The three players who tied for first in the top section of the record-setting North American Open in Las Vegas might be termed “two and a half grandmasters.” GM Joshua Friedel of Wisconsin, 30, took the tiebreak point bonus ahead of GM-elect (he has the necessary norms and rating and will receive the title in February) Ruifeng Li, 15, from Texas, and Georgian GM Tamaz Gelashvili, 38. They scored 7-2.
GM Tamaz Gelashvili
The affable Gelashvili pursued the most difficult path to the top. He has lived in New York for five years and does lots of teaching – perhaps sometimes too much, as he was tired at the beginning of the tournament. By the fourth round, he had yielded a draw to FM Ben Li, a loss to FM Craig Hilby when a sacrificial attack misfired, and a draw (which could easily have been lost) to FM Aravind Kumar. Vegas odds makers would have assigned him extremely long odds at that point – yet Gelashvili stormed to the top with five straight wins.
In Round 7, the always-dangerous Mexican IM Dionisio Aldama was unable to justify the weakening 8…h6 and steadily went downhill. Gelashvili’s counterattack left him a piece up.
A win over FM Nikhil Kumar (more on him below) left Gelashvili still a half point behind Friedel and Li. They drew their game quickly (no surprise!) and Gelashvili cashed in when his opponent, a Zimbabwean IM, grabbed a poisoned pawn on move 34 after defending for a long time. It’s mate in three in the final position.
GM Josh Friedel
Friedel, who also does plenty of teaching, played more carefully, not overestimating as he yielded draws to IM Mandizha, Chinese GM Jianchou Zhou, and IM Michael Brown along the way. In the critical seventh and eighth rounds he turned on the heat, beating IM Shinya Kojima of Japan and GM Anh Nguyen from Vietnam. In the latter game, Josh takes the initiative with Black.
Ruifeng Li, just 15, is a high school freshman and a product of the vibrant Dallas chess scene. Already ranked 18th in the US and an extremely active player (47 events in 2016!), he looks forward especially to the U.S. Junior Closed, having finished third last time. Having been upset by FM Zhaochi Li (presumably no relation) in round 2, Ruifeng had some catching up to do. His key win was against Brown in Round 8, but his favorite was an extremely attractive piece sac in Round 5. Its merits initially escaped the scrutiny of my silicon chip:
Zhao, Brown, and IMs Akshat Chandra and Daniel Gurevich finished in the fourth place tie a half point behind. Six points gave FM Mendizha Under 2400 honors.
Three FMs earned IM norms. For Cameron Wheeler, 16, of Northern California, it was his third and final one. Vegas appears to be his kind of town, as he had earned the second in the same tournament last year. In this tactical Slav line, 12.Ba3 has scored well, but the GM accepted the piece sac and the game remained roughly equal although interesting throughout.
Perhaps the most attention of any player was elicited by 12-year-old FM Nikhil Kumar of Florida. Coming off a tie for first and 2760 performance in the National Congress the month before, he drew with Kojima and GM Nikola Mitkov in the early rounds, then upset WGM Atousa Popurkashiyan, Vignesh Panchanatham, and IM Gurevich, playing quickly and accurately exploiting positional nuances. Gurevich’s ninth and 12th moves appear suspect, and Kumar makes the most of it.
Kumar then drew with Zhou, but ran out of gas in the final rounds, running into another positionally accurate player in the finale.
Though his 5½ points only put him in a big tie for second Under 2400, Kumar achieved the IM norm with a half point to spare.
The third IM norm was achieved by FM Nick Raptis of Washington, whose 5½ points included draws with GMs Zviad Izoria and Magesh Panchanathan; Pourkashiyan; IM Vignesh Panchanatham, and wins over IM-elect Kostya Kavutskiy and, in the final round, FM Roland Feng.
Two other GMs are worth mentioning. Jim Tarjan, 64, who returned to play in 2014 after a 30 year absence, conserved his strength with three half point byes but lost to Chandra in the last round. Gregory Kaidanov, now 57, made his first tournament appearance in 14 months. He took four byes, and his last round win over Panchanatham left him only in the big tie for eighth place. Notable players who didn’t make it to the finish line included Izoria (losses to Brown and Aldama), Mitkov (a loss to FM Zhaozhi Li), and IM John Bryant (losses to untitled players in the first two rounds). Another (non-Open) player who pulled the plug after two rounds was wearing an “I’d Rather Be Playing Chess” hoodie (that slogan apparently has a hidden caveat).
GM Zhou won the 184-player Blitz, taking two byes and then winning eight games. The mixed doubles were primarily a family affair, as Erkhes Erdenebileg and Enkhjin Erdenebileg, both in the Under 1500 section, scored 10-2 to finish first and Bria Castro and John Castro (Under 1500 and Under 1250 respectively) tied for second a half point behind. The exception was the other tied team, FM Mark Duckworth (Under 2300) and Cindy Zhang (Under 1900).
The 26th North American, one of CCA’s “big three,” smashed its turnout record with 791 players. Bill Goichberg’s staff had to cope with some viruses that seemed to be going around, but everything came off on schedule. CCA hopes to break the 800 mark next December!
For more information, including a complete list of prize winners, visit: