The 2013 U.S. Championship went extra innings in a gripping tiebreak final. After splitting a pair of rapid games, GM Gata Kamsky won $30,000 and his fourth title in an Armageddon game against GM Alejandro Ramirez, who was seeking his first title. Article by FM Mike Klein.
In all three hours of competition, and for more than 150 moves, Kamsky was the aggressor. Despite the constant pressure, he could not break through the stalwart and creative endgame defense of Ramirez until the waning moments. “It feels a bit awkward,” Kamsky said. “I consider us equals. Someone just got luckier than the other.”
The two went into a playoff by virtue of being tied after nine rounds of classical chess. Both players had 6.5/9; they drew their face-to-face battle in round eight. Kamksy was undefeated with four wins and five draws, while Ramirez had a loss but also one more win, thus necessitating today’s action.
Games one and two were played at a time control of 25 minutes per player with a five second increment per move. Ramirez seemed determined not to get behind on the clock, but an early misstep allowed Kamsky to embed a knight on d5. Shortly after, black’s pawns were crippled, but Ramirez found all the necessary countermeasures to prevent any white pawn from reaching paydirt. Of the many players who were spectating, GM Robert Hess said Kamsky did not need to be so quick to exchange his best piece.
After a short break, they switched colors and resumed the rapid play. This time Kamsky broke through on the queenside, and probed Ramirez’s position with his rook. Sensing that the black bishop would soon enter the fray, Ramirez offered a pawn with the clever 35. g4, intending to occupy e4 with his knight. Kamsky offered a pawn in turn with 36…e4, preventing the knight from landing there. Naturally, Ramirez had one last rejoinder, 38. e5, clearing the square once and for all.
The minor pieces traded and another rook-and-pawn ending was reached, with Kamsky having all the chances. One again Ramirez was up to the task, using a stalemate tactic to extend the tiebreak. 64. Rg2+ was the only move to draw. The rare ending to a grandmaster game caused the supremely focused Kamsky to look at the crowd and laugh. Later, he said he had almost the same ending at the World Cup in 2011 against GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, but was able to win that game.
The rules dictated that in case of a 1-1 tie, the playoff would end in an Armageddon match, where players bid for time and color. In sealed envelopes, Ramirez wrote the time 19:45, while Kamsky’s envelope read 20 minutes even. Ramirez thus got 19:45 to Kamsky’s 45 minutes, while Ramirez had black and draw odds.
The two reprised the opening from their first rapid game. Kamsky, needing to win, decided to keep all the minor pieces on the board this time. He slowly increased his square domination while Ramirez listlessly shuffled pieces round the last two ranks. Eventually Kamsky pushed forward, and Ramirez, getting low on time, decided to take his chances in an opposite-colored bishop endgame.
With Ramirez playing only on increment, he could not defend once Kamsky got his third passed pawn. Ramirez resigned after Kamsky denuded black’s best defenders. After the game, Kamsky told Ramirez that 37…e5 was the critical mistake, without which black should hold. Ramirez agreed, explaining that he did not see 39…g4 in his calculations.
“I was starting to get really nervous,” Kamsky said. “It wasn’t clear until the last move.”
Ramirez said the experience of playing worse positions was “torture”, then he was reminded that he still pockets $20,000. “I’ve never won that much in chess, ever,” he said.
After the tense playoff, Kamsky seemed more relieved than elated. He flew in from a tournament in Switzerland just days before the championship, and he has less than one week until he competes against the world’s best in Greece. “I just want to get some sleep,” he said.