There’s a very different feel to the U.S. Juniors (and now Seniors) than is found at the U.S. Championships. It’s not that one is more serious than the other, not exactly. And it’s not quite that the junior and senior players are less serious, because let’s be clear: every single one of the thirty players here at the Junior, Girls, and Senior Championships is utterly, deadly serious about their chess.
What’s different, I think, is the camaraderie and bonhomie. Our top players are all business when playing in the Open and Women’s Championships. Many, if not most, are active professionals, fighting for an impressive cash purse and World Cup bids. They show up at the Club, they play their games, and it’s then back to the hotel to rest and prep for the next day.
Photos from the three Championships this week in Saint Louis paint a different picture with the junior and senior players. They come in to play with and against their friends, having built relationships on Olympiad teams and scholastic championships, in group texts and Goichberg swisses. They hang around in the Club basement after their games end, kibitzing and carousing, laughing and ‘Puzzle Rushing.’
This is a seriousness leavened with the levity of youth and the wisdom of experience. This is a seriousness that knows for all of the competitiveness intrinsic to high-level chess, our game is just that – a beautiful, maddening, absolute rabbit-hole of a game.
To the traditional Junior and “newish” Girls’ Junior Championships, US Chess and the Saint Louis Chess Club this year added a third event. The 2019 U.S. Senior Championship, open to players 50 and above, gave some of America’s ‘more seasoned’ champions the chance for another day in the sun.
Having the juniors and seniors in the same place made for fascinating contrast, in terms of openings, playing style, and particularly in the post-game interviews for the livestream. I had chance to watch quite a few of them as I worked on my round reports, and what stood out to me, more than anything, was the difference in how the juniors and seniors analyzed their games.
The seniors talked in broad strategic themes, identifying weaknesses, pawn breaks, ideal endgame schemata. Concrete variations were situated in broader insights. Meanwhile the juniors machine-gunned rapidfire analysis, line after line after line. This is a generalization, of course, but the generational gap, the difference between the pre-computer and post-engine worlds, showed itself in stark contrast.
I hopped an early-morning flight from Omaha to Saint Louis to witness the final day action, arriving at the Club with about 20 minutes to spare. If you can make the trip, do so. Watching events like these on the livestream is awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), but there is no substitute for getting to walk up those stairs and see elite players ply their trade.
The Juniors, Girls, and Seniors each played in one of the three ‘halls’ on the second floor of the Club. The Juniors and Girls were all socializing before the round began. Hans Niemann was talking about something being ‘money well spent,’ and Jennifer Yu was over on the Girls side, huddled with her friends. For their part, the Seniors were seated, serious faces all around, looking like adults who know the importance of prize money and mortgage payments.
With both Carissa Yip leading the Girls Championship and Alex Shabalov leading the Senior by a full point heading into the round, most of the attention was focused on the Junior Championship, where Nico Checa and Awonder Liang were tied at the top of the table. The thought was that Shabalov and Yip would draw quickly, ensuring their titles, while Checa and Liang would have to play their games with one eye on each other’s boards.
Shabalov quickly fulfilled his end of the bargain, carefully working his way to a draw against Jaan Ehlvest in just over the minimum 30 moves. This earned him $12,000 for first place in the Senior Championship.
Yip had to do a bit more work to earn her second Girls’ Junior title. Playing Black against Emily Nguyen, Yip found herself in a worse position in the middlegame, but managed to work her way back to a draw… even if it looked a little dicey at times!
For her efforts, Yip received a $3,000 first prize and a $10,000 scholarship to the college of her choice from the Dewain Barber Foundation and US Chess.
This left the matter of the Junior Championship, where Nico Checa had Black against Hans Niemann, and Awonder Liang played with White against Andrew Tang. By 2pm – the round started early at 11am to accommodate a potential playoff and closing ceremony – Checa had drawn with Niemann, opening the door for Liang to take the title by winning against Tang.
Andrew Tang, however, had other ideas. He managed to get a winning position before missing an equalizing shot on move 35, one that Liang grabbed like a life preserver. Their game was drawn at about 2:35pm, setting up a playoff between Checa and Liang at 5pm.
It is a bit of a shame that the playoff overshadowed some of the outstanding games played in the final round. The last two games to finish, for instance, made for terrific TV. Could Larry Christiansen find a way to convert against Joel Benjamin? Would Veronika Zilajeva mate Rachael Li with bishop and knight within 50 moves? (The answer to both questions, by the way, was yes.)
Still, I think it fair to say that attention downstairs at the club waned a bit as we waited the two hours for the playoff. Club regulars banged out blitz games. Staff members gave lessons. And I spent a bit of time with two young players from New York, whom I tortured with mate in twos.
Luc Cacciatore (9) and his brother Max (“almost 7”) are competitive and ambitious. Studying with Coach Angel (Lopez) and Coach Shawn (Martinez) from Impact Coaching Network – the same outfit that helped Tani Adewumi reach such famous heights this spring – the boys play tournaments almost every weekend, their mom told me, and they just finished a camp in NYC with Sam Shankland.
The boys challenged me to blitz, but discretion being the better part of valor, I demurred, preferring to challenge them to solve some mate in twos. “This’ll be easy!,” the boys boasted.
They were wrong. Here’s an example of the cruelty I inflicted upon these brave young lads. It’s the position shown in the picture above.
Soon Luc and Max were bounding up the stairs to watch the remaining games, having heard my admonition “don’t move the pieces to solve it!” one time too many. I grabbed a chair and a coffee, fired up my laptop, and got ready for the playoff to begin.
I wasn’t alone. Mysteriously, almost imperceptibly, friends and fans filled the first floor of the Saint Louis Chess Club as Checa and Liang began to play. Rex Sinquefield appeared, taking his customary seat right in front of the big screen. Veronika Zijaleva sat right behind him. Behind me was the “circa-1976 Junior Spartakiad” team of Max Dlugy, Jaan Ehlvest, and Alex Yermolinsky.
As things turned out, and as CLO readers already know, Liang won both rapid games to win the tiebreak, giving him the title of U.S. Junior Champion for the third consecutive year. With this comes a seat in the 2020 U.S. Championship, a $6,000 first prize, and a $10,000 scholarship courtesy of the Dewain Barber Foundation and US Chess.
With the tournament finally over, the first floor emptied just as quickly as it had filled. The players rushed down the street to the Closing Ceremony for dinner and age-appropriate beverages. And then?
— Alexander Katz (@IMCryptochess) July 20, 2019
Age against youth. Experience against energy. And always, always, always bughouse.
A fitting end to a fine event. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s edition.
US Junior/Senior/Girls Quick Links: