Irina Krush win her seventh US Chess Championship the past weekend in St. Louis. In doing so, she notched her fourth consecutive US title and became without question the best American woman player of her generation and, really, in history.
It didn’t come easy for Krush. Although she was the only Grandmaster in the women’s side of the 12-player, 11-round tournament, she slipped back in the standings early and had to win four games in a row to set up a opportunity to snag the title with a draw in her final game (with the white pieces) against Katerina Nemcova.
In retrospect, however, Krush’s win was easier than her victory last year, when she defended her title in tie-breaker rounds.
This year, her run began with a decisive win over Annie Wang, the youngest player in the field at age 12. Wang became a Master at age 11, a pretty stunning achievement. Her presence in the US Championship was extra-special for me because she’s from Southern California — where my I and my family used to live — and has worked with worked with an organisation there called Beyond Chess that my son, James, has also spent some time with.
But she was no match for Krush, who won her first US Championship when she was 14, making her the youngest woman winner ever. Krush commented that she’d like to keep on competing, perhaps challenging the record of Gisela Gresser, a 9-time champion, with titles in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
Interestingly, while there are many more male GMs and highly ranked male players, we now have plenty of women in the game — and no reason why over time women and men couldn’t more frequently play each other at the top levels. In some tournaments, they already do (Krush’s GM title, by the way, is the equivalent of a man’s — she isn’t a “Woman Grandmaster” of WGM, due her high rating, and its worth noting that the GM title has been gender-neutral for decades).
Krush’s comment about Gresser was classy and demonstrated the Ukranian-born GM’s grasp of chess history (she came to the US when she was 4 and now hails from Brooklyn). Of course, women’s chess in Krush era is a lot more demanding that when Gresser played — the talent pool is deeper, players start a lot younger, the coaching is more intense, and computer analysis enables players to far more deeply prepared than in the past.
For Krush, now 31, the obvious question is, “Can she contend for the World Championship crown?” That title is currently held by Mariya Muzychuk of Ukraine, although she captured it through a “knock-out” tournament format that saw the previous World Champ, Hou Yifan of China, decline to play.
Krush is in the top 30 in the world, but although women’s chess has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, there isn’t as well-established a global circuit for female players as there is for men. Krush is known for her contributions to U.S. international team titles, but her ranking is also significantly below that of the women in the world top 10.
In the US Championship, held at the stupendous Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis, Krush stumbled early, with a loss to Nazi Paikidze, a 21-year-old who ended up in second-place tie (Paikidze is from for former Soviet republic of Georgia and only switched her affiliation recently when she came to US to play for the powerhouse chess team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County).
I won’t go through the entire game, just show the final position. There wasn’t much Krush could do about that phalanx of white pawns marching down the center of the board — especially given that her black rook on a6 is unable to move across the 6th rank:
Obviously, Krush cut a swath through much of the rest of the field, but she did get outmaneuvered by Paikidze, something that doesn’t fit Krush’s style, which is to play powerful chess, exerting strategic dominance over her opponents while looking for tactical possibilities.
She might have missed her longtime rival, Anna Zatonskih, but she won the tournament by a full point (8.5/11), vindicated her ranking and position in the field as the favourite, and bolstered her legend.
But don’t think she’s some kind of scary juggernaut. Although she’s intimidating, she has a shaggy, slightly punk edge, a pile of not-always-too-carefully arranged hair spilling everywhere and a fashion sense that suggests a Sleater-Kinney groupie more than a Chess Life cover girl (which doesn’t mean she can’t pull off a dress with aplomb — see below). She is, in a word, cool.
And with her win in St. Louis, she’s the best female American chess player we’ve even seen.
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