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On Chess: St. Louis kids compete at national chess events

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Three St. Louis kids represented Missouri on the national stage this week as they competed in elite, invitational scholastic events as part of the U.S. Open in Madison, Wisc.

The U.S. Open Championship is a national tournament that has been held annually since 1900. The “Open” in the title means anyone can register and play. Whereas cash prizes often lead the desire to compete in any event – and this one is no slouch, with $50,000 up for grabs – the overall winner of the U.S. Open is also guaranteed a spot in the U.S. Closed Championship, the invitation-only competition for the national crown, which the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis has hosted for the past five years and will do so again in 2014.

The tournament is an annual focus for many of the game’s greats. Reuben Fine all but owned the event through the 1930s, winning it seven times, as did Pal Benko – of the Benko Gambit – who notched eight titles through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bobby Fischer won the event in 1957. Another winner was the St. Louis Chess Club’s resident Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who tied for first in 1985. Seirawan later won the event outright in 1990. Ben Finegold, who also served as the club’s resident GM, won the Open in 1994 and again in 2007.

With more than 500 participants expected for 2013, the U.S. Open has evolved into a chess festival of sorts, featuring a host of side events including blitz and “Bughouse” tournaments, and several national scholastic events -- where our local students took aim this week.

Parkway Central High School junior-to-be Kevin Cao, 16, represented Missouri in the Denker Tournament of High School Champions, affectionately known as “The Denker,” the prize of which includes a four-year academic scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas. Cao has been a rising St. Louis star for several years, becoming Missouri’s K-8 champion in 2008 and earning a spot on the All-American team in 2010 at age 12. In 2011, he shocked the Pittsburgh Open by tying for first with two GMs - as an untitled player. Last year, he was selected as part of the super-elite Young Stars-Team USA program that partnered with former World Champion Garry Kasparov.

He acquitted himself nicely at the event, scoring three wins in his first three rounds before losing to eventual champion Kapil Chandran in round 4 and Tommy Ulrich in round 5. Cao won his final game to finish in a six-way tie for 7th place out of 48 participants.

Julian Proleiko, a homeschooler, participated in the Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions - named after Dewain Barber, a longtime scholastic chess promoter who I mentioned last week as the creator of the famous Ultimate chess set. “The Barber” event is an almost identical idea to the Denker, but filled the void for younger players left out by the high-school only mandate of the Denker. The winner of the Barber qualifies for the World Youth Championship.

Proleiko lost only two games, both against much higher-rated opponents, and finished in a nine-way tie for 6th place, a fantastic result considering he started the tournament ranked 35th out of the 50 participants. He picked up almost 80 points to push his post-tournament U.S. Chess Federation rating to 1886.

And Pattonville eighth-grader Keturah Gadson represented our state in the USCF’s National Girls Invitational Tournament. Keturah is one piece of a strong Gadson chess family out in Pattonville, which includes Isaiah, a 2000-plus rated expert. Both were individual winners of the 2012 Gateway Chess League here in St. Louis.

Before she left, Keturah expressed a common concern shared by those competitors in female-only events: “Girls don’t underestimate other girls.”

Originally seeded 25th out of 40 participants, she still managed an eight-way tie for 19th place and picked up 18 points to push her USCF rating to 1490.