toughest game? That would be against NM Christopher Toolin in round four. In Toolin’s only loss of the U.S. Open, he had the grandmaster grinding until the end.
“The bishop is not that much worse than the rook in pawn races,” Shabalov said. The difference? “The rook can creating mating threats.”
Many other events occur at the U.S. Open, some of which have been chronicled on these pages over the last week.
Here’s a brief sampling:
• Ted Castro of NorCal House of Chess accepted an award for Chess Club of the Year
• National Tournament Director and FIDE Arbiter Mike Hoffpauir of Virginia won Tournament Director of the Year.
• Former scholastic champion and coach and current Chess.com Vice President of Professional Relations IM Danny Rensch won the U.S. Chess Meritorious Service Award.
• GM Aleks Lenderman won the U.S. Open G/15 and GM Conrad Holt won the Blitz Championships (Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lenderman won both.)
• The mixed doubles prize saw four teams finish with 11 points: Nicky Rosenthal and Ella Papanek; Jeffrey Haskel and Shree Ayinala; Eric Rosen and Neha Dias; Pranav Narnur and Saithanusri Avirneni.
• The Chess Journalists of America Awards were announced. Yours truly won Chess Journalist of the Year, GM Joel Benjamin’s Liquidation on the Chess Board won best book and Maine won best state association web site (www.chessmaine.net).
More on other U.S. Chess annual award winners will follow at Chess Life Online.
In Shabalov’s U.S. Chess Hall of Fame acceptance speech in April, which preceded the 2015 U.S. Championship, he made a point of telling those in attendance that this was “not a retirement speech.” He repeated this Sunday night. Many of the same players who heard his speech will now get to meet him over the board.
Although Shabalov left St. Louis the day after his induction, he followed the 2015 tournament closely.
“I played in so many U.S. Championships, when you suddenly stop playing, you watch everything,” he said. “It feels like you’re still there.”
FM Mike Klein of chess.com is a two-time Chess Journalist of the Year. See full final standings here.