Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Wonderful Accomplishment: Wisconsin Prodigy Becomes Youngest USCF National Master

Nine year old Awonder Liang just became the youngest National Master in U.S. history, winning his first two games in the Midwest Open Team Chess Festival (MOTCF) to push his U.S. Chess Federation rating to 2206. The average USCF rating used to be in the 1500 range but the recent proliferation of scholastic tournaments that created a large pool of young players who have ratings below 1000 reduced the average rating to less than 1100; even though the average rating has shifted downward, one truth has remained constant: only about one percent of U.S. tournament players ever reach the 2200 level and receive the treasured white and blue National Master certificate.

This is just the latest in a series of impressive records set by Liang. In April 2011, he became the youngest Expert in U.S. history (eight years, seven days old). Players in the Expert class, signified by a rating between 2000 and 2199, are ranked on approximately the 95th to 98th percentiles among USCF members but even though this category is elite from a statistical standpoint it does not carry the cachet in the chess community that National Master does. Liang is also the youngest player to defeat an International Master in a rated game and the youngest player to defeat a Grandmaster in a rated game.

Awonder's brother, Adream, was the 23rd highest rated 11 year old player on the USCF's February 2013 rating list; after gaining 42 points in MOTCF he is within 82 points of becoming an Expert and within 282 points of becoming a National Master.

Bobby Fischer earned the USCF National Master title as a 14 year old in 1957 after increasing his rating by more than 500 points in one year, a phenomenal improvement that vaulted him from being just a very talented young player to setting him on the path to become arguably the greatest player of all time. Fischer later said of this period, "I just got good"; a more precise explanation is that Fischer's rating progress reflected a potent combination of natural talent honed by tremendous determination and a tireless work ethic. In 1958, Fischer qualified for the Candidates matches (the final stage to determine the challenger for the World Chess Championship) and thus became the youngest Grandmaster ever. It is not fair or meaningful to compare Fischer's accomplishments to the accomplishments of the players who came after him; Fischer reached National Master and Grandmaster status without the benefit of training with strong computer engines and at a time when there were far fewer National Masters and Grandmasters than there are now. Fischer was one of the very top players in the U.S. at 14 and he was a world class competitor at 15, while today's record setting National Masters and Grandmasters have not distanced themselves from their contemporaries to nearly the same extent. Fischer's record for being the youngest Grandmaster stood until 1991, when computers had just begun to make their impact felt in chess training. Since 1991, more than 30 players have become Grandmasters before reaching the age of 16, an accomplishment that is still significant but that no longer means as much as it did when Fischer battled for the World Championship as a teenager.

Fischer's record as the youngest USCF National Master stood until 1981, when it was broken by 11 year old Stuart Rachels (Rachels later earned the International Master title and was co-U.S. Champion in 1989-90 before retiring from tournament chess to become a philosophy professor). Rachels held the record until 1994, when Jordy Mont-Reynaud became a National Master as a 10 year old. Vinay Bhat soon surpassed Mont-Reynaud and Bhat held the record until 1997, when Hikaru Nakamura--who is now one of the top 10 players in the world--became a National Master less than three months after his 10th birthday. Nicholas Nip officially broke Nakamura's record in 2008 but there is some controversy about how Nip gained his rating points and it is highly unusual that Nip has not played a single rated game since becoming a National Master. In December 2010, Samuel Sevian became a National Master less than one month before his 10th birthday; unlike Nip, Sevian continued to play tournament chess and he later surpassed the 2400 rating level, becoming a USCF Senior Master (the highest title awarded by the USCF). Sevian's current USCF rating is 2471.

Awonder Liang did not play the final three rounds of MOTCF, ensuring that his rating would not fall below 2200. In an individual tournament a player would be expected to complete all of the regularly scheduled rounds unless he became ill (or was out of contention for a prize) but in a team event it is common for a team to rotate five players among the four boards either for matchup purposes or just to keep the players fresh. Regardless of why Liang only played two rounds, his chess career profile does not resemble Nip's at all; Liang has generally played in strong open tournaments where he predominantly faced Masters and Experts: over the past 12 months, 86 of his 121 opponents have been rated at least 2000, which means he has been facing (and scoring well against) the top five percent of U.S. players.

I have personally witnessed some of Liang's history-making career. We both participated in MOTCF 2013, the 2012 Indianapolis Open, the 2012 Chicago Open and the 2011 FIDE Americas Championship in Chicago but I have only had the chance to play him once; we squared off on board two in the final round of the 2013 Cardinal Open: a victory would have enabled me to tie for first place in the U2100 section but Liang--who was a half point behind me entering the round--prevailed and finished in a four way tie for second place. If Liang had not beaten me in that game then he would still be a few points shy of 2200, so it literally can be said that he would not yet be a National Master without me! Here is that game, lightly annotated; Liang slowly but steadily outplayed me, eventually winning because of the strength of his connected passed pawns:

David Friedman (2050) - Awonder Liang (2094) [B87]

Cardinal Open (U2100 Section) 1/27/13 Round 5

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 b5 8. O-O Be7 9. Qf3 Qc7 10. Qg3 O-O 11. Bh6 Ne8 12. Rad1 Bd7 13. f4 Nc6 14. Nxc6 Bxc6 (My opponent spent almost 30 minutes thinking about which way to recapture. I thought that I stood well here--not just because he spent so much time on this move but also because my K-side attack looked strong to me.) 15. f5 (A. Sokolov played the text against Gelfand in the 1989 USSR Chmp [1-0, 64 moves]) 15... Kh8 16. Be3 b4 17. Ne2!? (17. Na4 is the correct move, as Sokolov played against Gelfand. White threatens to invade on b6 and also to take on e6.) 17... e5 (I underestimated this move; I did not think that Black could afford to create such a hole on d5 but the point is that White cannot exploit this hole and White's N is suddenly a very clumsy piece.) 18. c3 (This maintains material equality but enables Black to create two powerful connected passed pawns in the center. 18. Qf3 Nf6 19. Ng3 Qb7 did not appeal to me during the game but White should be able to hold after 20. Bd5 Bxd5 21. exd5 Rac8 22. Rd2) 18... Nf6 19. Bd5? (cxb4 offers more resistance than the text.) 19...Nxe4 20. Bxe4 Bxe4 21. cxb4 Qb7 22. a3 Bc6 23.Rd2 f6 24. Qg4 Rg8 25. Ng3 d5 26. Bc5 Bxc5+ 27. bxc5 d4 28. Re1 Qb5 29. Ne4? (29. Rc1 is a better try but it will be very difficult for White to maintain an effective blockade.) 29...Bxe4 (Black will soon have an extra pawn in addition to owning connected passers. The game is over.) 30. Qxe4 Qxc5 31. Rd3 Rac8 32. Rh3 Rgd8 33. Qh4?? (A blunder in a lost position. White must blockade the d pawn.) d3+ 34. Kf1 h6 35. Qg4 d2 36. Rd1 Rd4 37. Qe2 Qd5 38. Rf3 Rc1 39. Rc3 Rf4+ 40. Kg1 Qd4+ 41. Kh1 Rxd1+ 42. Qxd1 Rf1+ 0-1

While the 2013 MOTCF event will always be most remembered for Liang's record, the first place team also has several notable young players who have already made names for themselves in the chess world. Walker Griggs, a 17 year old who earned the National Master title at age 15, led the CCLian Defense team (named for the Columbus Chess Lessons organization) to the MOTCF championship with four match points in five rounds; four teams finished a half point behind (including my squad, Friedman's Fanatics). Griggs' teammates are Maggie Feng, Luke Xie and Vikran Raman. Feng, an Expert, won the silver medal in the 2012 Pan-American Youth Chess Championship in the girls under 12 division; Xie, who is also an Expert, was the fifth highest rated 10 year old player on the USCF's February 2013 rating list.

The Dayton Chess Club hosted MOTCF; the DCC has existed since 1959 and is thriving thanks to the leadership of club owners Riley and Sharon Driver. DCC Vice President Chris Bechtold did a great job promoting MOTCF and helping put together several of the teams. Michael Schauer deserves credit not only for serving as MOTCF's Tournament Director but also for running the club's weekly Quick Chess events that attract players from as far south as Cincinnati and as far west as Indiana.

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