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12 Aug

The Rising Phoenix

When you get inducted into the Hall of Fame - any Hall of Fame, for that matter - it’s widely perceived that your best playing days are well behind you, though your legend lives on. But try telling that to the redoubtable four-time U.S. champion GM Alexander Shabalov, who recently turned in a dominating performance to capture the 116th U.S. Open, held this year in Phoenix.

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Shabalov was the 2015 inductee to the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame, as he joined an illustrious group of 54 currently there. He’s a popular player on the U.S. circuit, with many admiring his aggressive, creative play - influenced by his legendary first mentor, the great Mikhail Tal - that is thrilling to watch. And since arriving from Latvia in 1990, he’s won over many friends and fans with his explosive play at the board, which has played an important part of reigniting American chess.

And in his acceptance speech back in April, Shabalov made a point of telling those in attendance that this was "not a retirement speech." And Shabalov lived up to his words by being back to his brilliant best in Phoenix as he won, tricked and blustered his way to yet another U.S. Open title (he’s won or shared the title on four previous occasions), with a phenomenal winning run of eight games before ceding a draw with Ukrainian GM Illia Nyzhnyk in the final round to claim first place with an 8.5-0.5 score.

Shabalov’s path to the crown was made all the easier as he beat a trio of top-rated Texans - GMs Alejandro Ramirez, Bartlomiej Macieja and IM Andrey Golovets - starting in Round 6. His ‘Texan trifecta’ not only took him to the U.S. Open title but also qualified him again for the U.S. Championship (his first since 2013) next year in St. Louis, where he’ll be back in the hunt for title number five.

GM Alexander Shabalov - GM Bartlomiej Macieja
116th US Open, (6)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Sämisch Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 The Sämisch variation in the Nimzo-Indian Defence is back in vogue again, mainly because Magnus Carlsen faced some very difficult positions against it during his title matches with Vishy Anand. 4...d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.dxc5 Qa5 9.e4 Nf6 Taking on c3 is just bad. Very bad: 9...Nxc3 10.Qd2 Nc6 11.Bb2 Na4 12.Qxa5 Nxa5 13.Bxg7 Rg8 14.Bf6 Nxc5 15.Nh3 b6 16.Nf4 where White not only has the better pawn structure (2 pawn islands vs 3 pawn islands) and the bishop pair, but he also has serious threats of a knight landing on f6. 10.Be3 0-0 11.Qb3 Nfd7 12.a4 Qc7 13.Qa3 b6 14.a5 Perhaps slightly better was 14.cxb6 but after 14...axb6 15.Nh3 Ba6! Black has good counterplay down the a- and c-files for the pawn. 14...Bb7 15.Ne2 bxc5 16.Nf4 Ba6 17.Nd3 Rc8 18.Bf4 Qd8 19.Rd1 Nc6 20.Nxc5 White may have won a pawn, but he faces serious problems defending a5, c3 and getting his king to safety. 20...Bxf1 21.Nxd7 Shabalov is playing poker here - and he's bluffing! He really now had to go for 21.Rxf1 Qf6! 22.Bd6 Nde5 23.Qa2 and try to consolidate all his weaknesses. 21...Bxg2 22.Rg1 Bxf3 23.Bg5 (See Diagram) 23...Bxd1? Just like Shabalov's legendary mentor, the great Mikhail Tal, there's a 'fear factor' element when you played him, and he won many spectacular games with unsound sacrifices because his opponents saw 'phantom attacks' that proved afterwards to be unsound. And Shabalov similarly has a little of this 'fear factor', with opponents seeing attacks that are not there - and this proves to be the case here, where Macieja was winning after the very simple 23...Qc7! 24.Bh6 (The only other alternative gets nowhere fast: 24.Nf6+ Kh8 25.Rd2 Ne5 and Black is easily winning.) 24...g6 25.Rd2 Ne5! (Not 25...Qxa5? 26.Qxa5 Nxa5 27.Nf6+ Kh8 28.Rd7 and White is winning, as f7 is doomed and the bishop on f3 is also somewhat short of squares. ) 26.Nf6+ Kh8 27.c4 Qxc4 28.Bf4 Qc1+ 29.Qxc1 Rxc1+ 30.Kf2 Rxg1 31.Kxg1 Nc4 32.Rc2 Rc8 (Being greedy and taking on a5 is fraught with dangers: 32...Nxa5?! 33.Be5 Kg7! 34.Kf2 Bd1 35.Rc5 Nb7 36.Rc7 Nd8 37.Nd7+ Kh6 38.Bf6 and White is threatening Ne5 and Bxd8.) 33.Kf2 Bd1 34.Rc3 Ba4 and Black is untangling himself, and has good chances of winning the endgame with his extra two pawns. 24.Bxd8 Rxd8 25.Qd6! Bringing the queen into play and maintaining the knight like a thorn in the heart of the Black camp. 25...Ba4 26.Kf2 Kh8 27.Ra1 Rac8 Black's minor pieces are in a tangle, and no better was 27...Bb5 28.c4! Rac8 29.cxb5 Nb8 30.Rg1! Rxd7 (30...Nxd7? 31.Rd1 wins) 31.Qe5 Rg8 and the simplest win for White is 32.Rxg7! Rxg7 33.Qxb8+ Rg8 34.Qe5+ Rg7 35.Qc5! and Black can't connect the rooks with ...f6, as Qf8+ wins. 28.Rxa4 Nb8 29.Rb4 Nxd7 30.Rd4! The pin down the d-file is a winner. The rest of the game is simply a technicality, with Black resigning as the time control is made. 30...Rxc3 31.Qe7 Rb8 32.Rxd7 Rb2+ 33.Ke1 h6 34.Qxf7 Rc1+ 35.Rd1 Rc8 36.Qxe6 Rcb8 37.Qe5 R2b4 38.Rd7 Rb1+ 39.Ke2 R8b2+ 40.Kd3 1-0

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