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 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).
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 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 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
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 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.
Most Experienced, Least Active
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.
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 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 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 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 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:
Feng is also a previous US Junior Girls Champion, tying for 1st in 2014.
2. Carissa Yip
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 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
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 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 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 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 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 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 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.