Beyond Ratings: US Junior & US Junior Girls Preview

The US Junior Championship is an iconic part of US Chess. American players as prominent as Bobby Fischer, Hikaru Nakamura, and Ray Robson have all won the title. The championship continues to grow stronger and stronger. In just two years, the tournament has gone from having no grandmasters to featuring three GMs and one GM-elect. Last year’s US Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong even went on to become the World Junior Champion. In addition, one of the biggest bonuses for winning the event is the opportunity to play in the overall US Championship, competing with the very best in the country and even some of the strongest players in the world.

Who will win this year?

When previewing tournaments and predicting winners, many tend to over-rely on rating. I can’t tell you how many times I heard/read someone claim that the top 1-2 seeds are going to annihilate the field and no one else has any chance. In practice, this is rarely the case. Of course, ratings are important: They average what we’ve accomplished so far in our chess career, and our ratings are usually fairly accurate (whether we like to admit it or not). In major championships, though, there are other factors that I think can play a much bigger role, such as determination, consistency, fighting spirit, endurance, and nerves. Of course, the top seeds are usually among the favorites, but anything can happen. And the top seeds experience more pressure and expectations than any of the other players. The 2016 Candidates Tournament was a great example of this: Karjakin was one of the lowest seeds in the field, and many assumed he had virtually no chance to win. But Karjakin is one of the most determined chessplayers I’ve ever seen, and his tenacity certainly made up for the rating points he was short. Here are my predictions for who has the best chance to win this year's US Junior and US Junior Girls Championships.

The US Junior Championship (Closed)

My Top 3 Picks

Any of these three players have an excellent chance to become the 2017 US Junior Champion.

1. Ruifeng Li

Ruifeng Li at the 2016 U.S. Junior Closed. Photo: Austin Fuller

Ruifeng Li is due to win the US Junior Championship. He's played in the event twice before, finishing 4th on his debut in 2015 and 3rd last year. Over the years, he's improved rapidly, winning numerous opens across the country, including the very strong Philadelphia and National Opens, and earning his GM title earlier this year.

He's also the most active competitor in the field. So far in 2017 alone, he's played in 14 Classical tournaments.

In 2015, I wrote my first report for the US Junior Closed about a hard-fought victory played by Li that featured a fascinating piece sacrifice (25...Ne5).

[pgn][Event "USA-ch U16"]
[Site "Saint Louis"]
[Date "2015.07.10"]
[Round "4"]
[White "Liou, Yian"]
[Black "Li, Ruifeng"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B90"]
[WhiteElo "2417"]
[BlackElo "2394"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "3q1rk1/1p1nr2b/p2p1b1p/P1PP1p2/1P1BpP2/1N6/4B2P/2RQ1RK1 b - - 0 25"]
[PlyCount "29"]
[EventDate "2015.07.07"]
[EventType "tourn"]
[EventRounds "9"]
[EventCountry "USA"]
[EventCategory "6"]
[Source "Chessbase"]
[SourceDate "2015.07.24"]25... Ne5 $5 26. fxe5 dxe5 27. Bb2 f4 28. d6 Rg7+ 29. Kh1 Kh8 30. Bc4 Qd7 31.
Bd5 Qh3 32. Rg1 f3 33. Rxg7 Bxg7 34. Qf1 Qh4 35. Re1 Bf5 36. Nd2 Bh3 37. Rxe4
Bg2+ 38. Kg1 Qg5 39. h4 Qg3 0-1[/pgn]

While the sacrifice may've objectively been unsound, it was in the spirit of the all-or-nothing King's Indian Defense, and it presented his opponent with some serious practical problems. Li's fighting spirit combined with two years of serious experience make Li one of the most likely candidates to win the event.

2. Akshat Chandra

Akshat Chandra at the 2016 U.S. Championship. Photo: Lennart Ootes
Akshat Chandra is another one of my top picks to win the tournament. He's a former US Junior Closed Champion (2015). He recently earned his GM title, completing a quest from 1500 to Grandmaster in 5.5 years. And, he's an accomplished chess journalist (Check out his piece on the Clark Street Capital Invitational from earlier this year).

3. Awonder Liang

Awonder Liang at the Chicago Open where he scored his 3rd and final GM Norm. Photo: Betsy Dynako Zacate
Awonder Liang is one of the most rapidly improving American prodigies ever. He is the youngest American in history to quality for the International Master title. He also recently earned his 3rd and final GM norm. When the title is officially awarded, he will be one of the youngest grandmasters in the world. Last year, Liang finished in clear 2nd in the US Junior Closed, and his only loss in the entire event was to the winner, Jeffery Xiong, who is not participating this year. Although he the youngest competitor, he is a serious contender for the championship.

Underdogs Who Could Surprise

Josh Colas

Although Josh Colas is one of the lower rated players in the field, he's the 2nd most active player, competing in 12 tournaments in 2017 so far. He also currently has all three of the norms required for the IM title and will be eligible when his FIDE rating breaks 2400. And, it can't hurt that he's a part of the SPICE program at Webster University, the chess team that wins the Final Four College Championship year after year.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown is currently an International Master who's taken a couple key steps on the way to GM: He has one norm, and his FIDE rating is above 2500. In 2015, Brown won 1st in both the Southern California Invitational State Championship and the Utah Open State Championship. Brown turned in a very solid US Junior performance last year, tying for 4th, and losing only one game out of 9 rounds. Here is one of Brown's strongest games where he defeated a super-grandmaster.
[pgn][Event "25th Chicago Open 2016"]
[Site "Chicago USA"]
[Date "2016.05.27"]
[Round "2.1"]
[White "Yu Yangyi"]
[Black "Brown, Michael William"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C84"]
[WhiteElo "2737"]
[BlackElo "2418"]
[PlyCount "120"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]
[EventType "swiss"]
[EventRounds "9"]
[EventCountry "USA"]
[Source "Mark Crowther"]
[SourceDate "2016.05.30"]1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. d3 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. a3
O-O 9. Nc3 Nb8 10. Re1 c6 11. Ne2 Nbd7 12. Ng3 Nc5 13. Ba2 Be6 14. b4 Bxa2 15.
Rxa2 Ne6 16. a4 d5 17. Bd2 dxe4 18. dxe4 Nd7 19. Nf5 Bf6 20. Be3 Qc7 21. Nd2 a5
22. Qg4 Kh8 23. axb5 axb4 24. Rxa8 Rxa8 25. bxc6 Qxc6 26. Rc1 Ra2 27. Qd1 g6
28. Nh6 Kg7 29. Ng4 Bg5 30. Bxg5 Nxg5 31. h4 Ne6 32. h5 Nd4 33. h6+ Kf8 34. Ne3
Nf6 35. Rb1 Nxe4 36. Nxe4 Qxe4 37. Rxb4 Qh4 38. Rb8+ Ke7 39. Rb7+ Kf8 40. Rb8+
Ke7 41. Rb1 Qxh6 42. Qe1 Qh5 43. Nd5+ Kf8 44. Nf6 Qf5 45. Rb8+ Kg7 46. Ne8+ Kh6
47. Qe3+ Qf4 48. Qxf4+ exf4 49. Rb7 f5 50. Nf6 Rxc2 51. Rxh7+ Kg5 52. Rf7 Rc1+
53. Kh2 Rf1 54. Nh7+ Kh6 55. Nf8 Rxf2 56. Rh7+ Kg5 57. Rg7 Nf3+ 58. Kh3 Ne5 59.
Re7 Ng4 60. Re6 Rf1 0-1[/pgn]

Most Experienced, Least Active

Kayden Troff

While Grandmaster Troff undeniably has chances to win the event (and has won it before in 2014), he is a less active competitor than many of the other players (he’s only played in 3 tournaments so far this year), which makes his form hard to predict. Troff had a tough time at last year's US Junior, but that may've prepared him to have a much better tournament this time around.

2nd Appearance

Nicolas Checa

Nicolas Checa is an International Master who recently earned his 1st GM Norm at the Philadelphia International. While Checa had a tough debut at the US Junior Championship last year, he did manage to achieve a victory against one of the top seeds, Akshat Chandra.

Mika Brattain

Mika Brattain is a National Master who debuted at the US Junior in 2015. While Brattain also had a tough debut, he did manage draws against Jeffery Xiong and Ruifeng Li.

Debuting in the Championship

Andrew Tang

Andrew Tang is an International Master with two GM norms. In addition, he was a 2016 National High School co-Champion, the 2017 Minnesota State Champion, and a SuperNationals K-12 co-Champion this past May. While he's new to the field, he currently has experience winning top events and will be an interesting addition.

Bovey Liu

Bovey Liu is a National Master and 2016 Texas State High School Champion. He earned 3rd place at the prestigious 2016 Denker Tournament of High School Champions.  

The U.S. Junior Girls Championship (Closed)

My Top 3 Picks

1. Maggie Feng

Maggie Feng at the 2017 US Women's Championship. Photo: St. Louis Chess Club
Maggie Feng has the fighting spirit that it takes to win tournaments. Last year, she won clear first at the National Junior High Championship, the first female ever to win the event. She also achieved a very solid result at this year's US Women's Championship where she defeated the winner, Sabina Foiser, and drew against two previous champions, Nazi Paikidze and Irina Krush. One of Feng's games that impressed me most from the event was her very hard-fought victory against Jennifer Yu:
[pgn][Event "ch-USA w 2017"]
[Site "Saint Louis USA"]
[Date "2017.04.04"]
[Round "6.4"]
[White "Feng, Maggie"]
[Black "Yu, Jennifer R"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A07"]
[WhiteElo "2162"]
[BlackElo "2196"]
[PlyCount "132"]
[EventDate "2017.03.29"]
[EventType "tourn"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "USA"]
[EventCategory "2"]
[Source "Mark Crowther"]
[SourceDate "2017.04.10"]1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Bg4 3. Bg2 Nd7 4. c4 c6 5. cxd5 cxd5 6. Qa4 Ngf6 7. Nc3 Bxf3 8.
Bxf3 e6 9. O-O Bd6 10. d3 O-O 11. Bg2 a6 12. Qd1 b5 13. e4 d4 14. Ne2 e5 15. f4
Rc8 16. h3 Qb6 17. f5 Nc5 18. g4 Nfd7 19. g5 b4 20. f6 g6 21. h4 b3 22. a4 Rc7
23. h5 Rb8 24. hxg6 hxg6 25. Rf3 Kf8 26. Ng3 Ke8 27. Bh3 Kd8 28. Nf1 Nb7 29.
Nh2 Rc5 30. Ng4 Kc7 31. Nh6 Rf8 32. Bd2 Nb8 33. Nxf7 Rxf7 34. Be6 Rf8 35. Bxb3
Nc6 36. Rb1 Kb8 37. Rh3 Nb4 38. Bxb4 Qxb4 39. Rh6 Na5 40. Be6 Rc7 41. Rxg6 Rh7
42. Rg8 Rxg8 43. Bxg8 Rh8 44. Bd5 Bf8 45. Rc1 Nb7 46. Qc2 Nc5 47. g6 Rh6 48.
Bf7 Rh4 49. Kg2 Bh6 50. Kg3 Bxc1 51. Qxc1 Nxd3 52. g7 Nxc1 53. g8=Q+ Ka7 54.
Kxh4 Qe1+ 55. Kg5 Qxe4 56. Bd5 Qf4+ 57. Kg6 Qg4+ 58. Kf7 Qd7+ 59. Kf8 Qf5 60.
Qf7+ Kb6 61. Qb7+ Ka5 62. Qc7+ Kxa4 63. f7 d3 64. Qc4+ Ka5 65. Qc5+ Ka4 66.
Qxc1 Qg4 1-0[/pgn]
Feng is also a previous US Junior Girls Champion, tying for 1st in 2014.

2. Carissa Yip

Carissa Yip at the 2016 US Women's Championship. Photo: Spectrum Studios
Carissa Yip also has excellent chances to win the championship. In 2017, she's competed in 17 tournaments, making her the most active player in the field by far. Yip is most known for the numerous records she's broken: At age 9, she became the youngest female to earn an expert-level US Chess rating. At age 10, she became the youngest female player to defeat a grandmaster. And, at age 11, she became the youngest female to earn the National Master title. At the US Women's Championship, Yip defeated four-time champion, Anna Zatonskih. Recently, at the World Open, Yip drew against one of the top GMs in the tournament, Lazaro Bruzon Batista.

3. Akshita Gorti

Akshita Gorti representing the U.S. at the recently concluded World Team Championship. Photo: World Team Website
Akshita Gorti is also a very active tournament player, competing in 12 events this year. She's currently at her peak US Chess rating, 2343. In addition, she recently represented the U.S. at the World Team Championship, giving her invaluable competitive experience against strong players from all over the world.

The Reigning Champion

Emily Nguyen

Entering last year's US Junior Girls Championship as the 6th ranked seed out of 10 players, Emily Nguyen was an underdog to win the event. She finished with three straight wins, including a victory against top seed Maggie Feng, to win clear first. Will she be able to successfully defend her title this year?

Underdogs Who Could Surprise

Ashritha Eswaran

Ashritha Eswaran is another contender for the championship. She's won before (in 2015), and, during her first appearance in 2014, she won the Best Game prize.

Annie Wang

Annie Wang, sporting a Two Sigma jacket, at the 2016 World Youth Championships. Photo: Anna Volkova
Annie Wang was once the youngest American female to earn the title of National Master (until the record was broken a year later by Carissa Yip). She also won gold at the 2014 North American Youth Championship in the Girls U18 section.

The College Competitors

Agata Bykovtsev

Agata Bykovtsev won clear 2nd in last year's US Junior Girls Championship, showing that she's a key competitor in this field. Bykovtsev hasn't played in a tournament this year (most likely because she's preparing to study at MIT in the fall), so it's hard to say where her form will be during this event.

Apurva Virkud

Apurva Virkud at the 2015 U.S. Women's Championship. Photo: Austin Fuller
Apurva Virkud has experience winning competitive invitationals. She's a former US Junior Girls Champion (tied in 2014), and she tied for 1st at the 2013 National Girls Invitational. She achieved victories against her fellow competitors, Carissa Yip and Emily Nguyen, at this year's US Women's Championship.

Debuting in the Championship

Rachel Ulrich

Rachel Ulrich is a National Master from Wisconsin. Since this is her debut in the US Junior Girls Championship, it will be interesting to see how she does against this very strong field.

Thalia Cervantes

Thalia Cervantes is a very active tournament player both in classical and rapid time controls. Between the two, she's played in 18 events this year. In 2016, she won the All-Girls National U-16 Championship, and, this year, she earned bronze in the All-Girls U-18 Championship. Look out for updates throughout the event on the US Chess FacebookTwitter, and Instagram! For more information on the U.S. Junior Championship and to watch live games and commentary, visit the Official Website. The U.S. Junior Closed runs from July 8-17.