America's Got Talent: 8 Kids Crowned National Champions
From June 2-4, 42 of the most talented chess kids in the U.S. competed in the ChessKid Online National Invitational Championship (CONIC), held for the sixth consecutive year on Chess.com. The purpose of this event is to allow the young talents the chance to get a kind of practice that simply did not exist before: an invitational round robin event (all-play-all) against the other top talents in their age group.
Prior to this event, the first comparable opportunity in the country for a young star was the U.S. Cadet Championships, which featured players mostly aged 14-15. But around the world, we witness the top talents reaching IM and even GM levels at age 12-13; clearly American youth needed some training opportunities at a younger age.
California again qualified the most players (13). Here several of them played in the same room.
And so it was. The inaugural event included two sections: Under 12 and Under 8. Two of the first year's players have since become GMs (Jeffery Xiong and Ruifeng Li), and one an IM (Cameron Wheeler). In 2013, a Girls Under 13 section was added. Six participants that year have gone on to compete in the U.S. Women's Championship at incredibly young ages.
The other thing the tournament has done is grown, from its initial two sections to 2017's seven sections, providing more and more young players with this excellent opportunity. This also means the amount of organizational work for which we must thank TD Kele Perkins has also grown tremendously.
What follows is a section-by-section rundown of the winners' performances and some of the best games.
6 and Under Championship
Although the CONIC includes girls-only sections, it has also typically featured girls playing in the gender-neutral sections, and sometimes winning. This year's 6 and Under section featured an already-famous name in top-seeded Rachael Li. The younger sister of GM Ruifeng Li, Rachael sports a shocking 1700+ USCF rating, and a Chess.com rapid rating over 2000!? Despite 20 years of teaching chess, I don't quite understand how it is possible to develop that much chess ability at that age. She has also already developed her brother's toughness, surviving many difficult positions to turn them around for wins, like in this game:
Dhruva Patil already needs a new trophy shelf.
Despite her excellent play, the tournament featured a second incomprehensibly-talented kid, and this was his weekend. Here is the moment that eventually decided the tournament in favor of Dhruva Patil:
Dhruva went on to register the only perfect 5/5 of any of the seven sections, and needed every one of them, finishing only one point ahead of Rachael who scored 4/5. But crucial as that win was, it was the following game that truly left me questioning the nature of the universe:
How could a six-year-old play like that??? Keep your eyes out for Dhruva!
2017 CONIC Age 6 and Under | Final Standings
Age 7 Championship
In this section, top seed was Eddison Chen with an 1818 USCF rating!
Top-seeded Eddison Chen took care of business in the seven-year-olds section.
He lived up to his top billing. In the last round, he had a half-point lead, and his closest competitor, Brewington Hardaway, won to score 4/5. In a must-win situation, Eddison played the following brave, title-winning game:
2017 CONIC Age 7 | Final Standings
Age 8 Championship
This section was comfortably won by the top seed, the only eight-year old expert (2000+ USCF), Luke Ye. Here is one of his excellent games en route to 4.5/5:
2017 CONIC Age 8 | Final Standings
Girls 9 and Under Championship
Sophie Velea started out strong with this combination:
In a very tight race, Sophie held on to her half-point lead after a final round showdown with her own sister!
They played until insufficient material! Now that's how to play, regardless of opponent or tournament situation!
Like often happens with the Williams sisters in tennis, Sophie Valea had to go through her sister for the title.
2017 CONIC Girls 9 and Under | Final Standings
Age 9-10 Championship
This was a wild section, in which the five experts showed that they were all underrated and capable of competing with youngest-ever national master, Chris Yoo. Notice was served in round one by Davis Zong (a.k.a Spriteball) with an absolute brilliancy:
Anyone who might think that Chris Yoo was out of form should be immediately disabused of that notion; the competition was just extremely strong! In round three, Chris showed that he was fully on form:
But another game this round caught everyone's attention, despite ending in a draw. A fantastic back and forth positional and tactical struggle of titanic proportions took place. Little did the spectators know this would eventually decide the championship:
Eventually after a couple more tough battles, Jason Yu and Davis Zong would tie for first with 3.5/5 and be declared co-champions (as it proved difficult to schedule an Armageddon match between them).
2017 CONIC Age 9-10 | Final Standings
Age 11-12 Championship
This section featured two national masters, and four 2100+ players who should be masters soon. However, both new NMs got off to slow starts with two draws each. Instead it was Chinguun "Bay Area" Bayaraa who seized the lead with 2.5/3 by beating one of them:
What tough fighters, right?
The other NM, Robert Shlyakhtenko kept within striking distance of Chinguun with this beautiful combination in round 4:
This set up a dramatic final round, with Chinguun only leading by half a point. And both games were incredible:
And thus, Robert came from behind to win the 11-12 Championship.
NM Robert Shlyakhtenko finished behind Chinguun Bayaraa at last year's CONIC but edged him this time around.
2017 CONIC Age 11-12 | Final Standings
Girls 10-13 Championship
Technically speaking this was the closest battle for the championship of any section. Two players caught my attention in round two with these masterful displays:
What incredible patience and high-class play from Sheena Zeng. But I even preferred this next game, because of the unusual use of the pressure on the semi-closed e-file.
These two players would draw an even game in round four, leaving Sheena half a point ahead going into the final round. There followed a must-win situation for Grace Xu (aka musicalchang). And she won, leading to a tie for first at 3.5/5. These two were not done as a few minutes later they faced off for the second time in an Armageddon championship match, with Grace having white and 25 minutes, while Sheena had draw odds and 10 minutes.
This game had spectators in chat absolutely beside themselves. People were screaming about who should resign, who was about to win... and it got turned on its head.
Grace Xu, Champion of Girls 10-13
Both commentators (WFM Alexandra Botez and myself) thought that Grace made a big mistake by going for a kingside attack rather than queenside positional play, but once we started calculating variations, we were surprised to find that Grace's attack seemed to work in all variations! A stunning end to an exciting week end.
2017 CONIC Girls 10-13 | Final Standings
My sincere hope is that every participant, victorious or losing, learned a bunch of great lessons from this tournament. Thanks to Chesskid.com for sponsoring, Kele again for organizing, and the dozens of parents and tournament directors for setting up, supporting, and making it possible for these talented kids to play.
What else to do after the games end? A few CONIC players watched the NBA finals with some pizza.
All participants were awarded one-year diamond memberships on Chess.com and one-year gold memberships on Chesskid.com. The top three in each section received an engraved plaque, and the champions each won a $300 scholarship for chess lessons. (For detailed tournament rules, including how invitations are decided for those who want to qualify next year, see this article).
Here are a few more entertaining games from the weekend: