Pittsburgh GM Alexander Shabalov has been a frequent “contributor” to this column over the years, mostly because of the many games demonstrating his brilliant attacking skills.
But Shabalov is the newly crowned U.S. senior champion not for his offense but for his defense — including three wins with Black after a slow start in the 2022 U.S. Senior Championship that ended Saturday, and another win with the Black pieces in the clinching rapid playoff game with GM Larry Christiansen. “Shabba” and Christiansen were part of a five-way(!) tie for first in the tightly bunched nine-round event, along with GMs Vladimir Akopian, Maxim Dlugy and Dmitry Gurevich, all at 5½-3½.
Two other worthy national champions were crowned at the St. Louis Chess Club last week. It took a rapid and a blitz playoff, but Virginia’s own WGM Jennifer Yu emerged as the U.S. junior girls’ champion, edging out WFM Sophie Morris-Suzuki and WGM Thalia Cervantes Landeiro.
And 15-year-old California GM Christopher Yoo didn’t need any extra time to claim the 2022 U.S. junior title, finishing a full point ahead of GM Andrew Hong at 7-2, cementing his status as one of the rising stars of American chess.
With just 1 point in his first three games, Shabalov turned things around with a stalwart defensive showing against GM Nick De Firmian, facing down a scary-looking attack in a Sicilian Sozin (a favorite of Fischer’s) before wrapping things up with a mating attack of his own.
On 17. Bg5 b4 18. Bxf6 Bxf6 19. Nd5 Bg5 20. f6 g6 (Bxc1?? 21. Ne7+ Kh8 22. fxg7+ Kxg7 23. Qf6 mate) 21. Qg4!? (Rc4 Bxd5 22. exd5 Rac8 is roughly equal), White doesn’t stop to move his attacked rook, hoping to strike while Black’s kingside lacks defenders.
But Black is cool on defense, bolstered by that humble pawn on b4 that keeps the White rook from getting to the kingside via c3. It’s touch-and-go for both sides after 25. Rc7 Rab8?! (more accurate is the uglier 25…Ra7!, as White now has a trick that could draw) 26. Ngf5!, when 26…Qxe4 allows 27. Nxg6+! fxg6 28. Rxh7+! Kxh7 29. Qh3+ Kg8 30. Nh6+ Kh7 31. Nf5+ Kg8 32. Nh6+, with a perpetual.
But White returns the favor on the game’s 26…Qd3+ 27. Kf2? (Kg1! keeps the balance, as on 27…Qb1+ 28. Kf2 Qxb2+ 29. Ke3 Bxe4, the trick 30. Nxg6+! again draws) Qd2+ 28. Kf1 Bxe4, and now 29. Nxg6+ loses to 29…fxg6 30. Rxh7+ Kxh7 31. Qh3+ Kg8 32. Nh6+ Qxh6! 33. Qxh6 Rxf6+ 34. Ke1 Rbf8, with far more than sufficient material for the queen.
White’s pieces continue to swarm around the Black king, but Shabalov never allows a critical breakthrough. On 36. Rc4 d5 37. Rg4 (Qg5 Rg8! 38. Nxg8 Qe1+! [Rxg8?? 39. Qxg8+! and mate next] 39. Kf3 Qe2+ 40. Kf4 Qf2+ 41. Kg4 Qxg2+ 42. Kf5 Qxg5+ 43. Kxg5 dxc4 and wins) Qc2+ 38. Kf1 Qd1+ 39. Kf2 Qd2+ 40. Kf3 Qd3+ 41. Kf2 Qd2+ 42. Kf3 Rc8! 43. Rg7 Rc3+, Black is still facing mate on the move but has a string of checks that flush the White king out into the open.
In the final position after 48. Kc5 Qc3+, De Firmian resigns as mate is inevitable in lines such as 49. Kb6 Rb8+ 50. Ka7 Qc7+ 51. Kxa6 Qb6 mate.
It was all attack all the time for Yoo in his impressive Round 4 win over IM Balaji Dagupatti, in what looks like a creative Benko Gambit Reversed. Black’s 16. Bxf3 Qxd2?! (Qd3!? 17. Qxb7 Ne5 looks tougher for Black, as taking the d-pawn allows Yoo to build up a fearsome attacking array) 17. Nd5 Nxd5 18. Bxd5 Nd8 (Qxe3+? 19. Qxe3 Rxe3 20. Rxf7 Kh8 21. Rxb7 and White dominates) 19. Bd4 Qb4 20. Qc2, and the two bishops and open lines give White overwhelming compensation for the pawn deficit.
With Black essentially hog-tied, White translates positional dominance into concrete gain: 29. Be4 f5 30. Rg4! (cheekily exploiting the pins) Qh6 (Ne6 31. Bxf5 Qxf5 32. Qxf5+ Rxf5 33. Rxf5 Bh6 34. Rxh4 and wins) 31. Bxf5+ Kh8 32. Qe4 Nc6 (see diagram) 33. Rxg5!, knocking out the last effective pillar of Dagupatti’s rickety defense.
Black manages to avoid material loss but his position can’t be saved: 33…Nxd4 (Qxg5 34. Rf4 Rae8 35. Rxh4+ Kg8 36. Qd5+ Rf7 37. Bh7+ Kf8 38. Qxg5) 34. Rg6 Ne2+ 35. Kh2 Qh5 36. Qe7!, posing a new constellation of threats for Black. The finale only underscore the defender’s helplessness after 39. Rf4 Rad8 40. Rgg4 Rd5 41. Rf8!, and Black resigns having no need to see 41…Nf1+ 42. Kg1 Qxe3+ 43. Qxe3 Nxe3 44. Rxh4+ Rh5 45. Rxh5 mate.
De Firmian-Shabalov, U.S. Senior Championship, St. Louis, July 2022
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Be3 a6 8. Bb3 Na5 9. f4 Qc7 10. Qf3 b5 11. f5 e5 12. Nde2 Nxb3 13. cxb3 Bb7 14. O-O Be7 15. Ng3 O-O 16. Rac1 Qa5 17. Bg5 b4 18. Bxf6 Bxf6 19. Nd5 Bg5 20. f6 g6 21. Qg4 Bxc1 22. Ne7+ Kh8 23. Rxc1 Qb6+ 24. Kf1 Qe3 25. Rc7 Rab8 26. Ngf5 Qd3+ 27. Kf2 Qd2+ 28. Kf1 Bxe4 29. Qxe4 gxf5 30. Qxf5 e4 31. Qxe4 Qxb2 32. Qh4 Qa1+ 33. Kf2 Qxa2+ 34. Kf1 Qb1+ 35. Kf2 Rbe8 36. Rc4 d5 37. Rg4 Qc2+ 38. Kf1 Qd1+ 39. Kf2 Qd2+ 40. Kf3 Qd3+ 41. Kf2 Qd2+ 42. Kf3 Rc8 43. Rg7 Rc3+ 44. Kg4 Qxg2+ 45. Kf5 Rf3+ 46. Ke5 Qb2+ 47. Kxd5 Rd8+ 48. Kc5 Qc3+ White resigns.
Yoo-Dagupatti, U.S. Junior Championship, St. Louis, July 2022
1. Nf3 d5 2. c4 d4 3. b4 c5 4. e3 dxe3 5. fxe3 cxb4 6. a3 e5 7. Nxe5 Bd6 8. Bb2 Nf6 9. axb4 O-O 10. Be2 Re8 11. Nf3 Bxb4 12. O-O Nc6 13. Nc3 Bg4 14. Qb3 Bf8 15. h3 Bxf3 16. Bxf3 Qxd2 17. Nd5 Nxd5 18. Bxd5 Nd8 19. Bd4 Qb4 20. Qc2 Qd6 21. Rf3 Qg6 22. Qf2 Bd6 23. Rf1 Rf8 24. c5 Be7 25. Rf4 Bg5 26. Rg4 h5 27. Rg3 Kh7 28. Qf3 h4 29. Be4 f5 30. Rg4 Qh6 31. Bxf5+ Kh8 32. Qe4 Nc6 33. Rxg5 Nxd4 34. Rg6 Ne2+ 35. Kh2 Qh5 36. Qe7 Rg8 37. Rg5 Qh6 38. Bg6 Ng3 39. Rf4 Rad8 40. Rgg4 Rd5 41. Rf8 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.