David Howell has enjoyed a little luck - and beaten the World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong in fine style - to take the sole lead on 2.5/3 in the A Group of the Winter Chess Classic in St. Louis. That’s one of two 10-player round-robins that form a warm-up for the US Chess Championships, with the other featuring regular commentators Alejandro Ramirez and Benjamin Finegold as well as 7-time Women’s US Champion Irina Krush. So far, though, Ukraine’s Andrey Baryshpolets and Romania’s Ioan-Christian Chirila lead.
Once upon a time up-and-coming US players like Fabiano Caruana were all but forced to travel to Europe to pursue their chess careers, with the US chess scene offering little other than open tournaments with tough schedules and no conditions for top pros. That’s all changed in the last decade, with Rex Sinquefield in particular putting St. Louis on the map as an international chess destination with the Sinquefield Cup and the reborn US Championship. The accompanying boom in the university chess scene has seen the picture almost completely reversed – a large number of young European players are now saved from the dilemma of whether to pursue studies or chess by offers of chess scholarships at US colleges.
We’re seeing a new stage in that development now, with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis hosting a growing number of round-robin tournaments for players just below the international elite level – giving some of the world’s most promising youngsters the chance to gain experience and IM and GM norms. That’s not all, though – the $20,000 prize fund includes $5,000 for the winner of the A Group and $4,000 for the B Group winner. So far it’s led to some thrilling chess!
You can watch and replay all the A Group games by clicking on a result below – hover over a name to see all of a player’s games so far:
David Howell is the elder statesman of the group at the advanced age of 26, but his games have typified the huge swings we’ve seen everywhere in the tournament. Against former World Junior Champion Alexander Ipatov in Round 1 it looked as though it was all over:
Here Ipatov only needed to play 35…Ref2! and mate is unavoidable – the simple plan is 36…Rf1, 37…Rxg1+, 38…Ne2+ and 39…Rf1 mate, which White could only delay. Instead, in time trouble, Ipatov played 35…Rxb2?! and after 36.Qd6 Ne2? (36…Rbf2! is messier than before but still winning) 37.Qxe6+ Kh7 38.Qxe5 there was nothing better than allowing a draw by perpetual check.
The English grandmaster followed up by crushing current World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong in 31 moves in Round 2, though Xiong will still be fighting to reach 2700 when he plays in the US Championship later this month.
In Round 3 another 16-year-old, Sam Sevian, had Howell on the ropes, but the youngster misplayed his attack and allowed David to demonstrate a remarkable king march to take home the full point – it was thrilling to watch live, since Howell was down to increments for his last dozen moves. This is the final position: