Alexander Shabalov took clear first place in the just completed U.S. Championship. He scored seven points out of nine (six wins, two draws, one loss) in a field of 36 players.
For a while Shabalov seemed on course to match Bobby Fischer’s mind-boggling 11 wins, no losses, no draws performance in the 1963-1964 editiion of the event. Shabalov won his first five games, beating tournament heavyweights like Nakamura and Kaidanov along the way. Sadly, the streak was broken when Shabalov lost in round six to defending champion Alexander Onischuk.
Shabalov has long been a fan favorite for his uncompromising, highly tactical, style of play. A good example is his round six game against Onischuk. In clear first place and playing black against Onischuk, one of the most solid and formidable players in the event, a sane chessplayer would have gone for a quiet line and a quick draw. Not Shabalov. He plowed down the highly controversial Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav defense. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most complex and difficult opening variations in the game. There are several books on this line, but no clear verdict regarding its soundness.
Undeterred, Shabalov, playing white against Jaan Ehlvest in round seven, entered a difficult line of the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Najdorf Sicilian, so called because black allows his queen to be diverted to the sidelines by capturing a hanging pawn on white’s queenside. This permits white a ferocious attack that at one time was considered fatal for black, which explains why the pawn was thought to be poisoned. More recent analytical work by the likes of Gary Kasparov and others has shown that black can hope to survive and make use of his extra pawn. Shabalov ultimately sacrificed two further pawns, but was not able to break through. In the end I think both players were happy with a draw.
The final round was also dramatic. Onischuk and Shabalov were tied, and both had white. But while Onischuk’s careful play only netted him a draw against Boris Gulko, Shabalov managed to crash through against Sergey Kudrin’s passive play. So Shabalov is a deserving winner.
The event was held in Stillwater, Oklahoma, home of Oklahoma State University. I spent a summer there after my junior year of college studying complex analysis in an REU program. Let me tell you, playing chess is one of the more exciting things you can do in Stillwater!