Tucked away in the plateaus of Poços de Caldas, over 400 children are silently sizing up their opponents.
No, hordes of competitors are not playing futbol in this remote municipality in Southwestern Brazil. Rather, families have flown across the globe and sat through long bus rides from the airport to provide their kids a shot at a world championship.
The World Cadet Chess Championships is underway, with 11 rounds played at the time control of 40 moves in 90 minutes, plus an additional 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with 30-second increment since move one. The WCCC, which spans August 22-31, comprise six sections: open and girls under 8, 10, and 12. The regulations are clear: if you can step foot into a PG-13 movie, you are not allowed to participate. Teenagers must wait until the World Youth Chess Championships to be held in Montevideo, Uruguay next month.
The United States contingent is 68 players strong, and if you include parents and coaches in the count, the number of Americans approaches 150. At the helm of the delegation is FIDE Master Aviv Friedman, who is tasked with everything under the sun. If a result has been incorrectly marked, Aviv storms right to the playing hall to rectify the error. When a player’s badge is broken or lost, he secures a new one immediately. If the pillows are not firm enough…you get the point.
Aviv is also on the appeals committee, which is charged with resolving disputes. I sat in on the initial technical meeting with Aviv and the other heads of delegation, and although there were a number of pre-tournament issues, the arbiters and organizers were quick to address them in a democratic fashion. To ensure that fair play would be upheld, it was democratically agreed that only players would be allowed in the playing hall. The organizers were also quick to set up shuttle service to and from the hotels (there is a steep hill up to one and a decent walk to the others) and extended meal service hours on days of the double rounds. All in all, despite minor concerns that there might not be enough space between boards for some players to write their notation, I am pleased with the organizational efforts. It certainly helps that the Pan American Youth Championships were held here four years ago.
With the additional support of the USCF’s Jerry Nash, who among other duties procured phenomenal team uniforms courtesy of Champion System, all extracurriculars have been masterfully handled. As for the chess itself, the team is in the capable hands of IM Andranik Matikozyan, GM John Fedorowicz, GM Alex Goldin, GM Robert Hungaski, and this reporter. As 30 players have registered for coaching, the five of us have six students apiece. Others have opted for private coaching – GMs Dejan Bojkov and Melik Khachiyan are among the familiar faces in Brazil.
Before diving into the results, I believe it is important to discuss the playing atmosphere. As a former competitor in these very events, I understand that psychology is just as important as preparation. Although chess is one-on-one, team chemistry is important for many of the kids. After all, off the board many of them are close friends.
The team effort was in full display during the first day of double rounds. Rounds two and three were played on Wednesday, which was a hectic day for all. Yet the parents made the predicament more manageable by working with one another to guarantee that all kids would receive coaching in shorter sessions. The rest day on Saturday allowed families to forget they are at a chess tournament. You could hear gleeful screams in many different languages from the nearby water park. After drying off, the American delegation took many team photos before heading off to a wonderful team dinner at a local restaurant. Aviv said, “The team dinner was courtesy of our generous sponsor, Two Sigma. Kids, coaches, and parents all attended. The meal took place at an authentic Brazilian restaurant, and was a huge success!”
My personal methodology is made abundantly clear to all of my students: each and every player has a rating of zero, the first question I ask when you return from a game is “how did you play?” and never “how did you do?”, and during our preparation I ask if you are comfortable with each line we are discussing. The last thing a coach should do is send their student into a game with a memorized line and expect them to handle an unanticipated variation. In this vein, I cater all preparation to the needs of the individual. I make my fair share of mistakes, but I always place my focus on good moves rather than good results. As I only have 30-40 minutes to prepare each player, I spend several hours looking up their opponents in advance of our sessions. No student enjoys watching a teacher hold a textbook.
Of the many highlights of this trip, none sticks out more than seeing one of my students – Jed Sloan in the under 10 – beaming with joy after a draw with a much higher-rated opponent. When Jed sat down to analyze the game with me, he ecstatically blurted “I played so many good moves, and I was winning, and if it were not for time trouble I would have beaten him!” After being thoroughly impressed by his precise play, I replied, “Jed, if someone else handed me that scoresheet, I never would have known that White was rated 1532 and Black was 1831.” In that instant I saw the concept hold weight in his mind. He proved to himself that players – not ratings – make good moves.
As an educator, there is hardly anything more valuable than a moment like that. Thank you, Jed.
OK, OK, onto the chess.
Fittingly, eight Americans are competing in this 51-player section. Iris Mou and Crystal Gu jetted out to a 4/5 start. Both girls were featured on the live boards in their critical round six matchups with Crystal emerging victorious and Iris drawing on board one. Iris scored a perfect 9/9 at the North American Youth Championship. So I better write this report quickly and continue working on my preparation for her!
I’ve especially enjoyed watching GM John Fedorowicz analyze games with Lila Quinn Field. Lila has been playing tournament chess for just over a year, but she has been improving and having a good time with Fed.
Perry Sloan is the real winner because she made a close friend. She defeated Brazilian player Stella Correia in the second round, and since then the two have been more or less inseparable. That’s what this tournament is all about!
Under 8 Open (click for current results and pairings)
Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest expert in US Chess history last year and is seeking to become the youngest master. On his path to that title, he hopes to include a gold medal. After the rest day, Mishra sat in clear first with the only perfect score, with Steve Wongso (4.5/5) right behind.
Steve climbed into second place by defeating his fifth-round opponent with the King’s Indian Defense. He misplayed the opening and had a bad knight on b7, but once his opponent erred he unleashed a vicious attack on the kingside. Still, Steve slipped and the topsy-turvy battle continued. In what was one of the most entertaining games of the entire event, the King’s Indian action speaks for itself.
Wongso and Mishra squared off in round 6.
Also doing well is Aren Emrikian. Although he’s not one of my students, I had the pleasure of analyzing one of his games when his coach was busy. He’s an extremely nice person off the board and a dangerous opponent on it!
Ellen Wang (5/6) is the name to watch in this section. Coming out of the rest day, she trailed the leaders by half a point, though unfortunately she had to beat two of her compatriots along the way. Both Rui Yang Yan and Tianna Wang lost to their friend Ellen, but still had strong scores of 3.5 and 3.0 out of five rounds, respectively.
Ellen went on to win on Sunday to move her score up to 5/6:
The highest rated player in the section is Hungary’s Zsoka Gaal, who boasts an impressive 1956 FIDE and actually has gained another 100 points. Zsoka tied for first (silver on tiebreaks) in the Under 8 Girls in 2015, so she has both strength and experience. However, upsets are commonplace in world youth events, as evidenced by Shivika Rohilla’s 4.5/5 score despite having a pre-tournament rating of just 1251. In fact, Shivika already drew Zsoka, further indicating that the kids should ignore their opponent’s rating.
Interestingly, the top seven places are occupied by players from seven different countries. The standings exhibit the “world” in World Cadets.
Looking at the leaderboard of this event, it would appear that few non-Americans were playing in it. An absurd 10 of the top 19 places are occupied by American players.
Arthur Xu and Liran Zhou, who earlier this month broke the U.S. record for youngest master, share first with Dev Shah of India. All three came into round six with 4.5/5, with Arthur and Liran facing off:
Amazingly, many of the other Americans avoided playing one another on Sunday. Lucas Foerster-Yialamas (4.0/5), whose birthday we celebrated at the team dinner sponsored by Two Sigma, played on board three in round six. Frank Prestia (4.0) was on board four, Vyom Vidyarthi (4.0) on five, Jack Levine (3.5) on six, and it isn’t until board seven that we see two American flags, with Luke Ye facing Adrian Kondakov.
Tejas Rama and Adi Murgescu are in contention just like the aforementioned octet.
All eyes have been on India’s Bharath Subramaniyam, who outrates the French quartet seeded after him by over 240 points. Bharath won the World Cadet under 8 in 2015 and is currently rated over 2200 FIDE.
Nastassja Matus has been a star thus far. She escaped with a draw in round five after surviving a lost position, but otherwise has looked untouchable. Her win in round three was particularly impressive and I can hardly critique a single move she made.
In a relatively small tournament like this one, players have an opportunity to make up ground. Unfortunately for the Americans in this section, Ambica Yellamraju and Aksithi Eswaran (3.5/5) play each other, while Rianne Ke and Annapoorni Meiyappan (3.0/5) must do the same. Any decisive game will catapult the victor into medal contention.
It certainly is worth mentioning that Ambica’s twin sister Aparna is also competing!
Five of the top ten rated players in this section are from the United States, so it’s no surprise to see so many Americans at the top of the standings.
Christopher Yoo, who held the record for youngest U.S. master prior to Liran Zhou, is a very talented 2242 FIDE and has escaped tough positions in a few of his games. As the highest rated player with 4.5 points, he floated up to play undefeated IM-elect Javokhir Sindarov. He won an exciting game against Sindarov- he lost his queen on move 28 but his two pieces and d-pawn proved powerful compensation.
While that star matchup grabs the headlines, don’t overlook Gabriel Eidelman, who lost on board two in round six to Gazorig Amartuvshin, but seems to be underrated at 1884 FIDE. He earned his 4.5 points by drawing a 2282 and defeating a 2126 (Maximillian Lu, another former record holder for youngest American master) and a 2281 (Anthony He from the USA).
Gus Huston and Vincent Tsay both came out of the rest day with 4/5, so they are in striking distance too.
There is too much chaos to handle in this event, with 14 Americans on the top 15 boards. Of course that means that friends will be paired, but it also bodes well for medal chances. For instance, Gus will play his fourth American opponent in round six.
One final note I’ll add is that it is very important to me to see more girls gaining access to chess. While I am happy to see that progress has certainly been made, there remains a noticeable disparity: there are 253 players in the open sections compared to 166 in the girls sections.