2009 U.S. Chess Championship Players PDF Print E-mail

First Name

Last Name

Reason for Invitation






























Qualified - 2008 U.S. Junior Closed Champion















Female, Rating















qualified - 2008 U.S. Open Champion






State Champion of Champions



Qualified - defending U.S. Champion



Female, rating

GM Gata Kamsky

Hometown: New York
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2798
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2007 World Cup, 1991 U.S. Championship

Gata Kamsky came to the U.S. in 1989 and became a Grandmaster in 1990 at 16. He played Karpov for the World Championship in 1996. Although he lost the match, he was the first American since Bobby Fischer to go that far. After losing, he gave up chess, attended and graduated from law school. After a break of nearly a decade, Kamsky returned to chess, to win the 2007 World Chess Cup just three years after his comeback. Kamsky lost his February 09 match against Veselin Topalov and with it, the chance to advance to the this cycle’s World Championship, but he is as determined as ever. Kamsky participates in one elite event after another in Europe, making him the #1 GM to watch in Saint Louis.


Gata Kamsky defected to the United States in 1989 after a trip to the New York Open that year. Lev Alburt, who helped Gata defect, soon got a call from the Russian Grandmaster Genna Sosonko: "You got yourself a new World Champion!" Kamsky's potential to earn the ultimate crown nearly became actualized when he beat Kramnik in a match, qualifying him to play Karpov for the World Championship title.


He was the first American since Fischer to go that far, and although he lost the match, he was still number three in the World. He then made a shocking announcement. Gata was leaving chess, to become a doctor- where he could earn more money. For five years Gata lived up to his promise and did not play a rated game. He earned an undergrad premed degree in chemistry, but then changed his mind and applied to law school.


After graduating, Kamsky realized how much he missed chess. Egged on by friends and fans, he decided to give chess another try. "Now I feel much less pressure. I play for myself only." "I could make more money as an attorney," said Gata, "I came back to chess to try to win the World Championship." Kamsky does not regret his hiatus. "I learned so much about life in those six years," he said "Before, I knew so little about how the world works."


His career restarted with a surprise appearance at the New York Masters. Thereafter, Gata revealed that he was preparing for top-flight competitive play. He had solid but unremarkable performances in his first few outings, and the first hint that Kamsky was really back was at the 2005 World Cup. He defeated one elite player after another (including former World Champion Alexander Khalifman), earning a spot in the next World Championship cycle. He had another astonishing performance in a super-grandmaster tournament in Sofia, May 2006 when he defeated Vishy Anand with the black pieces, and placed second in a star-studded field that included World Champion Veselin Topalov.


In late 2007, Gata Kamsky made a serious step toward his primary goal. He won the World Cup (Khanty-Mansiysk, Nov.24-Dec.17), defeating Peter Svidler, Ruslan Ponomariov and Magnus Carlsen along the way to the final, where he faced Alexei Shirov. He defeated Alexei Shirov 2.5-1.5. Kamsky is now set to face Topalov in a 2008 match, which is now scheduled for February in Sofia, Bulgaria. The winner will play Anand, who defeated Kramnik in the Bonn 2008 World Championship match.


GM Hikaru Nakamura

Hometown: New York
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2757
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2005 U.S. Championship, 2007 North American Open Champion, 2007 National Open Champion

Hikaru Nakamura is a recordbreaking, blitz champion, medalearning phenomenon. He became the youngest master in American history at the age of 10, then broke Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming the youngest American Grandmaster at 15. In 2004, he advanced into the sweet 16 at the World Championship in Libya. He also won his first U.S. Championship at the age of 16. He’s racked up numerous championships over the past decade, and despite his aggressive, individualistic style, Nakamura has proven to be a great team player: He was a two-time bronze medallist in the 2006 and 2008 Olympiad, playing for the USA team.


Watch out! Hikaru Nakamura is a record-breaker. Once upon a time, Hikaru tagged along to tournaments with his father, the popular coach and NM Sunil Weeramantry and whiz kid older brother Asuka. Quickly, Hikaru rose to the top, over-shadowing his talented brother. He became the youngest master in American history at 10, and the youngest American GM at 15 (breaking Bobby Fischer’s record).


As a kid, Hikaru was extremely emotionally involved in his results. When he lost, his opponent was very aware that Hikaru was unhappy. This hyper-competitive streak was also a key to Hikaru’s success. Hikaru’s style is aggressive,tricky and relentless. He once said in an interview “there is no point of taking draws.” He plays for blood, and because of this, he’s a chess sponsor’s dream.


As a young prodigy, Hikaru favored aggressive openings like the Sicilian Najdorf, 1.e4 and the King’s Indian Defense (the same openings which Bobby Fischer was loyal to all his life). In the summer of 2002, Hikaru started to broaden his opening repretoire. He added 1.d4 and 1.c4 to his repretoire. Soon thereafter, he tried new openings for black too, like the Slav defense against 1.d4 and the Scandinavian against 1.e4. In 2005 though, Hikaru’s experimentation went to a radical extreme. Several times, he tried the strange queen foray 1.e4 c5 2. Qh5?!-against strong GMs. One can only imagine that this was a combination of psychological thrust (think you can beat me just cause I bring my queen out early?) and teenage angst. (Look at me!)


His first major international breakthrough was at the 2004 World Championship in Libya. Hikaru advanced through the brutal knockout tournament three rounds, into the sweet sixteen. This was further than anyone could have imagined. Despite his professional level, Hikaru has never had an official coach. Hikaru is a valuable team player though- he was a key part of the 2006 (Turin, Italy) and 2008(Dresden, Germany) bronze medal Olympic teams.


Soon after his amazing result in Libya, Hikaru became the 2005 U.S Champion. He was only sixteen years old at the time. Hikaru is easily the best blitz player in America. Minutes after a winning the two week long 2005 U.S Chess Championship, he was playing blitz chess with a top U.S. rival, Gata Kamsky. In 2006, he was at it again with blitz legend Maxim Dlugy. Both times, Hikaru accumulated crowds who were as taken as a rapt audience at the climax of a James Bond movie. In each match, Hikaru won the majority of the games. Hikaru is the highest rated player on the Internet Chess Club, with hundreds of other Grandmasters at his heels. He plays under the nickname, “Smallville”, his favorite T.V show. His specialty is “bullet” games, in which each side has only a minute or two to finish the game. Surprisingly, Hikaru concocts beautiful combinations even with such low time limits.

“Some wonder why I play so much on ICC. Honestly, the reason that I play so much is that I strive for perfection.”


GM Alexander Onischuk

Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2736
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2006 U.S. Championship, second in the 2007 Grandmaster Tournament of International Chess Festival Biel

Alexander Onischuk has placed first in more than 20 tournaments, including the 2000 Ukrainian Championship. He became a Grandmaster in 1994 at the age of 19 and relocated to the U.S. in 2001. When he won the 2006 U.S. Championship, he called it the happiest moment of his career to have his name on a trophy alongside players such as Fischer and Morphy. Onischuk was key to America’s bronze medal finishes in 2006 and 2008 Olympiads. He has an impressive international record: he placed second in the International Chess Festival in Biel and also won the super strong Moscow Open in January 2009. Onischuk is a member of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis’ board of Grandmaster Advisers.


Alexander Onischuk called winning the 2006 U.S Championship the happiest day of his life. Not that he's unused to winning. Alex placed first in over twenty tournaments, from super strong Round Robins in exotic Beijing and chilly Siberia to the 2000 Ukrainian Championship.Alex became a GM in 1994 at the age of nineteen, but this hardly qualified among his happiest moments, because that was a matter of "when, not if."


Alex is known for his professional, solid style. His repertoire is very well analyzed, but it is also more predictable than most top U.S. players. Some of his lines as Black (particularly in Double King Pawn games) allow a weaker but well prepared opponent to force a draw. Such a strategy makes it hard to win clear first in a Swiss, which usually requires a huge plus score.


Alex ran into a typical roadblock at his first U.S. Championship, where he placed eighth. One opponent traded queens into a dead draw, following a previous game by Alex. The advantage of having a stable opening repertoire is that you're bound to know the strategies and details of your lines better than if you played four different openings.


Alex thinks that what separates him from Grandmasters of a slightly lower stature is his superior understanding of the game, gained from working with elite players, including former World Champions Anatoly Karpov and Veselin Topalov (Read his uschess.org report from this match.) In addition to seconding Karpov in matches against Anand (1997) and training him for his victorious match against Kasparov (2002, Alex got the chance to play blitz with the Russian legend. "The first time we played" Alex said, "I won with black, and thought I'd do pretty well. Then I lost 25 games in a row. I was already a GM, and didn't think I could lose 25 games in a row to anyone!"


Alex arrived in Baltimore in 2001 on the wings of a diversity visa, which he won in the Diversity lottery program. The program, designed to offer visas to American hopefuls all over the world, may soon be discontinued pending a vote in the Senate. For five years he played for the championship college team, UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore Country), while studying linguistics at the university. He graduated in the spring of '06.


If he could play any champion from history, he would play Paul Morphy. "I'd play 1...e5, and he'd go for the King's Gambit. I'd probably lose.


Alex is a valuable American team player, and was crucial to America in two bronze Olympic medal finishes in a row, in Turin, Italy 2006 and Dresden, Germany 2008.


GM Yury Shulman

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Reason for invitation: Qualified - defending U.S. Champion
USCF Rating: 2697
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2008 U.S. Championship, 2006 U.S. Open Championship, tied for first in the 2001 World Open

Yury Shulman achieved the Grandmaster title in 1995 and moved to the U.S. four years later to become one of the top American players. Shulman also uses chess for philanthropic causes. He founded the Yury Shulman International Chess School and consistently contributes to not-for-profit entities, schools and camps. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA. Last year proved to be a great year for Shulman: In addition to winning his first U.S. Championship title, he was also part of the bronze medal Olympiad team in Dresden, Germany.


You wouldn’t expect reigning U.S. Champion, Yury Shulman and comp sci and business graduate to be superstitious. But he raves about the “lucky car” at the 2006 U.S Championship in San Diego. He drove to the tournament each afternoon with soon to be champions, Alex Onischuk and Anna Zatonskih. Yury won his 32-player group and Alex won his, resulting in a friend vs. friend battle. Why did Yury lose? Probably because he sat in the back seat on the ride to the final. Yury's moment at the top of the crosstable came soon enough. In the 2008 U.S. Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma Yury netted clear first with uncompromising play such as this win over GM Julio Becerra.


Yury moved from his native Belarus to the United States in 1999 to attend UTD (University of Texas at Dallas), a three-time national championship college team. UTD takes chess very seriously. In addition to offering scholarships to top players like Yury, UTD wants to see chess taught in elementary schools across the country.


Although Yury's second place finish in the 2006 US Championship was a surprise to most fans, those who followed his performance in the 2005 World Cup in Russia weren't surprised at all. Yury went up against some of the top players in the World in this knockout tournament and defeated three higher rated GMs to advance to the round of 32, including a very impressive victory over former FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman. Despite 8 Americans competing in this event, only Gata Kamsky was able to advance further than Shulman.


Yury credits his excellent results in the past few years to his chess students. Yury has been teaching since he graduated from UTD. Teaching has helped him see chess in a different way, and he even came up with opening novelties while working with his students. Some chess professionals only teach cause of the financial reward, but Yury claims that even if he were rich, he’d still coach.

He also leads the summer chess camp in Lindsborg, Kansas and coached the 2006 Women’s Olympiad team in Turin to an impressive fourth place finish. In 2008, Yury joined the men's Olympic team and helped lead them to a fantastic bronze medal finish. Yury scored the final clutch win over Ukraine's board four, Efimenko to clinch bronze.


GM Larry Christiansen


Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2681
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2002 U.S. Championship, 1983 U.S. Championship, 1980 U.S. Championship, 2001 Canadian Open Chess Championship

Larry Christiansen was the first junior high school student to win the National High School Championship, taking the title in 1971. He went on to win three invitational U.S. Junior Championships and three U.S. Championships. He became a Grandmaster in 1977 at the age of 21, skipping over the usual step of becoming an International Master. Christiansen has won the prestigious Linares tournament twice. He has a thrilling chess style that is always fun for spectators. He even wrote two books on attacking: “Storming the Barricades” and “Rocking the Ramparts.”


When playing Larry, you’re hereby advised to defend your h7 pawn at least five times.  Larry Christiansen is an American master of attack. He even published two widely praised books on the subject of attacking chess, Storming the Barricades and Rocking the Ramparts.


In chess, there is much debate as to the relative importance of talent and hard work. A strong GM needs both but sometimes a player seems more talented than hard working or vice-a-versa. Larry falls into the talented category. He improved so quickly as a teenager that he earned the Grandmaster title at the age of 21, skipping right over the usual stepping stone title, International Master.


A three-time U.S Champion, Larry also won many European tournaments. He won the prestigious Linares tournament twice, once winning clear first and the other time tying with Anatoly Karpov. He even lived in Germany for a while, playing in numerous European tournaments and in the most prestigious team competition, the Bundesliga. He even defeated Karpov in a 14-move miniature!


Larry is a frequent commentator on chess.fm, a popular chess writer and an occasional coach. He participates in the U.S. Amateur Team East each year with his wife Natasha, a strong A player and lawyer. He and GM Alex Stripunsky were the first elite American GMs to join the U.S Chess League, where Larry led the Boston Blitz.


A popular person on the chess scene, Larry likes to have fun between the rounds of any event, whether it’s exploring a foreign city with Natasha, finding the best steak in town, or improving his ICC one-minute record. He has a wry sense of humor helped by his ability to simultaneously complain about and enjoy any activity.


GM Julio Becerra

Hometown: Miami, Florida
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2672
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2006 Florida Champion, 2006 U.S. Chess League MVP, 1995 and 1998 Cuban Champion

Julio Becerra earned his Grandmaster title in 1997 and decided to relocate to the U.S. two years later after attending the 1999 World Championship in Las Vegas. Until 2005, however, he was unable to travel internationally to play chess because he had no American passport. He since has become a U.S. citizen and has steadily increased his rating. Becerra is first board for the Miami Sharks of the U.S. Chess League and was league MVP for two years in a row.


Julio Becerra grew up in communist Cuba, where he learned chess at 13 years old. With few resources, he got by on talent and one of the few books that were always available in Cuba, informants, comprehensive opening updates published three times a year in Yugoslavia. In 1999, Becerra arrived in Las Vegas for the World Championship. 


After the tournament, he decided to stay in America, "I was very privileged in Cuba because I was a chessplayer. I traveled alone to many countries and I never stayed, so they had no idea I was thinking about defecting....I felt that it was my last opportunity and that if I didn't take it, it would be in my mind my whole life."


The period between 1999 and 2005 was difficult for Julio, because as much as he enjoyed America, he was frustrated at not being able to travel internationally to play in chess tournaments (he had no American passport) or to return to Cuba (where he would be arrested.) Since then, Julio got a greencard and is an official U.S. resident: "I think that America is the best country in the world cause of the freedom to travel and live as you want," says Julio, "it's one of my dreams to play in the Capablanca Memorial in Cuba...it's disgusting that I cannot return."


Today, Julio augments his natural talent with disciplined chess training: "On Monday morning at 9 am, you can find me downloading last week's games from The Week In Chess." He plays five minute blitz on the ICC (three minute is too fast to learn, in Julio's opinion) and studies every game afterwards, anxious to fill any opening holes he discovers from his blitz sessions. Julio also teaches in Miami, where he's been living since 2005. He advises aspiring chessplayers to study Dvoretsky endgame books and to solve as many puzzles as possible.


Julio Becerra is first board for the Miami Sharks of the U.S. Chess League. In 2006, he earned the League MVP title over seven other GMs. He won "Game of the Week" for this powerful, creative victory over Polish-American GM Pavel Blehm, who was playing for the Baltimore Kingfishers.

GM Varuzhan Akobian

Hometown: North Hollywood, California
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2664
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2004 World Open, tied for first place in the 2002 World Open

Varuzhan Akobian qualified to play his first rated tournament, the Armenian Junior Chess Championship in 1992, earning 3rd place in the under 10 section, then went on to take 1st place the following year. He participated in his first World Chess Championship in Czechoslovakia at the age of 9 and placed 8th. He won the Samford Chess Fellowship in 2002, which allowed him to focus on chess for two years. It paid off: Akobian reached his first long-time goal of becoming a Grandmaster in 2004. Akobian is known for being a great team player: He was a member of the bronze medal Olympiad teams in 2006 and 2008. He was also featured on MTV’s “True Life” series. Akobian is the highest-ranked Californian player.


Varuzhan Akobian qualified to play his first rated tournament, the Armenian Junior Chess Championship in 1992, earning 3rd place in the under 10 section, then went on to take 1st place the following year. He participated in his first World Chess Championship in Czechoslovakia at the age of 9 and placed 8th.


He won the Samford Chess Fellowship in 2002, which allowed him to focus on chess for two years. It paid off: Akobian reached his first longtime goal of becoming a Grandmaster in 2004. Akobian is known for being a great team player: He was part of the Bronze Medal Olympic squads in 2006 and 2008. He was also featured on MTV’s “True Life” series. Akobian resides in California, where he’s the highest-rated player in the state.

GM Gregory Kaidanov

Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2662
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2002 U.S. Masters winner, 2002 Chicago Open Winner, 1992 World Open Winner, 1992 U.S. Open Winner

Gregory Kaidanov’s first major win came in a Moscow tournament in 1987, and he was awarded the Grandmaster title a year later. Kaidanov moved to the U.S. in 1991. He’s racked up a number of tournament championships. Kaidanov was a member of the silver Olympiad team in Russia in 1998, won a silver board medal at the Calvia, Spain Olympiad in 2004 and was a member of the bronze medal Olympiad team in 2006. Kaidanov is one of America’s premiere chess coaches. In 2008, he coached the U.S. team to a bronze medal finish at the Women’s Olympiad.


Gregory emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. in 1991, with his three children and wife, to Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington is hardly the epicenter of American chess. How did Kaidanov end up there?


Gregory’s first day in America was on a visit in the summer of 1990, in the pre-Guiliani New York, when the city was notorious for a high crime rate. He and his wife were robbed twice in one day! In addition to his savings, he lost 10 years worth of chess analysis. He was devastated. Fortunately, he did not follow his first instinct to give up on the U.S.A. His friend GM Dmitry Gurevich invited him to Chicago, after which Dmitry helped connect Kaidanov with chess organizer Ken Troutman. Troutman organized a series of chess exhibitions for Gregory in Lexington, and sponsored his U.S visa. Rattled from his first traumatic days in New York, he was particularly impressed by the safety in Kentucky.


He barely unpacked his unstolen bags, when he began steam-rolling the U.S Open chess circuit. He won the 1992 World Open in Philly and the 1992 U.S Open. Greg’s great first year performances helped develop the “honeymoon theory”, that Grandmaster emigrates fare fantastically during their first year in the U.S.A. A decade after his streak, he started an equally amazing one. It began at the 2002 Aeroflot Open in Moscow, sponsored by the eponymous Russian airline. Kaidanov prevailed over 82 (!) other GMs in one of the strongest fields ever assembled.


Kaidanov was born in Ukraine, where his dad taught him the rules of chess at six years old. According to Greg, it’s a common American myth that chess was a part of the daily Soviet school curriculum. Still, he’s nostalgic for his childhood chess days, where he played after school for hours on end. Gregory was not a teenaged prodigy. His success came after two decades of solid hard work. His first major tournament win came in Moscow 1987, where he crushed Indian star Vishy Anand. He earned the IM title that same year, and was awarded the GM title just a year later in 1988.


Kaidanov is also the most active Grandmaster teacher in America. He travels from Louisiana to California, coaching, giving lectures and conducting simultaneous exhibitions. He is the head coach of the www.uschessschool.com founded in 2006 by IM Greg Shahade. Several times a year, players from all over the country meet up for a one-week intensive training session in Kaidanov’s current hometown, Lexington.


After a quick bowl of Raisin brain, Gregory often works on chess alone, or with a student, for 12 hours straight. The ability to study and coach chess for such long hours come from a deep love for the game, and for sharing. “I would never give up coaching, even if the money meant nothing to me.” His students range from serious amateurs of all ages to Maurice Ashley, who Kaidanov helped become the first ever African American GM. Kaidanov had a great success in the 2008 Women's Olympiad, where he coached the U.S. team to a bronze medal finish. He is also a frequent coach at the U.S. Chess School.


Despite Kaidanov’s many tournament wins and high ranking among U.S players, he has never won a U.S Championship. Students all over the country are rooting for Greg to take his place among the gallery of U.S Champions.

GM Joel Benjamin

Hometown: New Jersey
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2650
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2000 U.S. Championship, 1997 U.S. Championship, 1987 U.S. Championship

Joel Benjamin became a national master at the age of 13, breaking Bobby Fischer’s record for youngest-ever master. A three-time U.S. Junior Champion, he became a Grandmaster in 1986. Benjamin also goes into the U.S. Championship histor y books for playing in a record 22 consecutive championships. His most-famous gig was helping the Deep Blue IBM Computer team defeat Garry Kasparov in 1997, a win that was later featured in the documentary “Game Over.”


Joel Benjamin has seen the board from many angles. At 13 years old he became a national master. He broke Bobby Fischer’s record for the youngest ever master and was hailed as a prodigy. In 1981 he breaked from full time chess activity to attend Yale, where he majored in history.


He was editor in chief and founder of the witty but now defunct magazine Chess Chow (1991-4), which ran articles with titles like “Eat Like a Grandmaster” and diagram captions such as: “Time Control to Major Tom.”


His most famous gig was in helping the Deep Blue IBM computer team to defeat Garry Kasparov in 1997. Joel Benjamin was the official Grandmaster consultant for the 1997 rematch (Deep Blue lost to Kasparov in 1996). Joel trained the computer to think more positionally and thus augment computers’ traditionally awesome calculation skills. Joel enjoyed the discipline of his first 9-5 job (rare hours for chess pros), and found that after the intense year working with Deep Blue, his skills had improved. Shortly thereafter, Joel won his second U.S Championship. In 2000, he won his third. Benjamin also goes into U.S Championship history books for playing in a record 22 consecutive championships.


Benjamin was featured in Game Over, a documentary about the Deep Blue-Kasparov. The energetic but neurotic Kasparov contrasts with a cool and collected Joel Benjamin, who calmly disputes Kasparov’s claims that Deep Blue was aided during the games by a Grandmaster.


Joel plays offbeat openings like the Two Knights’ Tango and the Pirc defense in order to lead his opponents to uncharted chess waters. He doesn’t often win straight from the opening, and is famous for squeezing out small edges. He once called the British GM Michael Adams, #4 in the World a favorite player, pointing out modestly that Michael had an even stronger version of his own minimalistic but lethal style.


Joel claims that his own training program as a teen wasnt very rigorous, but he improved rapidly because of the “sponge” method. He went to as many tournaments as he could, and absorbed as much information from other people’s games and analysis, not just his own.


Joel lives in New York with his wife Debbie Quinn, a member of the Irish Women’s Olympic Chess team. Benjamin writes the Chess Life Online column Ask GM Joel, where he answers inquiries on anything from what to do about FIDE to how to react against the Trompowsky. E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it to ask your own question.

GM Jaan Ehlvest

Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2649
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2008 Pan American- Continental Championship, qualifying for the 2009 FIDE World Cup, tied for first in the “A2” section of the Aeroflot Open, 2003 World Open

Jaan Ehlvest rose to chess fame quickly in the early 1980s, placing second in the 1981 World Junior Championship and first in the 1983 European Junior Championship. He became a Grandmaster in 1987 and two years later finished clear first in the 1989 Reggio Emilia. Ehlvest won the Grand Prix title in 2006, the same year he switched federations from Estonia to America, making him eligible for the U.S. Championship for the first time.


Estonian-born GM Jaan Ehlvest decided to become a professional chessplayer on his first trip outside the Soviet Union for the 1979 World Cadet Championship in France. In his fascinating book, The Story of a Chess Player , Ehlvest writes: " The Parisian streets made a strong impression...


Seeing this kind of world gave me more stimulus to improve, to fight for the freedom to play chess where I wanted and experience the joys of the Western lifestyle."


After his resolution, Ehlvest quickly became a star- he came in second in the 1981 World Junior Championship and first in the 1983 European Junior Championship. In 1987, he tied for second in the Zagreb Interzonal and became a Grandmaster. He proved that he could hold his own against the world elite. In the 1989 Reggio Emilia round robin he finished clear first, ahead of Anatoly Karpov and Vassily Ivanchuk. In the 2000 World Championship in New Delhi, India Jaan made it to the sweet sixteen,scoring match wins against Ivanchuk and Sergei Movsesian.


Ehlvest's rich career as a world class European GM makes him one of the most dangerous players in America and a serious contender to join the U.S. Olympic team. Jaan's move to America was gradual; First he came for the major tournaments like the 1994 New York Open, which he won. In the late nineties, he began to visit more frequently. He and his childhood friend and roommate Aleksander Wojtkiewicz completely dominated the American Open scene, taking turns winning the chesscafe.com Grand Prix titles. (Opens award Grand Prix points based on the projected prize fund; they are tabulated at the end of the year, and the winner receives a cash prize, this year $4,000.) In the heat of the 2006 summer, Jaan and Aleks were once again neck and neck for the Grand Prix title. In a bitter twist, Aleks Wojtkiewicz died on July 14, 2006 allowing Jaan to win the year's Grand Prix easily. In 2006, Jaan officially switched federations from Estonia to America making him eligible for the first time for the U.S. Championship and the U.S. Olympic team.


Jaan's style is hard to define. He is equal opportunity when it comes to choosing between brutal frontal attacks and slow positional grinds. With the white pieces Jaan is particularly scary, as he can play anything, from Main Line Sicilians to the English.

GM Boris Gulko

Hometown: Fair Lawn, New Jersey
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2631
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 1999 U.S. Championship, 1994 U.S. Championship

Boris Gulko earned his Grandmaster title in 1976 and won the USSR Chess Championship a year later. His chess career took a backseat to his opposition to Communism. As a “refusenik,” he was arrested, beaten and forbidden to par ticipate in top-level chess competitions. Gulko was allowed to come to the U.S. in 1986. He qualified to play in the 2004 World Chess Championship in Libya but withdrew along with other Jewish players.


Boris and Anna were vocal against the communist regime, even going on three hunger strikes. One was a female only hunger strike organized by Boris, and another lasted for 38 days. Boris was briefly jailed, and once beaten for his beliefs.


In his thirties, Boris should have been at the peak of his career, playing in tournaments constantly and improving his level. Instead, both he and his wife were barred from top-level competitions for several years, and when they were allowed to play, it was only within the U.S.S.R. “The idea of traveling outside was as grand as the idea of going to the moon.”


In 1986, the couple was finally permitted to immigrate to Israel and travel freely to chess tournaments. “39 is too old to start playing and training to reach the highest achievement in chess,” said Boris, “those 7 years were a serious blow for my chess career, but I don’t regret them.” Boris traveled to the United States for the U.S. Open, and immediately saw that the United States offered more opportunities for a chessplayer. Anna and Boris moved to the U.S. after only a few months living in Israel, eventually settling in New Jersey.


Twenty years after his persecution for his political beliefs, his Jewish faith interfered with his career. The 2004 World Championship was held in Libya, and Boris qualified to play. He accepted the invitation until President Qadafi’s son announced: “We did not and will not invite the Zionist enemies to this championship.” Boris, along with other Jewish players from Israel and the United States withdrew from the tournament. Boris sent a scathing letter to the president of FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, “I implore you not to be the first president of FIDE to preside over the first world chess championship from which Jews are excluded. Our magnificent and noble game does not deserve such a disgrace.” The tournament went on as scheduled, without Gulko.


Gulko is known for his strong middlegame positional play and solid style- he’s not easy to beat. Gulko is one of few players to hold a plus score against Kasparov (+3, -1 and =4). Despite this or maybe because of it, Boris has a lot of respect for Kasparov. He recommends Kasparov’s books (The Great Predecessors series and Test of Time) more highly than any others and calls them required reading for aspiring masters and grandmasters.


Even with his many trials and accomplishments as a grandmaster and activist leader, Gulko has managed to remain friendly and modest. He has a smile for everyone and no airs of importance.

GM Ildar Ibragimov

Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2628
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2005 World Open, 2004 U.S. Open, 2004 Continental Open

Ildar Ibragimov tied for first in the USSR Young Masters in 1991. Since moving to the U.S. in 2002, he’s made a name for himself in the American Open and is known for an aggressive style that keeps opponents guessing. He was runnerup in the 2005 U.S. Championship after losing a memorable rapid playoff to Nakamura. In, 2006 Ibragimov narrowly lost out on the chance to play the final match.


Ildar’s a quiet monster, steadily raising his rating and his profile since his move to the United States in 2002. Starting in 2004, he began to share first place in most of the American Opens he played in!


Ildar’s mainstay openings have consisted of 1.d4, Double King Pawn, Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the Queen’s Indian defense. Maybe there was something in the U.S. water that made him want to experiment, because since moving, Ildar has added 1.e4 and the French defense to his repertoire. He is a tremendous fighter, and wins a lot of even or worse positions by sheer determination and endurance. His solid opening choices compliment a creative and aggressive style that keeps his opponents’ guessing.


Despite excellent showings at his first two tries for the U.S crown, both events finished with heartbreak for Ildar. The first time, in 2005 he missed a win after hours of fighting against Hikaru Nakamura. Ildar later called this loss his favorite game, a funny and modest choice for what most players would consider a disaster.


Ironically, in 2006 he had to count on Hikaru defeating Alex Onischuk in the last round, which would guarantee him a ticket to the final on tiebreak. Ildar said that he wasn’t too disappointed in these narrow misses because those were his first two U.S Championships. In other words, he’ll be in the hunt for the title for many years coming.


In contrast to his generally quiet demeanor, Ildar Ibragimov opened himself up to the chess community when he entered a poem into the 2006 U.S Championship blogging contest, run by Mig Greengard of chessninja. Called, “Our Day Off and its Consequences. Or, How Siberian Cats Play Chess.” it detailed a tough loss Ibragimov suffered against Nick Defirmian, along with a trip to the zoo with his friend Alex Stripunsky. Ildar calls literature and poetry treasured hobbies, emphasizing that they are “only hobbies”, and he’s sticking to chess for now.

GM Melikset Khachiyan

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Reason for invitation: Rating
USCF Rating: 2628
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: Frank K. Berry 2007 U.S. Championship, tied for first in the 2006 American Open

Melikset Khachiyan began playing chess at the age of 8, won the Baku Junior Championship two years later and became a Soviet Candidate Master two years after that. He began coaching early in his career and has brought up three Junior World Champions. In 2001, he immigrated to the U.S., where he participated in the National Open in Las Vegas. He earned his Grandmaster title in 2006.


Melik Khachiyan began playing chess at the age of 8, won the Baku Junior Championship two years later and became a Soviet Candidate Master two years after that. He began coaching early in his career and has brought up three Junior World Champions. In 2001, he immigrated to the U.S., where he participated in the National Open in Las Vegas. He earned his Grandmaster title in 2006.

GM Alexander Shabalov

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Reason for invitation: Wildcard
USCF Rating: 2625
Title: Grandmaster

Highlights: 2007 U.S. Championship, 2003 U.S. Championship, tied for first 2003 World Open, first in Chicago and North American Opens, 2003

Alexander Shabalov realized chess would be his profession after winning the Latvian junior championship at the age of 11. He went on to win the Under-16 Championship of the Soviet Union in 1982. The three-time U.S. Champion is known for no-holds barred chess and thriving on wild moves.


If you're watching the first board of an open tournament, and the pieces are flying in all directions, it's a good bet that Shabalov is one of the players. The Latvian- born GM thrives on wild games. Shabalov himself said: "If the position after my move becomes more complicated then the game is going in the right direction." GM Nick DeFirmian demonstrated the respect fellow GMs have for "Shabba" when he called a position so crazy that only Shabalov or Fritz could play it well.


Alexander is from Riga, the birthplace of the Latvian wizard, Mikhail Tal. Tal is the most celebrated World Champion (with the possible exception of Garry Kasparov), because of his wonderful personality and his exciting, no holds barred chess. "He can only take them one at a time" Tal remarked once, when someone asked how he could leave so many pieces hanging. Shabalov and his famous contemporary Alexei Shirov had the luxury of studying with Tal personally and both inherited his thrilling style.


Alexander is well-versed in 1.e4 and 1.d4, and he usually picks the sharpest lines. As black, he's most known for his well analysed Kalashnkovs and Sveshnikovs, though he also plays the French, Double King Pawn, and other Sicilian lines like the Classical System, the Dragon or the Paulsen. Alex's laid-back personality might mislead you into thinking he doesn't do much homework. But these lines require hard work, and Alex is up to the job- he has even created totally new theory in the Kalashnikov Sicilian.


Shabalov rarely proposes or accepts early draw offers. In the 2003 U.S. Championship, there were eight Grandmasters vying for first place. After fifteen minutes, the stage was almost empty. All the other contenders had drawn their games, ensuring them a decent payday but depriving fans of exciting, high-stakes chess. Shabalov's game was the exception. He played a six-hour slug fest against Varuzhan Akobian, ending in a victory for Shabalov. In addition to the 25K he won for first place, main sponsor Erik Andersson awarded Alex and Varuzhan 5000$ each for their fighting spirit. Shabalov won clear first in the U.S. Championship four years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, besting Kudrin in the final to edge out the defending champion, 2006 Champ Alexander Onischuk.


In 2003 Shabalov lived up to his championship title by placing clear first in the Chicago and North American Opens, and only tying for first in the World Open. Winning clear first with tournament points (not on tiebreak or blitz playoff) in a Chicago or World Open is rare; The hectic schedules and top-heavy entries in most American opens usually result in massive ties. Shabalov wins clear more often than GMs of similar strength, because of his uncompromising style and burning desire to take home all the clams.


The downside of his style is that Shabalov loses, even to lower rated players, more often than his rating would suggest. Check out the Chess Life Online article "How to Beat Shabalov" for more on this odd phenomenon.


Until recently, Alexander was one of the few American GMs who rarely taught or wrote, relying mostly on his tournament winnings for his living. This all changed when he became a co-owner of the store House of Chess in the Great Northern Mall in Cleveland. Shabalov makes the two-hour drive from his hometown Pittsburgh once or twice a week to give lectures, conduct simuls and coach members of the club/store. House of Chess is beautifully designed and adjacent to Starbucks and Foot Locker- this is a good sign for the rising popularity of chess.


Shabalov has milked the chessplayer's lifestyle to its extreme. Travelling constantly throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, he allows ample time for fun in the less serious tournaments. In prestigious events, like the Olympiad or the U.S Championship, he takes the games as seriously as anyone, though he can often be found several days after the tournament, renting a convertible to explore the best beaches and nightclubs.

GM Josh Friedel

Hometown: New Hampshire
Reason for invitation: Wildcard
USCF Rating:  2568
Title:  Grandmaster

Highlights: 2007 Samford Scholarship winner, 2006 2nd All Star Team: Board 1

Josh Friedel just recently earned his Grandmaster title after the 2008 U.S. Championship. He learned chess at the early age of 3 and began tournament play at age 6. In 1995, he scored his first tournament victor y, winning the New Hampshire State Amateur Championship at age 8. His first major tournament victory was in 2001 when he won the Pan Am Open. In 2007, Friedel earned the prestigious Samford Scholarship, allowing him to focus on chess full-time for two years.


Josh Friedel was born and raised in New Hampshire. At the age of 19, Friedel moved to the bay area and has been enjoying it ever since. Friedel first learned chess at the young age of 3, and played his first tournament at age 6. 


Before reaching the master level, Friedel worked closely with NM Hal Terrie, and since then worked with GM Larry Christiansen, GM Gregory Kaidanov, and GM Alex Goldin. Friedel made IM at age 18 and GM just before his 22nd birthday. Friedel has been state champion of New Hampshire three times and state champion of California twice. Friedel has also won or tied in several open tournaments in the United States, including Eastern and National Opens. Thus far, in Friedel's young chess career, he has played in four U.S. Championships in which he tied for fourth and scoring his final GM norm.

IM Robert Hess

Hometown: New York
Reason for invitation: Wildcard
USCF Rating: 2545
Title: International Master

Highlights: Tied for first 2008 Foxwoods Open, 2006 U.S. Junior Championship, 2002 Pan-American Youth Championship in Argentina, won 2009 National High School Championship in Nashville with a per fect score

Robert Hess was awarded the International Master title in 2007 and achieved his first two Grandmaster norms in 2008 at the Foxwood Open and 2009 at the SPICE Spring Invitational in Texas. Hess only needs one more norm to qualify him for the GM title. He’s a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, where he also plays football.

IM Ray Robson

Hometown: Largo, Florida
Reason for invitation: Wildcard
USCF Rating: 2542
Title: International Master

Highlights: National Champion, elementary division, 2005 Super Nationals, tied for first in 2005 and 2006 Pan American Youth Championships

Ray Robson learned chess at age 3 and has earned seven national scholastic titles since. For winning the Super Nationals, he will receive a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas. Robson finished in the top 10 at the World Youth Championship from 2004 to 2007. He defeated his first Grandmaster in 2006, the same year he earned the USCF National Master title. He’s the youngest IM in the U.S. and is widely considered as America’s brightest hope to become an elite GM since Hikaru Nakamura. Robson studies with No. 3 seed in the tournament, Alexander Onischuk.


National Champion, elementary division, 2005 Super Nationals, tied for first in 2005 and 2006 Pan American Youth Championships Bio: Ray Robson learned chess at age 3 and has earned seven national scholastic titles since. For winning the Super Nationals, he will receive a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas.


Robson finished in the top 10 at the World Youth Championship from 2004 to 2007. He defeated his first Grandmaster in 2006, the same year he earned the USCF National Master title. He’s the youngest IM in the U.S. and is widely considered as America’s brightest hope to become an elite GM since Hikaru Nakamura. Robson studies with No. 3 seed in the tournament, Alexander Onischuk.

IM Enrico Sevillano

Hometown: Tehachapi, California
Reason for invitation: qualified - 2008 U.S. Open Champion
USCF Rating: 2542
Title: International Master

Highlights: Tied for first in the 2008 U.S. Open

Enrico Sevillano won the Asian junior crown in 1986 and took part in the 1992 Manila Olympiad before immigrating to the U.S. He was the first Filipino ever to qualify for the U.S. Championship and has the best track record among Filipino players in America. He’s won a number of California championships and tournaments.


Tied for first in the 2008 U.S. Open Bio: Enrico Sevillano won the Asian junior crown in 1986 and took part in the 1992 Manila Olympiad in 1992 before migrating to the U.S. He was the first and only Filipino ever to qualify for the U.S. Championship and has the best track record among Filipino players in America. He’s won a number of California championships and tournaments.

IM Anna Zatonskih

Hometown: New York
Reason for invitation: Female, rating
USCF Rating: 2503
Title: International Master

Highlights: 2008 U.S. Women’s Championship, 2006 U.S. Women’s Championship

Anna Zatonskih is a three-time Ukrainian women’s champion and two-time U.S. Women’s Champion. Anna moved to the U.S. in 2002. She was a member of the 2004 silver medalist team in Calvia, Spain, and second board on the 2008 bronze medalist team in Dresden, Germany. She took a gold medal for second board per formance at the 2008 Dresden Olympiad and is the reigning U.S. Women’s Champion.


Current two-time U.S. Women's champion (2006,2008) Anna Zatonskih moved to the United States in 2002, just in time to take part in training sessions for the first medal winning Olympic women's team (2004) in U.S. history.


Anna is known for calculation skills that even Garry Kasparov praised at a 2004 Olympic training session. This is no accident. To train, Anna sets a clock, studies a complex endgame study or tactical position and writes down all her analysis. "You must write it down", she insists, "Otherwise you'll think you saw something which you didn't."


Like many top players, Anna finds the traveling that chess requires exhausting at times but mostly thrilling. Some of her favorite places are the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, a year round geothermal bath; Curacao, where she scuba-dived every day and the wild nature of Kapensiki in northern Canada, where she paddled a canoe for the first time and encountered bears.


Her adventurous spirit also shows over the board. Anna's coach at the 2004 Olympiad, Alexander Chernin urged her to try openings she never played before, including 1.d4. She was successful and gained confidence that she could play any position. Her bravery contributed to the team's historic silver medal finish.


In the 2008 Dresden Olympiad, Anna cemented her reputation as a great team player. She earned the gold medal for her performance on board two, helping the American women earn bronze , for the second U.S. women's medal finish in history.


Anna Zatonskih is intense on and off the board. Sometimes she gets so wrapped up in a tournament that she has trouble sleeping. She admits that getting over these bouts of extreme nervousness allow her to play her best. In the 2006 U.S. Championship, she was more relaxed than ever. Her solid nerves guided her to her first U.S. Women's championship title. She won her group, and then defeated her friend Rusudan Goletiani in the final. In the 2008 U.S. Women's Championship, a round robin in Oklahoma, Anna tied for first with Irina Krush and won in a controversial Armageddon playoff.


Anna Zatonskih is married to the Latvian-born, German-based Grandmaster Daniel Fridman.


Anna enjoys coaching, especially when her students forget that she is the Queen only of the U.S.A., and call her the Women's World Champion. Anna does have an eye on the ultimate crown. "It's not too late for me to take a shot."


IM Irina Krush

Hometown: New York
Reason for invitation: Female, rating
USCF Rating: 2496
Title: International Master

Highlights: 2007 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, 1998 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, 1998 Pan-American Youth Champion

Irina Krush became the youngest-ever to win the U.S. Women’s Championship in 1998 with the astounding score of 8.5/9. Three years later, she won the Mayor’s Cup, an international round robin held in New York, despite being the lowest-rated player invited to par ticipate. She’s been a valuable team member at Olympiads and was part of the silver medal team in 2004 and the bronze medal team in 2008. Krush also won the 2007 U.S. Championship and lost the 2008 title in a controversial playoff against Anna Zatonskih.


International Master Irina Krush keeps everyone guessing. She first shocked the American chess community in 1998, when she swept the U.S. Women's chess championship 8.5/9 to become the youngest ever U.S. champion.


In 2001, she was the lowest rated player invited to the Mayor's Cup, an international round robin held in New York City. She won first place and also earned her first Grandmaster norm.


A well-rounded player, Irina wins in both technical endgames and with brilliant attacks. She is known to be stubborn both on and off the board. If she feels her opponent has violated a basic chess principle, she'll search ardently for punishment and often find it. Krush also has high standards of sportsmanship, and is disappointed when her chess peers don't adhere to them.

Irina aims to be a great chessplayer, not a great female chessplayer. That's why she prefers organizers to tout her as an IM among men, rather than a Women's Grandmaster, a title that she never actually applied for. (The IM title is harder to get than the WGM title.)


In 1999, Irina participated in the well-publicized Kasparov vs. the World match. Garry Kasparov, playing white competed versus a team of young chess masters. Irina was the team MVP, working tirelessly on her analysis and permanently changing theory with her novelty for the black side of the Bb5+ Sicilian. A mini scandal erupted when Irina's recommendation for the 58th move of the game was not considered due to an Internet glitch- the team lost quickly, but might have drawn if Irina's choice was selected.


Irina has also been a valuable team member at the past two Olympiads, narrowly missing an individual board medal at the 2002 Bled Olympiad. In both the 2002 and 2004 Olympiads, she defeated the current World Women's Champion Xu Yuhua. These wins led to back-to-back American victories over the Chinese women's squad.


Irina moved to New York from Odessa, Ukraine when she was five years old. In May 2006, she graduated from NYU with a degree in International Relations. Outside chess Irina enjoys tennis, practicing French, photography, poker and writing. She is a frequent contributor to Chess Life Magazine.


In the 1999 Garry Kasparov vs. The World Match, Irina suggested the opening novelty 10...Qd7-e6! bamboozling the strongest player in history. The aggressive Queen move simultaneously attacks the c4 and e4 pawns. Although this move exposes the Queen to danger, it offers black counterplay in a line that is traditionally a dry waiting game for black.

IM Sam Shankland

Hometown:  Berkeley, CA
Reason for invitation: State Champion of Champions
USCF Rating: 2477
Title: International Master

Highlights: 2008 World Under 18 co-champion, 2009 Champion of State Champions

Sam Shankland, a self-proclaimed “typical teenager,” racked up more than 200 points in just over a year, picking up his IM title along the way. He claimed the last spot in the U.S. Championship after winning the final match of the State Champion of Champions. The match went all the way down to the wire, with he and opponent Mackenzie Molner splitting the rapid and blitz matches. Although he’s one of the lower-rated players in the tournament, it’s anyone’s guess how far he’ll go.

IM Michael Brooks

Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Reason for invitation: Wildcard
USCF Rating:  2423
Title:  International Master

Highlights: 1994 North American Open

Michael Brooks has been an International Master since 1989 and has been the Missouri state champion six times, losing only five times since in tie-breaks. In 1982, Brooks tied for first place in the Midwest Masters Tournament in Chicago and tied for second in the event in 1989. In 1994, Brooks won the North American Open in Las Vegas.


Michael Brooks has been an International Master since 1989 and has been the Missouri state champion six times, losing on five other occasions only to tiebreaks. In 1982, Brooks tied for first place in the Midwest Masters Tournament in Chicago and tied for second in the event in 1989. In 1994, Brooks won the North American Open in Las Vegas.

NM Charles Lawton

Hometown: Saint Louis, Missouri
Reason for invitation:  Wildcard
USCF Rating: 2358
Title: National Master

Highlights: Information unavailable

Bio: National Master Charles Lawton has been a steady fixture in Missouri chess, known for an aggressive style and playing offbeat lines. He’s a two-time Missouri Open Champion.

NM Tyler Hughes

Hometown: Colorado
Reason for invitation: Qualified - 2008 U.S. Junior Closed Champion
USCF Rating:  2272
Title:  National Master

Highlights: 2008 U.S. Junior Championship, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 Colorado High School Champion, 2004 U.S. Expert Champion.

Tyler Hughes won the 2008 U.S. Junior Chess Championship and represented the U.S. at the World Junior Chess Championship in Turkey. Hughes, who is homeschooled, studies under coach GM Petr Kiriakov. He learned chess at 5 and became more interested after reading his first chess book and realizing study would improve his game.






Chess Quotes

And for the chess-player the success which crowns his work, the great dispeller of sorrows, is named "combination."

-Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941)

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