Jeffery Xiong Proves Too Strong At U.S. Junior

Jeffery Xiong Proves Too Strong At U.S. Junior

| 9 | Chess Event Coverage

Jeffery Xiong holds the title of highest rated player in the world under the age of 16. This weekend he added another achievement to his already impressive résumé: U.S. Junior Champion.

Photos courtesy of Austin Fuller, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

Although the young Texan grandmaster did not win the event last year, he used that disappointment as motivation. Jeffery told his 2015 result was "reassuring as I knew I could compete for the title in the upcoming year." Compete turned out to be an understatement.

With his impressive 6.5/9 finish, the 15-year-old Xiong joins luminaries such as Bobby Fischer, Larry Christiansen, Hikaru NakamuraRay Robson, Sam Shankland, and even your humble reporter as U.S. junior champion. In addition, two competitors in the field — Kayden Troff (2014) and GM-elect Akshat Chandra (2015) — are former champions themselves.

Although Xiong outrated his nearest challenger, Troff, by 98 Elo points, he maintained a very mature mindset. "This being my fifth consecutive U.S. Junior I knew better than anyone that it would be extremely difficult to win," Xiong said. Considering this edition of the junior was the strongest in history, this was to be no cakewalk. The field, with an average FIDE rating of 2466(!), did not include a player lower than IM-elect. It was the player at the very bottom of the rating list, IM Aleksandr Ostrovskiy, that pounced on his opportunity in the early going.

First Half Highlights

After round one, Ostrovskiy and IM Awonder Liang sat alone atop the leader board. Liang, who at 9 years and 111 days became the youngest player to ever defeat a GM in a classical game, stills holds the record for being the youngest international master in U.S. history. He played a positional beauty to beat IM Michael Bodek.

While Ostrovskiy soundly defeated 14-year-old IM-elect Nicolas Checa and Chandra and IM-elect Michael Brown split the point after repetition, Troff and IM Luke Harmon-Vellotti traded mistakes in time trouble before the game eventually was agreed a draw. Can you spot the tactic Harmon-Vellotti initially overlooked that led to a big advantage for Black?

In the heavyweight slugfest of the opening round, IM Ruifeng Li barely held on against Xiong. The top seed uncharacteristically overlooked a relatively obvious defensive resource that allowed the rapidly improving Li to salvage half a point.

Xiong cleaned up his game in rounds two and three, mopping up Liang and Bodek to take the clear lead after three rounds. Yet in round four, Ostrovskiy, who at 20 was the veteran of the group, played a masterpiece to overcome the 269-point rating favorite.

As all the other contenders drew in round four, after four games the Brooklynite earned himself a surprising 3.0/4 lead with Xiong, Liang, and Brown half a point back.

Although his hair was pulled back tight in a man-bun, Aleks Ostrovskiy's relaxed chess catapulted him to an impressive lead after four rounds.

Second Half Highlights

I know four out of nine does not quite make up half, but after a peaceful round with only one decisive game, the event entered a turning point. In round five, every single game saw a winner. In rounds six and seven, there were two draws total.

Akshat Chandra went for blood against the luckless Bodek, who dropped rounds five through seven. Ostrovskiy also faltered against Harmon-Vellotti, and he followed suit with three straight losses of his own.

Harmon-Vellotti, on the other hand, went from "minus-one" to "plus-one" by also taking down Ruifieng Li in round six. Brown fell to Li before drawing Liang and righting the ship in round seven with a win over Bodek. Liang beat Checa, but then came the guilty-draw party in rounds six and seven, splitting both points.

Don't be fooled by his peaceful demeanor! Runner-up Awonder Liang gave serious chase to Jeffery Xiong in this year's U.S. Junior Championship.

Xiong, likely perturbed by his loss to Ostrovskiy, rattled off three-straight wins, including sound defeats of the 2014 and 2015 junior champions. While his friends were beating one another, he began his ascent. Xiong called his victory over Troff "his favorite game, as it was the cleanest and showed willpower as it was the game following the loss."

After knocking off Troff and Chandra, Xiong received some fortune against Checa, whose stubborn defense nearly netted him a half-point.

Thanks to the chess equivalent of bowling's turkey, after seven wild rounds, Xiong was up a full point on his closest competitor, Awonder Liang. After the bloodbath of the previous three rounds, round eight saw all ten players make peace. This meant that with a draw in the final round, the title was Xiong's. With white against Luke Harmon-Vellotti, that was no problem.

Liang and Li won their final round games over Ostrovskiy and Bodek, earning them second and third place, respectively. In the only other decisive game of the round, newcomer Nicolas Checa left his mark on the tournament with a resounding win over the 2015 champ.

Xiong's 6.5 points were good enough for first, but they actually lost him a few rating points. No matter, the $6,000 (€5,447) check and automatic entry into the 2017 U.S. Championship provides ample compensation for the newly crowned junior champion.

Jeffery told "I'm very happy to win the U.S. Juniors, and it has been annually my favorite event to play due to the amazing hospitality and organizing by the whole CCSCSL staff. St. Louis is truly becoming one of the best chess venues on the planet, and I'm excited to return for the U.S. Championship next year." The admiration must be reciprocal — St. Louis must surely welcome promising talent with such a gracious attitude.

Some American grandmaster will be very happy that Xiong pulled out the victory, as the teenager likely would have qualified to the U.S. Championship by rating. That opens up a spot for a player like Daniel Naroditsky, himself a former junior champion.

2016 U.S. Junior Championship

# Fed Player Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Score
1 GM Xiong, Jeffery 2641 2613 x 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 0 1 6.5/9
2 IM Liang, Awonder 2430 2595 0 x ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 6.0/9
3 IM Li, Ruifeng 2535 2538 ½ ½ x 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 5.5/9
4 IM Harmon-Vellotti, Luke 2434 2513 ½ ½ 1 x ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 5.0/9
5 FM Brown, Michael William 2425 2514 ½ ½ 0 ½ x ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 5.0/9
6 IM Chandra, Akshat 2493 2463 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ x 0 1 ½ 1 4.5/9
7 FM Checa, Nicolas D 2380 2433 0 0 ½ 1 0 1 x ½ 0 1 4.0/9
8 GM Troff, Kayden W 2543 2378 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ x 1 ½ 3.5/9
9 IM Ostrovskiy, Aleksandr A 2372 2397 1 0 0 0 ½ ½ 1 0 x ½ 3.5/9
10 IM Bodek, Michael H 2408 2200 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ x 1.5/9

The U.S. Junior Closed Championship 2016 took place July 8-17; for the seventh time, it was held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in St. Louis. It was a 10-player round robin with the best juniors in the U.S. It has been organized this way since 1966.

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