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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gata Kamsky's First U.S. Championship

     Gata Kamsky (born June 2, 1974) is a Soviet-born American player and a former World Rapid Chess Champion. Kamsky, a former prodigy, was awarded the GM title in 1990 and in 1991, he won the U.S. Championship. 
     Midway through the final round of the 1989 New York Open, with the help of Lev Alburt and two FBI agents, Gata and his father Rustam disappeared from the playing site and applied for political asylum. 
     By the time the 1991 U.S. Championship rolled around Bobby Fischer had not been around for more than 25 years to plague organizers with his demands and it had been more than a decade since Walter Browne walked off the stage in Pasadena in a huff, but controversy returned with the arrival of Gata Kamsky and his father. 
     Fischer's mantle as a bellyacher had fallen on Browne and the 1978 Championship would have been his biggest test up to that time as he would have been facing virtually all the top players - Kavalek, Byrne, Shamkovich, Lein, Tarjan, Rogoff and Christiansen. Browne's performances in U.S. tournaments had been remarkable but the same thing couldn't be said for his foreign events. So, there was doubt in 1978 that Browne could win the U.S. Championship again. 
     The tournament was being held on the Southern California campus of the Worldwide Church of God. You may remember that for a short period that was Bobby Fischer's new faith and during the tournament several of the players were granted brief audiences with Fischer who was living in seclusion a few miles from the playing hall. Of course, Fischer refused to even make an appearance at the tournament. 
     Anyway, when it came to controversy Browne had filled the void of left by Fischer. At pre-tournament players' meeting Browne (as he frequently did) complained about the lighting. The TD, Isaac Kashdan, had had run-ins with Browne in the past, most notably at Lone Pine but this time Kashdan arranged to have the lighting technician meet with Browne to work things out to his satisfaction. The result was Browne was happy with the lighting if he would be allowed to sit at a particular board throughout the tournament. Seating assignments were rotated and so Kashdan balked at giving Browne any more special treatment. After all, because he was the champion, he had been given an extra $850 appearance fee and a nice guest cottage; the other players were being housed in a dormitory. Shortly before the start of the tournament Kashdan inspected the tournament hall and noticed one of the tables out of line (unkbown to Kashdan, Browne himself had moved it)  so he moved it back. Not long after that the first round started, Browne came in several minutes late and realized his table had been moved out from under the extra lighting. Browne then asked Kashdan, "Why do you hate me?" and Kashdan replied that he didn't hate Browne and then Browne stormed off the stage without sitting down or acknowledging his opponent, Larry Christiansen. The result was Kashdan forfeited Browne, but a few people tried to appeal on Browne's behalf. 
     Kashdan called a meeting of the appeals committee and they listened to Browne's complaint and his threat that he would withdraw if the forfeit wasn't reversed. The committee asked Christiansen what he wanted to do about the forfeit but he didn't want the responsibility of making the decision. In the end, the committee, William Lombardy, Kenneth Rogoff and Andy Soltis, upheld Kashdan's decision. Lombardy tried to talk Browne out of leaving, but it did no good and the next morning Browne was gone. 
      In 1990, after a 133 years, the championship was held as a knock-out as an experiment. Part of the reason was that the round robin format was getting old because the battle for first prize was usually decided with two or three rounds remaining and at some point a lot of the players realized they had no chance for a prize. As a result, they spent their final days generally goofing off between rounds and agreeing to quick draws in the tournament. The idea was that a knockout tournament meant something was at stake in every game. But it also meant that players could be eliminated very quickly, so as compensation those that got eliminated early could enter the U.S. Open which was being held concurrently. 
     The easiest way to win a two-game match was to play for a draw with Black and a win with White. On the other hand, losing with White would be disastrous. Yasser Seirawan found that out in the first round when he lost to Lev Alburt and as a result Alburt had draw-odds in the second game meaning that Seirawan had to take risks - with fatal results.  As early the second round, the players were reminded of another reason why the knockout system wasn't such a good idea. To break ties players had to play a two-game playoff in which they had only 30 minutes per game and if they were still tied, they had to play a 15-minute game. 
     By the time this tournament started Kamsky was rated 2747 and nearly 70 points ahead of number 2 rated Yasser Seirawan. In the first round Kamsky was paired against the tournament's lowest rated player, World Junior Champion Ilya Gurevich. Kamsky had some problems in holding a draw in the first game, but easily won the second. His next opponent was Alexander Ivanov whom he also defeated with one win and a draw. 
     His next opponent was John Fedorowicz. Oddly, two players in particular, Fedorowicz and Joel Benjamin, were critical of the "Russianization" of U.S. chess. Their feeling was all those Russians were coming over here and usurping what they thought was their position in U.S. chess circles and it was affecting their ability to make money at chess. Benjamin succeeded in defeating his former “Russian” opponent, Boris Gulko, but Fedorowicz, who had defeated Alex Yermolinsky and Patrick Wolff, couldn't get past Kamsky. During his game with Kamsky there was an ugly encounter in which Kamsky's father accused Fedorowicz of discussing the game with Nick deFirmian away from the board. Witnesses said all Fedorowicz said was, "Oh, excuse me, Nick," as he walked about the playing hall. It's weird, but three years later Rustam hired Fedorowicz, by then his good friend, to be Gata's second in the Professional Chess Association candidates matches. Kamsky's victory over Fedorowicz set up a final showdown with Joel Benjamin and Kamsky won an exciting match to become the new U.S. champion. 
    During Gata's encounter with Benjamin his father wasn't done complaining. While Benjamin, playing white, was studying his crucial 17th move, Patrick Wolff, who had been knocked out by Fedorowicz in the second round and was playing in the Open approached the board to get a better look and Rustam began loudly telling Wolff to get out of the area. He and Wolff took their dispute outside where Rustam began making claims to the organizers that Wolff, Benjamin and Benjamin's supporters were cheating. TD Carol Jarecki informed Rustam that the proper procedure was to make an official protest and he calmed down, but there was more drama in the playing hall when Benjamin, possibly upset over the brouhaha created but Rustam's outburst, blundered on this 17th move and missed a win. The final game, during which Rustam was banned from the playing hall, was a lifeless draw in 27 moves and so Kamsky became the youngest U.S. champion since Bobby Fischer.


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