The 2006 US Championship (Excerpts from my column at

The 2006 US Championship recently took place from March 1-12 in San Diego, California, and was sponsored by America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C). The 64 participants were split into two groups of 32, with the winners from each group meeting in the final. In the end two former Ukrainians were crowned new national champions: GM Alexander Onischuk of Baltimore, Maryland and IM Anna Zatonskih of Long Island, New York. Onischuk pocketed $25,000 and Zatonskih $12,500. Congratulations to the 2006 United States Champions!

The winners of Group A were Onischuk and defending champion WGM Rusa Goletiani, while the Group B winners were Zatonskih and GM Yury Shulman. The latter advanced because of better tie-breaks after a three way tie for first with GM Gata Kamsky and GM Larry Christiansen. It is a shame that Gata and Larry did not have the chance to decide their destinies over the board, but instead had to rely on some luck-of-the-draw tie-break system.

In the first half of the tournament, two players made the biggest news for different reasons. WIM Batchimeg Tuvshintugs scored 3½ points in the first 5 games, defeating GM’s Fishbein, Kreiman, and Becerra, while drawing GM Gulko. In the meantime, defending champion Hikaru Nakamura lost to IM Friedel in round 1, escaped with a draw against NM Kleiman in round 2, and lost to WGM Baginskaite in round 3.

In the second half, GM Shulman, who was very steady throughout the first 8 rounds, scoring 6½ points out of 8, was leading Group B until his shocking loss to GM Fishbein in the last round, which allowed GM Kamsky and GM Christiansen to catch up to him. In the meantime, after a horrid start, GM Nakamura reeled off 5 consecutive wins to pull within 1 point from the rock solid GM Onischuk, who quietly had the best overall tournament of any player. Hikaru pushed very hard and came within a hair from catching up. However, GM Onischuk played perfectly to hold on with the black pieces to win Group A and eventually the national title.

The championship offered a $250,000 prize fund, which is an impressive total amount, but after it is distributed, most players barely broke even, considering it was a twelve day event (9 rounds plus break day and arriving early to adjust to time zone change). Only 18 players received more than $3,250, while 46 players received less than that. After deducting the cost of airline tickets, transportation, meals, hotels (around $150 per night at the tournament’s official hotel: Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and Suites) and miscellaneous expenses, perhaps there would be enough left over for a good dinner in San Diego. Also many players had to take approximately 2 weeks off from their jobs.

Another odd thing about the distribution of prizes was that, for an identical score of 6½ points, Yury Shulman, Gata Kamsky, and Larry Christiansen received $17,000, $10,300, and $6,000 respectively. This is quite stunning, as tie-breaks are usually used to determine placements, not the actual prize money, especially with a ratio of nearly three times more.

There have been countless discussions about the two section format, which inevitably leads to some inequity in the playing field no matter how it is divided up. Most of the people I spoke to did not like it. I have heard many fans suggest lowering the number of participants to 32, which is an excellent idea. It would increase the quality of the participants as well as provide bigger prizes for the players. The US Championship should only include the absolute best players in America and having 32 of the strongest players in just one section would be better and fairer in my opinion.

However, the biggest debate among many chess players was the actual championship match format. The first nine rounds were all played with a standard time control. Yet, in the championship final, the players had to play a 2-game rapid match for the national title! It really sounds crazy, but it is true and it raised quite a few eyebrows.

This is simply unthinkable in the serious chess world. What does rapid chess have to do with a standard time control national championship? Nothing whatsoever and the formats should never be mixed! This can be compared to the failed FIDE World Knockout Championship format.

Defenders of the format point out that most of the top players participated in this year’s US Championship. So, the format is fine. Well, most of them would also play bullet chess while wearing polka-dot outfits if the organizer was offering $250,000 in prizes. Most players have to compete to make a living, and others compete because of the prestige of qualifying for the US Championship. But that does not mean that the format is not flawed. The AF4C is a wonderful organization and I very much appreciate what it has done for US chess, but I hope that the folks in charge would seriously consider protecting the integrity of our national title.

For more, please click here. Posted by Picasa

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar