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On Chess: U.S. Junior and Girls’ Junior Chess Champions crowned in St. Louis

the 2018 U.S. Junior Champions, Awonder Liang and Carissa Yip.
Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club

After the first two rounds of this year's U.S. Junior Championship it was anything but clear who was in the lead. Defending champion, grandmaster Awonder Liang, was at a 50 percent score with two draws in a row. 

To make matters more complicated, of the five grandmasters competing, two players ranked in lower half of the field. International master Advait Patel and FIDE master Alex Bian, were performing exceptionally well.

Both Patel and Bian had achieved perfect 2-0 scores. On top of that, Bian had defeated two favorites, grandmasters Akshat Chandra and Andrew Tang.

Entering the second half of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, Carissa Yip was a full point lead on the field. Yip was undefeated and seemed to be running away with the championship when she surprisingly lost for the first time to someone from the bottom of the scoreboard, Sophie Morris-Suzuki. Morris-Suzuki began the tournament with five straight losses, then won a thrilling, attacking battle against Yip.

In the post-game interview, Morris-Suzuki said she gained a new perspective during the day off, “I decided that every game is basically a new tournament.” She maintained this mentality and went on to score a remarkable three points out of the last four rounds.

These kinds of surprising results were a trademark of this year’s U.S. Junior Championships, two tournaments defined by an incredibly high percentage of decisive games and every player’s enormous level of fighting spirit.

The Junior section was an astonishingly close race. In fact, after six rounds, six players (more than half the field) were tied for first place!.

Just as quickly as the colossal tie appeared, it disappeared. In round seven, Liang was the only player to achieve a victory and he became the sole leader. Although Patel remained close on Liang’s tail, the defending champion maintained his lead until the very end.

After a win over international master Praveen Balakrishnanan and a draw against grandmaster Chandra, Liang became the 2018 U.S. Junior Champion. Liang is the first repeat winner since the championship has been hosted by the St. Louis Chess Club.

Liang is looking forward to competing in the 2019 U.S. Championships, which were one of his main motivations of this tournament. When asked about his upcoming plans in chess, Liang said he intends to take some time to reflect on his recent games, “I think it’s a part of every chess player. After every time you play, you improve yourself.”

After a final round victory over the top seed, Patel finished in clear second. This is an incredible result for him, performing over 100 points above his rating entering the championship.

In the girls’ section, even after her sixth round loss, Yip had a half-point edge over the rest of the field and she didn’t give the other players another chance to catch her.

Yip finished the last three rounds convincingly. She won two games in a row in rounds seven and eight. In the final round, Yip faced her closest competitor, Jennifer Yu, who trailed by a point and needed a victory to secure a playoff.

Yip cleanly fended off Yu’s attacking play, and the players soon agreed to a draw. This result clinched a clear first for Yip, making her the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion.

Yu tied with Emily Nguyen for second. Though Yu’s tournament was negatively affected by a blunder in round five against Thalia Cervantes in an otherwise drawn position, Yu showed great resilience in the following games. She went undefeated in the last four rounds, scoring two wins and two draws.

Nguyen also showed considerable tenacity. In round eight, Nguyen fought in an equal position against Cervantes for over 100 moves, ultimately making a mistake and losing. Despite no longer being in the running for first, Nguyen played an excellent game in the final round to join Yu for second.

The St. Louis Chess Club will hose the U.S. Junior Championships again in 2019.

Vanessa West is a regular writer and digital assistant for U.S. Chess. She also is a ranked national chess master. Vanessa was a journalist for the St. Louis Chess Club for the 2018 U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships.