The US Cadet Championship is an invitational round robin tournament for the top US players under the age of 16. I was first invited to play in the Cadet back in 2015, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend due to scheduling problems. In 2016, however, I played. I was around the middle of then 10-player field, and I had a great tournament. After leading the tournament 7 rounds in, I finished in a 3-way tie for first, but unfortunately I went down in an armageddon playoff and didn’t get the title. That is a story for another time…
In 2017, I yet again didn’t play due to a schedule conflict, but I decided to participate this year. The tournament moved from Rockville, Maryland, (2016) to Manchester, New Hampshire, to San Jose, California. The tournament also decreased in size from 10 players to 8 players. This is the last year I’m eligible to play, and I hadn’t been on the West Coast in ages, so I gladly accepted the invitation.
The participants (sorted by July USCF rating) were:
Rayan Taghizadeh (2410)
Josiah Stearman (2375)
Akira Nakada (2329)
Gabriel Sam (2328)
Aravind Kumar (2315)
Jason Wang (2289)
Max Li (2247)
I knew and had played East Coast players such as Aravind and Akira before. As for the Californians, I knew a couple but hadn’t played them—or to be more precise I hadn’t played chess with them. At the 2015 World Youth, Rayan, a few others, and I went bowling! The results are classified.
I was the big cat, and after tying for first place 2 years ago, my pre-tournament goal was simple—to finish first. Being the top seed wasn’t an easy position to be in, since the pressure was on me to win. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have competition either.
On Sunday, July 8, I finished the World Open, and on Wednesday, July 11, I flew out to California. The flight was uneventful (yay!), and I had a day to enjoy the Bay Area and hopefully somewhat adjust to Pacific Time. The opening ceremony and the drawing of lots were on Thursday afternoon, and the first round was an hour after that. I got seed number 4, meaning that my colors were white followed by black followed by white, etc. Coincidentally, the top four seeds got numbers 1-4, while the bottom four seeds got numbers 5-8.
My round 1 win against Jason Wang (2274 USCF, 2187 FIDE) was fairly smooth. The homework I did before the round worked out very well, and I got a near-winning position after 20 moves. Not bad… After my last two tournaments, an uneventful start was a welcome change.
In round 2 I got black against Gabriel Sam (2328 USCF, 2138 FIDE). He steered the game towards drawish territory, but I did manage to get an advantage. Here’s where I missed my chance:
In the past few moves, I’d made territorial gains with my pawns and had pushed white’s pieces backwards. This, however, all came at the expense of weakening my king; more on that later.
As for concrete variations. 30… Bxf2 is the first move to calculate. It will most certainly be me with 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qb5. Though the white knight is pinned, black can’t win it as 32… Bc5 runs into 33.Qd7+. Not impressed with the idea of being a pawn down without any gain, I looked elsewhere. 30… e4 31.Nd4 was possible, but I was uneasy at the idea of letting the white knight anchor itself on d4. 30… Qc7 31.Kg1 a6 is reasonable for black, but I went for something else: 30… Bc7?. White responded to the obvious threat of …e4+ with 31.g3 and I went 31… Bd6. I had, however, underestimated the move 32.Qb3!
I had wanted to have control over the position, and this is not a good development. Ng5 is a serious idea by white which could lead to dire consequences for black is he isn’t careful. He can also go Qd5 centralizing his queen. I saw nothing better than to go back with 32… Bc7, but I had no real advantage after that. The game ended in a draw.
What did I miss? In that 30… Bxf2 line, I was winning at the end, but I just didn’t look deep enough. After the practically forced 31.Nxe5 Qc7 32.Qxb5 Bc5 33.Qd7+ Qxd7 34.Nxd7, black has 34… Bd6+ 35.Kg1 Kf7
The white knight is trapped! The pawn endgames after both 36.b4 Ke6 37.Nc5+ Bxc5 38.bxc5 Kd5 and 36.c4 Ke6 37.c5 Kxd7 38.cxd6 Kxd6 are lost for white, as his king is just too far away. The exact details are far from obvious when looking from a distance, but I totally missed this idea. It was tough luck that I didn’t win, but trust me, there are much worse things that can happen to a chess player…
Round 3 was an important game for me and for the tournament standings. I was white against second seed Rayan Taghizadeh (2410 USCF, 2327 FIDE). The game was very interesting, and I really could write an entire article about it. The opening went well for me, and I managed to keep one of Rayan’s knights grounded on a5 with nowhere to go. He wisely went for counterplay, spicing the game up. I was clearly better, but it wasn’t obvious how much I actually had. We reached this position:
White has a queen and two pawns for two rooks, and there is a pair of bishops on the board. At this point, the b-pawn is mainly for decoration, as it won’t be running up the board anytime soon. The main target is the f7-pawn and the black king in general. White’s bishop is going to assist the queen in doing this. But how? 35.Bf3 with the idea of Bd5? 35.Bg4 aiming at e6? Or 35.h4 going at the black king from a different direction? I spent most of my remaining six minutes on my next move, and it was well worth it, since I found a win.
35.Bf3 will be met with 35… Rcb6 36.Bd5 Bc8! 37.e6 is no good for course, and white doesn’t have anything convincing. Therefore I threw 35.Bf3 into the wastebasket. There weren’t too many concrete variations after 35.h4, and that could always be a backup. Then I crunched out the details of 35.Bg4! to the end and saw that it was winning. White intends to go e6 next, and that could fatally open up the black king. 35… Bc8 is no good, since after 36.Qd8+ Kg7 37.e6, black is all tied up and can’t stop anything. Rayan played the critical move 35… Rcb6 which I had been expecting. I replied with 36.e6 fxe6 37.Qd7!
This was the key idea. The e6-pawn is going down which will more or less be mate. That is unless black goes 37… Bc8 which fails to a nice tactic: 38.Bxe6+! Rxe6 39.Qd8+ Kg7 40.Qc7+. Black is losing the b8-rook, and Rayan resigned here.
That win felt great! The next morning, I was in an even bigger clash against Josiah Stearman (2411 USCF, 2285 FIDE). Josiah was leading the tournament with 3/3, and he was clearly my biggest threat in the tournament. Early on, it looked like the game would be a pretty dry ride until I got a pleasant surprise.
A couple minor pieces have been traded off already, and neither side has any real claims to an advantage. Though I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t too disappointed with this development. If we drew, there was still a large chance that I’d outrun Josiah in the last three rounds, and besides, I shouldn’t be expecting anything special with black after only 13 moves… I though Josiah would play either 14.Qxe6 or 14.Qc2 with rough equality, but he decided to go 14.Qxb7? instead. That was a bad idea. 14… Rfb8 15.Qxc7 Rc8 16.Qb6 Rcb8 leads to a repetition, but I rightfully wanted more. After making sure there weren’t any problems, I went 14… c6! (14… c5! with a similar idea was also strong). I had a simple threat: 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8, trapping the white queen. 15.Ba7 does stop Rfb8, but it is met with 15… c5! followed by 16… Qd7, where the white bishop is trapped. Josiah instead chose 15.d4 which is probably white’s best move. The game went 15… Rfb8 16.Qc7 Ne8 17.d5 cxd5 18.exd5 Nxd5 19.Qc6 f5!
I had a lot of tempting alternatives in the past few moves, but what I did was strongest. Though material is equal for the moment, white is in big trouble. My threat is 20… Ne7 trapping the white queen (as if her majesty hadn’t gone through enough trauma). If white gets out of there with 20.Qc4, I’ll simply snag the b2-pawn with 20… Rxb2. Josiah tried 20.Ne1!?, but black is clearly much better if not winning here. I soon won the b2-pawn and went on to convert, even if the game did get a bit wild before the time control…
With 3.5/4, I was leading the tournament. Josiah had 3/4, Rayan had 2.5/4, and the rest of the field had 2/4 or less. This was fantastic! It got even better when I won my next game against Max Li (2267 USCF, 1788 FIDE). It was a tough fight where I didn’t have much but managed to win. Adding to the masterpiece, both Josiah and Rayan lost. That meant I was leading by 1.5 points going into the last day. Oh man. This was perfect…
Unfortunately, my round 6 game against Aravind Kumar (2309 USCF, 2153 FIDE) didn’t go according to plan. I got a dry but harmless position with black, until I slopped it up.
This is a Carlsbad structure with all bishops off the board. Both sides’ plans are fairly textbook: white wants to create a minority attack with b4-b5, while black wants to play on the kingside. I should’ve just gone 17… f5!. 18.b4 worried me, but after 18… Nb6! eyeing the c4-square, black may even be better. Instead of doing that, I naively went 17… a5?! which was met with 18.Ndxe4! dxe4 19.Rd1
White has a simple plan here: blast things open with d5. He will have the d-file and more active pieces. One thing that black has in his favor is that he will be able to go Ne5-d3 after d5, but I jeopardized that possibility by going 19… Nb6?. Instead, 19… f5! 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 Ne5 is still acceptable for black. After 20.Rfd2 Rfd8 21.d5 f5 22.dxc6 bxc6 23.Ne2 I was in big trouble.
White has the d-file, better pawn structure, and a safer king. There aren’t many volunteers who would want to be black here. Adding to my misery, I walked into 23… Nd5 24.Nd4 Qf6 25.Nxc6! Qxc6 26.Qe5 which cost me a pawn and the game.
That hurt. Josiah won his game, meaning that he was now half a point behind me going into the last round. In case of a tie, there would be a playoff, and I wanted to avoid one if possible. I played for a win in my round 7 game, where I was white against Akira Nakada (2308 USCF, 2154 FIDE).
I had been up to original shenanigans in the opening, and I reached this position. I wasn’t impressed with what I had here, especially because of the move 17… Nd5!, after which I didn’t see a better alternative than 18.Bxd5. Black is for sure completely fine after that one. Instead, Akira played what I was hoping he’d play: 17… Nc6?!. After double-checking the consequences for a few minutes, I played 18.Nxf7!?. If 18… Qxf7 19.Bxe6, white will a dangerous attack and large amounts of compensation. While my silicon friend evaluates the position after 19… Qf6 20.Rh3! as 0.00, I don’t think many people would envy being black here. Compared to this, the position after 17… Nd5 seems much nicer for black.
Akira had other ideas, and he quickly played 18… 0-0?. The white knight is trapped, and black is in great shape after the obvious 19.Bxe6 Rxf7 20.Bxf7+ Qxf7. There, however, was a hole in black’s idea: 19.Ng5!. After 19… hxg5 20.Bxe6+ Rf7 21.hxg5 white will have a rook and three pawns for two minor pieces, and black’s king is in serious danger of getting mated on the h-file. I went on to convert this position successfully, though I did have smoother ways to win…
All’s well that ends well! Josiah drew, meaning that I won the tournament by a full point with 5.5/7. While I didn’t gain much on rating, 5.5/7 is not a score to complain about! Considering the scare I had on the last day, I’m glad it ended this way.
A big thank you to Bay Area Chess for organizing and running a smooth event! Everything was as good as it gets.