Three Tie in North American Open

Ruifeng Li at the National Open. Photo: Tim Hanks.

GM-Elect Ruifeng Li. Photo: Tim Hanks

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

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.

Josh Friedel1

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.

Cameron Wheeler (2nd from the right) with his Amateur Team West Championship team, "The Rainbow Unicorns"

Cameron Wheeler (2nd from the right) with his U.S. Amateur Team West 1st place team, “The Rainbow Unicorns”. Photo: Kerrie Utsumi

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:


  1. Nikhil Kumar’s perfroamnce is beyond amazing, his no-lose streak of 32 games came to an end but he will break Awonder’s IM record. Did Awonder ever have such a streak? Kumar’s playing so much better than Awonder when he was making his run. 4 months ago Kumar was drawing and losing to 1600’s and now he’s making IM norms and looking to break Awonder’s record. Awesome job.

    • He indeed seems to be playing a lot better than Awonder except for the last half of his game against Gelashvili and his entire game against Brown, in which he didn’t even play NM strength. Also, going from drawing and losing to 1600s to beating very strong players like Andrew Hong, Vignesh Panchanatham, and Daniel Gurevich in such dominating fashions to playing such an atrocious final round game sounds strange to me. The fact that you mentioned it took only “4 months” may raise suspicions.

    • I would say the “Kumar Phenomenon” is not about how fast he will break a record but how he managed to reach FM/IM levels from nobody in just four five months. To me it sounds too good to be true and gives people a reason to cast a doubt. Time will tell if he deserves to be a role model for other kids, but comparing him to Awonder now, nah, not so fast. Nevertheless, I wish Kumar to continue his current momentum and reaching higher goals.

      • If Nikhil’s parents would take him to Europe to play in norm tournaments I think he would break Awonder’s record. Caissa willing, they will do it. But you’re right maybe he shouldn’t be compared to Awonder, he should really be compared to Praggnanandhaa who he shredded at World Youth.

      • I’m not sure what the obsession is with “role model” but he is a role model. He seems well rounded, he goes to a regular school, started chess relatively late, has been plugging away until things clicked for him, and he is physically fit. Sounds like a role model to me.

  2. “Kumar then drew with Zhou, but ran out of gas in the final rounds, running into another positionally accurate player in the finale.” If you happen to take a look at the games he played against Zhou and other titled players in early rounds, you’d be stunned how brilliantly and precisely he played at GM level, if not super GM level. But then if you look at the last two rounds he played against another two GMs, you’d be stunned again how horribly he played. It’s hard to believe those games were played by the same person. Ran out of gas? I don’t buy it. He needs to prove he can consistently playing at IM/GM level.

      • If he was able to consistently pull out a IM/GM level in the last few tournaments, how could he not in the last two games? That last two games simply show he had no clear plan, if not at all, and that not even in par with his FM level. How could his playing strength drop like that!

        • I think the problem is simply inconsistency. Now I’m not sure what the cause may be, but I have the same problem too – I’ve played some relatively good games, but I’ve played many terrible ones too, sometimes in the same tournament but more often in separate tournaments. For a junior who has recently been making huge progress, inconsistency is very typical – it’s difficult to adjust to the expectations created by a much higher rating. Besides, although his rating and playing strength has increased a lot, he will always be the same person, so surely he’s maintained many of the same qualities from the way he played a few months ago.
          Of course, one also has to consider the negative possibility that he had a few particularly good tournaments and he doesn’t usually play as well as he did in those tournaments, but I doubt it although it is very common among players (I’m an accurate example of that.)

          • Edit: The curse of the last round/general tiredness must have played a big part as well. After having played so many good games against higher rated players, as confirmed by Mr. Stallings below, he ran out of gas.

          • I think you’re right. We shall not be too strict to a 12-year-old whose chess career is just springing. We’ll just give him the benefit of the doubts although his recent wild performance raised a lot of suspicions in NAO. We just keep watching him and wishing him the best. Time will tell. Only time will tell!

  3. Congrats to Nikhil Kumar on another amazing performance after his recent successes! However, the game against Michael Brown was absolutely horrible, the worst game he’s ever played in the past few months by far. If I was told that the black player in that game made an IM norm with basically three rounds to spare, I would be incredibly shocked. No IM/GM strength player should get easily outplayed like that. While Michael played well to take advantage, he didn’t do anything special, and Nikhil basically did the work for him, going from playing IM/GM level strength to playing like a mere 2000 rated player. This was a mere shadow of his brilliant game against Zhou Jianchao, played only one day earlier, when it seemed like Nikhil held a draw with ease with the black pieces. I think such a drastic decrease in level of play may raise some concern.

  4. Fun article. Well done Randy Hough!

    Yes, Nikhil Kumar may have played at extremely different levels on consecutive days, but don’t forget – he is 12 years old. He just finished a semester of school in which he was probably studying chess in every spare moment, and did in fact run out of gas. I remember being 10 years old and maybe 1400 or so in this same event, but in Stillwater, OK. In the first two rounds I earned 1.5 from two A players. In the final (12th?) round of the event, I lost to an 1100. Just worn out and ready to go home. It happens.

    I look forward to watching Nikhil over the coming years. Good luck young man!

  5. According to Nikhil Kumar’s opponent stat on MSA. –

    Prior to 2016, he has played against a 2400+ and a 2500+ rated players. Both were loses.

    In 2016, he played against 8 2400+, 5 2500+, and 6 2600+ players. His scores against them are 62.5%, 50% and 16.7% respectively.

  6. Another possible explanation is that he got nervous about the prize money and/or a GM norm and fell apart, something far more experienced players have done many times.

Leave a Comment

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Announcements

  • US Chess Press