US Youth Team Breaks Medal Record In Brazil!

Coach Andranik Matikozyan with his World Youth students Liran Zhou (gold in Open Under 10) and Ellen Wang (bronze in Girls Under 10), wearing sponsor Two Sigma jackets 
When last year's World cadets in Batumi, Georgia came to a close, our US team boasted two new gold medals, with two new world champions, and one silver medal. I wondered aloud with our coaching staff this achievement, complemented by winning the top country team prize for the first time, could be repeated. Fast forward to this year's edition of the championship (in Pocos de Caldas, Brazil), there were good reasons to be optimistic: not only did we have a sizeable players' list of 68 players(!), but that list included many of our super-talents, and 'mini-stars'! Still, this is the World Championship, and competition is strong and fierce, so in my heart, I was hoping for a medal-repeat of last year. But kids will be kids, and our rambunctious group just had to prove me wrong! When the dust has settled, and the last piece captured, our amazing boys and girls amassed no less than 7 medals, with 3 of them gold (3 new champs!), 3 silver, and one bronze! What's more, for the second year in a row, our team won the collective Top Country prize, as well! I must admit that I felt a little bit like Danny Glover, and Mel Gibson, in one of the Lethal Weapon movies, facing insurmountable weaponry odds, and bad guy Gary Busey telling them: 'Don't be ridiculous! look at the hardware!' What beautiful hardware indeed! By now some of you might already conclude that this event was a walk in the park, with such domination, so let me tell you a bit about the road to success, starting with the venue. To get to the pleasant, but 'airport-less' city of Pocos de Caldas, one had to take a 9-13 hour flight (depending on the departure city, and not including stopovers, for some), to one of airports around Sao Paulo. Upon landing. they had to embark on a drive, that depends on the mode of transportation, time of day, weather, and mood of the driver, could take between 2.5-4 hours, from the nearer airport, to 4+ hours from the main Sao Paulo airport! One unlucky group from our team was picked up by a driver who not only drove in Sunday-stroll-mode, but during the midway break was too involved in a friendly chat with his friends, and wouldn't move from the rest area for hours! It required some prodding from afar to end that  eight (!) hour saga. The team stayed in three local hotels, which had a reliable back and forth shuttle to the playing hall. That was especially appreciated by those who stayed at the main hotel, which was on a very steep incline from the hall, reminiscent of Lombard street in San Francisco! I was concerned about having to do that route several, and more than several times a day, with time sensitive issues that cannot depend on any shuttle, but this was ideally resolved when the main organizer, as a gesture to our long friendship, took me to a car rental agency, and rented me a car for the duration of the event! That was priceless, with several emergencies that we had, like the time when someone carelessly closed the shuttle van's door on one of our players' hands (luckily, he was only bruised). I said tongue in cheek, that with such a great performance, and so many good moves by our players, the only way to stop it, was to physically try and prevent us from making those moves, by disabling our players' hands!
Aviv leading a team meeting
As history taught us time and again, such events are often won not necessarily by the highest ranked, or best players, but rather by good players, who manage a balanced work/rest regimen, and stay healthy throughout 11 grueling rounds. This year, a significant number of our players were hit by some stomach virus, the symptoms of which, I will spare you... somewhat luckily, after a mid-game such incident with one of our players, the tournament doctor administrated some local OTC med, which transformed within about 30 minutes, our aching, soon-to-forfeit player, lying down in pain in the infirmary, into the strong master he usually is. At first he went to make a move, so as not to lose on time, and return to rest, and then disappeared into the playing hall for 2 hours, coming out victorious! Soon thereafter, thanks to a few of our parents, I had a sizeable stock of that medication, and dispensed it upon need, till the stubborn virus was eradicated.
Two Sigma team dinner at a local restaurant
Moving on to some actual chess, I am often asked what it takes to be a good youth team coach. Start with a good dosage of chess knowledge (opening theory expertise, a plus!), add good chemistry with children, some parental skills, psychology and resourcefulness under time pressure. Finally, a bit of an ER doctor to fix what's broken, a few healthy drops of care and dedication, and mix well. This year we had five such tireless, fantastic coaches: GM John Fedorowicz, GM Alex Goldin, IM Andranik Matikozian, GM Robert Hess, and GM Robert Hungaski. 31 players  either earned, or paid for coaching, with others either bringing their own trustworthy, private coaches, relying on long distance help from home (a tough task with unreliable internet), or just counting on their own acquired knowledge.
Robert Hess, Max Lu, Gus Huston, Robert Hungaski
The playing schedule was demanding, with 11 rounds of play, including two exhausting days with double rounds. On the regular days, the routine was simple: morning preparation between the players and their coaches, lunch and rest, followed by a 3 pm round. 90 minutes into the round, the coaches were available for 4 hours of game analysis, followed by dinner. Thankfully, we had our own team room (and many thanks to our US Chess rep Jerry Nash, and the federation's management, for securing it for us in advance). The double round days were much trickier: with round times of 10 am and 5 pm, morning prep was tight -- as was the afternoon one, as soon as pairings showed up. Both rounds' game analysis was even extended for the second double day, with coaches working in shifts, to accommodate everyone. Keeping in mind the spread of our delegation in three hotels, this was a logistical challenge, and lots of praise goes to both the coaches, and the players/parents for making it work. Before moving on to our gold medalists, I must make an honorable mention to silver medalist Abhimanyu Mishra. Abhi is a tremendous talent, and of the youngest chess experts in the country under age 8. He came to this event, fresh from his victory at the Pan American Youth, and started the tournament on fire: after 8 rounds not only was he perfect at 8/8, but his next rival was already a point and a half behind him. With 3 rounds to go, the win and gold seem like a lock, but unfortunately a finish of .5 out of the last 3 games, saw him finishing 'only' in second place. In spite of this slip, there is a bright future for this young talent, and when consistency comes with time, he will be a name I expect we'll see again and again!
Abhimanyu Mishra
The player who beat Abhi in the last round, was none other than our own Aren Emirikian, who clinched first place in that under 8 category. Ranked only 22nd(!) on the initial ranking list, the young Californian had a slow start with 1/2, improved it to 4/5, but then lost in round 6. At this stage Aren decided to shift gears into no-nonsense mode, scoring 5 big wins in a row, to an impressive 9/11, and to clear first place! Take a look at the efficiency with which he won his round 9 game:

[Event "World Cadets Chess Championship 2017"]
[Site "Pocos de Caldas - MG - Brasil"]
[Date "2017.08.29"]
[White "Pham, Tran Gia Phuc"]
[Black "Emrikian, Aren C"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "E04"]
[WhiteElo "1567"]
[BlackElo "1408"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r2q1rk1/1bp1bppp/p1n1pn2/1p2N3/2pPPPP1/4B3/PP4BP/RN1Q1RK1 b - - 0 13"]
[PlyCount "35"]
[EventDate "2017.08.22"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "BRA"]
[SourceDate "2014.04.07"]

{White just played 12. g4!?, trying to muddy the water, and justify his
pawn deficit with some mobility on the kingside. Aren responds correctly:}
13... Nxe5 $1 14. fxe5 Nd7 $1 {It was possible to play:} (14... Nxe4 15. Qc2
Bg5 $1 {where black tactically gets away with this pawn grabbing. Still Aren's
choice is better}) 15. Bf4 {15...c5 is on the agenda, so white wants to meet
it with 16. d5. Aren is having none of this:} Bg5 $1 16. Qd2 Bxf4 17. Qxf4 Qe7
(17... c5 18. d5 f6 $1 {would have been even better}) 18. Re1 Nb6 19. Qe3 Rad8
20. Nc3 Rd7 21. Rad1 Rfd8 22. Rd2 $2 {white was already in defensive mode, but
this move allows a completely winning strike:} c5 $1 23. Ne2 cxd4 24. Nxd4 Qc5
25. Red1 b4 $1 {Cool! Black is using his passed c-pawn to collapse white's
defense of d4} 26. Kh1 c3 27. Rd3 Nc4 28. Qg5 h6 29. Qc1 Rxd4 30. Rxd4 Rxd4 0-1 [/pgn]
Aren Emirikian
Our team's domination in the Open sections continued with Liran Zhou's resounding victory in the under 10 section, with 9.5/11 - a full point ahead of 2nd place, secured by none other than another US team player Arthur Xu. 9-year-old Liran (one of, if not the youngest in his section!), had recently broken the record for youngest player to achieve the title of US Chess master!
Success in the Open Under 10: Arthur Xu (center) and Liran Zhou (right) 
A player of rare talent and deep understanding of the game, complemented by an uncanny calculating ability for his age, Liran is a player who with continuous dedication and support, is sure to become a leading player in the future. The following example from round 7, where he gave a master class to the top seed Indian star -- who out rated the field by more than 300(!) FIDE points -, is indicative of Zhou's potential:

[Event "World Cadets Chess Championship 2017"]
[Site "Pocos de Caldas, Brasil"]
[Date "2017.08.28"]
[White "Bharath, Subramaniyam H"]
[Black "Zhou, Liran"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B41"]
[WhiteElo "2209"]
[BlackElo "1897"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r3k2r/1bqp1pp1/pp1bpn2/7p/N1PBP3/P4PP1/1P2B2P/2RQK2R b Kkq - 0 14"]
[PlyCount "41"]
[EventDate "2017.08.22"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "BRA"]
[SourceDate "2014.04.07"]

{White's last move, 14. Na4 tries to shift play to the queenside, thanks
to the threat on the b6 pawn. Liran smartly ignores the threat, evaluating
correctly that the initiative, and the weakness of the white king, will
completely outweight the material deficit:} 14... h4 $1 15. Nxb6 hxg3 $1 16.
Nxa8 Bxa8 {somewhere around here coach Andranik (Matikozian), who coaches
Liran said that while objectively white isn't losing, he had every confidence
that Liran would win. The position is very hard to play as white for a human,
and mistakes can come (and came!) easily} 17. Qd2 $2 (17. h4 {was necessary,
although after:} Nh5 $1 {black is having all the fun, and is better}) 17...
gxh2 {not the only move, but quite sufficient} 18. c5 Bg3+ 19. Bf2 Nxe4 {
the human move, and who could resist it? The trusted engine claims other moves
might have been stronger, but this is fun to play!} 20. fxe4 Bxe4 21. Qg5 $2 {
losing immediately. 21. Qe3 was the lesser evil, but not saving either:} (21.
Qe3 Qf4 $1 {would have been pretty as well.}) 21... Bf4 22. Qxg7 Be5 $1 23. Qg5
Bxh1 24. Bh5 Bf4 25. Qg4 Qe5+ 26. Kf1 Qxh5 27. Qxf4 Bg2+ 28. Ke1 h1=Q+ 29. Kd2
Qd5+ 30. Kc3 Rh3+ 31. Be3 Qxc1+ 32. Kb4 Qcxc5+ 33. Bxc5 Qb3+ 34. Ka5 Qb5# {
A beautiful tour de force by our new world champion!} 0-1[/pgn]
Completing the sweep in the open sections, was Vincent Tsay, who before the event was ranked in 16th position. The young New Yorker, who recently reestablished his master status, by crossing the 2200 mark again, started wonderfully, garnering 6 out of his 7 games. When in round 7 he lost to the strong Russian Murzin, rated 2280, the hopes of gold may have diminished for some of us, but not Vincent! An impressive finish of 2.5/3, tied him for first with 8.5/11, winning gold on tie breaks! An added testimony to Tsay wisdom beyond his years could be found in some of the tips and observations he had after the event. He suggested to always believe in oneself, to maintain good physical shape, to rest and eat properly, so as to have the proper energy in these long events, to buckle down towards the end of the tournament, when others tire, and my favorite mature quote: "Every time I play a chess game, I don't think about the result; I only think about playing a good game, and the result will follow". Well said Vincent!
Vincent Tsay
I have selected the following segment from his round 6 victory:

[Event "World Cadets Chess Championship 2017"]
[Site "Pocos de Caldas, Brasil"]
[Date "2017.08.27"]
[White "Tsay, Vincent"]
[Black "Nguyen, Quoc Hy"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A52"]
[WhiteElo "2033"]
[BlackElo "1869"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "6rk/2p3rp/3pb3/1q5P/p3Pp2/1P3B2/P1RQ1PP1/4K2R w - - 0 29"]
[PlyCount "57"]
[EventDate "2017.08.22"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "BRA"]
[SourceDate "2014.04.07"]

{At first glance, the question of which king is more vulnerable might come to
mind. Vincent quickly answers that question, with some aesthetic rook
maneuvers.} 29. h6 $1 Rf7 30. Qc3+ Qe5 31. Qxe5+ dxe5 32. bxa4 Ra8 33. Rh5 $1
Ra5 34. Rg5 Rd7 35. Rb2 Rd8 36. Bd1 c6 37. Bb3 Bg8 38. Rd2 $1 Rb8 39. Rd7 {
with a series of simple moves, whte achieved complete domination. What's more,
the black king is boxed in, and is in real danger.} Bxb3 40. axb3 Rg8 41. Rf5 (
41. Rxg8+ Kxg8 42. Rg7+ $1 Kh8 43. Rc7 {was even easier}) 41... Raa8 42. Rff7
Rxg2 43. Rxh7+ Kg8 44. Rdg7+ Rxg7 45. Rxg7+ Kh8 46. Rc7 Rb8 47. Rxc6 Rxb3 48.
Rc5 Rb4 49. Rxe5 Rxa4 50. Ke2 {after the trade-fest. white ended up with an
easily winning rook ending, which he won quickly} Kh7 51. Re6 Ra3 52. Rf6 f3+
53. Rxf3 Ra2+ 54. Ke3 Kxh6 55. Rg3 Ra5 56. Kf4 Rb5 57. e5 1-0[/pgn]
In addition to Abhi, who I spoke of before, we had two more silver medalists, who performed exceptionally well, and left some unfinished business to take care of next year! Arthur Xu, in the open under 10 section, played enterprising chess, and suffered only one loss, to gold medalist Liran. His 8.5/11, including a tough draw versus the top seed, guaranteed him unshared second place, and put him on the 'ones to watch; list. Nasstassjia Matus from Minnesota, playing in the girls under 12 section, showed admirable tenacity, and fighting spirit! She started with a perfect 4/4, continued with a strong 7/8, and 8.5/10, before losing her last round game, but still winning the silver, thanks to her fantastic tie breaks. This was Nasstassjia's best result yet (she is a veteran in world events), and I am sure not her last word on the topic either! In an earlier piece on this event, GM Hess wrote of the elaborate list of things that need to happen, so that our girls under 8 representative, Ellen Wang would win the bronze. It sounded a bit like the Porky Pig cartoon 'Fool Coverage' episode, where many implausible events have to occur, for Porky's insurance policy to kick in, and they do! Well, sure enough, everything fell into place, and our youngster won a well deserved bronze medal! Ellen played great chess, and looking at her games, and positions, wasn't far from actually winning the whole thing.
Ellen Wang with coach Matikozyan
The tournament ran smoothly, with very few glitches. Pairings were up promptly, the rounds started on time, and perhaps the best testimony was that my stint on the appeals committee was uneventful - there were no appeals at all, which isn't always the case at this event. Thanks to chief organizer Darcy Lima, and his arbiter staff led by Antonio Bento, and Elcio Mauro, who were pleasantly available to any questions I had for them. Even bigger thanks go to Two Sigma, whose generous donation for the third year in a row, not only provided uniforms for players and coaches, but also sponsored our team-uniting, moral-boosting wonderful team dinner! A local authentic Brazilian restaurant was the venue, that Jerry (Nash), and I have chosen, arranged for a menu (and transportation for 165 persons!), and our players, coaches, and parents enjoyed a feast that wouldn't have shamed a Roman emperor! Thanks Two Sigma! Finally, much credit should go to all our young players, who without exception gave their all in the event, and represented us proudly, the parents who invested resources to make this event happen for their kids, again all the coaches, team and private, Jerry Nash, and everyone atUS Chess who helped in making this event happen. Next year this event is scheduled a bit later in the year, in Spain, and I am sure that both logistically, and 'chessically' everyone with ambitions, already started their prep work for it! Till then...!