Apparently, the U.S. “Women’s” Chess Championship is a description that gets more liberal by the year.
Where last season’s national title fight featured Dallas’ Sarah Chiang - 15 at the time - this year’s will feature Ashritha Eswaran, a 13-year-old National Master out of San Jose, Calif. Over the weekend, Eswaran accepted the invitation as the wildcard to the 2014 event, rounding out the 10-player field. The tournament will take place May 7 through May 20 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis in the Central West End.
Eswaran won’t be the youngest-ever in the nation’s most-prestigious women’s tournament - that record is held by reigning champion GM Irina Krush, who entered as an 11 year old in 1995 - but her meteoric rise to the top ranks is making footnotes. Picking up chess as a 7 year old might be considered “late” for most of the groomed chess-elite, and Eswaran even spent the first year of her career just hanging around with the other kids. An averagely decent 650 rating is usually just good enough to earn the attention of your parents - and thank goodness it did.
At the start of 2010, the then 9-year-old began her first private lessons, and they worked on the girl like Miracle Gro. By the next January, her rating had doubled to 1300, then she leaped another 500 points in 2011.
She has been tops in the U.S. in her age category since 2012, winning the All-Girls National Championship U12 in Chicago that year, then backing the title up in the U14 division in 2013 with a perfect 6/6 score. The titles kicked off her international career, earning her trips to represent the U.S. in the FIDE World Youth Championships in Slovenia (2012), Dubai (2013) and again this September in South Africa.
And still her rating continues its staggering climb. She entered 2013 rated 1935, which is just short of the expert level where rating points often begin to become harder to find. Since then she has added 300 points to her strength, earning the title of National Master by passing the 2200 rating watermark this past February. Eswaran enters next month’s national championship as America’s 16th-best woman.
She will likely get taken to school in her first visit to the Central West End. She will play as the tournament’s lowest-rated seed and, at this level, the 300-point gap between her and Krush - who with a 2544 rating just earned the title of Grandmaster - should be considered massive.
These two-week long invitationals are just something that players literally haven’t seen before - and the ones who have, have seen it a lot. Every unrelenting round promises another stacked powerhouse of an opponent, and each shark has a very clear understanding of who is on the menu. Last year, Chiang didn’t even tally on the scoreboard until the 6th round, though she did pick up 2.5 points on the way out to finish in 9th place.
Don’t feel bad for them: Getting drubbed in chess is a necessary evil to development; both Chiang’s and now Eswaran’s arrival to this moment is far more important than their result. After all, Krush didn’t shock the nation as an 11-year-old in 1995, though she’s got our attention just fine nowadays.
But it’s hard not to love a prodigy. Just try not to cheer for the kid. On the subject of ratings, it is fair to note that Eswaran will land in St. Louis at her career-best 2231. And it would be fair to also note that, with a rating graph that has not dipped, never plateaued and only gone up, she is always at her career best. One could argue that her rating just hasn’t had the chance yet; there has been no peak.
At the very least, Eswaran has now earned the attention of more than just her parents.
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.