Local Grandmaster Ben Finegold is in Durban, South Africa, this week representing Team USA as part of the 2014 World Youth Chess Championship. The international competition separates its field into six categories, from under-8 to under-18 in both girls-only and open sections, and crowns 12 World Champions annually.
Upward of 1,000 players represent more than 85 countries in this year’s event, and the delegation of 70 American children is second only to the host country. Finegold, a regular face around the Central West End with a strong reputation as a chess mentor on many scholastic levels, is one of eight master coaches designated by the United States Chess Federation to provide pre-game guidance and post-game analysis to our nation’s representatives.
The 11-round tournament begins its second half today. At its midway point, seven Americans are in the top five of their categories -- for the moment surpassing Finegold’s prediction that the red, white and blue will turn out five medals in the event. Supporting the ever-growing youth movement in American chess, six of those seven players are boys and girls in each of the U8, U10 and U12 categories, including Virginia’s Jennifer Yu in sole possession of U12 first place.
That number may even be a bit deceiving, as several high-profile names with reasonable medal expectations for Team USA lurk just outside of their category’s top-five. Wisconsin 11-year-old Awonder Liang is a two-time gold medalist in Youth Championships, becoming the U8 World Champion in 2011 and again for U10 just last year. Arriving in South Africa as the top seed, Awonder has won four games and lost two, tied for 15-30th but just one point out of first. Also tied in the position is Illinois’ David Peng, last year’s silver medalist behind Liang.
And California’s Ashritha Eswaran, 13, has been knocking on the door for so long many expect that this is the year she will finally kick through. Eswaran, who visited the Central West End this past May as the youngest-ever competitor in the U.S. Women’s Championship, has twice been a World Youth contender but both times finished just outside of medal contention. Eswaran was alone on top this week in South Africa after cruising undefeated with 4.5 points after five rounds, but then she fell to a Canadian master on Tuesday. She still lurks in sixth place.
By far my favorite chess storyline involves the coordinated rise of siblings -- or built-in opponents, as I call them. The rise of Eswaran through the chess ranks is such an incredible story -- just four years ago a “casual” player with a meager 650 rating -- and now a master, rated beyond 2200.
Before she visited St. Louis last spring, I spoke with her father who had admitted her late start with a bit of guilt -- claiming responsibility for her not learning the game until age 7 and, even then, not taking the game seriously enough to quickly discover her abilities. He was, of course, very proud of his daughter’s accomplishments despite her delayed arrival, but it was clear that the Eswaran family was not to be fooled twice by hidden talents.
Now, arriving precisely on time is the youngest Eswaran, 7-year-old Aksithi, who was immediately ushered into the same rocket that propelled her elder sister -- just this time, with no late start. Aksithi has quickly climbed the ranks to the top of the absolute youngest of American chess -- and, for the moment, the world.
After six rounds in South Africa, the 7-year-old is undefeated with 5.5 points, sitting in clear first.
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.