Stunning Finish in U.S. Junior

by admin on July 17, 2017

After yesterday’s post in which I wrote about eleven of the top junior players in the U.S., of course I have to write about the U.S. Junior Championship, which concluded today. Six of the players I wrote about yesterday — Troff, Liang, Chandra, Li, Brown, and Tang — were in the ten-man field. Perhaps the surprising thing is that four of the top ten — including the top two, Sevian and Xiong — did not choose to play. I don’t know the reason, but most likely they are playing in or preparing for other events. When you’re at the level these guys are, a mere national junior championship may not seem to be worth the trouble.

Even without Sevian and Xiong it was an interesting, maybe even historic tournament. The winner was Awonder Liang, who at 14 years old is certainly one of the youngest winners of this tournament ever, perhaps even the youngest. Unfortunately I cannot tell you because I could not find a single site on the Internet that gives the complete history of this prestigious tournament! All I can tell you is that it started in 1966 — too late for Bobby Fischer to play in it. Fischer, at 13, was the youngest U.S. Junior Open champion, but I’m not sure who was the youngest Closed (or Invitational, as it was previously called) winner.

It’s been amazing to me to see Liang continue to rise, year after year. He first got his name in Chess Life in 2012, after he won the World Under-8 Championship. While this is impressive, it also seemed ridiculous to me. What can it possibly mean to be the best under-eight player in the world, when most seven-year-olds have either not learned the game yet or not begun playing seriously? I assumed that it would be the last time I would hear of him.

But boy, I was wrong. Two years later, he won the world under-10 title. He was the youngest U.S. National Master in history and the youngest International Master from America. This summer he earned his third grandmaster norm at the Chicago Open. Now he is the U.S. Junior champion. You can’t ignore him any longer!

Just as much as this tournament was a triumph for Liang, it was a tragedy for Kayden Troff, who had a clear lead with 6 points going into the last round, while Liang had 5½. In the last round Troff was paired against Mika Brattain, who had yet to win a game in the tournament, with two losses and six draws. If this was an adult tournament you would expect a quick draw, sewing up at least a tie for Troff.

But junior tournaments are incredibly competitive, and anything can happen! Troff’s play seemed somewhat nervous throughout. Brattain played an enterprising pawn sacrifice, and by move 30 Troff was just barely hanging on. Stockfish evaluated the position at +0.62, slightly better for White but not winning.

However, computer evaluations can be deceiving. It was a fiendishly complicated position, with all sorts of pins and counterpins. The computer evaluation is based on finding a miraculous move that would potentially leave three pieces hanging. No matter which one Brattain took, Troff would have an adequate response. But Troff didn’t find the miraculous save. Instead, he played a horrible blunder that simply hung a knight on the spot. Just like that, his dreams of repeating as U.S. Junior champion (he also won in 2014) were over.

Meanwhile, Liang slowly outmaneuvered Michael Brown, the subject of yesterday’s post. It was a Ruy Lopez where the first trade didn’t happen until move 27. It’s not so easy to say where Brown went wrong, but the more the position opened up, the more weaknesses appeared in his position, and eventually he could not plug all the leaks.

Congratulations to the winner! Let’s hope he stays interested enough to win the U.S. Junior title five more times.

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