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On Chess: U.S. Junior Championships see surprising winners and exciting games

The 2017 U.S. Junior Champion, IM Awonder Liang, and 2017 U.S. Girls' Junior Champion, WIM Akshita Gorti pose for a picture with Chess Club executive director, Tony Rich (L) and Chess Club founder, Rex Sinquefield.
Austin Fuller | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

The U.S. Junior Championship was held July 8-17 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. The tournament kicked off with early leaders in both sections: Kayden Troff, the Junior Champion of 2014 in the Open Section, and Emily Nguyen, the defending champion in the Girls’ Section.

Emily Nguyen started strong, winning against AsrithaEswaran and drawing Thalia Cervantes. Cervantes, a St. Louis resident and a newcomer to the Junior Championship, proved that she belonged to the field, as she put immense pressure on Nguyen. In the end, however, Nguyen managed to hold her position. After this critical game against Cervantes, she won two consecutive games, which cemented her position at the top. She defeated Agata Bykovtsev as well as her direct rival, Annie Wang.

Similar to the Girls’ Section, the Open Section also had an early leader, 2014 champion Kayden Troff, who showed his skills very early on. Troff defeated Andrew Tang and the big favorite of the tournament Ruifeng Li. Troff showed why he is considered one of the biggest talents in the United States, as he punished Li’s uncertain opening play.

Troff did, however, face some tough problems against St. Louis player, Akshat Chandra, but after some precise defensive moves, he held the position and the two players agreed to a draw. Troff stabilized his lead with a win over Michael Brown and with a draw against championship hopeful Awonder Liang.

After the first five rounds, it seemed that Troff and Nguyen would run away with the championship, as their main rivals were struggling. But, round five was a turning point for the Girls’ Section, when Akshita Gorti faced Emily Nguyen. Gorti tried to put pressure on Nguyen as she needed to win since Nguyen was half a point ahead of her. Nguyen tried to play a good defensive set up, but she decided to choose a different continuation, which led to trouble. Gorti took her chances and, after stopping Nguyen from castling, she launched a winning attack. This game was influential for the final standings, as Gorti then scored important wins against Annie Wang and Mika Bykovtsev. These wins established her as the new leader, and with a draw in round eight against Maggie Feng, Gorti clinched the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship title and the qualifying spot for the U.S. Women’s Championship with one round to spare.

In the Open Section, KaydenTroff made sure that the lead was firmly in his hands. After winning key games against Michael Brown and Bovey Liu, he was poised to become the Junior Champion. It should have been a warning sign that his game against Brown was difficult and Brown could have pulled an upset, if he had been a bit more precise in his execution.

Brown made a dubious move, and Troff refuted Brown’s idea. Troff was in the lead alone, but he was chased from a distance by Chandra and Liang. After round six, Troff slowed down and made a few draws, which gave Chandra and Liang the opportunity to get closer to him.

Liang played a fantastic game against Ruifeng Li, following the famous game played by Magnus Carlsen against Alexander Grischuk. Liang came up with a huge novelty, a line never seen before, and put his rival under pressure. After a heavy tactical struggle, Li’s King wondered up to e6, which was exploited by Liang with an elegant piece-sacrifice, and soon Ruifeng had to concede, Liang won an important game.

Before the last round, Liang was only a half point behind Troff, while Chandra was a full point behind. Troff ran into trouble quickly against Mika Brattain, and after a tactical fight in the center, Troff was forced to resign. This gave an opportunity to Liang to win. Liang put long-term pressure on Michael Brown, even though Brown had a decent position in the early middle game. The time trouble was getting closer, but that moment it was clear, that Liang holds the advantage. He had one more rival left: himself. Liang achieved this difficult task without a problem, and won the U.S. Junior Championship, thus qualifying for the U.S. Championship.

Both Gorti in the Girls’ Section and Liang showed great preparation, and composure throughout the event and deservedly became the 2017 U.S. Junior Champions.

Denes Boros scored his first grand master norm with 10 out of 11 points. He was a grand master Journalist at Carlsen-Karjakin Match. He provided expert grand master commentary for the New York Times.