Chess is booming in the US, and the number of youths playing and swelling the ranks is becoming more and more evident. The talent pool is there too as can be seen by the burgeoning number of homegrown prodigies appearing and developing in the game. It is evident that this is in no small part due to the combined efforts of the US Chess Federation, the Kasparov Chess Foundation, and more recently even Rex Sinquefield’s generosity in showcasing promising young chess talents in his Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
For there, it’s not just major events such as the US Championship and the Sinquefield Cup taking place, featuring the likes of Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura et al - they are also supporting and sponsoring many titled invitational events featuring promising young players. And these are crucial for the chess development of those young wannabes, as they not only gain valuable experience in top-level events, they crucially also offer norms so that they can go on to become Grandmasters.
And running May 16-25, the CCSCSL held the 2017 Spring Classic that comprised of a trio of strong invitational round-robins with a combined prize fund on offer of $52,000. The "A" group was won by US Championship veteran GM Varuzhan Akobian, with the "C" group convincingly won by GM Sam Sevian - but the "B" group winner was the one who made the headlines, with 14-year-old IM Awonder Liang from Madison, Wisconsin, having a breakthrough tournament performance.
The teenager (who is the youngest IM in US chess history) earned his second GM norm as he cruised to victory with an undefeated score of 7.5/9, a full point ahead of his nearest rival GM Christian Chirila - and he did it with more than just a touch of élan, with a series of scintillating wins against the three top-seeded GMs, Tamaz Gelashvili, Aleksandr Lenderman and Alexandr Fier!
Liang, who earned his first GM norm last year in the Continental Championships in El Salvador, is now closing in fast on the grandmaster title. He gained 33 rating points with his Spring Classic victory, which will boost him over the required 2500 threshold, and now just needs his final norm for the Grandmaster title.
IM Awonder Liang - GM Aleksandr Lenderman
St Louis Spring Classic B, (5)
Caro-Kann Defence, Two Knights Variation
1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 The offbeat Two Knights variation was doggedly adopted by the young Bobby Fischer until the turn of 1960 - and this was how the Soviets targeted Fischer, with many of their stars playing the Caro-Kann as they perceived this wasn't the sharpest option for White, and instant opening equality against the troublesome American. Fischer abandoned it for the sharper Panov, and the Two Knights almost fell out of use completely, only to come back to life in the 1980s as a favourite weapon of a young Nigel Short. 3...Bg4 And this was the line the Soviets used en masse against Fischer in the 1959 Candidates Tournament in Bled/Zagreb, with Petrosian, Keres and Smyslov scoring an undefeated 3/5 with Black! 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 Back in the day, Fischer's rationale for playing this was that he felt he already has the "advantage" of the two bishops - but the Soviets showed the young American he still had much to learn, and there was more to chess than the bishop-pair. 5...e6 Against Fischer, the Soviets first played 5...Nf6 and the American would adopt a King's Indian Attack set-up (which he liked to play) with 6.d3 and Bg2 - and the way Liang's attack quickly builds after 6.d4, then perhaps the Soviets were right with 5...Nf6 first, and then only followed by ...e6. 6.d4 Nf6 7.Bd3 dxe4 8.Nxe4 Qxd4 It's a pawn - but White is way ahead in development, has his king castled safely, and looks to use the d-file before launching an all-out attack before Lenderman can even get his trousers on! 9.0-0 Nxe4 It's not so easy for Black. If 9...Be7 10.Be3 Qd5 11.Rad1 Nbd7 12.c4! Qa5 13.Bd4 0-0 14.Bc3 and already White has a very dangerous attack for the pawn. So rather than that, Lenderman looks to ease the pressure by seeking some exchanges. 10.Bxe4 Nd7 11.Bf4 Rc8?! Clearly, Lenderman was becoming concerned - arguably over-concerned - here about a possible sacrifice on c6 - but his instincts really should have told him he had to get his king to safety and connect his rooks. He should have tried 11...Be7!? 12.Rad1 Qb6 13.Bxh7! Nc5! (The bishop is taboo, due to the tactical melee that picks up the rook on h7: 13...Rxh7 14.Rxd7! Kxd7 15.Qd3+ Ke8 16.Qxh7 Bf8 17.Be5 and White has a big advantage here, as either Black castles for safety and losses pawns going into the endgame, or he risks his king's safety by trying to hang on to the kingside pawns. Either way, White has an easy game) 14.Be4 Nxe4 15.Qxe4 Rh4 16.Qf3 and White is a little better, as Blck's pieces are somewhat awkward and his king is always going to be vulnerable to an attack - but at least the advantage White has here is containable for Black compared to what now happens in the game. 12.Rad1 The attack on the knight on d7 prevents Lenderman from coordinating his position to castle safely. 12...Qf6 Taking on b2 is bad, as even with the queens being exchanged, White emerges with a decisive advantage going into the endgame: 12...Qxb2? 13.Rb1 Qa3 14.Rxb7! Qxf3 15.Bxf3 Bc5 16.Bh5 g6 17.Bf3 and, with Rd1 coming next, the two rooks and the bishop-pair will wreck havoc across the Black position. 13.Rfe1 Nc5 14.Qg3 The pressure is building up for Black - something will have to give soon. 14...Qxb2 There was an alternative option of 14...Nxe4 15.Rxe4 Be7 but after 16.Rde1!? it's hard to see how Black is going to stop Be5 and Rg4 with carnage coming on the kingside. 15.Bf5! The pressure from the young American is relentless now - and Lenderman is just hanging on by his very fingertips. But for how long? 15...Qxa2 16.Bd6 More clinical was 16.Bg5! Qa5 (otherwise after Qc7!! White has a forced mate on d8) 17.Qe5! and Black's position is on the brink of collapse. 16...Qa5 Now if 16...Qb2 17.c3! prevents the queen tracking back to f6 to defend, and forces 17...Qb6 18.Rb1 Bxd6 19.Qxg7!! Qd8 20.Qxh8+ Kd7 21.Qxh7 with a winning advantage. 17.Bxc5 Qxc5 18.Bxe6!! Wonderful from Awonder! Now the Black king is caught in the crossfire in the middle of the board. 18...fxe6 19.Rxe6+ Be7 20.Rde1 White can't be too hasty here, as after 20.Qxg7? Rf8 the attack on f2 gives Black valuable breathing space to coordinate his defense, where after 21.Kh2 Rc7! Black has everything defended and now just a piece ahead and winning. 20...0-0 Better late than never, I suppose! 21.Rxe7 Rf7 The only way to defend g7, as after 21...Qd4 22.c3! Qf6 23.R1e6 Black faces a heavy loss of material. 22.Rxf7 Kxf7 23.Qb3+ Kf8 24.Qe6! Sublime play and understanding of the position from Liang! The unstoppable threat is Re5 and Rf5 mating - and this is the only way to win for sure, as after 24.Qxb7? Re8! 25.Rxe8+ Kxe8 26.Qxg7 Qxc2 27.Qxa7 c5 the resulting queen and pawn ending is notoriously drawish; and even more so here, as Black's c-pawn is quickly pushing up the board, and hard to stop. 24...Rd8 25.Re5! Rd1+ 26.Kh2 Qd6 27.Qe8# 1-0