I was really excited to get invited to coach for the U.S. team at the 2018 Pan American Youth Chess Championships—it’s been a goal of mine for a few years now to work and prepare top talents, and this was an excellent opportunity to do just that. The event took place in Santiago, Chile, with the actual tournament held inside one of the large sport complexes within the National Stadium. I traveled to South America from Europe, as I was in the midst of a multi-tourney trip which started all the way back on June 10 (!), landing a few days before the event.
(left to right) Coaches Kostya Kavutskiy, Aviv Friedman, Andranik Matikozyan, and Armen Ambartsoumian. Photo: Carmen Field
My task was relatively straightforward, prepare six of our official players for each round and then analyze their games afterwards. I was quite happy to work alongside veteran coaches IM Armen Ambartsoumian and IM Andranik Matikozyan – they along with the head of delegation, FM Aviv Friedman were able to show me the ropes, and share a lot of stories about the team’s greatest successes (and failures)!
Overall, the tournament was a resounding success for the U.S delegation–we earned four gold medals, two silvers, six bronze medals, and the overall team gold, a great achievement! For a full list of winners, sections, and other info, check out Franc Guadalupe’s nice recap here.
To check out some of the top games from each section throughout the tournament, you can view them on chess24.
Based on brief anecdotes I’d heard from other coaches and articles I’d read about past world youth competitions, going in I knew to expect that the daily schedule of prep/gameplay/game analysis would be grueling, and that there would probably be some logistical surprises/hiccups along the way. So I prepared myself emotionally to work hard, be patient, and try to give my full effort no matter what. I also aimed to keep an adventurous mindset, which often simply meant holding a positive attitude when issues would arise on the fly.
Before the start of the tournament on July 22, there were already a few challenges to sort out, mainly those having to do with the compact schedule of the tournament and the 30-40 minute traffic distance between the venue and the official tournament hotels. Long story short, through a combined effort between the coaches and the parents, issues were solved in time and spirits were mostly kept high throughout the event. Once we got to Round 1 and the kids were able to start playing chess, the tournament ran like any other.
The prep sessions before the rounds, despite often not lasting more than 10-15 minutes were still fairly productive. Many parents were already experienced in looking up games and handling PGNs, which meant they could start preparing for opponents as soon as pairings went up. This meant I could use the individual time I had with each student focusing on as much concrete chess as possible, reviewing their opening repertoire and patching up whatever lines we could in the given time.
As is typical for these events, I was assigned six students – Rohan Rajaram (U8), Rowan Field (U10), Lila Field (U10), Iris Mou (U10), Jed Sloan (U10), and Davis Zhong Jr. (U12). All in all, I was really impressed, not just with everyone’s performance, but their effort and attitude throughout the event. Most of the kids aren’t used to playing full nine round events, which meant it was increasingly important to maintain their focus and motivation in the final rounds.
Rohan finished in 5th place in the Absolute U8 with 6.5/9, which was a good result overall, but he was definitely aiming for a higher score. Sisters Rowan and Lila Field both performed above their initial standing, with Rowan finishing in 7th and Lila in 28th place. Despite their good score, after working with them throughout the event, I’m sure they also have their ambitions set to do even better next time.
Iris was one of the top players in the Girls U10 and had a great event to finish with 7.5/9, earning her the silver medal behind another American, Sophie Velea, who dominated the field with 8.5/9. Sophie’s sister, Anne-Marie Velea also won clear first in her own section, the Girls U14, while a third sister, Stephanie Velea, finished in a respectable 10th place in the Girls U12. Not bad for one family!
Jed Sloan and Shawnak Shivakumar. Photo: Devleena Shivakumar
Vying for one of the medals from the very start and succeeding was Jed Sloan, one of the top contenders in the Absolute U10, who scored 7/9 and won silver, ahead on tiebreaks of fellow U.S. player Shawnak Shivakumar, who also scored 7/9.
Shawnak Shivakumar and the coaches. Photo: Devleena Shivakumar
While the 2nd place result was fantastic, the last round was a bit unfortunate: Jed had the tournament leader on the ropes with an extra pawn, in a spot where the win would give him clear first, but decided to settle for a draw and clinch silver instead, not wanting to risk it. It was likely a missed opportunity for another gold, but from a player’s perspective I certainly understand the desire not wanting to lose in the last round. A great achievement nevertheless!
Here is one of Jed’s games from an earlier round, where he was able to get a small advantage from the opening and grind out a nice endgame win:
My oldest student was Davis Zhong Jr., who was one of the top players in the Absolute U12 section. Davis had recently broken 2200 USCF over the summer and had a lot of confidence going into the event, which made the prep sessions with him productive and spirited. He showed a real enthusiasm for the game, and I saw recently he wrote a nice article about the 44th US Chess School at the Marshall Chess Club. Despite giving up a few too many draws against lower-rated players, he was also just half a point behind first place going into the last round, when he was then paired against the leader (and top player of the section) for a chance at gold. Having calculated that a draw would likely land him out of the medals (as a few other players would catch up and beat him on tiebreaks), he went all out for a win in an equal endgame and ended up losing. A tough finish, but I have no doubt he’ll be fighting for medals in future years to come. I’d like to share one of his earlier games in the event, where he produced a nice attacking miniature:
The Rest of the Team
Andranik Matikozyan, Omya Vidyarthi, Crystal Gu, and Armen Ambartsoumian. Photo: Patrika and Arvind Vidyarthi
Putting up the most impressive performance of any player in the tournament was Omya Vidyarthi in the Girls U8, who scored a perfect 9/9 in both the main tournament and the blitz. Omya also took clear first in this section in 2017, cementing her status as one of the best talents in the United States. Though to be fair, she definitely got a nice bit of luck in the final round—having already clinched first place in the previous round, Omya seemingly relaxed and fell into a completely lost position for most of the game, until her opponent blundered a mate in two (!), giving Omya the perfect score for the event. Her most important win of the tournament came in Round 6, when she defeated the top seed and main rival in the event, fellow American Crystal Gu. After Crystal missed a chance to snag the initiative in the opening, Omya secured a nice positional advantage and eventually converted in the endgame:
While I didn’t get a chance to interact with them much, the two sisters as mentioned above, Sophie Velea (U10) and Anne-Marie Velea (14) dominated their respected sections and both impressively clinched gold in the penultimate, 8th round. Check out their key victories that nailed their 1st place finish home:
Our final gold was earned by Max Lu in the Absolute U16 section. Max was one of the top players going into his section and was certainly aiming for the top spot from the very beginning, but he had a disaster in the first round and lost! After that, it was an uphill battle, but he managed to rattle off seven straight wins to win the tournament with a solid draw in the final round. Max’s Round 8 victory over the tournament’s top seed and leader was incredibly clutch—needing to play for a win with Black, Max found a comfortable opposite colored bishops middlegame and simplified into a winning endgame to elegantly convert the advantage:
Overall, we had some fantastic successes, but of course some important disappointments as well. I’d like to express thanks to the official U.S. delegation: Aviv, Franc, Armen, and Andranik; as well as the parents, who were an immense help throughout the tournament, and the folks at USCF supporting the team from back home – Boyd Reed and Judy Misner. The U.S. team has a couple of events to look forward to later this year – the World Youth in Halkidiki, Greece (Oct 16-31) and the World Cadet in Santiago de Compostela (Nov 3-16). This was a great first official coaching experience for me, I hope to do this a lot more in the future!