USA: Denker Tournament of High School Champions won by 'Virginia'

by Vanessa Sun
8/7/2017 – For over 30 years, the GM Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions has provided top high school players of each U.S. Chess state the chance to compete nationally for college scholarships. Last week, IM Praveen Balakrishnan won the USD $5,000 first prize and also qualified for the next U.S. World Youth and Junior Closed Championships. Rochelle Wu (below) took the top spot in the National Girls’ Tournament of Champions | Photo: Vannessa Sun

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National recognition for US State Scholastic Champs

Denker players group

2016 Denker participants | Photo:

GM Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions

As many players descended upon Norfolk, Virginia for the 6-day schedule of the big 118th Annual U.S. Open Chess Championship, three scholastic tournaments were finishing up in the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel: the Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions, the Dewain Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions, and the National Girls’ Tournament of Champions.

These six round tournaments included players from 47 states, with California getting two representatives for each of Northern and Southouthern California, as there are two state USCF affiliates, plus Washington D.C. included. Alaska, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming did not send a player this year. The top prize in these tournaments was a whopping USD $5,000 (sponsored by US Chess Trust), meant to be used toward the winners’ college tuition.

Although many ended up tying for first, including a four-way tie in the Denker Tournament, only the first place player on tiebreaks could win the grand prize. Given the venue, it was quite fitting that the first place prize money of the Denker went to Virginian IM Praveen Balakrishnan with 5.0/6 points.

The Denker Tournament is often one of the last tournaments for rising high school seniors, with college applications looming in the Autumn. The summer provides a chance to play few tournaments and maybe win a bit of money. The Denker offers a competitive but fun environment to show state pride, make new friends, and most important of all: to learn!

At the start of the tournament, FM Bryce Tiglon of Washington state had an impressive 4-0 winning streak. He was only overtaken with a sixth round loss to the eventual winner, Balakrishnan.


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Balakrishnan and Tiglon

Balakrishnan 1-0 Tiglon was a ciritcal game for the tournament | Photo Vanessa Sun

Tiglon and two other players, FM Edward Song (Michigan) and FM George Li (Illinois), also finished tied with five points, and all are recognized as Denker Co-Champions. But the prize money was awarded by mathematical tiebreak (the US Chess standard is Modified Median, Solkoff, Cumulative), a blow to other Denker Co-Champs, like Song.

"Given the strength of the tournament, I'm definitely happy with my 5/6 result and also my play, which was generally pretty good, although I'm still a little disappointed in missing out on the tiebreaks”, he reported.

Song and Balakrishnan

FM George Li (left) drew with Balakrishnan in the last round but also had worse tiebreaks | Photo: Vanessa Sun

Prize money was of course not the only motivation for the players, though. In the case of Cindy Jie from Florida, being the only girl in the tournament was a special responsibility. She said she was “happy to get to represent girls in the Denker,” but was actually surprised about being the only female state representative. Unfortunately, she suffered from a cold in the tournament and was therefore not at peak condition.

Cindy Jie

Cindy Jie finished in 22nd place with 3.0/6 but gained rating points | Photo: Vanessa Sun

IM Craig Hilby from Southern California was anxious to try out new openings. After all, he has developed an interesting morning routine where he wakes up at 5:30 AM to work on chess, a detail which was even featured by US Chess on Facebook.

Craig Hilby

Craig Hilby | Source: US Chess Facebook page

“I tried a completely new repertoire with White every game and didn't win a single one, which was extremely frustrating but I guess it's part of the learning experience,”  said Craig, about the Denker. He now moves on with renewed positivity for the US Open, but this time with a lesson:

"Chess is humbling. If this was soccer I might blame my goalkeeper. If it was golf I'd blame the wind. For chess I only have myself to blame."

The ranks of past Denker Champions include players who went on to become grandmasters and even participate in the U.S. Championship, like GM Jesse Kraai (1989 and 1990), and GM Mackenzie Molner (2004).

The Dewain Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions

The Barber Tournament was created more recently with the sponsorship of Dewain Barber, a friend of the late Arnold Denker. Barber has always honored Denker at the opening ceremonies of the three events. He was present to make first moves of games and to make announcements.

He sported many funny hats, created a trivia contest based off the Denker website, and even offered a challenge to the participants: receive a free chessboard from the tournament with the tournament logos and use it to teach 100 kids in their respective states to play chess.

Dewain Barber

The man with the hats | Photo: Vanessa Sun

Barber’s tournament started and ended with excitement, fun, and of course, a strong competitive nature!

NM Justin Wang sat small but proud at the top board all six rounds. The 2300 twelve year old was clearly shooting to win and indeed never lost a game throughout the tournament, giving up just two draws. He fidgeted constantly, as many young kids do, but was still hyper focused, I’d say more than many chess players at that age!

Wang's downfall, however, was again the small matter of tiebreaks. He was overtaken by CM Christopher Shen in the standings, even though he had the same overall score. Christopher wasn’t expecting the result, however, because he said he "had just gotten back from a fun but also tiring chess camp in Bulgaria," with super-GM Veselin Topalov!

Justin Wang and Christopher Shen

Justin Wang (left) and Christopher Shen, shortly before their game | Photos: Vanessa Sun

Christopher was satisfied, but still humble about his victory, claiming there was still much for him to learn.        

Like the Denker, the Barber tournament had a lone girl participating, Jacey Tran from Nebraska.

The National Girls’ Tournament of Champions

Rochelle Wu was simply dominating in her performance at the National Girls’ Tournament. Taking clear first, she chewed bubble gum almost every game, smiled for the camera, and made friends — all the while showing off her chess talent. Already the 44th best female player in the United States at age 11, she is quite an intimidating opponent.

Rochelle had the mentality of many young players going into the tournament. She wanted to win, although she did not really expect it. She hoped to gain rating points, see friends, learn, and try her best.

Rochelle Wu

Rochelle Wu from Alabama | Photo: Vanesse Sun

What made the tournament special for her was that it was "a tournament for the best junior players of each state" — a rare opportunity for many girls to get together for such a tournament. The All Girls Nationals and Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational are similar tournaments that bring many girls together from across the country.

Annie Wang of Southern California placed second in the tournament and Marissa Li of Illinois placed third. Also friends with Rochelle, the buildup of camaraderie between girls in chess is clear.

Group of girls

Rochelle Wu, sitting between Marissa Li and Jennifer Yu | Photo: Vanessa Sun

Special Prizes

Some interesting prizes included the state team prizes, where the highest combined state representatives' scores across all three tournaments were added together. Illinois (14 points), Washington (13.5), and Texas (12.5) were the three winners, as well as Idaho for first place U1700,  Indiana for U1900 and Alabama for U2100. (See image gallery at top)

There was also a prize for the best upset, which went to Symphony Richards from Arkansaw. She managed to beat a player nearly 350 rating points higher — no small feat. It should be said that although she entered the tournament rated 574, and her win over a 922 rated peer was her only point, her school chess team showed tremendous spirit as they frequently relayed support via social media.

US Chess tweet

With the scholastic tournaments over, many players such as Bryce Tiglon, Annie Wang, and Rochelle Wu decided to stick around to participate in the 6-day schedule of the US Open.

Much more excitement is to come from Norfolk, VA — watch out for another ChessBase report, real soon!

Correction August 9: An earlier version of this story indicated that Cindy Li finished in 28th place. In fact it was 22nd on tiebreak.


Vanessa is an avid chess fan and freelance chess journalist. She writes for Chess Life, Chess^Summit, US Chess, and more. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter | Photo: David Llada


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