Festivities Galore at American Continental Championship as Two Americans Qualify for 2025 World Cup!

Loud music and an extravagant traditional dance routine proved no distraction for former world number two GM Alexei Shirov and his 30 simul contestants. “Lightwork, no reaction” as some would say. Indeed, this extravagance was par for the course in Medellín, Colombia, throughout the 2024 American Continental Championship


Video courtesy of Max Lu


This edition of the American Continental Championship was a particularly commemorative event: dedicated to the late FIDE Americas President Jorge Vega “In Memoriam,” and also part of the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of FIDE. As part of the centennial world tour, FIDE arranged for the Olympic Torch to stop in Medellín: the only official stop in the Americas.


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The official Olympic Torch-lighting ceremony (Photo courtesy Max Lu)


The Olympic Torch ceremony, of course, couldn’t be complete without a star lineup to headline the festivities and side events: former FIDE World Champion GM Veselin Topalov and the aforementioned Shirov.

With 387 players in the classical division, the tournament was the largest single-tournament turnout for an American Continental Championship! Among the participants were several rising stars including Argentinian ten-year-old prodigy FM Faustino Oro, World Junior Girls’ Champion WGM Candela Francisco (also from Argentina), and our very own former World Junior Champion GM Jeffery Xiong. The tournament also featured an impressive 149 DGT boards to provide a live broadcast of all the games, including for the 326 players in the blitz and 337 players in the rapid events. 


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Roberto Garcia Pantoja receiving his first-place award with his young son (Credit: FIDE America)


Colombian GM Roberto Pantoja Garcia captured the title this year on an outstanding 9½/11 performance, a full point ahead of the field, making him the first Colombian player to ever win this event. A true family man, he carried his young son with him as he received the first-place award, instantly becoming a fan favorite.


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The four World Cup qualifiers (L-R) Kirk Ghazarian, Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, Roberto Pantoja Garcia, and Jeffery Xiong (Credit: FIDE America)


Ten players, including four Americans, tied for second with 8½/11, including last year’s World Cup qualifiers GM Fidel Corrales Jimenez and IM Kirk Ghazarian as well as GM Jeffery Xiong and IM Justin Wang. On tiebreaks, Xiong and Ghazarian secured the second and fourth qualification spots, respectively. The third qualification spot went to Chilean GM Cristobal Henriquez Villagra.


Jeffery Xiong (L) and Kirk Ghazarian (R) at the closing ceremony (Credit: Wayne Xiong/Fide America)


Undefeated with six wins and five draws, Ghazarian repeated his “stalwart” performance from last year. I’ll call him the “Ironman” this year.

In fact, Ghazarian achieved another nine-round GM norm, notching a 2617 performance counting rounds three through 11, as you are allowed to do in a tournament with more than nine rounds. However, after notching a GM norm at last year’s tournament, he already had earned all three GM norms and only needs to cross 2500 to get the title. After this result, his live rating is much closer to that benchmark. 

When I asked Kirk about his reflections on the tournament, he singled out his third-round game as a pivotal moment. Incredibly, he had suffered second-degree burns from an exploding tea-making machine prior to the game and came in with his hand wrapped in a makeshift cast with ice. He kindly provided his own commentary and annotations on the intensely complex battle.



Like Ghazarian, Xiong also gained early momentum with a clean technical victory over Uruguayan GM Andres Rodriguez Vila in round four.



Following their victories, both Xiong and Ghazarian played quite solidly for the next several rounds. Taking up the slack was Corrales, who sought to rebound after suffering his only defeat of the tournament against the author of this article. That game will be annotated for my article in Chess Life magazine, so stay tuned. To compensate for the setback, Corrales played energetic and precise chess, methodically grinding down his opponents. One of his smoothest victories displaying masterful technique came in round nine against Venezuelan Fabian Vivas Zamora. With this critical win, Corrales rejoined the tournament leaders heading into the final rounds.



This same round, I witnessed a peculiar ritual in the (cordoned-off) bathroom. From what I could tell, one of the arbiters was attempting to reach under a bathroom mirror looking for any suspicious devices, and then even got on his knees to check under the sink for cheating devices. “Okay,” I thought, “this is pretty routine given all the other anti-cheating measures taken so far, actually.”

Indeed, the anti-cheating measures were a hot topic of discussion among the players, and they were some of the most robust anti-cheating measures I’ve experienced in a tournament. Two single-file lines snaked across the first-floor playing area prior to each round with four arbiters scanning each player with a handheld metal detector all over their body: legs, arms, backside, shoes, and even checking inside items such as a water bottle! It felt more thorough than TSA security checkpoints (Editor’s note: at least they didn’t confiscate the water bottles!). Two arbiters were also posted outside the bathrooms, and prior to reentering the tournament hall, every player had to be scanned again by the metal detector.

The measures didn’t stop there. During each round, an arbiter walked through each row of the tournament hall carrying an antennaed signal detector and camera detector. After the round, the arbiter confessed to me that his camera detector had a dual purpose: to check his hotel room for hidden surveillance devices!

But on my next visit to the bathroom, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the antenna-wielding arbiter was on his knees in the stall with the signal and camera detector to check the toilet tank, as well as the area beneath and around the toilet, for any devices. The absurdity! As I was curiously observing this spectacle, another player entered with a furrowed brow and shot me a very perplexed look. At that point, I couldn’t take it anymore; I burst out laughing and rushed out. Later, I felt slightly bad. In reflection, I should’ve been applauding him for ensuring the highest fair-play standards, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be assigned that job, although I’m grateful someone was doing it.

Nonetheless, it was a much-needed laugh after suffering a pair of painful defeats in rounds six and seven (to be elaborated on in print). I was determined to salvage my tournament and end on a high note. Thankfully, I achieved this goal with a decisive win in round ten. But it was Justin Wang’s game that was the most interesting of the round: his command of the initiative against Colombian IM Esteban Valderrama vaulted him to the top of the standings.



Heading into the final round, a win for Wang against Cuban GM Luis Quesada Perez would’ve clinched the GM title (Wang already has two GM norms and a 2500 rating) and a World Cup qualification spot. Such high stakes! When I asked Wang about his strategy and how he planned to prepare for the final round, he nonchalantly shrugged it off and instead divulged his analysis, including precise mathematical calculations, on the various permutations of how he could qualify for the World Cup with a draw; the possibility of becoming a grandmaster was merely a sideshow.


Lu Wang Xiong
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Three Americans catching up after the tournament! (L-R): Max Lu, Justin Wang, Jeffery Xiong (Credit: Wayne Xiong)


On the heels of a dominant 4½/5 stretch to reach 8/10 after his loss to me, Corrales had also put himself in a position where a win would guarantee a World Cup qualification. Ghazarian and Xiong were close behind with the best tiebreaks of the group with 7½/10, setting the stage for an exciting and dramatic finish.

Unfortunately for them, neither Corrales nor Wang were able to convert their advantages into the full point, allowing Ghazarian and Xiong to leapfrog them on tiebreaks. Despite the disappointment, it was all smiles once it was over. Ever the photographic entrepreneur, Corrales was all thumbs up with Topalov, making for an even better photo than his shot with the President of the Dominican Republic last year!


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Fidel Corrales flashing all thumbs up with former World Champion Veselin Topalov (Credit: FIDE Americas)


With another Continental in the books, I can say with some certainty that it is one of my favorite tournaments. Not only is it a chance to see old friends and make new ones, but there always are unique and fascinating stories to take home.