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On Chess: Grandmaster Hopefuls Compete In St. Louis

International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan is seeking his second GM norm.
Provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

The words “watch your back” have never rung so clear.

The 2014 national championships are less than two weeks old, but as America’s heavyweights retreat to their corners, the class of tomorrow has already hopped into the ring.

There was a quiet transition in Chicago over the Memorial Day weekend, as the city hosted its 23rd annual $100,000 Open. Several of last week’s U.S. title players took advantage of their peak forms and hit the event on the way out of St. Louis, including third-place finalist Aleksandr Lenderman. The 22-year-old New Yorker had just lost a three-way Armageddon playoff for the national title on Tuesday, but dusted himself off quickly for the weekend, finishing in 9-10th place against a field of 20 Grandmasters and 40 other titled players.

Passing Lenderman, in a sense, was Lindenwood University star Priyadharshan Kannappan - or “Priya” as he is affectionately known around chess circles. Kannappan was unearthed as part of the St. Charles University’s new chess program two years ago, after he left a small town in India for the budding St. Louis scene. He made an instant impact, becoming a regular fixture around the city’s chess happenings, a member of the St. Louis Arch Bishops team and the 2012 MVP of the U.S. Chess League.

This past weekend in Chicago, Kannappan tied for first place with seven points in nine rounds (7/9) and bagged $7,500 for his efforts - but more importantly made a clear declaration on how he intends to be recognized: Kannappan was the lone International Master (IM) among the top-12 finishers, with the other finalists donning the superior Grandmaster (GM) title.

This summer, Kannappan is looking to change that.

The Chicago Open was the first of a five-tournament mission over the next few months to earn the GM title, where he’ll need to pad 80 points and surpass a 2500 rating, as well as score three “norms” that represent superior performances against GM fields.

After Memorial Day, he is 1-for-1 -- and rolling.

Just as quickly as he finished in Chicago on Monday, Kannappan returned home hungry for a second norm, taking a seat in the St. Louis Invitational on Wednesday. Beyond the difficulties of just simply performing to a norm - scoring 6.5 points out of 9 against some of the world’s best - other norm definitions set by the governing World Chess Federation (FIDE) regularly produce horror stories for title-seekers. This is especially true in Open tournaments, where pairings are random and out of the player’s control, making the norm Kannappan earned last weekend in Chicago all the more coveted.

But the Saint Louis Invitational is designed around the norm. The organizing Chess Club and Scholastic Center has addressed all of FIDE’s hoop-jumping before the event, inviting only players that meet all of the necessary requirements, then letting a handful of hopefuls - like Kannappan - run wild. With all the regulating guess work out of the equation, all they have to do is show up and perform.

Other IMs hoping to score a norm include John Bartholomew, who earned one in last year’s installment of the Invitational, as well as Kayden Troff and Sam Sevian - America’s top U16 and U14 players, according to FIDE - who arrive in St. Louis on missions of their own. Part of the chess caravan, both followed Kannappan home from Chicago: In fact, Troff fell a half-point short of his own norm after losing to Kannappan in the final round.

They will all fight again this week in the St. Louis Invitational, and then we will see both Troff and Sevian once more at the end of the month for the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship. The event is the third of the trifecta of national championships hosted by St. Louis, featuring the top-10 U.S. players under 21, and Troff and Sevian should clash as favorites.

This is shaping up to be a fast-paced summer of opportunity for the next batch of U.S. hopefuls, and let it be clear that we will be watching this next crop for years to come. They’re moving at a startling speed, rendering Lenderman and the rest of the recent national title contenders as just that: Old news.

They had better watch their back.

Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.