Queen’s Gambit Declined

by Matthew Crouch


May 21, 2008. Radisson Hotel, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Frank K. Berry U.S. Chess Championship. Two International Chess Masters sit at an ugly green table in a cramped room, taking a deep breath. Two deep breaths.

Both women were born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Both women scored an impressive 7.5 (of 9 possible) in the round-robin stage of the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship [1] over the last nine days, but Irina Krush did it without losing a game. [2] The tiebreakers must be played on the same day as the previous round ended, because the awards ceremony is in the evening.

Krush is wearing black and playing the white pieces. Her opponent, Anna Zatonskih, is wearing white and playing the black pieces.

Krush and Zatonskih are both married to Grandmasters, and both have held this title (U.S. Women’s Chess Champion) before. Krush, the younger player, captured it at only 14 years old. [3]

Zatonskih was twice that age when she won it all in 2006. The following year’s tournament was in Oklahoma, and Krush got the title back. She defends it—hard—here at the Radisson.

Both women are right-handed. That might have, in fact, been the deciding factor.


“This is the kind of decision that one has to take intuitively…you either believe that white’s position can hold or not.” -Judit Polgár

I’m going through Grandmaster (GM) Judit Polgár’s How I Beat Fischer’s Record, trying to sort out how a bishop move “deviates from the initial plan in order to stop 10 … f4.” It’s easy enough for Polgár to say, but I’m not privy to the “initial plan,” nor am I clear how this stops f4. I get it after a minute or so, but Polgár analyzes these alternative lines instantly, without mediation. My lips move when I read over these games; Polgár just enjoys the story.

Chess players gravitate toward one of two approaches: positional or tactical. In positional chess, a player gradually establishes something of a fortress on the board, and patiently improves the placement of every piece. Pawns evolve into little wooden constellations, and appear to be named accordingly: “the Dragon,” “the Stonewall,” “the d5 Chain.” The opponent is not so much attacked as eroded away under gathering storm clouds of threats.

By contrast, tactical chess focuses on the lightning strike—the fleeting moments that offer a quick and decisive advantage. An opponent’s queen is pinned, or an irresistible sacrifice is offered that baits the hook of a mating attack. Middlebrow players (affectionately called “patzers”) focus either on tactical or positional play. GMs do both. [4] It’s a kind of ambidexterity.

The Fischer in the title is, of course, the American World Champion Bobby Fischer—if not the greatest player of all time, certainly a light that burned very bright (but not for very long).

Polgár beat Fischer’s record for “youngest grandmaster in history” by attaining the title at 15 years, 4 months (Fischer had taken a glacial 15 years and 6 months to get there). This occurred at the Radisson hotel in Budapest; Polgár’s victory in the Hungarian National Championship secured her final GM requirement. This long-awaited book surprised many with its positional astuteness, since Judit is known as one of the greatest tacticians of all time.

But the most fascinating statements in the book are like this one: “There was no question of calculating all the lines until the happy end. I mainly relied on my intuition, which said that White’s underdeveloped army should not be able to offer adequate protection to the exposed king.” Polgár tosses away pawns, even major pieces, to grab vague advantages like “strengthening control of the white squares.”

Playing a game that epitomizes cold reason, Polgár thinks and talks about personalities:

“11.h3? This is a very provocative move. Did he not know who he was dealing with?! Just a few years later, my opponents would display more caution in such situations.”

The question mark after “h3” indicates a “blunder.” Wikipedia says chess blunders are “usually caused by some tactical oversight, whether from time trouble, overconfidence or carelessness.” Costa’s overconfidence versus Polgár merits the question mark because it leads to one of those lightning strikes in short order. I flip back a couple pages to the start of the game to check the names and date. Jean-Luc Costa vs. Judit Polgár, Biel Chess Festival, 1987. Polgár had just turned 11.


“I’m playing chess with my dad…’chess.’ It’s a game, like Monopoly.” –Searching for Bobby Fisher

James E. Berry became president of Stillwater National Bank on the day the market crashed in October 1929. He did not jump out of a window (as a matter of historical fact, no one did), but thrived, eventually becoming the longest-serving lieutenant governor in Oklahoma’s history. His house at 502 S. Duck Street is in the National Register of Historic places.

Frank Berry was born on June 15, 1945, in Washington, D.C. So was his brother Jim. That, in a nutshell, is how twins work. Grandsons of the famous lieutenant governor, and the only children of a WWII soldier killed just two months before their birth, the Berry brothers have vast, deep Oklahoma roots despite their Yankee nativity.

Both men are among the top 50 chess players in Oklahoma, but Jim is slightly stronger. He could feasibly draw with the 11-year-old Polgár. Jim served as president of USCF for two years, while Frank, a retired banker and credit analyst, is a FIDE International Arbiter, of which there are about 30 in the U.S. Between the two of them, they have directed hundreds of tournaments since 1991, but only the one in Tulsa triggered a YouTube sensation.

The days of the chess media circus, with Fischer as the headline-grabbing ringleader, are long past. Local papers will run announcements about the championship, but do not in any sense cover it. In fact, the USCF is on life support, having lost the support of the American Foundation for Chess (AF4C). So the Berry brothers paid all prizes and expenses out of pocket to host the U.S. Chess Championship in Oklahoma. Twice.

I get the feeling Frank would rather be talking about opening strategy.

“Have you ever played a rated tournament?” he asks, almost before I can introduce myself. “I might answer differently, depending on your level.”

He and Jim caught the USCF between sponsors, as it were, and their off er to foot the bill—if the matches were played in the Sooner state—was accepted.

“We thought it would be good for Oklahoma, and we wanted to see if we could do it,” Frank says.

No business or government support materialized. For the 2007 Stillwater tournament, the Berrys personally hauled some of the chess masters 70 miles, from the Tulsa International Airport, in a van. This inspired them to relocate for the next year. During the 2008 tournament, the Radisson hit the brothers with fees for every request for equipment or special arrangements.


“…After talking with the players, I realized that it wasn’t the size of the room or the number of players in it–it was the way we had the tables arranged. We initially had them in three long rows, with two boards per 8-foot table. This psychologically made them feel ‘together’ and thus a bit crowded.” -Tom Braunlich of Broken Arrow, Chief Tournament Organizer

Bobby Fischer made chess popular partly by shaping it into a battle among superstars—and superpowers, in the days when there were more than one—but Irina Krush is an anti-diva, disarmingly casual in interviews and easy to please on the road. A glass of wine and the pool at the Radisson suffice to make her happy.

Fischer pounded on the chess community with his immense personality until the cash prizes reached amounts no one had thought possible. Once the money started coming in, the TV cameras showed up. To this day, in 2013, Krush keeps her forks and knives in a plastic Eskimo Joe’s cup she picked up, along with the trophy, at the 2007 event in Stillwater.

In the 19th century, the U.S. champion was decided “by acclamation,” which was very convenient for them, since it was more or less a vote on the year’s MVP. By contrast, the Vienna International Tournament of 1882 went 18 rounds over six weeks; it ended in a tie. Anticlimax is a bitch.

The first women’s championship was a year after the inaugural 1936 tournament for men. It lasted three weeks, and Adele Rivero of Manhattan won. Mary Bain took second prize, which was a beauty kit donated by Mr. C. A. Pfeiffer. Debate rages on whether there ought to be separate tournaments (and separate titles, such as FIDE’s “Woman GM”) for the two sexes. Irina Krush, who has competed for the “male” championship, chimed in when interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in 2009: “I don’t see their benefit. Women’s titles are really a marker of lower expectations.” In the other corner, Jennifer Shahade, author of Chess Bitch: “I have stopped thinking about such events as less than the events with men and started to think of them as a way to meet and compete with female colleagues.”

The 2008 championships (one for men, one for women, both in Tulsa) were nine days long—about medium size. Krush’s first game of the final day was the longest of the tournament: 108 moves over six hours. The other games averaged less than half of that. Just 15 minutes after that marathon (a draw), the women started the playoff tiebreakers with two 15-minutes per-player “rapid” games. Each one won one, as White.

In the five-minute “blitz” games that followed, the two finalists each played once as White, and once as Black. Zatonskih blundered away her game as White on the 31st move. She claims that she lost on time while “1 piece and 2 pawns up” but the board (pictured below) shows her giving away the queen on the last move.

Chess board

Now Krush needed only a draw, and had the advantage of being White. It was not to be, though. Zatonskih used her five minutes to unleash a brilliant attack and even it up again.


The (my?) mind resists equilibrium. Tie games, cochampions, equality… where’s the fun in that? We need a queen of the mountain—a concrete individual we can point to and say, “This is as good as it gets. At least this year.”

Most ties are settled by more of the game: extra innings, overtime, shootouts. There’s a debate among soccer fans about whether penalty-kick shootouts are soccer, but we can leave that aside for now. The players are using their feet, at least. In some cases, you do a lot more of what you’re tied at. Ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut about their 11-hour tennis match sometime.

Outside of chess, you’ll never see what happened at the Radisson. There must be a champion after this game, so it will be an “Armageddon” game. If the game is drawn, the champion will be Zatonskih, who has an inherent disadvantage, being Black.

But it’s not quite disadvantage enough. Since a draw is the most likely outcome of any chess game at this level, Krush will get 33 percent more time: six minutes to Anna’s four and a half. The last 10 of those 630 seconds will be among the most controversial moments in recent U.S. sports.


“This film has been dissected as much as the Zapruder JFK assassination film.”-Julian Wan of Ann Arbor, Michicgan, On Zatonskih vs. Krush, 2008, Tulsa

There are 10 people in the two-minute, 47-second video. One man disappears from the frame after a few seconds, but likely remains in attendance. The same night, 31 million people are watching David Cook win Season 7 of American Idol. [5] In the bottom right corner of the video, you can see a second camera. There is a painting on the back wall, of what I’m going to go ahead and call a grassy knoll. Nobody knows what a “knoll” is anyway.

I’ve watched it at least 50 times. Frank has identified the figures in the background: GM Larry Kaufman, WGM Tsagaan Battsetseg, Mike Tubbs of Lawton, competitor Courtney Jamison, and her mother… I’ve watched it slowed down to a fifth, a tenth, of normal speed, and still don’t know where the time goes exactly.


The New York Times article about the Tulsa championship includes a game sheet ending with the official moves:

39. Rb5 c4
40. Rb7 c3
41. Flag

Zatonskih’s c-pawn is threatening mate if it makes it to c1 and becomes a queen. Krush obtains one of the most powerful mating setups as well—a rook deep in enemy territory, on the seventh rank, as time expires. The game has ended. Officially.

In the video, however, at least six moves are clearly made by each player after number 40. The official ending is probably correct in one sense: those last moves are not chess. They are something else.

The clock is on the far side of the table, to Krush’s left and Zatonskih’s right, so it’s a shorter trip for black’s dominant hand. There is a Pause button in the middle of the clock. Either player can use this to suspend the match if an illegal move is made.

Zatonskih wears bangs and has a roundish face, not unlike a young Sandrine Bonnaire. At first, she keeps returning her hand to her chin after each move, adopting one-second-long “Thinker” poses, as if anyone has time to think. Krush repeatedly spends her extra half-second rolling up the sleeve of her black jacket.

When Krush releases the rook in move 39, the sleeve knocks over her pawn on b2. Nobody says anything; there isn’t time. Zatonskih’s hand has been poised over her own pawn during Krush’s move, and she moves to c3 while Krush is reaching for her clock. The two button presses sound like two sticks flam tapping a snare drum. Irina looks perturbed.

She’s moving at the same time as I am. While my clock is running! Should I protest? Do I have time to protest? No. Just a few more seconds; I’m way ahead. I can win this. Nearly all of Krush’s initial time advantage has evaporated. The clocks cannot be read in the video, but the players’ recollections put them at around 10 seconds for Krush, and less than three for Zatonskih. There is no question of a win or draw; one player is going to lose when her time hits zero. Krush is way ahead in time and in position, but the latter doesn’t matter.

Krush grabs her rook again, intending to make a fast, meaningless move to force Zatonskih’s clock down—but realizes that the pawn at c3 can now promote to queen, with check in only two moves. There’s no time to figure out a safe path out of check. There’s no time for reasoning.

41. bxc3 Rd8

Krush snatches up her b2 pawn—the one that’s still rolling on its square—and uses it to capture the advancing black pawn. Zatonskih again uses the tenth of a second between the move and the clock punch to move her rook.

Nonsense moves follow. The rooks on the back two ranks go side to side like targets at an animatronic shooting range. 42. Rbd7 Rc8 43. Rc7 Rd8 44. Red7 Rb8. Zatonskih looks completely unfazed.

She knocked a piece over and didn’t replace it. Should I protest? Do I have time to protest? Why is the pause button so small? It would take two seconds just to get my finger on it…


The Fischer-Spassky 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland, is the most famous, and the most unorthodox, chess match in history. Five consecutive winners had all hailed from the Soviet Union, even before the two-decade reign of the anagrammatic pair of champions, Kasparov and Karpov. The American choked in the first game, then forfeited the second when he refused to play with cameras present. It looked hopeless, but Fischer regrouped to destroy Spassky, six wins to one, over the next 24 days. When Spassky resigned the 21st game (by telephone) Fischer became the champion.

Spassky eventually conceded by telephone, with three scheduled games left unplayed.

Irina Krush is in Reykjavik at time of this writing, balancing 5-year-old recollections of Tulsa with preparations for an imminent game against GM Ivan Sokolov.

“I enjoyed my trips to Oklahoma. I’m trying to remember why exactly, but nothing specific comes to mind,” Krush  says. “I think the hospitality of the Berry brothers was one factor, plus the hotel in Stillwater had a nice indoor pool.”


At 66.5 seconds in, Irina knocks over another piece—her own rook. It rolls completely off the board, but she doesn’t need it; she has another rook on the same rank, an insurmountable advantage. In chess.

But the chess game has been over for a while. Zatonskih’s left hand is oddly cupped under her massive, new-mother’s bosom. Krush’s hand swoops over to the button and back, but Zatonskih’s darts at it like a lizard’s tongue. The last few attacks on the clock visibly shake the entire table. Someone chuckles in the chaos.

At 69.1 seconds, Zatonskih gestures at the clock, on which the electronic flag is lit. Zatonskih’s side of the display has one second left on it.

Irina has said that her career developed aspects of her personality that she associates with masculinity. “Chess has definitely made me kind of androgynous in that way… Competitiveness, analytical thinking, calculation, motivation, drive…a certain kind of like resilience and stoicness, persistence,” says the insanely pretty champ. At this moment, though, she has what can only be described as an outburst.

“Oh, come on!” she shouts, already halfway out of her chair. With her right hand, she swats her king off the board. Off the table. It hits a spectator—Courtney Jamison—on the leg. The room is silent; Zatonskih makes two quick “sorry about that” gestures with her hands, and returns to her “Thinker” pose.


“It’s not a woman’s game.”- Helene, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, Queen to Play

In Reykjavik, Irina chose the Bogo-Indian Defense against Sokolov, and resigned after her too-ambitious pawn strike leads to a bruising counterattack. I get the feeling that this fouls her mood a bit.

“[The 2008 Championship] is not a particularly pleasant memory for me. I have no interest in reliving it,” she says.

“At OSU basketball games, they have these little halftime contests for a $4,000 scooter,” Frank says. “They see how many Ding Dongs you can balance on your nose or something… They had one tiebreaker where they went down to paper, scissors, and stones. This was basically just like that.”

In the aftermath of Armageddon 2008, Krush watches the video, and sends an open letter to Chess Life Online, asserting that she and Zatonskih should be declared co-champions. The 7.5-point tie in the previous round has already established that the prize money will be split between them, about $4,000 each. Krush’s complaint was about the title. “To continue into the future, unthinkingly parroting that Anna Zatonskih is the 2008 U.S. Women’s Champion with no regard for how she ‘won’ this title, is a travesty of truth and justice… I am asking for responses to this letter from Frank Berry and Bill Goichberg.”

Krush’s argument is economic, almost philosophical. “When my opponent moved on my time, however innocuous that may appear to be, I believe that she was committing one of the worst transgressions possible: depriving me, through unfair means, of the just rewards of my labor.” Ayn Rand would be proud.

“Sharing the title would be an acceptable outcome for me,” Krush writes, “but I would certainly welcome any initiative to decide the title in over-the-board games, with real time controls that don’t degrade the participants into clock-punching monkeys.”

Her appeal fails; there are clearly aberrant actions, such as failing to restore fallen pieces, which balance out the irregularities by Zatonskih. For every sympathetic reply to her letter, there is an admonition to “get over it” or an accusation of bad sportsmanship.

“They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men,” Bobby Fischer once said. “They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man.” He is said to have changed his mind about this in later life, but if so, he did not speak publicly about it.

One thing he definitely changed is the kind of clock used. Steadfastly refusing to allow any nonrational aspects to contaminate the game (“I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves”), Fischer created the “increment clock.” This is a device that adds a small amount of time—say, five seconds—to a player’s side every time she hits the button. If she can think and move instantly, there will always be at least those five seconds to hit the button and roll up her sleeve again, if she wishes.

Variations on Fischer’s invention have been used in all championship tiebreaks since 2008; there will be no more clock-punching monkeys.

Krush leaves Reykjavik for Kazakhstan soon, for the March 2013 Women’s World Chess Team Championship; she and Zatonskih—the formerly clashing titans— are now teammates, at least for two weeks. The U.S. team finishes in the middle of the pack, but scores a surprising 2.5-1.5 victory over Russia in the seventh round, thanks in part to Irina’s victory over Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk.

And in a very real sense, her request to share the title was also granted.

The last seven U.S. Women’s Champions are, in order:

Zatonskih (2006)
Krush (2007)
Zatonskih (2008)
Zatonskih (2009)
Krush (2010)
Zatonskih (2011)
Krush (2012)

1. The U.S. Championship is the most prestigious tournament in the country, having been held regularly (almost annually) since 1936, under the auspices of the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF). Bobby Fischer also won the 1963 tournament with a perfect 11 wins and no draws. This is a record.
2. 6 wins, 0 losses, 3 draws = 7.5; Anna Zatonskih’s 7-1-1 adds up to the same.
3. When Krush became a national champion at that age, she beat a different Fischer record by a few months. Does it count, since she was only the women’s champion?
4. In a few “Super GMs,” the two approaches melt into each other: “Tactics flow from a superior position,” according to Fischer, and Polgár will make an abstract positional improvement arise from a clever trick.
5. Prior to American Idol, Cook worked for a year as a bartender at the Blank Slate, on 1st and Detroit, in Tulsa.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 9. May 1,2013.