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Monday, January 9, 2017

1980 US Championship

Some of the participants, only slightly older!
     This tournament marked a significant change in US chess. The tournament was held Greenville, Pennsylvania, which is located about 80 miles from both Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Ohio. Greenville has a population of about 6,000 and the town's biggest employer is the Werner Company, a world leader in the manufacturing and distribution of aluminum and fiberglass ladders. It's also home to the venue, Thiel College, a private liberal arts, sciences and professional college related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 
     The tournament had some new faces: Yasser Seirawan, Joe Bradford, Mark Diesen, John Peters, Peter Biyiasas and Vitaly Zaltsman. Leonid Shamkovich, Anatoly Lein and Vitaly Zaltsman were Soviet emigres of which Zaltsman was the newest. Arriving in 1976, he had been making a living on Swiss tournaments. 
     Larry Christiansen and Seirawan represented the young generation while the old guard was represented by Robert Byrne, Arthur Bisguier, Larry Evans and Pal Benko. The success of this last group had been slowly but perceptibly declining and it was becoming clear that their chances of winning the championship were slim to none given the crop of strong new players.
     Also, this was the first championship into which players could be seeded by scoring wins in Swiss System tournaments under a Gran Prix format that had been sponsored by Church's Fried Chicken.
     The fact that the Old Guard was on the skids became apparent in the first round when Seirawan crushed Evans and Peters likewise crushed Bisguier. Robert Byrne fared no better when he was tactically outplayed by Joe Bradford. Who was Joe Bradford? He was an unknown who came out of nowhere when he qualified by scoring an upset victory in the 1978 U.S. Open in Phoenix, Arizona. Bradford was from Austin, Texas and was the lowest rated player in the event and so was considered an easy point which was seemingly verified when Byrne built up an overwhelming position in round one.  Unfortunately for Byrne, he blundered away the game. Then in round two Bradford was stomped by Walter Browne.  Bradford worked for the Texas Department of Transportation and at his peak had a FIDE rating of over 2400. The late Ken Smith thought he had enough talent to be a GM if he worked at it full time. He didn't become an IM until after he retired from his job. 
     You won't see the name of Mark Diesen, one of the most promising young players in the country at the time and a former world junior champion, in the crosstable because on the night of the third round he suffered injuries when he fell down a flight of stairs and had to withdraw. He soon abandoned chess and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Chemical Engineering. He worked as a reservoir engineer for Shell Oil, Pennzoil and Noble Energy. Diesen (born September 16, 1957) passed away suddenly on December 9, 2008 in Conroe, Texas.
     The tournament appeared to be a horse race between Browne and Evans. Larry Evans, the old man in the tournament at the age of 52, was there more or less by accident. At the last minute Lubosh Kavalek canceled and based on ratings, the next two players in line were Evans and 23-year old Nick deFirmian. In a typical no brain fashion, the USCF decided to break the tie on the basis of the two players' average rating. Evans hadn't played in a tournament for two years, so his average rating was his current one. 
     As a result of Diesen's withdrawal, which resulted in there being a bye in each round, by the last round there was a four-way tie for first place between Evans, Christiansen, Browne and Seriwan. That meant the last round was a tense one. A win could mean $5000 and first place while a loss could mean $900 and sixth. 
     The pairings were Zaltsman vs. Seirawan, Shamkovich vs. Christiansen, Evans vs. Lein and Browne vs. Bisguier. 
     Evans played cautiously against Lein and drew at adjournment after 35 moves. Christiansen lost a Pawn against Shamkovich but had enough play to force a draw. 
     Browne emerged from the opening against Bisguier with what appeared to be an endgame advantage and so he kept pressing until the game was adjourned.  Meanwhile, Seirawan wasn't doing so good against Zaltsman when they also adjourned. 
     Both games were to be resumed later that night and the final result hung on those two games. Within minutes of resumption Bisguier demonstrated a clever defense that he had discovered during adjournment in their N and P ending and forced Browne to accept the draw.  That meant three of the four leaders had drawn and first place depended on the outcome of the Zaltsman vs. Seirawan game. 
     Seirawan had played a risky opening and ended up defending an inferior position. He was lost at adjournment and could not find a way to salvage the game and ended up losing in 67 moves. 

1-3) Browne, Christiansen and Evans 7.5-4.5 
4-5) Seirawan and Shamkovich 7-5 
6-7) Lein and Zaltsman 6-6 
8-12) Benko, Biyiasas, Bradford, Byrne and Peters 5-7 
13) Bisguier 4.5-7.5

     Withdrawals...in the 1978 championship Walter Browne withdrew in a snit, Diesen had to withdraw in this one and in the next championship (1981) Larry Evans was to withdraw in a huff. Anatoly Lein whipped Evans pretty badly in the first round and in the second round Evans was horribly outplayed in the opening by Robert Byrne and forced to resign before his 21st move. Evans then decided it was time to head home to Reno, Nevada, making it the third straight championship in which someone had dropped out. 
     The following game was one of the crucial games and received the "best overall game" of the event prize. Christiansen demonstrated how much he had improved since his five straight losses in the previous championship in Pasadena when he scored +3 -6 =5 to finish in 13th place out of 15. That was the event from which Walter Browne had withdrawn.
 

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