The 2018 U.S. Junior Championship is now stronger than ever. At the tournament running July 11-21 at the Saint Louis Chess Club, five out of 10 players held the GM title. But for all of these upstarts, winning the event is one of their only paths into the U.S. championship, where the qualification rating keeps creeping higher.
GM Awonder Liang coveted the automatic (re-)entry into America’s national championship, so he returned to defend his junior title from 2017.
“The main goal was definitely to qualify to the U.S. championship,” Liang told Chess.com, “although winning the U.S. Junior Closed itself was a nice bonus as well.”
GM Awonder Liang (right) just before IM Praveen Balakrishnan’s blunder late in their pivotal eighth round game. | Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.
Meanwhile, the 14-year-old FM and WIM-elect Carissa Yip took a “break” from her ChessKid article writing to win the U.S. Junior Girls’ Championship. She also needed a last-round draw, but unlike Liang, she faced the second-place contender (WGM Jennifer Yu) head-to-head in that ninth round. But like Liang, she got the job done and her draw made the final margin one full point (7.0/9).
Both Liang and Yip were second-highest rated in their respective sections when sorted by FIDE rating.
Liang’s title defense was clinched after a last-round draw with GM Akshat Chandra put him at 6.5/9 and just out of reach of the surprising result of IM Advait Patel. Despite starting the 10-player round-robin with three straight draws, Liang said his second title wasn’t as taxing as his first, when he was an IM in 2017.
“I think it was a little bit easier this time because I already had the experience that came from winning the junior championship last year,” Liang said. “I played more solid and had fewer up-and-down moments this time. Although there were a few games in which I was worse or close to lost positionally, I never really felt in serious danger in any particular game. In other words, I remained calm and confident all the time during the entire tournament, whereas the same cannot be said of the previous year.”
These are kids, so post-tournament bughouse is practically a must. | Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.
He said the final-round draw wasn’t really the moment the title was in hand. Instead, it came in round the day before, and it ended up being his biggest hurdle.
“The game against Praveen (Balakrishnan) was definitely the toughest game for me in the event. I came into the round playing Black against Praveen, who thus far had been undefeated. Leading by half a point, winning this game essentially would mean winning the championship as I had white the last round.”
The grandmaster decided his best bet was to mix it up from his normal routine: “I decided to play a slightly dubious opening in order to avoid my well-performing opponent’s preparation. And in doing so, I quickly got into a worse position.”
The opening was just the beginning of the story, as Liang then dug himself out of the hole. He persevered to win the game, and essentially, the championship.
“Praveen played very well even in time pressure, and we reached a drawn endgame,” Liang said. “I chose to continue the game even with the vastly reduced material on the board. Eventually the persistence paid off as he blundered in time trouble.”
Just as he thought, the following day’s draw as White came without issue (Liang had forced all but one pair of bishops off the board by move 30). Liang therefore punched his ticket back to St. Louis in 2019 for another U.S. championship.
He said he plans take what he learned in April and apply it next year.
“I think the main thing that I learned was that although every player was very strong, it was still possible to beat them,” he said. “It was also important to keep calm and play the next game well even when things didn’t go well in the previous round.”
Also notable this year was the participation of FM Annie Wang, one of only a handful of girls to play in the U.S. Junior in the last few decades. While she finished last, the delight of the 2018 U.S. Women’s Championship did scalp the tournament’s top player, GM Ruifeng Li.
Next up for Liang? The U.S. Open! He practically has to play—it’s in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin (“an exceptionally beautiful city”). He will also compete in the World Junior Championship in Turkey in Istanbul.
He said he still remembers GM Garry Kasparov’s inscription in a book given to him: “The sky’s the limit.” Liang said that, despite the metaphor, any “limits” in his career have been caused by lack of funding. But with the $6,000 he just won, the support of the Sinquefields, and the Samford Fellowship share that just began this month, he said he hopes that will allow him to achieve his full potential.
“I will keep fighting in chess for sure. If I have the backing, I believe that I can do anything that others can in chess.”
“Hi Annie, are you lost?”—”No, I’m supposed to be on this side of the room.” | Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.
Image courtesy Spectrum Studios.
Unlike Liang, Yip likely didn’t need to win the U.S. Junior Girls’ in order to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Championship next spring, but now it’s all academic anyway. Consequently, she said that wasn’t her main motivator like it was for Liang (Yip qualified but couldn’t play in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Championship; such are the demands of entering high school!).
Curiously, Yip dropped a game, but still ended up with more points than Liang. Starting 4.5/5 will do that for you. After a sixth-round loss, she picked up where she left off with two more wins, none more important than in round eight, where she faced FM Maggie Feng.
FM and soon-to-be WIM Carissa Yip (right) in her key game against FM Maggie Feng. | Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.
Just like Liang, Yip’s eighth-round clash was her key win, also as Black. She annotated the game for Chess.com:
That win set up a final round with Jennifer Yu, the top seed (according to FIDE ratings; in US Chess ratings, Yip is slightly higher). Despite being ahead one full point, that still meant Yip needed a score of some sort on the final day.
“I needed not to lose, which brought a lot of stress, and I was tired as well since it was at the end of the tournament,” Yip told Chess.com. She ceded the bishop pair but not the initiative, and after some trades, Yip got the needed draw without any issues.
Yip said her winnings with either go to her parents or to her college fund, but there’s a good chance they are one and the same! She’s now going into 10th grade, but she’s not yet sure the role chess will play as she progresses.
“Chess will always be a huge part of my life,” she said.
Image courtesy Spectrum Studios.