Thursday night marks the opening ceremony of the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship, the national title event for the top players under 21. The tournament is the third installment of America’s Championships annually hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, a parallel to the U.S. Championship and Women’s event, which took place simultaneously last month.
The event suffers from the same shortfall of attention as any junior-varsity sport -- you won’t see fans travel as they will for the U.S. Championships -- though it’s not a necessarily fair application here. Inferior, lower-level play that may otherwise mar the viewing pleasure of another sport brings quite the opposite to chess: Mistakes are how the game thrives, a constant battle between opportunity both created and missed, leaving this “almost-there” level event as a regular hidden gem for fanatics.
Annually, the Junior Closed delivers excellent drama, setting up big-stage pressure under lights that shine on ambitious risk. The tournament features regular tactical brilliance -- any one round could surprise explosively or implosively -- and as a result, storylines stay deep and tension-filled throughout the tournament.
This year’s event will feature a direct confrontation between Kayden Troff and Sam Sevian, and age no longer has anything to do with what matters. For several years, the two have been teammates on the Young Stars - Team USA program partnership with the Kasparov Chess Foundation, putting both on nearly the same path toward the top -- and they have arrived at the same time. The 2014 Junior crown would be a particularly appropriate accolade to add to their growing collection -- as would the accompanying invitation to next year’s U.S. Championship, which wouldn’t hurt development.
A testament to the increasing strength of American chess, Troff is the first Grandmaster in the Junior Closed field since Ray Robson, a title the 16-year-old earned last month after passing the 2500-rating watermark. Soon to follow will be Sevian, who needs just one more GM norm and another 60 rating points to earn the title. At 13, Sevian remains on pace to become the youngest American GM ever, a record that is held by Robson at 14 years, 11 months and 16 days.
Troff and Sevian, both world champions for their age group, arrive at this year’s Junior Closed directly out of Washington, D.C.
In an effort to help promote the educational benefits of chess, yesterday the two participated in the first-ever congressional chess tournament by helping coach members of Congress in a newly formed chess caucus. Members include U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., Jason Smith, R-Mo., and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo.
They also received a bit of last-minute coaching themselves: Garry Kasparov was there, leading an intensive training session for his Young Stars and keeping their eyes on the prize.
Troff and Sevian’s challenge to become the 2014 Junior king comes two-fold, simultaneously racing against each other while navigating an always-volatile field. Swimming next to the sharks are several extremely big fish, all of which sit well within striking distance of one another -- the top half of the field is within 50 rating points of one another.
International Master Luke Harmon-Vellotti, a 15 year old who just wrapped up his freshman year at UCLA, was a tactical magician who caused fits in last year’s Junior Closed -- including a door prize upset over Troff in the first round. Troff’s title plans were derailed immediately, and Harmon-Vellotti challenged for the crown right through the very last round.
IM Jeffrey Xiong, 13, another Young Stars member who spent the early part of this week with Kasparov in Washington, returns to the Junior Closed after an extremely solid performance last year. Xiong proved steady and stout, earning draws against the majority of the field, including both Troff and Sevian -- and apparently those training sessions with Kasparov are paying off: Today, Xiong enters at his peak, rated nearly 60 points higher than this time last year.
New arrivals to this year’s Juniors Closed include Masters Justus Williams, a star from the inspiring documentary Brooklyn Castle, and Josh Colas -- both from the I.S. 318 scholastic team that has earned a large amount of national acclaim. Both will bring several new rivalry-laden storylines to the mix as they each travel their own paths: Colas is the youngest-ever African American master -- a title he took from Williams.
The tournament will run through June 29, with games beginning daily at 1 p.m., except for the June 25 rest day. Every round will be broadcast live on www.uschesschamps.com, accompanied with live commentary by GM Ben Finegold and FM Aviv Friedman.
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 St. 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.