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Defying Own Odds, Liang Wins U.S. Junior

Defying Own Odds, Liang Wins U.S. Junior

"Maybe 10 to 15 percent," were the pre-round chances IM Awonder Liang gave himself to win the 2017 U.S. Junior Championship without even needing a tiebreak. "It was just a lot of luck that I happened to be able to deliver it," he told Chess.com after yesterday's tournament win.

IM Awonder Liang talks with GM Cristian Chirila after his win. Photo: Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Liang's pessimism was warranted. Going into round nine, he trailed tournament-leading GM Kayden Troff by a half point. Troff, the 2014 U.S. Junior Champion, had not lost a game all event. Despite the long odds, Troff couldn't hold off a spirited attack, while Liang ground down his opponent. 

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IM Awonder Liang, left, puts his finishing touches on his final-round game against IM Michael Brown. Photo: Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Troff, who had sole possession of first place since the second day of the event, had finally been caught. The reversal at the top meant the youngest player in the field won the whole thing. Of course, by now, Liang has numerous "youngest" awards to his credit.

For those unfamiliar with the American talent Liang, you'll see a lot more of him next spring. His win in St. Louis earns him a return trip. The U.S. Junior Champion traditionally receives an automatic spot in the next U.S. Championship, which Liang said he plans to accept.

He won't be going in as the lone IM. At this May's Chicago Open, Liang earned his third and final GM norm, and with a FIDE rating north of 2500, his title should be conferred soon. Only a few months older than 14, he appears to be one of the ten youngest grandmasters in history.

Today's pivotal games included another past champion besides Troff. GM Akshat Chandra, the 2015 winner, began the day one point back and had mathematical chances until he was held to a draw by IM Nicholas Checa. (Defending champion GM Jeffery Xiong elected not to compete this year; he has a good chance to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Championship by rating.)

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2014 U.S. Junior Champion GM Kayden Troff couldn't get his second title. Photo: Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

That left just Troff and Liang in the mix, but Troff didn't get the game he wanted.

"I was hoping for a more solid game that I would hopefully be able to outplay him," Troff told Chess.com. "He seemed to be playing a little more solid positional-type games throughout the event, so I would definitely say he caught me off guard with his aggressive approach."

With that blunder in a worse position, Liang's game would decide the champion. His battle was more methodical, as he used a slow approach against the Berlin. Liang said that was intentional, and also part of his normal repertoire.

"Playing in the U.S. Championship is certainly an exciting thing to do," Liang said. 

Troff's lead was built up early in the event. Here he shows some slipperiness in getting out of an attack in round four, only to force a middlegame mate of his own.

Liang trailed by a full point for most of the tournament, but then halved the lead with an absolutely bloodthirsty game in round seven against GM Ruifeng Li. No one had much regard for material or king safety in this one. Ahh the fearlessness of youth!

What does the future hold for Troff and Liang? Their next few years will look quite different.

Troff had already committed to taking a church mission. Beginning in October, he will be in Australia for two years and necessarily taking a hiatus from tournament chess. He told Chess.com that even if he had won, he would not have accepted his invitation to play in the next U.S. Championship (he has finished a respectable T-6th and T-8th in his two previous appearances, with a combined even score). Since he's 19, this was likely his final U.S. Junior.

Liang, still quite a few years Troff's junior, said he's not quite sure if he will make chess a career. 

"I love chess," he said. "I will keep going for sure. But will I be a full-time chess player for the rest of my life? It is still too young for me to make a decision like that.

"Right now, the first thing I want to do is to take a rest." Liang said he has another big event later this month, as the same chess club is hosting the "Match of the Millennials" which pits U.S. juniors against foreign juniors.

In the U.S. Junior Girl's Championship, there was no such drama. FM Akshita Gorti (an undefeated 7.0/9) already had the trophy engraved before the last round began. Starting the day with a 1.5 point lead, her final-round draw kept the same winning margin.

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FM Akshita Gorti ensured her spot in the 2018 U.S. Women's Championship. Her only other appearance was in 2016. Photo: Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

The event is essentially a "mini U.S. Women's Championship" since seven of the 10 girls had played in one of the last two U.S. Women's Championships! Despite the large youth movement in that "adult" event, Americans are still waiting for one or several of the girls to break through past the 2300-level and challenge the established women at the top.

The Gorti win that essentially decided the title was in round seven. Her hopping knights proved superior to Black's toggling bishops, and a defensive queen sac ended the matter.

2017 U.S. Junior Championship | Final Standings

Rank Name Rating 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Score
1 IM Liang, Awonder 2536 x ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 0 1 1 1 6.5
2 GM Troff, Kayden W 2472 ½ x 1 ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ 6
3 GM Li, Ruifeng 2568 0 0 x ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 5.5
4 GM Chandra, Akshat 2484 ½ ½ ½ x ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 5.5
5 IM Checa, Nicolas D 2415 ½ ½ 0 ½ x ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 5
6 IM Brown, Michael William 2508 0 0 ½ 0 ½ x 1 ½ 1 1 4.5
7 IM Tang, Andrew 2478 1 0 0 ½ 0 0 x 1 1 1 4.5
8 Brattain, Mika A 2364 0 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 x ½ ½ 4
9 Liu, Bovey 2228 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ x 1 2.5
10 FM Colas, Joshua 2366 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 x 1

2017 U.S. Junior Girl's Championship | Final Standings

Rank Name Rating 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Score
1 FM Gorti, Akshita 2232 x ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 7
2 WCM Feng, Maggie 2304 ½ x ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 5.5
3 WIM Nguyen, Emily 2048 0 ½ x ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 1 1 5
4 WCM Cervantes Landeiro, Thalia 2032 ½ 0 ½ x ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 5
5 WIM Wang, Annie 2023 0 ½ 0 ½ x ½ 1 ½ 1 1 5
6 WFM Ulrich, Rachel J 2049 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ x 1 1 0 0 4.5
7 WFM Virkud, Apurva 2213 ½ ½ ½ 0 0 0 x 1 1 ½ 4
8 WFM Yip, Carissa 2261 0 0 1 0 ½ 0 0 x 1 1 3.5
9 WIM Bykovtsev, Agata 2045 0 ½ 0 1 0 1 0 0 x ½ 3
10 WIM Eswaran, Ashritha 2086 0 ½ 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ x 2.5

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