The Championship Field
The 2015 U.S. Chess Championship is Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura’s first return to the U.S. Championship since winning the title in 2012. Ranked in the world's top-10 players for nearly five years, Nakamura has been the longtime U.S. No. 1 Grandmaster and the leading hopeful to bring America its first World Champion since Bobby Fischer. The chance for that world title creeps ever closer this year, as Nakamura currently sits second place at the halfway point of FIDE's 2014-15 Grand Prix and may earn his first seat in a Candidate's Tournament.
A child prodigy in every sense of the word, Nakamura made a fast impact on U.S. chess by knocking down nearly every age record on his way to the top. He was at one time the youngest-ever American master in history (10 years, 79 days), the youngest American international master (13 years, 2 months) and eventually the youngest American Grandmaster (15 years, 79 days) – breaking Fischer’s record by three months.
Nakamura has collected numerous titles and championships since the age of 13, when he first arrived onto the national scene by becoming the 2001 U.S. Junior Champion. He quickly confirmed his place as one of chess’ great elites, shocking the world with a sweet sixteen appearance in the 2004 FIDE World Cup, and then grabbing his first of three U.S. Championships the following year.
He is a recipient of the prestigious Samford Chess Fellowship (2005), the 2007 National Open champion and a three-time North American Open champion. He was an individual bronze medalist in the 2006 and 2008 World Olympiad, as well as the gold medalist on the first board of the 2010 World Team Championship, where the United States placed second.
This chess player only gets better as he gets faster, gracing the top of the world in Blitz chess when FIDE began publishing its list earlier this year and demonstrating his skill. Nakamura finished with bronze at the FIDE World Blitz Championship in June 2014, and currently sits second on FIDE’s Blitz rating.
The 2015 U.S. Championship will see the first participation from Grandmaster Wesley So, who recently transferred to the U.S. Chess Federation from his home Philippines. His arrival to the USCF was synonymous with his arrival as one of the World’s top-10 players, and So has already begun pushing the envelope to become the nation’s highest-rated GM -- a title Hikaru Nakamura has owned for years.
So learned chess from his father at age 6 and was competing in junior tournaments by 9 years old. By earning his Grandmaster title at the age of 14 years, 1 month, and 28 days, So completed the trifecta as the Philippines’ youngest-ever National Champion, International Master and Grandmaster. Considered a chess prodigy, he is the eighth-youngest GM in the world.
So came to the U.S. in August 2012, enrolling at Webster University in St. Louis to be guided by Susan Polgar and her SPICE Program. There, he made the jump from top-100 to top-10 in the world, entrenching Webster as a powerhouse collegiate program and leading the school to back-to-back national titles along the way.
Last October, So won the inaugural Millionaire Open in Las Vegas along with its $100,000 prize, then returned to St. Louis to lead the Arch Bishops to their first-ever U.S. Chess League championship.
So participated in his first world-elite tournament with a fourth-place effort in 2014 at the 77th Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Holland, though returned this past January and tied for second place, just a half-point behind winner World Champion Magnus Carlsen.
After Wesley’s So’s departure as a professional, the Webster University program has been left in the extremely capable hands of Grandmaster Ray Robson, who leads the school to its third-consecutive appearance in the President’s Cup in the weekend before the 2015 U.S. Championship begins.
Born in Guam, Robson soon after moved with his family to Florida, where his father taught him chess when he was just three years old. From 2004 to 2007, Robson finished in the top 10 at the World Youth Championship and then won SuperNationals in 2005. He defeated his first grandmaster in 2006, the same year he earned the USCF National Master title. Other impressive performances include first place in the 2005 and 2006 Pan-American Youth Championships; the 2009 U.S. Junior Championship; the 2009 World Team Championship; and the 2012 Dallas Invitational.
In 2008, Robson won his first major tournament at the Miami Open, and later that year became the youngest American to win the Grandmaster title, at the age of 14 years, 11 months and 16 days. The mark bested the record held by Hikaru Nakamura and once by the great Bobby Fischer, making Robson one of America’s brightest hopes to another world-elite GM.
Though the University of Texas offered him a chess scholarship, in 2012 Robson decided instead on the SPICE program at Webster University where, just a few months after enrolling, he won the 2012 Webster University SPICE Cup Open and eventually helped the program to back-to-back national titles. Robson also participated in the inaugural Millionaire Open in Las Vegas last October, where he took second place behind his good friend and former Webster roommate, Wesley So.
Grandmaster Gata Kamsky is the two-time defending U.S. Champion, a title he has earned five times over an illustrious career - including four of the last five years. Born in Siberia, Russia, Kamsky learned chess at the age of seven, won the country’s U15 Championship at the age of nine, then became back-to-back Junior Champion of the Soviet Union at 13.
Kamsky began his dominance of American chess shortly after emigrating to the U.S. in 1989 and spent nearly 20 years as the highest-rated American - losing that title to Nakamura in 2009. In 1990 he earned his GM, and soon after became the youngest player ever rated in the World’s top-ten. Kamsky won his first U.S. Championships in 1991, and the following year helped the USCF secure its first-ever gold medal in the World Team Chess Olympiad. Kamsky also became the youngest-ever to challenge for the FIDE world title and the first American since Bobby Fischer, as the Candidate for the 1996 World Chess Championship.
Afterwards, Kamsky began an eight-year hiatus away from chess to focus on studies, first graduating in pre-med chemistry and then returning to find his law degree. His return to chess in 2004 began an extraordinary second chapter in his playing career. Within three years Kamsky had regained his elite form, qualifying for the 2007 Candidates Tournament and later winning the 2007 Chess World Cup, where he knocked off Magnus Carlsen in the semifinals. In 2010, Kamsky won his second U.S. Championship – 19 years removed from his first title. Since then he's earn three more.
Grandmaster Alexander Onischuk began playing chess when he was six years old and has ranked as one of the top 100 players in the world for the past two decades.
Onischuk earned his GM title as a Ukranian 18-year-old in 1994, then later won the 2000 Ukranian Championship before emigrating to the U.S. the following year. For five years, he played collegiate chess for the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country (UMBC), leading the program to multiple national titles before graduating in 2006 with a degree in linguistics. He has been invited to every FIDE World Cup since 2005, winning more than 20 major tournaments along the way, including the 2006 U.S. Championship -- which he called the happiest moment of his career, having his name on a trophy alongside players such as Bobby Fischer and Paul Morphy.
Onischuk was key to America’s bronze medal finishes at the 2006 and 2008 Olympiads, and delivered a gold-medal performance on board two at the 2009 World Team Championship in Bursa, Turkey.
In 2012, Alexander Onischuk was named the head coach of Texas Tech University’s chess program, helping the squad return to the President’s Cup in 2014, finishing in a close second behind Webster University. He leads the TTU program back to the Final Four of Collegiate Chess in 2015, just before the start of the U.S. Championship. Last year’s season led to national recognition, with Texas Tech named “Chess College of the Year” and Onischuk awarded “2014 Grandmaster of the Year” by the U.S. Chess Federation.
He has finished among the top three in the U.S. Championship seven times.
Grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky first learned the rules of chess at six years old, and it was not long before he was paving his professional future -- eventually becoming a three-time U.S. Scholastic champion, earning a gold medal at the World U12 championship in 2007 and winning the U.S. Junior championship in 2013. Naroditsky has remained the U.S. No. 1 in his age category for the past eight years and is also the youngest published chess author in history -- now with two titles to his name.
Naroditsky is an active ambassador for scholastic chess in the United States; giving simuls in schools, activity centers and chess clubs around the country. Aside from chess, Naroditsky maintains many other interests, including history, music, foreign languages, art and mathematics. He graduated from Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsboro, CA in 2014 and plans to attend Stanford University for fall 2015.
In the year between, however, Naroditsky received the prestigious Frank P. Samford Jr. Chess Fellowship, which provides access to top level coaching, study material and competition. Through 2014, Naroditsky traveled and competed in several elite tournaments around the world, including the London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters, and last February turned in an impressive performance at the 2015 Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.
When Sam Shankland was just 18, he announced he would be retiring from the game of chess. Before leaving, however, he agreed to honor his previous commitments and compete in the 2010 U.S. Junior Closed Championship - the rest is history. He won the Junior championship after back-to-back playoff matches against Parker Zhano and tournament favorite Ray Robson, earning Shankland a spot in the 2011 U.S. Championship and another commitment that became too good to refuse.
The youngster performed admirably in the 2011 national title fight, edging veteran GM Alexander Onischuk in a playoff to reach the four-player quad finals. There, Shankland ran into eventual champion GM Gata Kamsky, who topped him 1.5-.5 - though after his defeat, Shankland remained upbeat. He finished third place, and described his performance as his “dream tournament for the year."
Sam enters the 2015 U.S. Championship at the ever-climbing peak of his career. A strong showing at the 2014 Qatar Masters Open was topped by an undefeated run at the 2014 Tromso Chess Olympiad, where he entered as the fifth-board reserve but went on to win an Olympic gold medal. He made his first break into the world’s top 100 players at the end of 2014, then opened up 2015 with another undefeated performance in the Tata Steel Challengers section for third place. He has now remained unbeaten in over 65 games.
Due to his incredible recent performances, spectators should keep a close eye on this young player who may just ride his wave of confidence to a victory in the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship.
The weather was so harsh in the years that youngster Varuzhan Akobian spent in Mongolia, his father forbade "Var" and his sister from playing outside. Instead, he taught them chess -- a perfect indoor distraction.
"From the very beginning, I was different from other chess kids,” Akobian recalls. “It was never just a game for me. I always wanted to be a Grandmaster, and I knew that I would do what it takes."
Later as a teenager in Yerevan, Armenia, Akobian spent many of his days playing chess and soccer -- all with his teachers’ permission.
"This is one way in which Armenia is very different from the United States. If I went to high school here, I never could have spent so much energy on chess."
Akobian immigrated from Armenia to the U.S. in 2001, and it didn’t take him long to make an impact on the American chess community. Within his first three years, Akobian had been awarded the prestigious Samford Chess Fellowship, tied for first in the 2002 World Open, won the Irme Koenig GM Invitational, and dominated the 2003 U.S. Junior Closed Championship after winning his first seven games. He was officially awarded the GM title in June 2004, after which he won the World Open again, clinching it with a sparkling win against Alexander Shabalov.
Akobian is a popular rotation in the Resident Grandmaster position at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, and he continues to be a force in U.S. chess tournaments. This past year, Akobian narrowly lost an armageddon playoff in the 2014 U.S. Championship to Gata Kamsky, though he dusted himself off nicely by helping the Saint Louis Arch Bishops to their first-ever U.S. Chess League championship.
Blindfold exhibitionist Grandmaster Timur Gareev, originally from Uzbekistan, is a formidable opponent with unlimited potential and the proven ability to make a serious run at the U.S. Championship title. A veteran of the game, Timur’s standard rating has remained active and comfortably above 2500 for more than a decade.
"My grandfather taught me how to play chess at the age of four," Gareev said. "I practiced the game regularly challenging my father, friends and schoolmates. At the age of eight, I played my first rated competition. I started succeeding in my improvement very fast, winning most of the national events."
At 10, Gareev was playing expert level strength and dedicating 4-6 hours every day, working with his coach Georgi Borisenko and mastering the game on his own. By 2004, at 16, he earned the distinction as the youngest-ever Grandmaster from Asia, then traveled to the U.S. in 2005 to help the University of Texas at Brownsville win its first national championship. After receiving his B.A. degree in 2011, Gareev was awarded the Samford Fellowship in 2012, which awarded him a monetary stipend to assist his chess development.
Timur has conducted 19-board, 27-board, and 33-board blindfold simultaneous exhibitions - the last of which he served up a score of 29-0-4 against members of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, days before the start of the 2013. U.S. Championship. His exceptional memory allows for top-tier preparation and study, and he has good chances of catching an unsuspecting opponent in deeply analyzed lines. He believes that blindfold training has helped him improve his focus.
Last year proved to be highlight in the career of young Kayden Troff, earning his Grandmaster title at the Saint Louis Invitational in May, and then returning to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis the following month to win the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship with a convincing 7/9 score. The victory earned him a seat in this year’s U.S. Championship, his second appearance in the national title event.
Troff first demonstrated chess ability at the age of three, learning to play by watching his father teach his older brothers. By the time he was six, his father had him tutored by Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, who was impressed with how well the youngster played.
Troff was among the first selected into the Young Stars-Team USA program, a joint partnership between the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which sought to train the country’s top emerging players to compete with those around the world. Through the program, Troff has participated in several training sessions with Garry Kasparov, as well as frequent sessions with GM Alex Chernin.
Troff’s accomplishments include several Utah scholastic and adult championships, as well as a gold medal at the U14 World Youth Chess Championship title earned in Maribor, Slovenia in 2012 -- an upgrade from the silver medal earned in the U12 World Youth Chess Championship in Greece in 2010.
Samuel Sevian is the 2015 U.S. Chess Championship Wildcard and an American chess prodigy. He set previous records as the youngest American Expert and the youngest American National Master in history, and currently stands as the youngest American International Master in history. Last November, he continued his record-setting climb by becoming the youngest American Grandmaster in history, earning the coveted title at 13 years, 10 months and 27 days -- and also the sixth-youngest GM in world history.
Sevian has maintained his status as one of the most-promising Juniors in the country, fully realized since he became a U12 World Champion in Maribor Slovenia in November 2012. He is a product of the Young Stars - Team USA program, a joint partnership between the Kasparov Chess Federation (KCF) and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis to find and train the country's top emerging chess players. Sam received intensive training with legendary World Champion GM Garry Kasparov, which he said was a big contributing factor to his recent success.
"The KCF helped me enormously," Sam said. "First, it was Garry's camps held in Saint Louis and New York where we got to train with the Champion himself, and of course long and frequent training sessions with GM Alexander Chernin, who helped me grow."
It is no wonder how Grandmaster Conrad Holt came to be known as the “Thunder” Holt: His recent electrifying play—a first place finish at the 2014 U.S. Open, an appearance in the 2014 U.S. Chess League Finals as part of the Dallas Destiny, and another fine showing at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Championships—has established him as a player to watch in the upcoming 2015 U.S. Championship.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Holt made an early name for himself by winning the 2008 U.S. Cadet Championship and appearing in the 2010 World Open, and then earning his GM title at only 19 years old in 2012. Now 21, Holt currently attends the University of Texas-Dallas and is finishing up his undergraduate degree in Physics, also a member of the prestigious UT-Dallas Chess Team. Holt has helped lead the UTD squad to several President’s Cups, including a trip to the 2015 Final Four of collegiate chess held just before this year’s U.S. Championships.