US Jr. Champ!

Shankland
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The 2010 US Junior Championship concluded a week ago. The tournament was held in St. Louis, side by side with the US Women’s Championship (for more on that event, check out WFM Zenyuk’s articles). The event was very well organized, as has become the norm in tournaments run by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. I was not quite sure what to make of the prize fund- I loved it because it was far and away the largest one in Us Junior history, but I also hated it because the US Women’s championship was held side by side, with an identical format and a slightly weaker field, yet their prize fund was over six times as large. On the whole, I decided that while someday it would be great to have a prize fund like theirs, such a radical change cannot happen over the course of one year, so I think this was a good step in the right direction and look forward to seeing what the structure next year will be like. Now, onto the tournament itself!
 
The field was comprised of 10 of the strongest players under the age of 21 in the country, with GM Ray Robson (2562 FIDE) and myself (2513) leading the pack. Right from the get-go, it was clear that this would be a very competitive event. While Ray and I were quite far from the other competitors in terms of rating, we managed .5/2 in the first round, playing considerably lower opposition. I was cleanly dispatched by NM Parker Zhao, an enormously talented young player who does not play too often these days, and Ray somehow swindled a draw down a rook against the lowest seed, NM Eric Rosen.
 
 

 

 


 
So, round 1 was full of surprises. Round 2 would not be any better for me, as I mixed up a move order in my opening preparation, going from += to =+ in one move. The rest of the game was no better, and I fell victim to FM Warren Harper in under 30 moves, and with the white pieces. Ray had picked up some steam and won his game against FM John Bryant, and Darwin Yang joined Warren Harper in a tie for first with 2/2. Things were not looking very good for Mr. Shanky…

Naturally, after being upset twice in the first two games, I was feeling very down on myself. This was the time where it was very nice to have friends in St. Louis (and back home) to hang out with, in particular Iryna Zenyuk (chess.com employee!), Tatev Abrahamyan, and Alisa Melekhina. They were all doing reasonably well thus far, with Iryna and Alisa on a perfect 2/2. They tried their hardest to cheer me up, and did a great job. There was one moment that I would later regret in a big way when I was at lunch with them- Tatev was telling me how I still had a chance, that the tournament was still young, that I shouldn’t give up hope on winning. I knew that I had virtually no chance, so I told her “Tatev, if I win this tournament I’ll wear your dress and pose for pictures.” She laughed and Alisa said “I’m holding you to that!” We all left lunch in a good mood, and while Tatev and Alisa went off to change, Iryna and I headed straight to the club.



Round three was not my most beautiful of efforts, but I managed to get the W, even though there were two moments where I would have resigned if my opponent had made the right move. Ray won again, moving into second with 2.5/3, only behind Warren Harper, who was leading with a perfect 3/3. My next couple games were relatively clean efforts- I held a solid draw against Ray and beat Tyler Hughes, one of the lowest players. Then, I finally managed to play a game I was really proud of, this time against FM Darwin Yang.



I dispatched Eric Rosen the next game, putting myself at 4.5/7 (4.5/5 in the last 5 games!). I was feeling a little better about my form, although I was not encouraged to see that Ray was at 5.5, I would need to score a point more than him in the final two rounds just to draw.

I drew a trivially won queen ending in round 8, which seemed to end my chances of winning the tournament. However, Ray drew as well, so there was still a chance that he could lose the final game and I would be able to catch him with a win. I also would need Parker Zhao, who had played amazingly all throughout the tournament, not to win. Going into the final round, the standings were as follows:

  1. Robson 6.0
  2. Zhao 5.5
  3. Shankland 5.0
  4. Yang 5.0
  5. Bryant 4.0
  6. Rosen 4.0
  7. Zierk 3.5
  8. Holt 3.0
  9. Harper 3.0
  10. Hughes 1.0



And the pairings were:

Harper – Robson
Bryant – Zhao
Shankland – Holt
Yang – Rosen
Hughes – Zierk

Ray had to lose for me to have any chance, and it was not looking good- He was playing against Warren Harper, who had lost his last 5 games after an amazing 3-0 start. Zhao needed to draw or lose with black against Bryant, and I would have to win to have any chance. Conrad Holt is an absolutely phenomenal player, as evidenced by his fantastic results at recent tournaments, in particularly the World Open where he beat GMs Kazghaleyev and Najer, both solidly over 2600. He was having an off tournament, however, and was 100 points lower than me so I thought I would have a good chance to pull out a win. Suffice to say, the ensuing massacre was done in under 2 hours.



When I finished, I looked at the games of my competitors and liked what I saw. Both Ray and Parker looked to be quite a bit worse, and soon enough Warren became my personal hero by dealing Ray his only loss of the tournament (at least in regulation!). However, Bryant had lost the thread and looked certain to lose… but he somehow saved the game, despite tablebase giving his opponent a forced mate in 12 at some point.



So, somehow after the catastrophic start, I ended up tied for first place. The tiebreaks were to be held the following day to determine who would be declared the champion and receive the coveted invitation to the 2011 US Championship. The playoff procedure was a little strange- Parker and myself would have to bid on how little time we would be willing to start with to have the black pieces and draw odds against white’s 45 minutes, and then the winner would go on to face Ray with black and draw odds in a g/45 game. This system seemed to give Ray a pretty serious advantage: a bye into the finals and less preparation (white vs Parker and I, two games, while we each had to prepare white and black against each other and for black against Ray, 3 games) seemed to be more than enough to compensate for black getting draw odds in the finals.

The next morning, I went into a local breakfast restaurant to get some food in me before the shenanigans began. About halfway into my meal, Parker walked in to do the exact same thing. It was a little odd eating breakfast with my competitor, but we had a nice conversation and it helped reinforce that even though we are mortal enemies on the board, off the board we can be friends. The next thing I knew, I was in the chess club writing my bid down.

I bid 31 minutes, and it was trumped by Parker’s bid of 29 minutes and 54 seconds, so he was given the black pieces and draw odds. However, the draw odds did not save him, as his king fell victim to a deadly attack before the 30th move.



So then there I was, somehow playing for the championship. I was extremely lucky to get this far, but still the championship seemed so far away. Black against Ray, even with draw odds, would be a very difficult pairing. However, once the game started I got much more confident very quickly. Ray tried to surprise me by playing the Fantasy variation of the Caro-Kann, although it backfired. My preparation held up, and within 14 moves white’s position was close to lost. Ray fought on valiantly, but a blunder on move 39 sealed the deal.

 


Once he resigned, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had finally done the unthinkable and won the tournament. I could not have done it without the support of my friends, all the aforementioned ones in the US Women’s Championship and also David Pruess, Josh Friedel, and Kayden Troff, who recently wrote a blog about how I kept my promise. I would like to thank all the volunteers and organizers for doing such a great job, and give a special thanks to Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield for making all of this possible. I would like to say that it was all over at this point, but there was still one thing left to do, one promise left to keep…

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