CSCA Informant – 1998 U.S. Championships

(Colorado Chess Informant – January 1999)

By NM Todd Bardwick

The 1998 U.S. Chess Championships was the first national tournament held in Denver since the 1977 U.S. Junior Invitational. Before that, Denver hosted the 1971 World Championship Semifinal Match between Fischer and Larsen. The players said that the turnout of spectators to watch the U.S. Championships was one of the highest ever!

For over a week, I got the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with Joel Benjamin and Tal Shaked. I was able to get some tidbits (below) from several of the other grandmasters to pass along. The Rocky Mountain News made quite a commitment to the event by writing several special feature stories on chess and allowing me to cover the tournament every day for the local newspaper.

The most interesting observation that I made was how freely the GM’s sacrificed material (especially exchange sacrifices) for initiative. Watching how they analyzed their game afterwards was also quite interesting.   The GM’s did a lot of the post-mortem in their heads, before moving the pieces. Other GM’s who joined in did not touch the pieces. They made suggestions from time to time, but didn’t take center stage. Their interest was not to upstage each other in the analysis, but to seek out the truth in the position. Hands never shot around moving pieces so irrelevant positions didn’t waste their time.

Before the event, I polled several masters for the Rocky Mountain News column to get a feel for who the favorites were: Steve Odendahl, David Gliksman, Jerry Kearns, Randy Canney, Michael Ginat, Renard Anderson, and Mikhail Ponomarev. Gliksman won, hands down. He picked Krush, de Firmian and Benjamin.

A lot of Colorado players volunteered their time to help run the Championship tournament. Special recognition should be given to Andy Rea, Craig Wilcox, Steve Kelly, and John Hall who attended practically everyday and really contributed to running the various aspects of the show. It should be noted that Joel Benjamin was especially impressed with Katie Roberts demo boarding skills. Joel wished he had a way to clone Katie!

Here is brief summary on the tournament, some the GM’s and a couple “blitz” games that propelled Tal Shaked into the semifinal round.

Women’s tournament

Irina Krush won the Women’s Championship with the highest winning percentage in history. At fourteen, she is also the youngest player to ever win the Women’s Championship.

Anna Khan finished strong by giving Irina her only draw and winning her last four games to come from nowhere to take second.   Seventeen-year-old, Jennifer Shahade from Philadelphia took third place.

Irina and Jennifer both got their WIM titles from the tournament. Irina and Anna will represent the U.S. in qualifying for the Women’s World Championship Knockout Tournament in 1999.

WIM Irina Krush

Fourteen-year-old, Irina Krush, is the games youngest rising star. She was not only the youngest women’s champ ever, but won with the highest percentage score ever: 8.5 out of 9 games. The GM’s kept saying that the Championship tournament really didn’t mean anything to chess, but Irina’s victory did!

Most of the following information is from GM Ron Henley, who is promoting Irina. She learned to play chess on the airplane at age 5 when her parents moved from Odessa in the Soviet Union to the United States. (For those of you that remember Yury Oshmyansky, he was also born in Odessa.) Irina is an excellent student and goes to a very understanding school that allows her to spend quite a bit of time away at chess tournaments.   She enjoys classical music and ballet. Going to the Metropolitan Opera House to see “Swan Lake” was one of her most favorite experiences.

Irina’s chess coach is NM Michael Troisman. She also prepared her openings for the U.S. Championships with Seirawan, Fedorowicz, and Benjamin. Her rating should be over 2450 after the tournament and Irina has achieved the WIM title.

Irina Krush

WIM Irina Krush

Irina is also producing chess videos. Krushing Attack’s, Volume 1 and 2 are already for sale.   She plans to make a video with her games from the U.S. Champs. She does the introduction for GM Alexi Shirov in his five volume video set entitled, “Shirov!”. Irina also is on a video for kids entitled, “American Chess Princesses”, along with Elena Groberman, Laura Ross (a nine-year-old), and Shirley Ben Dek. Irina has also been featured in Teen magazine.

Irina studies using chess software programs and plays a lot on the Internet Chess Club under the handle of IKRUSH. She shares a webpage with Shirov and Karpov at

Ron Henley is seeking sponsorship for Irina from Coca-Cola.

Championship tournament

In the Championship Section, which lasted almost three weeks, there were 38 draws, white won 19 games, and black won 10 games.

From start to finish, de Firmian dominated Group A. With Gurevich, Kudrin, Seirawan, and Dzindzichashvili fighting it out for second. Gurevich beat Christiansen in a seven plus hour game in the last round to capture second place.

Group B was close the whole way. Benjamin, who said that he is traditionally a slow starter, lost to Kaidanov in the second game. Joel then started rolling and finished in a tie with Shaked, Gulko, and Fedorowicz.


The semifinal playoff round was, arguably, the most exciting time of the tournament (Walter Browne’s time pressure antics were also action-packed!) . In Group A, Sergey Kudrin defeated Yasser Seirawan for a spot in next year’s World Championship Knockout tournament. Kudrin, de Firmian, and Dmitry Gurevich qualifed for the World Champs from Group A.

Group B was more interesting. Joel Benjamin, Boris Gulko, John Fedorowicz and Tal Shaked all tied for first. The top two would move on to the semifinals and the top three to the World Championship Knockout tournament. This playoff lasted over 7 hours!

The first phase was a double round-robin for a total of six games of G/15+10 sec/move. Each player had a white and a black against each opponent. Benjamin won the playoff. Fedorowicz was eliminated. Shaked and Gulko remained tied.

The next phase was two games, each player with one white and one black at G/10 + 10 seconds per move. First Gulko won with the white pieces, and then Shaked won the second game with white.

The next tiebreak was two games at G/5 + 10 sec/move. Andy Rea and I got our workout for this and the final round keeping the game score. Andy kept the white moves and I kept the black ones. We meshed them together to get all complete game scores. Again, Gulko won the first game with white. Here is game two which illustrates how easily one GM can dominate another GM when he gets an opening advantage. Remember that Gulko, who is black and defending, is one of the strongest players in the world!

3rd Tiebreak, Game 2, G/5 + 10 sec/move

Shaked (white) – Gulko (black)

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3 c6 5.h3 b5 6.e5 Nfd7 7.ed6 ed6 8.d5 b4 9.dc6 Nc6 10.Ne4 Qe7 11.Qd5 Bb7 12.0-0-0 0-0-0 13.Ba6! Ndb8 14.Bg5 Qe6 15.Bb7+ Kb7 16.Qe6 fe6 17.Bd8 Nd8 18.Nd6+ Kc6 19.Ne4 Nf7 20.Nf3 Bg7 21.Neg5 Bh6 22.h4 Nd7 23.Kb1 Bg5 24.hg5 Resigns

Match tied again!

The final game was white to get 6 minutes and black gets 5 minutes and draw odds. Most GM’s preferred black under these circumstances. Gulko won the coin toss and after a minute or so of thought, chose white…probably based on the recent history of white winning the last four games. With over 50 spectators perched for a good view and NM Olga Sagalchik moving the white pieces and GM Seirawan moving the black pieces on the demo board, the final playoff game began.

Fourth tiebreak round: Gulko (white) – Shaked (black)

1.Nf3 c5 2.g3 (Given the match game situation above, several of the GM’s were surprised that Gulko didn’t play a more aggressive opening line) 2…Nc6 3.d4 cd4 4.Nd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.c4 a6 7.N5c3 Nf6 8.Bg2 Be7 9.0-0 0-0 10.b3 Be6 11.Bb2 Rc8 12.Qd2 Qa5 13.Rd1 Kh8 14.Nd5 Qd2 15.Rd2 Bd5 16.cd5 (Gulko decided to keep the bishop pair, but make the pawn structure symmetrical. Perhaps 16.Bd5 leaving black with the backward d-pawn is worth considering.) 16…Nb8 17.Nc3 Nbd7 18.Bh3 Rc7 19.Rc1 Rfc8 20.Rdd1 Kg8 21.f3 g6 22.e4 Kf8 23.Kf1 Ke8 24.Nb1 Rc1 25.Rc1 Rc1+ 26.Bc1 Bd8 27.Nd2 Bb6 28.Nc4 Bc5 29.Bd2 b5 30.Na5 Kd8 31.Nc6+ Kc7 32.Ke2 Bb6 33.b4 Nb8 34.Nb8 Kb8 35.Kd3 Kc7 36.f4 ef4 37.gf4 Nh5 38.Bg4 Ng7 39.e5 Ne8 40.Bc3 Bf2 41.Ke4 Bg1 42.h3 Bh2 43.Bd4 Kd8 44.Bb6+ Ke7 45.Bc8 f5+! (This turns out to be the winning move. Gulko was not expecting it. After the 45th move, white had 28 seconds left vs. 21 seconds for black. Gulko thought for 15 seconds or so…giving Shaked a critical lead on the clock.) 46.Kd3 de5 47.fe5 Be5 0-1 Time


Benjamin quickly defeated Gurevich by winning games two and three (game one was a draw). De Firmian won game two against Shaked, drawing games one, three, and four to advance to the finals.


Irina & I with Semi-finalists


Benjamin and de Firmian have roughly an equal score against each other since their first meeting in 1976. Nick won the first game of the match with the black pieces and went on draw the next three games to win the title.   Nick was a great sportsman for playing sharp exciting chess against both Tal and Joel in their matches when he only needed only draws to win each match.

Finals - Carol and I watching

Finals Game 1 – Carol Jarecki and I watching Joel and Nick

GM Joel Benjamin

Joel, 34, is playing in his seventeenth consecutive U.S. Championship. He is not only a great chess player, but also quite a knowledgeable sports buff. He even knows all the minor east coast college sports divisions that few people have even heard of. The New York Jets and New York Mets are the teams he lives and dies for. He really doesn’t like the Dallas Cowboys at all, but, hey, nobody is perfect! Joel is ambivalent toward the Broncos. Joel won the U.S. Championship in 1997 and tied for first with Nick de Firmain in 1987 when the tournament was held in Estes Park.

Joel was ranked 91st in the world going into this tournament. He recently spent two years working at IBM as the grandmaster consultant programming Deep Blue to play Garry Kasparov. A good chunk of his time was spent working out opening move orders and nuances for the computer. Kasparov avoided most of Joel’s preparation by playing strange openings that he would not play against a human opponent. During this time at IBM, Joel got a renewed vigor for studying chess. He said he learned a lot from the IBM programmers about sorting games efficiently and managing chess databases. Now he has fun studying again with the aid of Chessbase. Joel is working on a book which should be out in1999 entitled, “True Blue”, which documents his experiences with the computer while he was at IBM. At this time, IBM does not see a profitable reason to give Kasparov a rematch.

One of my curiosities was what is the relative strength of a grandmaster compared with a master, like myself. David Gliksman once told me that a 2200 master has a basic and underline basic understanding of what is going on.   I can’t dispute that. On Saturday, November 16th, I got the honor of testing my abilities against the U.S. Champ in some blitz games. Basically, I was terminated. In all fairness, I psyched myself out after a game or two which didn’t help at all. Joel sliced and diced me like I was a beginner. It was amazing to me the harmony in which his pieces danced around the board.

Joel Benjamin

GM Joel Benjamin


After our games, we went to the bar for a pizza and I asked him about relative strengths of masters. He said that a 1700 rated player would probably have slightly better chances against a 2200 player than a 2200 player playing against a 2700. His reasoning was that a 2200 player can play erratically and his playing strength can fluctuate more than that of a GM. Then, I asked him how he would do against Kasparov. Joel responded that if he could get an opening edge against a GM of his strength, he would most likely win. However, in the same scenario, Kasparov would most likely draw or even beat him. Joel said that Kasparov would probably have to give him the white pieces, and draw odds for Joel to have a decent shot. For Joel to win a game against Kasparov, he said would be difficult.

GM Larry Christiansen

You old timers might recall that back in the 1970’s Larry was sponsored by Mr. Church (a big chess fan) of Church’s Fried Chicken to travel around the country and promote chess and chicken. Larry did ten-game blindfold chess simultaneous exhibitions around the country, including one in Denver. (He went 9-1 here, only losing to the team of Brian Wall and Jeff Maguire.)   Larry said that most blindfold games that he ever did in a simul was 16! My guess was that his playing strength in multiple blindfold games was somewhere in 22-2300’s. Larry gave me his secret for keeping track of the games in his mind (besides being a strong GM!). Of course, he played white on all ten boards. He alternated his opening moves as follows:   boards 1,3,5,7 he played 1.e4; on boards 2,4,6,8 he played 1.d4; on board 9 he played 1.g3; and on board 10, he opened with 1.b3. This would make it easier to keep track of the games, with a “bookmark” at the end (games 9 and 10). From what I could pick up from the other GM’s, Christiansen and Shabolov are probably the two best tactical players in the field.   Christiansen was ranked 65th in the world prior to the tournament.

GM Nick de Firmian

Nick deFirmian

GM Nick deFirmian


Nick de Firmian is a very gracious, soft spoken man. He is living in Copenhagen, Denmark with his wife, Christine, and a ten month old….who kept them up crying many nights during the championships. Christine is a chess expert and past member of the Danish Women’s Chess Team. Nick is staying in Denver for a week or so after the tournament to work on the 14th Edition of Modern Chess Openings. It has been almost a two year project and Nick says that he totally revamped the book from the 13th edition. MCO is a great reference book for general opening preparation for class players. Nick has been in great form the last several months. He had the best U.S. score on the fifth board of the U.S. Olympiad team which took the silver medal this October in Elista, Russia. Nick was still in great form for the U.S. Championships. He won five games, drew ten, and lost none. Nick dominated Group A of the round-robin portion of the tournament, and both of his playoff matches. De Firmian now joins the elite company of Lev Alburt and Yasser Seirawan with three U.S. Champion titles. Walter Browne leads current players with six titles, and Fischer holds the record with eight.



GM John Fedorowicz

Grandmaster Fedorowicz has a history of playing good chess in the Mile High City. Back in 1977, “The Fed” won the U.S. Junior that was held downtown at the Petroleum Club. John is also the party guy of the grandmasters and definitely the most colorful of the group. He, like Benjamin is a sports nut. John likes the Yankees and the Giants. John and Joel are good friends who live near each other in NY City. They prepared a lot together for the tournament. John is also coaching Jennifer Shahade, whose college dorm is only a mile away from where John lives.

Yasser Seirawan

GM Yasser Seirawan

GM Yasser Seirawan

Yasser Seirawan is without question, one of the nicest guys around. He is always very gracious to everyone around him and even helped out fixing some the demo board positions while his game was still in progress. Observing how the other GM’s treated him during the event, he is probably the strongest player in the field as seen by his peers. When going over analysis from a game, both players playing the game would often stop to ask Yasser how he would evaluate the position. This is shows quite of bit of respect for Yasser’s chess expertise.


GM Tal Shaked

Tal Shaked

GM Tal Shaked

Tal is a fairly quiet, easy going, up and coming chess star. He qualified for the tournament by winning the U.S. Junior Championship. He is

also the 1997 World Junior Champion. Tal, who is twenty years old and live in Tucson, will be attending UMBC in Baltimore, Maryland on a full chess scholarship next year.   Benjamin and de Firmian told him at dinner after the semifinals that he is the only really promising non-Russian player of his generation. Tal prepared with ex-Colorado player IM John Watson for the tournament. One night Joel, Tal, and I went to Dave & Busters on Colorado Blvd. They had lots of sports stars signing paper that they mounted on the wall. The next time that you are there, look for Tal and Joel’s autographs on the wall!