U.S. top juniors converge in St. Louis: Half-time report

by Antonio Pereira
7/17/2018 – The United States have become a chess epicentre thanks to the Sinquefield family and the club they created in Saint Louis. It seems like, if they continue to support the younger generations, American chess players have a bright future ahead. This year's U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls Junior Championships are taking place in Missouri's cultural centre, and have clear leaders after five rounds: Advait Patel in the open section and Carissa Yip in the girls section. | Photos: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Young and fearless

The Saint Louis Chess Club hosts the U.S. Junior Closed Championship from July 12th to 21st, 2018. The event is the most prestigious chess tournament in the country for junior players under the age of 21. The total prize fund is $20,600.

Players receive 90 minutes for 40 moves, followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, plus 30 seconds per move starting from the first move.

The possibility to obtain great support in the future, if things go well, is a great way to motivate a group of talented youngsters. It is, therefore, understandable for them to have arrived in St. Louis with a great fighting spirit. Both tournaments have featured sharp tactical battles and some big swings in the evaluations. Apparently, keeping a cool head is the deciding factor under these conditions.

The current leader of the open section, Advait Patel from Oklahoma, won three out of his first five games. In two of them, he was at some point in objectively inferior positions, but his tenacity proved to be stronger than his opponents'. In round one, he faced the sensation of the last U.S. Women's Championship, Annie Wang. Right before the time control, Patel went for a highly complicated tactical line, which gave him a material advantage but also left his king unprotected. Annie could have taken the upper hand more than once, but was not able to find the precise continuations. Eventually, Patel turned things around and won after 58 moves:

 

The current leader, Advait Patel | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Awonder Liang, the second favourite by rating, is currently half a point behind Patel. He showed his strength in this year's U.S. Championship and, after his good start, it is not hard to imagine him taking first place in the end. Just like Patel, however, he went from almost losing to winning against a lower-rated player. This is the position he had with Black against Mika Brattain in round five after 17 moves:

 

Brattain played 18.Rh5 instead of the more forcing 18.h7+. To see that checking the king first is best, Mika would have needed to calculate precisely the following long variation: 18.h7+ Kf8 19.Qa3 Qc7 20.Nc5 Bd5 21.Rh5 (diagram).

 

Here, Black needs to find 21...f6 to put some resistance, because after some "natural" move like 21...Nc6, White can take a pawn with 22.Rxg5, as Black cannot play 22...Qxg5 due to 23.Nxe6 #:

 

After the game continuation, Liang survived White's attack and converted his piece advantage into a victory.

Awonder Liang had a solid performance in this year's U.S. Championship | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Yip convinces as the favourite

In the girls section, Carissa Yip, the rating favourite, has dominated the field in the first half of the tournament. She is on 4½/5 after defeating four of her rivals with a positional style that we would never guess could be displayed by a 15-year-old. Her game from round four against Thalia Cervantes illustrates this point:

 

A mature player for her age, Carissa Yip | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Maggie Feng is currently a point behind the leader, despite having lost her first round game against the second highest-rated Jennifer Yu. Yu is on 3/5 after having played only decisive games, losing two against nominally weaker opposition. She has not faced the leader yet, however — a win against Yip would put her very much in contention. 

The girls section | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Tactical shots

Unlike most games from the elite, younger players tend to find themselves very frequently in complicated tactical disputes. For example, in the following position, Alex Bian has just played 37...Ra2, winning the pinned queen. However, after John Burke's response, Bian had to resign:

 

White played 38.Rg3 and Black needs to give up too much material — after taking the queen — to avoid both checkmate and the promotion of the f-pawn.

We also saw some could-have-beens. Martha Samadashvili with White has just checked Natassja Matus' in the back rank. Here, Matus gave up her knight with 25...Ne8:

 

The key factor is that Black cannot save her king with 25...Kg7, as 26.Nf5+ gxf5 27.Qg5# would follow. 

Matus also arrived to a picturesque position in her third round game against Sophie Morris-Susuki. The commentators were very pleased with the active white king:

Current standings - Open

 

All games - Open

 

Commentary webcast

Live commentary by WGM Tatev Abrahamyan and GM Robert Hess

Current standings - Girls

 

All games - Girls

 

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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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