Our local boy is making national noise.
Matt Larson, a tall and lanky 17-year-old who attends Crossroads College Prep in St. Louis, is one of 10 competitors in the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship, being held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in the Central West End. He most likely will not win the national title for players under the age of 21, but the crown wasn’t even necessarily a goal in the first place.
Larson just needed to represent.
His naturally quiet and unassuming attitude has served him well entering his first-ever appearance on the national stage. Larson is one of the best Juniors in Missouri, though within the U.S. Chess Federation’s collective, he doesn’t even rank amongst America’s top 100. There is little doubt that he is this year’s poster boy of the Chess Club -- which selected Larson as the event’s wildcard in a clear homer move -- ultimately making him appetizer No. 1 on the round-robin menu.
Larson entered as more than a 350 rating-point underdog from the tournament’s top seed and over 150 points from his next closest competitor. That is a considerable gap at this elite level; the recommended rating-difference between a chess coach and student is a minimum 300-400 points.
Further setting him apart is his first-time experience in these closed, invitation-only events, where every day for nine rounds delivers one top-notch opponent after another -- several of them veritable veterans to such a stage and format. Larson learned how the pieces moved just four years ago.
“This is my first tournament where I’ve consistently played good people,” he said. “I’ve played grandmasters and international masters in Swiss tournaments, but most of my opponents in those are generally worse.
“If you keep playing opponents who are lower rated than you, you just don’t improve much," Larson added. "But playing better players, I think a tournament like this will help me a lot. Before I thought ‘Oh, one game a day will be so easy.’ Now I think one game a day is too many.”
But the kid is holding his own -- and flourishing. On Sunday, Larson shook off a winless start to earn the highest-rated draw of his career against IM Jeffrey Xiong -- a 13-year-old superstar out of Dallas and current leader of the tournament. Larson added more points to the scoreboard with a second draw the following day, and then on Tuesday he hit it big, knocking down IM Aleksandr Ostrovskiy for his highest-rated victory ever. Both Ostrovskiy and Xiong were 300-point favorites, leaving some question to that coach-student rating relationship.
“When you’re the lowest-rated player, people feel like they have an obligation to win,” Larson said. “Like Jeffrey Xiong, the other day, played crazy and was losing an endgame that he would never lose to someone like (top-seed GM Kayden Troff).”
Fantastic in his win over Ostrovskiy was Larson’s headstrong, no-fear play that he has exuberated in every round thus far, despite the results. On Tuesday, he took control of the game early with a risky gambit that sacrificed a valuable pawn in a trade for fast development; Ostrovskiy took the material advantage and never recovered. Larson unleashed a vicious attack on his opponent’s king, finally breaking through with another confident sacrifice of his rook -- this time to kick off a mating line.
Here's a replay of the game:
“It feels good,” Larson said of his own dirty work. “If my opponent had just blundered and I was up a piece or something, it wouldn’t be as satisfying.”
At the tournament’s halfway point, the hometown representative sits in a tie for 6th place -- though he still has two games left against the tournament’s top-two seeds, both with the black pieces. Again, Larson will be the first to tell you he’s not here to win the national crown, but his headstrong fights as the daily underdog might net him something perhaps even more valuable.
“Just playing all these strong players and having these interesting games, I think this is going to help me improve a lot,” Larson said. “I came in just not wanting to make any terrible blunders. But now my goal is to just not lose my other four games. And although I have to play Kayden and (IM Sam Sevian) with the black pieces … that would not have been my goal entering the tournament.”
The final rounds of the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship will be held daily through Sunday at 1 p.m. The tournament will be streamed live at www.uschesschamps.com with commentary, analysis and player interviews by GM Ben Finegold and FM Aviv Friedman. Local audiences may sit in on the broadcast live at the Central West End club.
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 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.