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On Chess: Favorites Steady Their Ships To Win U.S. Junior, Girls' Junior And Senior Championships

Awonder Liang (left), Carissa Yip (middle) and Alex Shabalov (right) prevailed at the U.S. Chess Championship tournament in St. Louis in July 2019.
Austin Fuller | US Chess Club
Awonder Liang (left), Carissa Yip (middle) and Alex Shabalov (right) prevailed at the U.S. Chess Championship tournament in St. Louis.

Being the tournament favorite is never easy. You have a target on your back, and every other participant is gunning for you. There are times that the top seed simply dominates the field without any hiccups, but it is by far the exception rather than the rule.

This certainly held true at the U.S. Junior, U.S. Girls’ Junior, and U.S. Senior Championships held at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center that ended on July 20. Grandmaster Awonder Liang won the U.S. Junior Championship, his third in a row, in a tense playoff over GM Nicolas Checa. 

FIDE Master Carissa Yip also defended her U.S. Girls’ Championship crown by fending off a strong challenge from women’s international master Rochelle Wu. GM Alex Shabalov, a four-time U.S. champion, distanced himself from the all-GM field in the last couple of rounds. All the winners certainly proved their mettle, but each had their own path to the title.

U.S. Junior Championship

Liang was the clear rating favorite coming into the U.S. Junior Championship, but it was evident from the start he wouldn’t have an easy time. International master Joshua Sheng defeated Awonder in round three, and was playing some of the best chess of the event until a round-seven loss to Checa. He finished in clear third place with 6.5 out of nine.

Checa was clearly the most solid player all event. He was the only player to go undefeated in classical games, was hardly ever in serious trouble, and finished with an impressive seven out of nine. Awonder also made it to seven points, but it was certainly a rockier road. Apart from his loss to Sheng, he was in serious trouble a couple of other times, including the last round against GM Andrew Tang.

Had he lost, Checa would have been this year’s champion. Liang, however, showed incredible nerves all event. He held the draw against Tang in the last round, then convincingly won the playoff against Checa. For his efforts, Liang takes home $6,000, an additional $10,000 scholarship to the college of his choice, and a spot in the 2020 U.S. Championship. 

U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship

Yip won the Girls’ Championship last year and was clearly the favorite to repeat this year. Despite this, it was by no means a foregone conclusion, and many of her competitors obviously had other plans. Ruiyang Yan was one of the breakout performers of the tournament. Despite being one of the youngest and lowest-rated players in the event, she plowed through many of her more experienced competitors to reach an impeccable six out of nine score.

There is no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Yan in the future, and it would surprise no one if she takes down this tournament in the near future.

Wu already made a splash with a strong performance representing the U.S. at this year’s World Team Championship, but it was still a mild shock when she bulldozed the field for the first five rounds. Despite a tough loss to Yip in round six, she bounced back and reached a score of seven points, enough to win most tournaments.

Yip, however, asserted her authority in the end. She played the strongest, most consistent chess, and won the tournament with an undefeated 7.5 out of nine. She takes home $3,000, a $10,000 scholarship to the college of her choice, and secures her place in the 2020 U.S. Women’s Championship. 

U.S. Senior Championship

Shabalov was deemed the favorite by many prior to the 2019 U.S. Senior Championship, mainly due to the fact he is currently the most active tournament player among them. Despite this, in a field with all GMs and very little rating separation among them, it is hard to say he was anything close to a shoe-in.

GM Alex Goldin was tied with Shabalov for first going into the rest day after Round 5. He had the eventual champion on the ropes in Round 6, and finished the tournament with a highly respectable five points out of nine.

In such a tight field, this allowed him to tie for second place with GM Gregory Kaidanov. Kaidanov was the steadiest player of the field, and he was tied for first place until a difficult loss in round eight. Despite this, he shared second with Goldin, taking it on tiebreaks since he won their tournament meeting.

Shabalov was the only player to go undefeated in the seniors field, but he had to navigate numerous difficult positions throughout the event. Despite this, he outfoxed most of his competitors when the chips were down, and did the best at maintaining his level from beginning to end. He won the event with six points, no easy feat in this strong and distinguished field. Alex will take home a cool $12,000 in addition to his first-place trophy. 

All three events were a pleasure to watch. GM Robert Hess, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan and GM Jesse Kraai provided live commentary for uschesschamps.com. They each brought their own distinctive style, and the contrast proved to be excellent viewing.

The club, as always, provided incredible playing conditions for the players. The competitors in each of the events expressed a strong desire to return next year. Luckily for them and for us, there is little doubt that they will get that chance. 

Josh Friedel is an American chess Grandmaster and was U.S. Open Champion in 2013.