Unbeaten Naroditsky Leads U.S. Junior Closed

IM Daniel Naroditsky is in clear first with just two rounds to go at the 2013 U.S. Junior Closed Championship.


By Brian Jerauld

SAINT LOUIS (June 22, 2013) -- Though three players emerge in the endgame of the 2013 U.S. Junior Closed Championship – IM Daniel Naroditsky, FM Luke Harmon-Vellotti and FM Samuel Sevian – their lines to get here couldn’t have been any different.

Naroditsky entered as the tournament’s highest-rated player and has played like it. The California 17-year-old has written books on positional chess and complex endgames, but at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis his openings have been varied and sound, making him equally hard to prepare for as he is to play against.

As the last player standing without a loss, his approach to the tournament has been systematic. Drawing with the top-four players and manufacturing full points out of the lower half of the rankings, he has mixed solid play with just a little bit of luck – just enough to squeak out of a quasi-uncomfortable position or two to earn a draw. His 5.0/7 puts him in clear first entering the weekend, with his final two rounds against FM Yian Liou (3.0) and Robert Perez (4.0).

Harmon-Vellotti, on the other hand, has been the magician of the week. Excuse Boise, Idaho, for making the 14-year-old seemingly come from nowhere (Idaho’s next-strongest player is an Expert) but he made quite an introduction for himself when he knocked off IM Kayden Troff in the first round in Saint Louis.

Since then his play toward this tournament endgame has been flashy and dramatic, once pulling a rabbit out of a hat in a losing position against IM Victor Shen (4.0) in round 5 – and then bringing a dead rabbit back to life in a completely lost position against WFM Sarah Chiang (0.5) in round 6. The magic ran out in Friday’s round 7, however, when an otherwise struggling Liou knocked down Harmon-Vellotti with a taste of his own medicine: sacrificing three pawns and beating him from behind.

Harmon-Vellotti sits a half-point behind Naroditsky, with his final two matchups against Perez – who may find trouble taking down both Naroditsky and Harmon-Vellotti to help his own fortunes, but could certainly become the tournament spoiler with just a draw – and FM Jeffrey Xiong (3.0).

And here comes 12-year-old FM Samuel Sevian, the current U-12 World Champion out of California. Sevian, who once held the record as both the youngest Expert and the youngest National Master in U.S. history (both records were recently broken by Awonder Liang), became the youngest-ever competitor in the U.S. Championship last May – where he lost just two games, one of them to Troff.

Sevian sat in clear eighth place after three rounds this week in Saint Louis, mustering up only two draws against Perez, Liou and Xiong – who have otherwise been donating points to the tournament front runners. He appeared to be headed for the proverbial bump in the road.

Instead, Sevian has been chewing up the top talent with unbelievable calculation and accuracy in a furious comeuppance. He first served a loss to Harmon-Vellotti, clear leader at the time in round 4, and then drew with Naroditsky, who was leading in round 5. And after a convincing win over FM Atulya Shetty (2.5), Sevian’s triumph against Troff on Friday – which swapped the two from second-to-third in the standings – was a strategically rich beauty.

Sevian’s 3.5 points from the last four rounds ties him with Harmon-Vellotti in second place, a half-point behind Naroditsky. In today’s round 8 matchup, he takes white against a calm-and-collected veteran of the U.S. Junior Closed, IM Victor Shen (4.0), who has given fits to every opponent in a solid tournament thus far. Chiang is on Sevian’s plate in Sunday’s final round of the ten-player round robin.

Of course, the ridiculously tight field of this year’s Junior Closed has been serving up shockers in its entirety, and the final weekend’s endgame should follow the same path. Troff, Shen and Perez are tied for third with 4.0, all within range of Naroditsky and each with matchups that promise to ruin somebody’s day.

In Friday’s round 7, Naroditsky earned his point from Chiang in straightforward fashion and Shen again battled through time pressure for a win over Shetty, while a draw with Xiong has Perez continuing to slip pace after leading through five rounds.

Sevian might have taken the word ‘rematch’ a little too seriously. After losing as white to Troff last May in the U.S. championship, Sevian decided to try, try again on Friday by proceeding right down the same line as before – 11 moves – until Sevian altered them into a seemingly improved line at 12. Rad1.

“I don’t think he prepared against it,” Sevian said with a smile. “It was a surprise. Usually people don’t repeat what they play.”

From there, Troff’s response of b4 shifted a white knight to the rim, where he quickly set up his bishop and queen to feast on the immobile piece. But it would ultimately prove bait, as the knight’s sacrifice kicked off a magnificent attack by Sevian, who swung his pieces to the kingside for a sudden and gripping attack on Troff’s monarch, becoming exposed and limited to one tight corner by 17. … Kh8.

The tactically rich middlegame saw Troff desperately defending the a1-h8 diagonal, with Sevian in constant threat of mate to usher further weakness in black’s position. His 24. Be6 was ripe with tactic, earning him at least the exchange, as was the follow-up 25. Qf5, which threatened mate and ensured Troff’s rook would be taken with no exchange at all. Sevian reoffered an exchange sacrifice at 28. Rxf6, unhinging another five-move combination to earn it right back. With a three-pawn advantage in the endgame, Sevian could afford to sacrifice one at 39. f5 in order to simplify and rapidly hurl the match into endgame.

Harmon-Vellotti had pulled out so many victories while down significant material in this tournament that Liou decided to see what he was made of on the other side of the coin: ahead with material. As white, Liou ambushed Harmon-Vellotti’s French defense in a game that got combative early with 7. Ng5 – a defended square.

While it did thoroughly destroy the black kingside and Harmon-Vellotti’s options for castling, the fight saw consecutive sacrifices of white’s e-, b- and f-pawns. But with each precious tempo Harmon-Vellotti spent in collecting Liou’s front line, black slowly fell behind in development and let white dominate several important lanes – all centered around a king that lay helpless in the center.

With a three-pawn advantage, Harmon-Vellotti looked to close the game down early with 18. Qg5, threatening mate and offering the queens off the board. But Liou attacked black’s open weaknesses, first recollecting a pawn with 18. … Qxh7+, followed by a quick swing of white’s minor pieces to trap the black queen. 23. Bf5 brought a just reward from excellent tactical work.

Watch live commentary with GMs Ben Finegold and Yasser Seirawan today at 1 p.m. CT at www.uschesschamps.com/live.