Irina Krush defies COVID to win 8th US Championship

Irina Krush has won her 8th US Women’s Chess Championship,
her first since 2015, after scoring an unbeaten 8.5/11. It was fitting that
Irina won this year’s event – held as an online rapid tournament due to the pandemic
– as she’d fallen seriously ill in March. She was inspired by Joel Benjamin
winning the US Senior Championship, noting, “we’re both COVID survivors in the
year 2020 – that’s kind of a big thing!” 17-year-old Carissa Yip’s five wins in
her last six games were only enough for 2nd place, while Dorsa Derakhshani took
a surprise 3rd.

You can replay all the games from the 2020 US Women’s Chess
Championship using the selector below.

And here’s the final day’s commentary with Jennifer Shahade,
Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan, including an interview with Irina Krush at
the end.

The final standings looked as follows:

Irina Krush’s victory means that she’s now won the US Women’s
Chess Championship eight times, leaving her just one win short of the record
set by Gisela Kahn Gessler (1906-2000), who won the event nine times between
1944 and 1969. Irina said afterwards, however, that she wasn’t thinking about
the history:

I see this tournament as just like a singular event. I don’t
really think about those other tournaments before, but after these four days of
play, all the stress, all the preparation, for it to finally end in the way you
want it to end, what you’ve been working for, that just feels amazing! And I’m
so happy also for all the people that root for me, that’s a very big motivating
factor – it’s not just for myself. I feel the support of my friends, my family,
my students, my coach, all these people that are supporting me and watching the
games and hoping I’m going to do well. I want to be able to make them happy.

She certainly did that, and the victory was all the more
remarkable for another reason. Irina asked in the post-tournament interview:

First of all, I think guys there was honestly a clue that I
had a good chance to win this tournament, or at least a chance. There was a
clue, if you believe in signs. Could you think of anything that would have told
you that I could win?

No correct answers were forthcoming, so Irina explained:

Joel won, and what do Joel and I have in common – something very
big! COVID! We’re both COVID survivors in the year 2020, that’s kind of a big
thing. It was sort of emblematic of this year, and so when I saw Joel win, out
of all these strong players, the one COVID survivor won, I was like wow,
interesting, maybe that opens up the door for me!

56-year-old Joel Benjamin was the runaway winner of the US
Senior Championship, held just before the women’s event and with a similar
format (you can click on any result to go to a game).

But while Joel had suffered only mild symptoms, 36-year-old
Irina needed to be hospitalised in March and has had to live with so-called “Long
Covid” ever since. She’s taken to walking to improve her fitness and says she’s
lost almost 20 lbs (9kg), though some improvements only appeared around the
time of the tournament.

I have been feeling better, actually just around the time
the championship started I feel like my chest sort of loosened up and got less
tight, and it’s not perfect but it’s decent. I’m just kind of used to a
different baseline of health now, but I feel fortunate that it still permits me
to do things like play chess.

In fact Irina had never abandoned chess, even at the darkest

I remember when I got COVID I was just back from the
hospital for a day and I played, Jen, in your tournaments. Remember it was the
Isolated Queens, and I figured out how to stream that, and the thing is I was
not out of the woods at all and I knew there was a second week coming in my
illness, which was the most dangerous, and it was kind of crazy, here I am
playing chess, making this effort to stream for the first time in my life, why
am I doing this? To me it was like, well, if I die I want to be doing what I
love to do, so that was the thinking back then. Not to be depressing, but that’s
just… COVID was a pretty serious thing!

The way the tournament went was almost perfect, with Irina
scoring an unbeaten +6, though the first day was a little shaky. 

19-year-old Ashritha
Eswaran, the only player to beat runner-up Carissa Yip, could also have beaten
Irina, in the first round.

31.Qh6! is winning, threatening Rg7 and a quick mate. The
only defence is 31…Rg6 32.Rxg6 fxg6 but then 33.Bxc5! leaves Black a pawn down and
unable to deal with the threats from White’s passed pawns.

After 31.Rg5? Rxg5 32.Qxg5 Rg8, however, it was Black who
took over, with Irina going on to win. Then in the 3rd round of the first day
Carissa Yip had a chance to win a game that in hindsight turned out to be

18.Nd6+! (18.Nxf7 Kxf7 19.Nd6+ is also good) 18…Bxd6
19.Bxd5! exd5 20.Qxd5 and White is crashing through, but after 18.f4?! Rc8
19.a3 b4 20.a4? b3!
it was Irina on top, though she in turn let her
opponent off the hook for a draw.

Annie Wang ended the first day in the lead, but after a much
more convincing Day 2 Irina had taken a half-point lead. It was the same after
Day 3, though Carissa Yip had in fact seized the lead by winning three games in
a row, until Round 9. Carissa tried a desperate piece sac in a difficult
position against Ashritha Eswaran…

…but couldn’t avoid defeat, while Irina defeated Tatev
Abrahamyan in style. 19…h6? ran into 20.Rd5! Qc7 21.Rc1 Nc6:

There are multiple ways to crash through, including Irina’s
22.Rxf5! hxg5 23.hxg5! gxf5 24.Qh5! and there was no defence against g6 and
White’s raking bishops supporting the queen’s assault on the black king. Irina
revealed she hadn’t followed the standings and didn’t realise she needed to win
that game to overtake Carissa.

I didn’t treat the game with Tatev as like a must-win game.
It was like must-play – you’ve got to sit down and play some moves, and
whatever happens, happens. And of course it worked out to be a very important
win yesterday for the standings, and today was another big day and again, my
only thought was I’m going to play one game, and then I’m going to play another
game, and then it’s going to end.

Tatev was playing in a traditional Armenian headdress, with
her thoughts on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

On the final day Irina refuted a piece sac by 2017 US Women’s
Champion Sabina-Francesca Foisor and then won a thriller against 18-year-old Emily
Nguyen. Irina pointed to one moment:

I don’t know if you guys noticed it, but when I chose to
play 26.Qg6! instead of 26.Qxc6. I thought the endgame, taking the pawn, was
pretty decent for me, but then I was like, “let me just end this game, let me
just go for the win”, although it got very unclear and I missed her move Qb5,
which was a very good try. And I was just completely terrified at this moment
that I was going to mess it up and I was very lucky it worked out.

In fact computers claim the endgame after Qxc6 is almost
equal, while White is winning with 26.Qg6! Bf6 27.g5! Rag8 28.Rh1 Qb5!

This is the move that rocked Irina, threatening Qe2+, but White
was in fact still in control, as she proved with 29.Kf3! (29.Kf2! may be even
better) 29…Rxh1 30.Rxh1 Rf8 31.Kg3! Qe2 32.gxf6+ Rxf6? 33.Qxg7+! and it turned out
White had a mating attack. Irina’s celebration was up there with the best we’ve
seen online this year!

Irina had in fact been pushed all the way, since Carissa Yip
also won both her games on the final day (and five of her last six) to finish
only half a point behind.

It would have been a famous double for the 17-year-old, who
had earlier won the US Girls Championship.

The revelation of the event, however, was perhaps
22-year-old Dorsa Derakhshani, whose focus in recent years has been on studying
medicine. She won some brilliant attacking games and lost just one game on the
way to seizing bronze.

The negative surprise of the event was 4-time US Women’s
Champion Anna Zatonskih finishing rock bottom with a winless -4.

Now we switch to the main US Championship, which features former
champions Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Sam Shankland as well as 2700 stars
Leinier Dominguez and Jeffery Xiong. The 19-year-old goes into the event after
just missing out in the US Junior Championship.

Jeffery lost the playoff to fellow 19-year-old John Burke
despite missing wins in all three playoff games. The first two ended in draws,
while Jeffery lost the Armageddon on time in a position with an extra queen
and rook and mate-in-3 on the board!

The major missing player in the event is, of course, Fabiano
Caruana, who was supposed to be playing in the Candidates Tournament from
November 1st.

It should be a fascinating tournament, with
Dominguez-Nakamura the heavyweight clash of the first round.

Tune in to Jennifer Shahade, Maurice Ashley and Yasser
Seirawan from 19:00 CET on Monday
– note that’s an hour earlier than usual in
Europe, since clocks changed to winter time in Europe today but don’t change
for another week in the US. 

See also:

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