May 2, 2011
The 2011 US Championships have nearly come to a close. The tournament, which featured a record $230,000 in prizes, had an unusual format. Participants were invited to play in two groups of eight players each. The groups included most of the great American players, lacking only Hikaru Nakamura. The members of each group contended for two top spots, at which point the two qualifiers were to face each other in playoff matches. The rules of the tournament provided that draws could not be agreed to before the 30th move. A change in this rule, it turns out, had an important impact on the outcome of the tournament.
The tournament was held at the St. Louis Chess Club, which is a short distance from the St. Louis airport. Although the airport was greatly damaged by a recent tornado, the championships continued unabated.
Each group had an average rating of about 2578. Group 1 had Gata Kamsky as its favorite. Group 2 featured Alexander Onischuk. In Group 2, the great surprise was the sixth seed, Robert Hess. At one point, Hess posted four wins in a row and qualified for the finals by the sixth round. Onischuk and Sam Shankland, a Brandeis student, were tied for a qualification spot at that point. Shankland defeated Onischuk in round 7 to make it to the finals. Group 1 provided no surprises as Kamsky and Yuri Shulman took the lead by round 6: Kamsky with 4.5 points and Shulman with 4 points. In round 7, Shulman faced Kamsky. After 17 moves, Kamsky offered Shulman a draw that Shulman accepted and then requested that the chief arbiter, Carol Jarecki, allow it, as Kamsky was quite ill. Jarecki allowed the short draw. As Ray Robson defeated Alexander Ivanov, Shulman qualified with that draw.
We are unable to find the source of Jarecki’s authority for such a ruling. We have not found any references in United States Chess Federation rules allowing withdrawal for illness. As far as we know, the rules say that a game ends when a player’s flag falls. It is unfortunate when a player must leave because of pain or discomfort, and we have experienced the problem, but according the player a draw discriminates against his opponent and other contenders. In this situation, Kamsky was already assured of qualification with a draw and Shulman needed a draw for a certain tie for second place, so Shulman was certainly happy with the result. It is likely they would have drawn after 30 moves, but still the ruling appears to us to have been prejudicial to both Ivanov and Robson.
Eventually, the US Men’s Championship was won by Kamsky, who prevailed in his final match over Shulman, 1.5-.5. Third place went Shankland, a Brandeis student.