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On Chess: Even for Juniors, tournament shows a youth movement in chess

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 27, 2013: This past Sunday, we crowned a new national champion for players under 21: California’s Daniel Naroditsky, a humble, tall and lanky 17-year-old who has played in the elite U.S. Junior Closed Championship tournament for three years.

International Master “Danya” – per his mother – was the U-12 World Champion in 2007, has already authored two published chess books and offers a great personal story. So great, that I already popped that cork two weeks ago and feel a bit redundant discussing him here. That is, for the record, simultaneously incredible and awful foresight.

But there were several great stories throughout this year’s tournament, a 10-player invitational held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis over the past two weeks.

Such as Luke Harmon-Vellotti, a 14 year old out of Boise, Idaho, a place where I figured people had nothing else to do but grow potatoes and play chess. As it turns out, that is incorrect, as the next-best players in Idaho are a handful of mortal experts rated more than 400 points below Harmon-Vellotti. It makes a difference because, unlike players who find access through nearby chess-hub cities and regions, Idaho ain’t exactly shakin’. Which makes Harmon-Vellotti a mostly homegrown, out-of-nowhere talent.

He started high-school AP work when he was in third grade, and has since knocked down courses that use such words as Quantum, Nuclear and Physics, so he’s done now – with high-school. After acing the math portion of his SATs, he was “accepted” into Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and his ultimate choice, UCLA. He’s headed there this fall and will room with his older brother, who just graduated from Boise High School in the traditional way.

xxxProvided Sarah Chiang is one of many promising young juniors who recently competed in the U.S. Junior Closed Championship in St. Louis.

Harmon-Vellotti finished just a half-point out of first place after dazzling spectators all week with several tactic-laden, come-from-behind wins. By far the flashiest was his sixth-round tilt against Sarah Chiang, while he sat alone in first place and Chiang sat winless in dead last. But she absolutely caught Harmon-Vellotti off-guard and hit him in the jaw early, not coasting but stomping her way to the biggest upset of the tournament. And then she made the subtlest of slips, moving her king to this square instead of that one, and Harmon-Vellotti pounced with a stunning combination to desperately steal the game by checkmate.

It was the epitome of Chiang’s visit to St. Louis. The Dallas 16-year-old earned her invitation through the backdoor: The winner of the Junior Open tournament earns a spot in the Junior Closed, but the winner turned 21 in between – the cutoff for Junior events. The birthday loophole brought Chiang, second-place in the Open, in to the fray as a nearly 200-point underdog to every other player in the Closed – and wow did she get rolled. She was completely out-classed, losing eight times and drawing only once.

I wondered then if bringing in Chiang might damage her career psychologically, like a rookie quarterback who has been tossed in “too soon.” This all sounds harsh, but Grandmaster Ben Finegold, who did commentary for the live streaming event, offered some matter-of-fact explanation on the subject that made me feel better: Sarah Chiang is just simply going to be great in the end – because she already is.

Yes, on the playground with nine of the roughest boys in the nation, she got knocked around. But she will dust herself off, still as the top female in the nation under the age of 21, (she’s just 16). She took some lumps this past May, too, during the U.S. Women’s Championship - but the point is: She was there, among the best women in the U.S. and now with the best players under 21. Sarah Chiang has arrived. We will watch her grow stronger from here, as she transfers from one elite level to the next, and 2013 will ultimately serve as her rite of passage.

Chiang helps push a line that the Junior Championships have been following for years: plummeting in age while rising in strength. Finegold put it in perspective with the fact that he had been married during one of his Juniors championships, while fellow commentator and GM Yasser Seirawan admitted he was shaving twice a day. And with seven of 10 players 16 or under – including two 12 year olds – this year’s field was likely the youngest ever. We are going to be watching these players for a long time.

The longest watch, certainly, will be that of Samuel Sevian, the tournament’s youngest competitor at 12 years, 6 months – two months clear of the elder Jeffrey Xiong. Sevian was in eighth place after three rounds, but then chewed up the rest of the field, including two wins and two draws against the top-four other finishers. He, too, came up a half-point short, tying Harmon-Vellotti for second place.

His race through the standings mirrors a furious climb to the top of the chess ranks over the past six years – half his life – first dropping the record bar as the youngest-ever U.S. master and now as the reigning U-12 World Champion. Even among all the brilliancy in St. Louis this past week, Sevian is unique. His rise has been monumental and, despite his approach to the summit, his trajectory doesn’t seem to be changing. Imagine what he might do when he’s shaving twice a day.

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