GM Joel on Reasons to Decline Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
May 27, 2008
Dear Joel,
Why do you think some of today’s top players continue to skip the US Championship and the Olympiad?  The previous generation of players would never skip these events. It's not the US Championship if Kamsky, Nakamura, Christiansen, deFirmian, and yourself are not playing.
Ed from Providence

US Championship records

 1 Kamsky           4 tournaments 16 wins 3 losses 20 draws 1 championship
 2.Nakamura        4 tournaments 17 wins 6 losses 13 draws 1 championship
 3. Christiansen    21 tournaments 72 wins 45 losses 131 draws 3 championships
 4. deFirmian       19 tournaments 59 wins 38 losses 121 draws 3 championships
 5. Benjamin        23 tournaments 78 wins 45 losses 151 draws 3 championships


I’m not sure what you mean by “the previous generation of players,” because you have at least three generations on that list.

It’s nothing new for a premier player to sit out a U.S. Championship.  Yasser Seirawan passed on several tournaments in the 80s and 90s when the conditions were quite poor.  He usually came back for the Championships that were Interzonal qualifiers, much like last year’s participation was boosted because it was a qualifier for the World Cup.

The U.S. Championship took a big hit when it lost the sponsorship of America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C).  Frank Berry’s generous support has kept the tournament going, but with a substantially smaller prize fund.  The AF4C Championships rewarded players for staying active by providing a big financial opportunity once a year.  The U.S. Championship is still a pretty good event, but when you factor in expenses and lost income over two weeks most players will post very little profit if any at all.

The market for professionals is very gloomy these days, and many players no longer play full time.  Christiansen, de Firmian, and myself are now more involved in other aspects of the chess business. 

I don’t presume to speak for them, but Kamsky and Nakamura are world-class players and may be looking for better conditions when they play.

During dark days in U.S. Championships past, the USCF tried to make the tournaments as interesting for the top players as possible, even if the prize fund was unimpressive.  The competition in the round-robin events of the 80s and 90s was stimulating enough to help us overlook small prizes.  A round-robin event (say ten players, or slightly more depending on the prize fund) would suit the top players better.  I would certainly be more inclined to play in that case.

The current approach is to make the tournament an attainable objective for second tier players and juniors.  It’s a noble goal to offer opportunities to such players to become grandmasters.  We have other tournaments that serve that purpose, however, and no events that are purely for the elite.  Obviously there is no consensus on what the function of the U.S. Championship should be, but in my opinion we have gone off the right track.