On Chess: America’s strongest prodigies compete for the U.S. Junior Championships | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: America’s strongest prodigies compete for the U.S. Junior Championships

Jul 12, 2018

The U.S. Junior Championship is an invitational tournament featuring the highest ranked juniors in the country. It has always been an iconic component of American chess. Winning the championship has served as a stepping stone for many great players over the years, including Bobby Fischer, Yasser Seirawan and Hikaru Nakamura.

Showcasing the increasing strength of America’s juniors, the championship grows stronger every year. In just three years, the tournament has gone from having no grandmasters to featuring five (half the field)!

While the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship is a newer event, it has also increased in strength considerably since its debut in 2014. The average rating of the players has risen more than 150 points in those four years to 2281, the strength of a formidable national master.

The championships are each nine rounds, taking place from July 11 - 21 at the St. Louis Chess Club. Both events are round robins, meaning each player will face all other competitors.

Beyond winning the coveted title of U.S. Junior/U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion, the winner of each event will also earn an invitation to the 2019 U.S. Championship/U.S. Women’s Championship — and will have an opportunity to compete with the very best in the country.

U.S. Junior Championship Field

There are a number of powerful players to watch in this year’s upcoming battle of American prodigies.

First, there’s the defending champion, grandmaster Awonder Liang, who is the highest rated player in the world for his age. Liang overcame significant odds in the final round last year when he surpassed grandmaster Kayden Troff, who led for nearly the entire tournament.

The top seed, grandmaster Ruifeng Li, will be especially interested in challenging Liang and winning the U.S. Junior title for the first time. Over the years, Li has excelled at winning prestigious open tournaments throughout the U.S., including the Philadelphia, North American and National Opens.

The winners of the 2017 U.S. Junior Championship, Awonder Liang and Akshita Gorti, with our executive director Tony Rich (left) and founder Rex Sinquefield (right).
Credit Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club

One can’t forget grandmaster Akshat Chandra who won the championship in 2015 and has only become stronger since. Two other grandmasters gracing the field are Minnesota State Champion Andrew Tang and John Michael Burke, who captured first at the 2017 St. Louis Invitational.

Annie Wang, the reigning World Youth Champion for Girls Under 16, will also be an exciting addition. Wang shocked the chess world this year at the U.S. Women’s Championship when she nearly clinched the title as a complete underdog. She barely missed and finished second after an incredibly close playoff against international master Nazi Paikidze.

Wang will be the sixth female player to earn an invitation to the overall U.S Junior Championship in the last 25 years ― along with Sarah Chiang, Tatev Abrahamyan (who will be commentating for the event), Irina Krush and Jennifer Shahade.

U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship Field

Last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion, Akshita Gorti, isn’t competing, which opens up the tournament for a new champion. Who will rise to the top?

Any of the top three seeds have excellent chances. Top ranked woman international master Jennifer Yu earned bronze in the 2017 World Junior Championships. FIDE master Maggie Feng was the 2016 Junior High School Champion, the first female in history to win the event. And Carissa Yip still holds the record for the youngest female to earn the national master title. Feng and Yip are also the tournament's seasoned veterans, having competed in all four previous championships.

In addition, women's international master Emily Nguyen is a former U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion, winning in 2016, and Rochelle Wu, the youngest competitor, is the reigning winner of the National Girls Tournament of Champions.

With such a fierce lineup of up-and-coming young American players, each working hard and improving day by day, watching these championships is a sneak-peak into America’s chess future.

Watch live games and commentary by grandmaster Robert Hess and woman grandmaster Tatev Abrahamyan at uschesschamps.com, beginning at 1 p.m., Thursday.

Vanessa West is a regular writer and digital assistant for U.S. Chess. She also is a ranked National Chess Master. Vanessa will be the journalist for the 2018 U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships and will live tweet for the St. Louis Chess Club during each round.

Correction: an earlier version of this article  incorrectly stated how many women players earned an invitation to the overall U.S. Junior Championship before Annie Wang.