The everyday home computer has done much to enhance chess for children. Now they have multi-million game databases to study attacking patterns, and powerful, accurate, freely available chess engines, with ratings estimated at 3200 and beyond, far above that of World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s peak level, to play against daily and analyse their latest tournament games on - and a byproduct of all this is that they are also significantly lowering the age at which young talents are acquiring master-level skills.
Once, such skillsets were only honed through years of practice, intensive coaching, and serious tournament play. The latest of the computer generations to benefit from this new computer training has been the new rising star of U.S. Chess, Awonder Liang from Wisconsin, who has already pulled off a number of “youngest ever” feats. In 2011, he won the world under-eight title, the same year in which he became the youngest ever to defeat an international master and qualify as a US expert.
Recently, he became a grandmaster (or grandmaster-elect for now, as he won't be awarded the title officially until later this year) at the tender age of 14 years and a month, making him the second-youngest U.S. grandmaster ever. And now the teenager’s latest triumph was a dramatic, come-from-behind victory to claim his first U.S. Junior Championship title last week at Rex Sinquefield's Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL).
Going into the final round, Liang was chasing defending champion GM Kayden Troff for the title. But when top seed Troff unexpectedly lost, Liang showed his mettle with a clutch win against IM Michael Brown, to not only clinch the 2017 U.S. Junior Championship title and first prize of $6,000 generously sponsored by the CCSCSL, but in the process he now also qualifies to play in the 2018 U.S. Championship - the first of what could be many appearances.
2017 U.S. Junior Championship
1. IM Awonder Liang, 6½/9; 2. GM Kayden Troff, 6; 3-4. GM Ruifeng Li, GM Akshat Chandra 5½; 5. IM Nicolas Checa, 5; 6-7. IM Michael Brown, IM Andrew Tang 4½; 8. Mika Brattain, 4; 9. Bovey Liu, 2½; 10. FM Joshua Colas, 1.
IM Awonder Liang - GM Ruifeng Li
US Junior Championship, (7)
Sicilian Moscow/Kopec System
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.0-0 a6 5.Bd3 While admittedly the bishop looks a little awkwardly placed here, what's happened is that we've transposed into a hybrid Kopec System, named after the late US IM, coach and author, Danny Kopec, who created a whole Anti-Sicilian system in the late 1960s and 1970s based on the set-up of 1.e4 2.Nf3 and 3.Bd3 - the game thereafter basically transposing into a Ruy Lopez-like game with White playing c3 and retreating the bishop to c2. 5...Ngf6 6.Re1 b5 7.c4 g5! A spirited pawn sacrifice aimed at securing the critical e5-square for Black's knight, from where it can harry White's Bd3 - and not only that, the opening of the g-file means Black can play Rg8 with pressure against White's king. And to counter this, Awonder has to be very careful on how he reacts now to the changing dynamics. 8.Nxg5 Ne5 9.Bf1 bxc4 10.Na3 Rg8 11.d4 cxd4?! I'm beginning to wonder whether this is simply a "fingerfehler" (A German chess term, meaning a finger slip in moving a piece) from Li, as the clearly critical continuation was 11...cxd3!? 12.f4 Bg4! leaving Awonder wondering whether to play 13.Qa4+ and accept a repetition after 13...Bd7 14.Qd1 Bg4 15.Qa4+ Bd7 etc, as the alternative of 13.Qb3 Rb8 14.Qc3 (White has to be careful not being greedy by pinching pawns, as after 14.Qa4+?! Bd7 15.Qxa6 Rxg5! 16.fxg5 Nfg4 17.h3 Bc6! his queen is suddenly trapped, forcing 18.Nc4 Bb5 19.Qa5 Nxc4 20.Qxd8+ Kxd8 21.Bxd3 Nge5 winning.) 14...Ng6 sees Black standing well here. 12.f4 Bg4 13.Qxd4 As you can clearly see, White stands much better here in this line compared to the above note. 13...Nd3 14.Bxd3 cxd3 15.Qxd3 e6 16.f5 h6 17.Nf3 d5 18.fxe6 dxe4?! Faced with alternative offering White a clear and simple endgame advantage after 18...fxe6 19.exd5 Qxd5 20.Qxd5 Nxd5 21.Kh1! Li opts instead to press the "gamble" button to create some chaos in the position and his opponent perhaps blundering or going astray - but Awonder is more than capable of handling such random positions. 19.exf7+ Kxf7 20.Ne5+ Ke6 21.Qc3 Nd5 22.Qd4 Nf6 23.Qc3 Nd5 24.Qc4! The draw by repetition was never happening - so why did Awonder repeat the position twice, you might ask? The truth is that this is a little ploy the Soviets used to use, as it would prolong the agony at the board for their opponents before they would come in for the kill. Chess can be cruel sometimes. 24...Bh3 Hopeless, of course, was 24...Kxe5 25.Rxe4+ Kf6 with 26.Rxg4 easily winning. 25.Qxe4 Bc5+ 26.Kh1 Bxg2+ Well, there's no denying that the game has taken an exciting twist to it - but Awonder has it all finely calculated. 27.Qxg2 Rxg2 28.Nc6+ Kf5 29.Nxd8 Rf2 30.Nf7 Kg4 Hoping for ..Kh3 and looking to mate with ....Rxh2++ - and remarkably, Awonder now helps him in getting his king to h3! 31.Rg1+! You have to be brave to play like this. 31...Kh3 32.Ng5+!! Just who is mating who here? And all superbly calculated, as you'd be forgiven now for playing 32.Rg3+ Kh4 33.Nxh6 Rf1+ 34.Kg2 Rf2+ 35.Kh1 Rf1+ and seeing Black escape with a draw. But Awonder's move has a sting in the tail, in that he gets his mating threats in first - and this must have been just sheer entertainment for the fans watching this all unfold live at the CCSCSL! 32...hxg5 33.Rg3+ Kh4 34.Bxg5+ Awonder has returned the piece just for a game-winning tempo that either mating or wins material. 34...Kh5 35.Rag1 The king is stranded on the h-file awaiting its fate, as running away to the g-file allows a big discovered check winning material. 35...Rf3 36.Rxf3 Bxg1 37.Rf5! The culmination of Awonder's play - he's going into an ending with the massive advantage of a piece and two pawns. 37...Rg8 38.Rxd5 1-0