2024 National Middle School Championship: Almost 1,200 Players Take Flight in Atlanta

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Top-seeded Eric Chang Liu (Right, front) and 1,174 more middle-schoolers shake hands at the start of round one (Photo Caroline King)


The 2024 National Middle School (K-8) Championship officially began yesterday, May 10, with 1,175 players participating in Atlanta, Georgia. 177 players are competing in the K-8 Championship section, with others competing across five "under" sections as well as a section for unrated players. 

The opening ceremony began, as always, with a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and a few flight delays weren't going to get in the way of tradition:



It is also worth noting — and celebrating — that, for the first time in US Chess history, all key chief positions for a national event are headed by women:


All-women chiefs
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From left: Karen Pennock, AZ, Floor Chief; Maret Thorpe, IL, Backroom Chief; Ranae Bartlett, AL, Executive Director; Martha Underwood, AZ, Chief Tournament Director; Kim Cramer, AZ, Chess Control Manager

Blitz and Bughouse

Thursday's K-8 Blitz Championship saw a bit of madness atop the standings, which hopefully (from spectators' perspectives, at least) is an auspicious sign of competitive games coming in the days ahead. Winning first on tie-breaks was California's CM Ethan Guo. Guo also played in the K-5 Championship section of the National Elementary School Championship just two weeks ago, and is starting the K-8 Championship on board five despite only being in fifth grade. In second, also with a 10½/12 score, was eighth-grader Nikash Vemparala from Washington. 


Nikash Ethan
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Vemparala (L) and Guo are our K-8 Blitz co-champs, with Guo taking first on tiebreaks (Photo Caroline King)


North Carolina's Andrew Wu, a sixth-grader, finished third on tiebreaks with a 10/12 score. This put Wu ahead of top-rated FM Eric Chang Liu, who finished fourth. Liu won last year's K-8 Championship with a 7/7 score, but was only seventh (with 9½/12) in last year's blitz event, so don't take this as a sign of rustiness! 


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Maybe bughouse really is a game for kids? Hunter Hong (L) and Tommy Kozlek won the K-8 Bughouse Championship despite both still being in elementary school (Photo Caroline King)


In the K-8 Bughouse Championship, second-grader Tommy Kozlek (MA) and fourth-grader Hunter Hong (GA) won with a perfect score of 14/14 in what turned out to be a Double Round Robin between the eight teams of players. Not only is this a huge victory for elementary-aged bughouse enthusiasts everywhere, but it's actually Kozlek's second bughouse championship of the season, having won with Leon Li in Columbus as well. 


Guest Grandmaster

Nemcova simul
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Guest grandmaster WGM Katerina Nemcova played a 30-board simul Friday morning to kick off a weekend of blitz, banter, and educational lectures (Photo Caroline King)


WGM Katerina Nemcova kicked off her weekend of activities with a 30-board simultaneous exhibition Friday morning. A number of players showed up prepared to give her a good fight, and two players even earned victories:




The two victors in Nemcova's simul: Gideon Sunjay Richard and Saharsh Santosh (Photos Caroline King)


Four more players held Nemcova to a draw. Three are below and the fourth (Nishita Jaikumar) will be added later this evening. While one was rather quiet in nature, the others were more up-and-down:






Four players also grabbed draws off Nemcova. From left: Adhrit Bharath in a quick, positional game, and Joel and Jude Davis thanks to a couple of astute tactical opportunities that the Davises pounced on, and finally a rollicking game against Nishita Jaikumar. (Photos Caroline King)


Even more players got a chance to go head-to-head with Nemcova later that afternoon, with the first of her three "All Comers" blitz sessions.


Photos Caroline King


To catch Nemcova in action today or tomorrow, follow her schedule here.


The Main Event

The first two rounds of the K-8 Championship (and other K-8 sections) featured an entertaining mix of strong showings from the top seeds and a few upsets to keep things fresh. 

In the first round, board nine saw a 456-point upset when Neal Thio Hong, a seventh-grader from New York, took down Andrew Wu just a day after Wu's impressive third-place showing in the blitz tournament. 


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Neal Thio Hong's king finally found safety in the center of the board at the end of a wild upset (Photo Caroline King)


The following game is easily one of the most entertaining and head-spinning affairs I've seen in one of these tournaments, with both players trading haymakers against each other's uncastled, exposed kings. This is a great game to show anybody who tries to tell you the French Defense is a boring opening!



Boards three and four were also held to draws in the first round, with local seventh-grader and two-time Rockefeller champion Andrew Jiang being held to a draw by New York eighth-grader Rhyan Grennan before Jiang withdrew from the event. CM Neeraj Harish, an eighth-grader from Washington, was also unable to muster more than a half-point against Mahendra Lavanur, a seventh-grader from Illinois. 


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Mahendra Lavanur put on a clinic of how to play active defense to draw a rook endgame against a much higher-rated opponent (Photo Caroline King)


When a game between players rated over 400 points apart ends in a draw, it is typically because of a one-move blunder or brilliancy that tips the scales. Instead, Lavanur's draw broke the mold as Harish applied considerable pressure with a pawn sac in an unfamiliar sideline of the Sveshnikov Sicilian, yet Lavanur never lost track of the position and even showed considerable technique activating the rooks in the resulting endgame.



The reigning champion — FM Eric Chang Liu — has now made it nine wins in a row in the K-8 Championship, getting off to a hot start on board one with back-to-back wins. That said, Liu's second-round game could have easily turned into an all-time memorable endgame save from his opponent in a gorgeous variation that deserves to be published here:



Indeed, going back to Liu's four win, three draw performance in 2022, Liu has now gone 16 games without a loss in the K-8 Championship. 


FM Liu
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Will Liu make it a third straight year in the K-8 Championship without a loss? (Photo Caroline King)


Another player to watch in this event is Lev Shangin, a fourth-grader from New York already rated 2170.


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Ten-year-old Lev Shangin, featured here on board three of the final round, is a player to watch (Photo Caroline King)


Shangin's games were covered by IM Alex Ostrovskiy in a recap of an NYC Norms tournament back in February, and he again showed strategic and positional prowess beyond his years in his first-round win:



Finally, on board two of the Under-1700 section, a particularly instructive endgame "tragicomedy," as famed trainer, author, and IM Mark Dvoretsky would have called it, shook up the standings:



Stay tuned for more reporting from day two of the 2024 National Middle School Championships, and don't forget to catch live coverage of round five tonight at 6 p.m. EDT on our Twitch channel




Quick Links

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