Awonder Liang, Akshita Gorti are U.S. Junior champs

by Alejandro Ramirez
7/22/2017 – The 2017 U.S. Junior Championship and Girls Junior Championship were held in Saint Louis, in the same hall as the prestigious Sinquefield Cup and U.S. Championship. After ten days of gruelling chess, we had two very different tournaments. Akshita Gorti dominated the Girls section from beginning to end, while the Juniors had an absolutely last-minute result, in which GM-elect Awonder Liang prevailed. | Photos: Austin Fuller, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

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Fostering American talent

The U.S. Junior Championship has been a staple tournament at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Though it does not have the fame or the prestige of other events, namely the U.S. Championship or the Sinquefield Cup, it has always been treated as a top tier event inside the Club. A long time ago, Saint Louis realized the importance of fostering America's future players, by providing them training, tournaments and opportunities to grow as players.

International Arbiter and Chess Club Executive Director Tony Rich during the opening ceremony | Photo: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

Part of the training includes the Young Stars — Team USA program that has been sponsored by the Kasparov Chess Foundation (KCF) and Saint Louis Chess Club since 2012. A group of young and promising chess players are assessed and evaluated by Garry Kasparov himself, along with KCF President and FIDE Senior Trainer Michael Khodarkovsky. These players are also individually trained by prominent grandmasters and famous coaches, including Alexander Chernin.

The dividends are now quite obvious; the strength of the junior tournament keeps rising, and some of the top talent in the entire world is now found in the United States. This year's edition had two notable absences: Jeffery Xiong, reigning World Junior Champion, and Sam Sevian, reigning Continental Champion. Due to their impressive 2600+ ratings they probably decided to save their strength for other events. That paved the way for some other extremely talented juniors to fight for the title. The prize money in the tournament was quite nice, but more importantly, the winner of the tournament qualified to the 2018 U.S. Championship.

The tournament had daily commentary by WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, GM Cristian Chirila and myself, which you can replay below | Photo: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

A new addition to the U.S. Junior was the Girls section. A few years ago, top female players were quite worried that no young blood was really cropping up in America. Thanks again to efforts by the CCSCSL and the United States Chess Federation, that situation is now completely different. The age of the girls section was quite low, and some of the participants are already some of the top young women in the country, many qualifying and doing rather well in the past U.S. Women's Championship.

The Junior section was a very tough competition. Before the rest day, Kayden Troff, a graduate of the Young Stars program, emerged ahead of the field with am impressive extra point at 4.5/5, and still to play with some of the lower rated players in the section. Here is an example of his dominance in the first half:

Troff had a blazing start, and this was one of the early key games | Photo: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

[Event "USA-ch Juniors 2017"] [Site "Saint Louis"] [Date "2017.07.09"] [Round "2"] [White "Troff, Kayden W"] [Black "Li, Ruifeng"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D45"] [WhiteElo "2472"] [BlackElo "2568"] [Annotator "Ramirez Alvarez,Alejandro"] [PlyCount "53"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventCountry "USA"] [SourceTitle ""] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceQuality "1"] {Played only in the second round, this was a crucial game between two of the grandmasters in the field.} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Qc2 Bd6 7. Bd3 dxc4 8. Bxc4 b5 9. Be2 O-O 10. O-O a6 {D46: Semi-Slav: 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Bd3, Black avoids the Meran} 11. Ng5 Qc7 12. e4 $5 {Leading to a sharp variation. Kayden showed excellent preparation through most of the tournament. Here Ruifeng found himself in difficulties almost immediately.} Bxh2+ 13. Kh1 c5 14. e5 {After this move Ruifeng spent a ton of time. That is understandable, as the game is massively complicated.} h6 $146 (14... cxd4 $11 {is still a mess:} 15. exf6 Nxf6 16. f4 $5 Bg3 17. Qd3 (17. Rf3 $5)) ({Predecessor:} 14... cxd4 15. exf6 Nxf6 16. f4 Bg3 17. Qd3 dxc3 18. Qxg3 {1/2-1/2 (54) Yilmaz,M (2582)-So,W (2779) Kocaeli 2015 Kayden mentioned this game, but that Wesley went wrong very soon despite drawing the game at the end.}) 15. Nf3 $16 cxd4 16. exf6 Be5 17. Nxe5 $18 Nxe5 18. fxg7 {Black has no compensation for the extra piece.} Kxg7 {[#]} (18... Rd8 19. Qd2 {and due to the threat on h6, Black has no time to take on c3. The game wins itself from here on.}) 19. Qe4 $1 {The most precise.} Rd8 (19... Bb7 20. Qxd4 f6 21. Qh4 {and White has the material and the compensation.}) 20. Qh4 {White is clearly winning.} Rh8 21. Qxd4 f6 22. Bf4 Bb7 23. Bxe5 fxe5 24. Qg4+ Kf6 25. Ne4+ Bxe4 26. Qxe4 Rad8 27. Rac1 1-0

The Slav and Semi-Slav revisited

For Shirov the Slav and the Semi-Slav form one huge and common opening. Of course it is a mighty opening complex and the DVD cannot give a complete picture of it, but in the areas he chooses to highlight our author is an absolute expert and capable of giving the deepest possible insights into the secrets of this extremely solid opening.

Behind Troff were a group of players who all started well. IM Nicolas Checa, from New York, had a very stable tournament. GM-elect Awonder Liang had a tough loss on round two but was recovering with win after win, while GM Akshat Chandra kept putting up the pressure, but his consistent time trouble cost him half points everywhere. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that without time pressure Akshat would have lead the tournament most of the event, if not win it outright.

Meanwhile, in the girls section things were definitely much closer. Emily Nguyen, the defending champion from Texas, was neck and neck with Akshita Gorti. Maggie Feng, the highest rated player in the event, was also in contention but dropped too many half a points.

Agata Bykovtsev has made America very proud in chess with her 2015 World Youth bronze medal, but her achievements in chess pales in comparison to her academic performance. Her cap was not just for show:


 (Above) Bykovtsev will be joining MIT Engineering this coming fall
(Below) Maggie Feng had an impressive showing in this year's U.S. Women's Championship, but she failed to convert many winning positions, like this one against Annie Wang | Photos: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

Things, however, turned around completely after the rest day. The girls section became much less of a dramatic event. Despite the fact that Gorti entered the second half with a half point lead, she kept increasing it round by round, dominating her opponents while her closest rivals lost half or full points. Gorti's dominance was so complete that she won the tournament with a full round to spare, scoring 6.5/8 while Emily Nguyen and Maggie Feng only had 5.0/8.

Akshita Gorti ran away with the title in the second half | Photo: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

Gorti was simply dominant in the tournament. She showed good preparation, understanding, solid tactics and nerves of steel. To say that in this event she was a cut ahead of the rest would be no exaggeration. She has had an amazingly busy year, including the World Team Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk, in which she represented the U.S. after a couple of the top players declined their invitation. She earned her spot at the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship, though there was little doubt she would have made it by a rating invitation anyway.

Awonder's late surge

In the Junior section, the exact opposite happened. Kayden Troff started to drop half points here and there, including a solid draw against his closest rival, Awonder Liang. Things became extremely complex for him entering the last round after wasting a huge opportunity to score a full point against Joshua Colas in the penultimate round. Liang was half a point behind Troff, who was Black against Mika Brattain (2350), while Awonder played against Michael Brown (2504). A tiebreak was possible if Kayden only drew and Awonder lost, and actually a three-way playoff was possible if Michael drew Awonder, Mika beat Kayden and Akshat won his game! But it was not to be.

Mika Brattain showed amazing preparation and destroyed Troff, who had until that point shown very little weakness during the tournament. 

Brattain vs. Troff, an absolutely key game | Photo: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL 


Mika's queen on h3 is threatening mate on h7, and Black's task to defend the kingside is not trivial.

Awonder Liang took his opportunity and soundly defeated Michael Brown from a complex Spanish. Awonder showed nerves of steel and continues an impressive series of events this year. He already became the youngest grandmaster in America history earlier this year.

A smiling Awonder, before (above) and just after capturing the title (below). Photos: Austin Fuller, CCSCSL

The 2017 U.S. Junior Championship could really have been won by one of several people, but at the end it was Liang who converted his opportunities and emerged ahead of the field. He earns an extremely important spot at the 2018 U.S. Championship, in which he will fight against USA's top-3 and many other strong grandmasters. The $6,000 first prize also doesn't hurt!

Replay Junior Championship Games


Replay Girls Junior Championship Games


Commentary courtesy the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

Select the menu icon at the upper left corner of the video player to change rounds

Final Standings

U.S. Junior Championship

Girls Junior Championship


Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez has been playing tournament chess since 1998. His accomplishments include qualifying for the 2004 and 2013 World Cups as well as playing for Costa Rica in the 2002, 2004 and 2008 Olympiads. He currently has a rating of 2583 and is author of a number of popular and critically acclaimed ChessBase-DVDs.


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