GM Irina Krush, with gold medalist Rochelle Wu carrying Tianna Wang
I’m sure that everyone by now knows that the US team did AMAZING in Batumi, winning two gold and one silver medal from six sections! Both our gold medal winners, Rochelle Wu in Girls U-10 and Nikhil Kumar in Open U-12, went on a tear after my mid-tournament report following round 6. After the free day, Nikhil won four consecutive games to guarantee first place with one round to go. Rochelle drew for the last time in round 7, then took four games en route to the title.
This was in fact Nikhil’s first World Youth Championship, and he must be entering a very small group of those who’ve managed to win it on their first attempt! Nikhil, who lives in Miami, said he did not come into the tournament expecting to win (He started out as the 25th seed, close to 400 points lower than the top seed R. Praggnanandhaa), but that his confidence grew as the tournament progressed. Indeed, that trajectory is visible through his games; Nikhil survived a completely losing position in round 2, and even won a much worse position in round 3. In the second half, Nikhil didn’t need that sort of luck to accumulate points.
Jerry Nash of US Chess and Official Team USA coaches: Fide Senior Trainer Aviv Friedman, GM Ben Finegold and FIDE Senior Trainer Michael Khodarkovsky.
Our much appreciated coaching squad also included IMs Andranik Matikozyan, Armen Ambartsoumian and GM John Fedorowicz
He was certainly helped by a good grounding in the openings he plays; in a Facebook post, his father Alok mentioned GM Boris Avrukh as one of the coaches who’s helped him with his opening repertoire and that work was evident in Batumi. Let’s see how easily Nikhil dismantles the uncertain opening play of his compatriot Andy Huang in round 6:
A similar game occurred in round 8: again White got an edge from the opening and exploited it energetically.
Nikhil got his biggest test in round 9, when he was paired with the Indian IM Praggnandadha. We did not get to see much of a battle in this one, as the Indian boy made a surprising tactical mistake right out of the opening and lost two pawns.
After this Nikhil began to believe he could win the whole thing.
Nikhil defeated Andrew Hong in round 10 using his trusty Caro-Kann, again emerging better from the opening (trivia question: Nikhil Kumar employed the Caro-Kann four times in Batumi; what was his score with it?). And by that point he had the title wrapped up, with an impressive score of 9/10!
Our gold medalists Kumar and Wu
Despite his “positional” opening repertoire (1.d4 as White and the Caro-Kann as Black), Nikhil showed that he was ready to sharpen the play whenever appropriate, and took advantage of the tactical opportunities that came his way. He may have been underestimated by his opponents as well- he said that out of 11 games, he never received a single draw offer. By the time they realized they needed to be careful with him, he had already won the tournament 🙂
Andrew Hong had an excellent tournament, starting with 5/5 and playing on the top boards the whole way. He played seeds 1,3,4 and 5 (everyone higher than him with the exception of Javokhir Sindarov). His only loss came to Nikhil in round 10, after which he bounced back with a critical win in the last round to win the silver medal on tiebreaks. Here is his win against Vincent Keymer of Germany.
Like Nikhil, Rochelle also entered the second half having a lot of work to do. She got her winning streak started with this convincing win:
She continued eliminating all the girls who’d been on the top boards from the beginning. Coming into the last round, she was already half a point ahead of the field, but only a win would guarantee her first place. Let’s see that key game:
I asked Rochelle’s father, Lizhi Wu, what was the secret to Rochelle’s success in Batumi. At the moment, another parent, a friend of his, was standing nearby and offered his insight: “a good daddy!”. This made everyone smile, but it’s completely true: many factors have to come together for a child to be successful in chess, but the over arching requirement is parental support, and in chess, that often comes from fathers, whether they play chess or not. His friend continued, “Tell her how many hours you spend driving to tournaments.”
Summer tournaments of Rochelle’s include the Indianopolis Open, 480 miles away and the Ocala Summer Classic in Florida, 510 miles away. Lizhi’s friend half- joked that he should have a gas credit card.
Despite these distances, Rochelle is playing in tournaments every week. It’s an incredible amount of dedication, and probably just studying her tournament history on uschess.org is enough to understand why she became a World Champion in Batumi. GM John Fedorowicz, who worked with Rochelle in Batumi, said that Rochelle “has a good personality, isn’t nervous, and is a lot of fun. She’s tough.” Indeed, the seriousness and determination that emanate from her when she sits at the board is striking.
Rochelle Wu with coach GM John Fedorowicz, Photo GM Finegold
It should also be mentioned that Rochelle has a big supporter in her chess-playing older brother Sijing who is happy to share ideas with her: “he thinks he’s her coach!” There are many examples in the chess world of a younger sibling benefiting from the experience of the older one.
The Open U-10 section was unsurprisingly won by Ilya Makoveev from Russia, who’d also conquered the U-8 section two years ago. This was a very interesting section to follow, and at the halfway mark it seemed that our best chances for medals were here. Things did not go as planned, but Jason Wang, Arthur Guo and Nico Chasin scored 8/11 and claimed places 5-7.
Going into the final round, Jason Wang had every reason to hope for more. He already had 8/10, and the best tiebreaks of anyone in the tournament; with a win, he would’ve tied with Makoveev and gotten the gold. Unfortunately, the game took a wrong turn early on, as Jason got a consistently worse position that ultimatel didn’t hold. I’ve been searching for a while now how to end this paragraph, and it finally came to mind: “present disappointments pave the way for our future successes!”
A memorable moment at the closing ceremony was when Makoveev lifted up his trophy (until then the other winners had simply held it in their hands). A triumphant gesture, but it seemed to me it was not the tournament victory itself that impelled him to raise up the trophy, but the victory of winning when you’re expected to win, of having successfully carried the heavy weight of all those expectations (much harder than just winning!).
It had not been an easy tournament for Makoveev. He had made 4 draws, with all the draw offers initiated by him and each one ending the game prematurely. In three games he stood worse by varying degrees, both on the board and on the clock; in round 11, the position was equal but still contained plenty of play (here the draw guaranteed him clear first place).
The first one came in round 5.
Another striking example was in round 10.
While Makoveev was likely the strongest player in the section, there’s no doubt he was enormously helped by the “respect” his opponents had for him.
For me, it was great to meet so many of our nation’s brightest young talents (and their parents!), to watch their games, and root for their success. Go USA!