The Windsor Times RE: The Akobian-Petrosian Match:

Grandmaster chess invitational brings in world-class players

The Town of Windsor is soon to be graced by a very rare event indeed – Sonoma County’s first grandmaster chess invitational, pitting together two world-famous chess players, Akobian and Petrosian.

As of April, there are about 1,500 grandmasters in the world. Varuzhan Akobian, 32, and Tigran L. Petrosian, 31,  both hail from Armenia, and Akobian now lives in Los Angeles. They will face off in a series of six bouts and participate in other facets of the event, which runs from June 7 – 10. The match is officially sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation and FIDE, the world chess federation.

Akobian was the fifth highest rated player in the U.S. in May 2014, with a FIDE ranking of 2615. Petrosian was named after grandmaster Tigran V. Petrosian, the first Armenian to become World Champion. His FIDE rating is 2611.

They will play six regulation games – two on Tuesday, two on Wednesday and two on Thursday, with the morning games taking place 10 a.m. at Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, and the afternoon games at 4 p.m. at Windsor’s own Café Noto.

The Paradise Ridge games require a ticket for entry, $15 per day or $45 for a four-day pass. A VIP pass is $225 per adult, and includes wine pourings, special access to the players and an invitation to the VIP dinner on June 10.

On Friday, the players will do an exhibition and play short blitz chess matches for fun.

All games at Café Noto are free, and will be streamed online via a digital chessboard that records and archives each move the players make.

The event is organized by Thomas Southerland, in partnership with the winery and café.

“I’m a patron of the arts, if you will,” he said.

Southerland, a Sonoma County native, first got inspired to host his own matches 15 years ago, through a newspaper left at a chess park in Los Angeles. “There was an article in there about a woman named (Jacqueline) Piatigorsky, and her husband, they were a very wealthy family,” he said. “Bobby Fischer actually trained at her house for the world championship. When her husband passed … she started putting on events between grandmasters and I was really inspired by that.”

Southerland is not a stranger to chess, himself. He began playing as a teenager. “There were two things that I wanted to learn in life, and that was how to play the guitar, and how to play chess, because they were the two most difficult things I could think of,” he said. “I beat everyone that I played (at chess), and then I met a master. That changed everything. I didn’t come close to beating him, but he was a friend of a friend, and he went down to his car and he got a book out – chess players have books everywhere, huge libraries.”

The master player lent Southerland the book “My System” by Aron Nimzowitsch, and told him that after he read and studied it, he would play a match with him again.

Within a year and a half he went on to study eight hours a day and beat different masters. Three of his games from the Chicago Open 1996 Championship were published in “Chess Life,” the official magazine of the US Chess Federation. “It quite literally consumed me,” he said.

Charlie Juhnke, a barista at Café Noto, said he was  excited for the upcoming match. “It is an honor to have grandmasters of chess playing at my coffee shop,” he said. “I’m loving events like this. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that this event is fun for everyone. Most importantly, (coming to a chess match) teaches children of a very intelligent and intellectually rewarding game. Make sure (your) kids have the incredible opportunity to see an event like this.”

After covering the costs of the event, all remaining proceeds go directly to the Chess Club for Kids Scholarship Fund. Chess Club for Kids teaches chess to students in 50 schools in Sonoma County.

Thomas Southerland For The U.S. Chess Federation:

Akobian Wins Californian Challenge

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By Thomas Southerland 
April 27, 2009
GM Varuzhan Akobian dominated in his match against GM Yury Shulman, winning the rapids 3.5-2.5, and the blitz 6-2. The match was held at the Robinson Racheria resort in Northern California, a few hours from San Francisco. “I’ve never been on a farm before but I really liked it.” said the winner, Akobian. The Californian didn’t get to milk any cows, but he did enjoy driving a quad. The match featured a $10,000 prize fund–Organizer Thomas Southerland gives the full story. Check the official website for more links and photos. 


Thomas Sutherland, Varuzhan Akobian and Yury Shulman, Photo Macauley Peterson 

Akobian’s mental strategy for his challenge match against GM Yury Shulman? “Hang-Loose Baby!”

Many considered this to be a nearly even match-up of two of America’s strongest players, with a slight edge going to the U.S. Champion.  So Akobian’s convincing victory came as a surprise to many.

Day 1. Arrival:

I met GM Akobian at SFO (the San Francisco airport) early in the morning on the 21st. We had several hours before the arrival of GM Shulman, so we decided to head down to Fisherman’s Wharf for some lunch and to discuss the projects that we are working on. It was then that I realized just how relaxed he was and how determined he was to bring fighting Chess to the U.S. Champion. (This was a good sign I thought.)

After lunch, we headed back to the airport to await the arrival of GM Shulman. While waiting in the airport Var and I played two short blitz matches in which he gave me 5-1 on the clock. Of Course, he demolished me. In one game he literally defeated me in 13 seconds! (Again I was thinking; “This is a good sign.)

After GM Shulman’s arrival we began the trek to the site of the match and my family’s ranch where the players and I would be staying.
At that point I was able to play some blitz with GM Shulman. Same time odds, though I didn’t fall as quickly as before while playing Var. I began to see that this match was going to be much closer than many had expected, In fact, I was thinking that Var seemed sharper on that day, and had a real chance to defeat GM Shulman in the match.

After dinner and a movie at the ranch, the players retired to their suites to rest up for the beginning of the match the next morning.

Day 2. The Match Begins:

Day one of play saw GM Akobian drawing first blood in a King’s Indian then securing a draw (The only draw out of 14 games!) in a Bogo-Indian.

Again, Var seemed very relaxed. He was confidently out-performing Shulman and clearly enjoying the occasion.
Varuzhan told CLO that the following game was his favorite from the match:

After the games we had a very nice lunch at the Tallman Hotel’s “Blue Wing Cafe” before heading back to the ranch where the players went over the games while I worked on getting our live broadcast up and running and ready for the next day’s games. Unfortunately after many hours working to establish the broadcast capabilities I was making no progress, So I decided to focus on providing the best coverage we could through ICC. Many thanks to the good people there  for helping to bring the games to the online audience.

Day 3. Akobian Leads, Shulman resolves himself:

The second day of the Rapid saw GM Shulman put a full point on the board with the Black side of the King’s Indian and GM Akobian taking the full point in round four in a Slav defense.

So after two days, Akobian led 2.5 to 1.5. It was still very close and I knew that Shulman was within striking distance. And he was obviously resolved to come-back in the rounds 5 and 6.

After the games we headed back to the ranch where the players analyzed the games from rounds 3 and 4. Then it was time to have some fun on the quads! Life in the country has many perks and the players seemed to enjoy a great deal being in the fresh air, going for walks. In addition to a competition, this was an opportunity for Yury and Var to train for the 2009 U.S. Championship, coming up in just ten days.

Late evening saw the arrival of ICC multimedia journalist Macauley Peterson to the ranch. After a brief introduction and chat he settled into the guestroom for some rest from his journey.

Day 4. Akobian Wins Rapid:

After arriving at Susan Feiler’s Lake County Wine Studio for Fridays rounds of 5 and 6 I could tell that Var seemed to be doing what we used to call in tournament tennis in Florida; “Tree-ing”. This is basically when a player’s confidence and preperation come together in a display of rare precision. An expression of being far beyond the sum of the parts. Though GM Shulman wasn’t going down without a fight!

Fridays rounds were fiercely contested with GM Akobian winning the first game in a QGD Exchange, The second game going to the U.S. Champion in a solid performance via a Catalan. Akobian was winning round six when GM Shulman dug-in and produced perhaps the greatest comeback I have ever seen at this level! I congratulated GM Shulman on an amazing game. A spectacular display of Chess Mastery. He thanked me and indicated that he was now focused on winning the blitz.

In the following two games from the rapids, Shulman made uncharacteristic blunders.

In the last round of the rapids, Akobian told CLO he had a great position, but that Yury played well to maximize complications and eventually win. The finale instructively shows the power of a rook and a passed pawn against minor pieces.

Shortly after arriving back at the ranch on Friday, the band began to show-up for the party that would unfold later in the evening.

Apparently, word quickly spread that I was throwing a party for the players and before I knew it there were way more people showing up than I had invited. Which was fine of course.

Good food, good company, and great entertainment by Neon Napalm, Michael Barrish and Friends made celebrating our hero’s victory, (California’s strongest player) over the U.S. Champion in the Rapid Match a sweet moment. Of course we also celebrated the visit of our U.S. Champion and our highly esteemed chess journalist Macauley Peterson for gracing our hometown with their enthusiastic presence.

After the party wound down, Var and Yury watched a movie in the home theatre at the ranch while Macauley and I played some blitz. Although Macauley came out well ahead of me, it was quite enjoyable.

Day 5. The Blitz:

The blitz match was very exciting for the spectators, GM Akobian was clearly on another level. It’s as if he were putting on a clinic in how to play blitz against a world-class opponent. Taking nothing away from GM Shulman, Var was was quite simply “On Fire!”. The result was a quick 6-2 victory.

Var had done it. He beat the U.S. Champion in the Rapid and the Blitz!
And the rest is history.

I’d like to personally thank both players for an outstanding showing of “Fighting Chess”.

Check out the website of the match, 

The boy rested his head on a picnic table overlooking a Santa Rosa vineyard Monday, his intense gaze now level with the chess board.

From this angle, Pranav Thyagarajan thought he spotted a path to victory. But when his opponent effectively ended the match on the next move with what’s known as a pawn promotion, the 11-year-old glanced up at his father and said softly, “I didn’t see it.”

No wonder. The boy’s opponent ­— Tigran L. Petrosian — is considered one of the world’s best players, having attained the title of grandmaster. Petrosian is in Santa Rosa this week to square off against fellow grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian in what is being billed as Sonoma County’s first invitational match featuring players of such caliber.

Play between the two Armenian-born men begins this morning at Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, followed in the afternoon by another session at Cafe Noto in Windsor. The matches, which are open to the public, continue through Thursday.

Prior to the start of competition, the grandmasters took time on Monday to play chess with more than two dozen kids from across Sonoma County. The event at Paradise Ridge was organized by Chess for Kids, which fosters love of the game in dozens of schools in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Jolie Cook, the organization’s president, called it an “incredible opportunity,” comparing play against grandmasters to playing baseball with Buster Posey.

“These are some of the best players in the world,” she said.

Petrosian, who is named after the first Armenian to obtain the title of world champion, earned the right to take on current world champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, in a June 23 match on

Such matches are often marked by incredible tension. But Monday at Paradise Ridge, Petrosian appeared smiling and relaxed.

“I want to make it fun for them,” he said of the kids. “I remember me at that age, playing grandmasters.”

He and Akobian squared off against 26 kids in a round of speed chess, the men going from one board to the next to make their next moves. The kids, most in grades K-6, sat at picnic tables beneath a large oak tree as an evening sun cast shadows across vineyards in the valley below.

Katie Thomas, 9, a student at Strawberry Elementary School in Santa Rosa, said her dad taught her how to play chess last year. She said she enjoys the game because “you really have to think what the other person is doing.”Liam Morrison planned to use his patented “Liam Opening” against Petrosian, a series of moves involving a bishop and pawn to get to the grandmaster’s queen.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Petrosian ended the match with the sixth-grader at Cali Calmecac Language Academy after about 45 minutes, much to the boy’s dismay.

“I thought it would take longer,” Morrison said.

After the matches, Akobian and Petrosian posed for photos and signed autographs. They also gave a lecture on a few chess moves.

The two men most recently competed against one another at the Chicago Open in late May. In Sonoma County, they will play for pride and an undisclosed amount of prize money.

The Paradise Ridge matches are being held at 10 a.m. today through Thursday. Admission is $15 and free for those 18 and under. The Cafe Noto matches in Windsor are at 4 p.m. and free to the public. Exhibition games also are scheduled for Friday. 

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All proceeds from the event will go to Chess for Kids’ scholarship program, according to match organizer Thomas Southerland. For more information, visit

Interview with Thomas Southerland

Derek Odom talked to the organizer of the Akobian – Shulman match

akobian shulman

California’s #1 GM Varuzhan Akobian meeting the U.S. Champion GM Yury Shulman in a four day rapid match April 22-25, 2009. With average rating over 2630 ELO, Akobian and Shulman are surely among the most popular chess players in the USA. Derek Odom had the chance to speak to the organizer of this event and manager of GM Akobian, Thomas Southerland. Here is the exclusive interview for


Thomas Southerland: The short answer is clearly “The Fans”. Chess has the best fans in the world. Loyal, thoughtful,
purposeful in their actions. These are the people that I want to work for. And of course there seems to be this vacuous abyss in the U.S. for these types of events. I guess I feel compelled to fill this void with something very special.


T: That’s a great question and I have gotten it a lot. It is a fact that we have the cleanest air in the state and the best bass fishing west of the Mississippi. But the main reason is the interest of the venue and the community. Of course it is my job is
to provide the absolute best conditions for the players. So, Lake County is the perfect combination for the match.


T: We have the media support by GM Susan Polgar, Chessdom, Jennifer Shahade and the USCF, Chessbase, IM John Donaldson, Mark Crowther, Closet GrandMaster,
ChessToday, and ICC. They are promoting the event along with the good people of our community, including the Rotary Club, Robinson Rancheria, our local radio network, wineries, the County itself, and really just too many to mention here. 

I am entitled the organizer of this event, though in truth there are so many people involved without whose help it would simply not be possible.


T: Oh for sure! I have received so many emails about this match that it’s hard to believe. This is our sport, and to have two of the most highly regarded players
competing in a match like this in America is motivating for players of every age.

Exactly these types of matches could raise the interest in chess. I remember interviewing GM Denker back in 1996, Before the interview he played a simul. An old friend of mine and I attended the simul, and of course we both lost. Actually, GM Denker in his 70s Crushed both of us! :) -But the enthusiasm of the crowd was very energizing, which is surely good for Chess.


T: Oh, there are so many inspirations. I have learned a ton about promoting events from Don King, he’s the Master of course. And as far as execution?
George Foreman taught me that “One should plan their work and work their plan” Which sounds alot like a strong chess player….


T: I am GM Akobian’s manager, business partner, student, and close friend.


T: Well, he is a very graceful person as you know. Of course he will say that GM Shulman is a strong opponent, and that he just hopes for a good event for the fans. Though he is also a determined player who always looks for the win.


T: He does. I know that winning the title is very important to him. I told him recently that he will win it when he is ready. I told him, “Yes My Friend
you will win it when you decide that your are ready to win it, the choice is yours”. And I truly believe that the choice is his, as on any given day he can hand any GM in this country a crushing defeat. He has the talent, the training, and the experience. At this point it is only psychological.


T: GM Akobian is very committed to giving back to the community. In April 2008 GM Akobian played a Free Simul at the Junior College in Santa Rosa, CA. Of course this is not typical to do this type of event for free, We felt very honored and everyone had a great time.
Also GM Akobian teaches some of the nation’s brightest young players at the Karpov Chess Camp in Kansas. I keep saying to him that I think that this is the best work he is doing, these kids are being trained by a legend.


T: 2 rapid games 30 min each of the first three days, then 10 blitz games on Saturday.


T: Yes, for sure they are both professionals. This is a great time control for the fans, moves on the run always make for interesting play at this level.


T: Yes, Thank You, the official website is All games will be available there as well, and also relayed on


T: Thank you for having me.

Chess Thursdays continues at Lake County Wine Studio

 07 MAY 2011

UPPER LAKE, Calif. – Lake County Wine Studio is continuing the weekly Thursday series of chess education and game playing.


The games take place from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Grandmaster-trained chess expert Thomas Southerland is the guest educator at this series. Southerland has written articles for the prestigious European Chess Web site,, and also for the Official U.S. Chess Federation Website, Southerland had two games from the Chicago Open 1996 published in the official magazine of the USCF, “Chesslife,” for their brilliance according to Life Master Jerry Hanken.

He also has organized and sponsored the first-ever Online Grand Master Chess Event at Internet Chess Club in 1996, and has remained active partners in organizing and promoting Grand Master Chess Events with ICC to this day. Southerland has interviewed for radio, Grandmasters Var Akobian, Yury Shulman (2008 U.S. Champion) and Israeli Grandmaster Victor Mikhalevski, and was promoted by Grandmaster Susan Polgar (Former Women’s World Champion) during his last event. He organized the two-day multiple rapid chess matches between Grandmasters Var Akobian and Yury Shulman held in April 2009 at the Lake County Wine Studio and is currently working to organize his next major chess event to be held in beautiful Lake County in the early summer of 2011.

Southerland offers insight into strategy fundamentals of end, middle and opening games to help players improve their games.

Lake County Wine Studio is located on the corner of First and Main Streets in historic Upper Lake, across from the famous Tallman Hotel and Blue Wing Saloon.

For more information, contact Susan Feiler at 707-275-8030 or 707-293-8752;