Naroditsky, Harmon-Vellotti Tied Heading into Final Round

IM Daniel Naroditsky is tied for first place with just one round to go at the 2013 U.S. Junior Closed Championship.

By Brian Jerauld


SAINT LOUIS (June 23, 2013) -- California IM Daniel Naroditsky and Idaho FM Luke Harmon-Vellotti met in round 2 of the 2013 U.S. Junior Closed in a game that fizzled into an uninspiring draw. And after quickly trading his way down to an opposite-colored bishop snoozer, Naroditsky admitted that the draw was more for practical reasons.

“At some point, it’s important to make a prudent decision. You don’t always have to go all-in,” he said at the time. “Sometimes the decision is not justified, sometimes it is. We’ll just see how it goes for the rest of the tournament.”

Reckoning day is here. In every round since that day two rendezvous – which left them tied for second – Naroditsky and Harmon-Vellotti have never left a half-point from each other, and they’ve never left the top of the standings. The two have see-sawed back and forth with the lead in every round, continuously re-climbing over the other’s draw with another win.

Now they find themselves tied at the top, left with one final round to justify every decision over the past ten days. Naroditsky faces Robert Perez, who shared the lead at the tournament’s halfway point but has since cooled against the higher ranks, while Harmon-Vellotti defends against FM Jeffrey Xiong, who has held his own since a slow start with draws against most of the field. Both front runners have the black pieces.

Naroditsky was in the driver’s seat as clear leader entering Saturday’s round 8, but suffered a frustrating draw as white against FM Yian Liou. The half-point allowed Harmon-Vellotti to catch pace at 5.5/8 with his subsequent win over Perez.

“I’m very unhappy, and it shows my bad form,” said Naroditsky after the draw. The 17-year-old is the only player without a loss this tournament. “But the world hasn’t ended, I’m still tied for first. I just have to get my stuff together tomorrow and come back strong.

“I really want to win, and I know [Harmon-Vellotti] is not in his best form, either. It’s time to go all-in; I’m going to try and play to win.”

Harmon-Vellotti shares the urgency, stating he intends to “just go for the win from the beginning” against Xiong, though his prediction of the tournament’s outcome differs than Naroditsky’s.

“I think I’m going to win [the championship] – in clear first,” said Harmon-Vellotti, who has collected five wins in eight rounds. “Daniel has drawn most of his games as black, so if I win [Sunday], I should have pretty good chances.”

Praying for rain will be FM Sam Sevian, who lurks a half-point behind with 5.0, alone in second place. He will command black against tenth-place WFM Sarah Chiang and is seeking a win that will keep pressure on both front-runners.

After several games that have seen one dramatic swing after another, Harmon-Vellotti’s round 8 win over Perez was – finally – a relatively straightforward one.

The tactically adept 14-year-old guided the game into the Najdorf Sicilian, with Perez burning much of his time just getting out of one of the opening’s sharper lines. Harmon-Vellotti was thrown out of prep early with 8. … h5, to which his response of 9. Bg5 was admittedly “not correct.” It cost him a pawn with 9. … hxg4, temporarily, but when he regained the material at 15. Qxh4, his king was chased before castling with 15. … Qa5+.

But Perez was below eight minutes after his 20th move, and the complicated position beckoned several non-optimal moves. With his minor pieces entrenched on strong central outposts, Harmon-Vellotti pawn rushed the queenside castle of black. After some indecision by Perez on how to deal with the outpost, with 28. … Be6 … Bd7 … Bxf5, black plotted to bring his h8 rook through the open kingside, but the idea did little more than collapse his pawn structure and invite white’s h-pawn unabated toward its queening square.

“I actually had a good game, one where I calculated correctly all the way through,” he said. “It was finally a good game for me – unlike the last four.”

Though Naroditsky tallied a half-point in round 8, he took his draw to Liou like a loss, calling his own play “completely horrible for the second part of the game.”

It’s hard to argue against Naroditsky holding a solid advantage out of his Ruy Lopez opening, where Liou’s 8. … Bg7 instead of d5 allowed white to push the square and grab a strong command of the center. But while the game was quickly trading down to a pro-white endgame, Naroditsky lost his grippers with 24. h4, intending to begin exposing the black king, instead of 24. f5, which would pushed the envelope on his central advantage.

From there, Liou transferred all his resources to defusing the center, and the game was traded down into equality.

“After [28. …] Qg5, I thought things were already out of my control,” said an irritated Naroditsky, who was in clear first by a half-point entering the round. “At that point, it was a complicated position and I hoped to outsmart [Liou], but I didn’t. A draw is a draw.”

Sevian missed his golden opportunity to equalize in the standings. After scoring 3.5 in his last 4 games, he had raced back to a tie with Harmon-Vellotti in second place, and a win in the eighth round would have completed the comeback. But IM Victor Shen had been providing consistent frustration to every opponent through the week, and Sevian – who ultimately escaped with a draw as white – was just another on the list.

His line through the Classical Ruy Lopez looked clunky-at-best, including an early push of 10. d4 that he later lamented should have been delayed to find better support, and a white-squared bishop that spent five tempos rerouting itself to the f1 square. By move 15, black was fully developed and harmonious, while white’s army was just the opposite, passive and packed on top of itself.

Sevian desperately worked to trade out of his jam and open the position, but Shen leaned on him with excellent pressure down the queenside, ultimately forcing a white knight back to its original square with 32. Nb1, awkwardly tying it to a defensive role. Sevian blundered with 34. h4, dropping a pawn that he incorrectly assumed he could recover, but Shen later missed the potentially superior  42. … Rg5, instead moving Ra2 and ushering the draw.

“I went into that game playing for a win, but I just didn’t play well,” Sevian said. “Now, [Sunday] is a must-win.”

The final round of the U.S. Junior Closed Championship begins early at 11 a.m. today. If a playoff is necessary, it will take place following the final round. Catch live commentary with GMs Yasser Seirawan and Ben Finegold at