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On Chess: Players hunt for trophies and norms in St. Louis

Grandmaster Pavlo Vorontsov, winner of the GM section at the 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress.
Austin Fuller | Saint Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Pavlo Vorontsov, winner of the GM section of the 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress.

The 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress took place Feb. 8 -13 at the Saint Louis Chess Club. The tournament was divided into two separate round robins:  The grandmaster norm group and the international master  norm section. 

The GM norm section had four grandmasters participating: Top seed Pavlo Vorontsov of Ukraine, Mark Paragua from the Philippines, Hungarian Denes Boros, and Akshat Chandra representing the United States.  Among the players in the GM section chasing their norms were international masters Djurabek Khamrakulov of Uzbekistan, as well as Americans John Bartholomew, Advait Patel, and Daniel Gurevich.

The final two participants were two top women’s grandmasters:  Stavroula Tsolakidou from Greece and Tatev Abrahamyan from the United States. To achieve the grandmaster norm, participants had to score 6.5 points in nine games, while Tsolakidou and Abrahamyan needed only six points, due to being slightly lower rated than their competitors. Having participants from varied countries is not only a great way to mix up the event and make it more interesting, but it is also a requirement for an event to count as a norm tournament.  

The IM section also had an eclectic collection of players. Top seed by a long shot was Russian Sergei Matsenko, who stamped his authority on the tournament by clinching victory before the last round was even played. The other two were Luis Carlos Torres Rosas from Mexico and American Joel Banawa. The norm chasers were Americans Joshua Colas, Aaron Grabinsky, Justin Wang, Josiah Stearman, Brandon Jacobson, as well as Tansel Turgut from Turkey and Canadian Qiyu Zhou. 

All players needed to secure a score of six out of nine games to meet the norm requirements. The IM section had much more variance in age than the GM group, which mostly had participants in their 20s and 30s. Tansel Turgut was the oldest participant, at 51, while Justin Wang was just 12 years of age. The great variance in ratings, ages and countries make these norm events unpredictable and a lot of fun to watch.  

Pavlo Vorontsov, top seed in the GM section, captured first place with a score of six points out of nine.  Despite tough losses in rounds three and four to Paragua and Abrahamyan respectively, the Texas Tech student tore through the rest of the event, scoring four wins in a row in rounds five through eight. 

He also had good chances of winning his last round against Chandra, but a draw ended up being enough to secure a clear first. Pavlo had a professional approach to the tournament, preparing well and making the most out of the positions in which he found himself. He also recovered from two losses in a row, a feat any player will tell you is not easy.  

While Vorontsov won the event, Stavroula Tsolakidou was undeniably the breakout player of the event. She blew away the required score of 4.5 for an international master norm, and came just half a point shy of a GM norm, ending the event with 5.5/9. 

Despite doing a terrible job of pronouncing her name, I found her to be an extremely pleasant interview: She was honest, full of energy and had a self-deprecating humor about her game.  A virtually unknown player  in the states, the Greek native displayed exciting chess, and will surely be a player to follow in the coming years. 

The other standout result in the GM group came from the other female player in the section, Tatev Abrahamyan of Glendale, California.  While a 50 percent score of 4.5/9 may not sound exciting, it was far above the expected score for the bottom seed, who was 80 rating points from her nearest rival. 

Like Stavroula, she also scored an international master norm, although she already had more than enough to meet the title requirements. Despite the victory for the top seed, it was clear that ratings were not a clear indicator of how this event would turn out.  

Sergei Matsenko during the 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress. Matsenko won the grandmaster section of the competition.
Credit Austin Fuller | Saint Louis Chess Club
Sergei Matsenko during the 2018 St. Louis Norm Congress. Matsenko won the international master section of the competition.

Sergei Matsenko simply outclassed his competition, finishing with seven out of a possible nine points, two points ahead of his nearest rivals. Rated 150 points from the No. 2 seed, one would expect him to run away with it, but I can tell you from experience that this isn’t always so simple. 

The top seed always has a target on his back, and his competitors get extra motivation playing against him.  While there were certainly moments things could have gone awry for Sergei, overall he was simply stronger and steadier than the rest of the competition.  Sergei, like Pavlo, is also a student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.  The school can now boast two first place finishers among its students.  

Often, when one player dominates an event, it doesn’t leave much room for their competitors to shine.  Luckily, this wasn’t quite the case in the IM group.  Josh Colas, a student at Webster University, was such an example. He finished as part of the four-way tie for second with 5/9.  Despite being one of the bottom seeds, he was the only one who had a shot at an IM norm going into the last round. 

But he lost a tough game and came up short. The Turkish player, Tansel Turgut, who lives in the Chicago area, also ended up in the second place log jam with 5/9.  With the same exact rating as Josh, Turgut also proved that he was not to be underestimated by his higher rated foes. 

The eldest participant at 51, and a last minute addition to the tournament at that, he ultimately showed his class and why he has the FM title next to his name.  

The 2018 Norm Congress was a fun event to follow.  None of the results were a foregone conclusion, and there were very few games that weren’t big fights. I encourage my fellow chess players to play through the games and replay games with the commentary teams abbreviated show at uschesschamps.com

If you are interested in seeing one of these events in person, the Spring Chess Classic will also feature two round robin fields, and will take place March 6-14. 

While these events don’t have the same atmosphere as a U.S. Championships or Sinquefield Cup, all of these participants are impressive players in their own right, and I’m glad the Saint Louis Chess Club gave them this opportunity to have center stage. 

Josh Friedel began playing chess at age 3, and entered his first tournament at when he was 6-years-old. Friedel received the international master title at 18 and proceeded to earn the grand master title at 22. He is a three-time New Hampshire State Champion, as well as a two-time California State Champion. Friedel has played in six U.S. Championships and won the U.S. Open Championship is 2013. Friedel also participated on the commentary team for this tournament.