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On Chess: Junior Closed Championship had unexpected excitement

Tony Rich, the executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, with junior champion Jeffrey Xiong.
Austin Fuller | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

Due to the continuous effort of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, the U.S. Junior Closed Championship has grown to be one of the strongest and most prominent junior tournaments in the world. The 2016 edition brought together 10 of the most talented players in the country, with a median rating close to 2550 USCF and an average age of only 16.

The experts’ pick to win was, by no doubt, the Texas-based Jeffery Xiong. With a rating of 2723 at only 15 years old, Xiong was rated more than 100 points higher than his closest competitors, Grandmaster Kayden Troff and 2015 Junior Closed Champion International Master Akshat Chandra.

Earlier in the year, Xiong impressed the international chess community by finishing sixth in the U.S. Championship, holding his own against world-class players such as GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Fabiano Caruana.

Nonetheless, it was not the young Texan who took the lead in the first half of the tournament.

Among the 10 participants, three players made their debut performance in the 2016 U.S. Junior Closed Championship. International Master Nicolas Checa struggled to find his form in the early rounds, but both 18-year-old Michael Brown and New Yorker Aleksandr Ostrovskiy came out of the gates strong, seemingly unaffected by the tough opposition. Ostrovskiy joined Xiong in first position after three rounds, and the leaders faced off in round four. The International Master impressed spectators and commentators beyond any expectations, by outplaying the top junior from start to finish, putting Ostrovskiy in clear first place after the first half of the event.

After round five when the tournament favorite beat Utah GM Kayden Troff, Xiong explained, “Ostrovskiy made me look like a 2000 player facing a GM for the first time.” Xiong used the free day to recover from a heavy blow and showed a winning attitude by playing quick and confident chess, beating his colleague grandmaster in convincing style.

In the same round Ostrovskiy surprised the Idaho math prodigy Luke Harmon-Vellotti with the French defense, and after a complicated struggle the game seemed to peter out in a draw. However, for the first time in the event, the New Yorker suffered the consequences of poor time management, leaving the leader with seconds left for several critical decisions. Instead of accepting the logical outcome of the game, Ostrovskiy embarked upon a reckless winning attempt in the fifth hour of the game, which cost him the full point and thus, the lead.

As Xiong’s direct rival continued to stumble, his play appeared to get better every round. By the eighth  round, youngest participant and International Master Awonder Liang had made his way back toward the lead, although the 13-year-old Wisconsinite was never able to seriously threaten the Grandmaster’s lead.

After winning three consecutive games in the second half of the tournament, Xiong finished the event safely by drawing his last two games, securing the 2016 U.S. Junior Closed Championship title, and a $6,000 check.

With all the up-and-coming talent, the Texas Grandmaster will have his work cut out for him in future championships.

Robin van Kampen is a Dutch chess grandmaster, who earned that title when he was 16 years old.