Look Ma, I Did It: My 2019 US Chess Champs

Entering the 2019 US Women’s Chess Championship, I had zero expectations. After the 2018 Olympiad in October, I spent a few months away from the chess board to catch up on school work and prepare for various tests like the SATs. My hiatus from chess ended in a tournament in January of 2019 with a mediocre result, which I was fine with considering my lack of practice.

Before I knew it, it was March and I was at the High School Nationals. I had struggled with managing my time and work ethic in the two months since January, but I felt like I put more work in prior to the US Championships compared to previous years. Around two weeks before the High School Nationals, I created a guideline for myself where I would attempt to finish my homework early and leave at least two hours a day to practice chess. Call it my own Murphy’s law, but procrastination, getting distracted, and tests ate away at my precious chess time. Subtracting the days I skipped my routine for last-minute test cramming and good-old fashioned laziness, my chess time dwindled to about an hour a day. Although more limited than I had hoped, I felt like my practice time was much more productive than it had been previously because I started using a physical chess board to play out moves and calculate positions. Although it seems blatantly obvious to use a chess board to study, for most of my life I had either visualized positions or used a digital board on Chessbase. To be honest, I never used an actual board because it doesn’t fit on my desk and I was too lazy to sit on the floor and set up the positions. Although many people have recommended using an actual board, I always found it redundant but I decided to try it once and immediately found out I was much more focused. So if you don’t use a physical chess board when practicing chess, I highly recommend it!

Returning back to the High School Nationals, just like the US Championships, I had no expectations for myself. The main reason that propelled me to play my first nationals in years was to warm up for the US Championships, because what better way to get the brain juices flowing than a 7 round tournament in 3 days that ends the week of the US Champs? As 11th seed I had realistic chances for playing for first, but I never considered it because I knew I wasn’t in my best form and scholastics are absolutely brutal. On top of all of that, the five second delay and nonexistent second time control weren’t to my forte.

The result was more or less what I had internally expected: 4 draws against lower rateds put me at 5/7. I wasn’t elated at my result but I wasn’t disappointed either, because the tournament was exactly what I needed to slap me awake before the US Championships. The short time control without increment was sobering because I found myself playing on the delay in several games. It had been a while since I had played anything other than 30 second increment or 10 second delay, so a 5 second delay did not pair well with my heavy time usage. On several games I relied on the delay to simply not flag, which I knew would make the 30 second increment at the US Championships seem like a luxury. Moreover, I found myself in slightly worse positions out of the opening in quite an alarming amount of games, simply because I couldn’t remember any openings. I had made it a priority to do opening preparations for the US Championships in my chess routine, but losing some time here and there resulted in that just not happening. I was extremely upset at myself for skipping what I had considered the most important part of my US Championships prep, and I thought the quality of my games at High School Nationals reflected that. I only felt reassured that there would be plenty of time to prepare during the one round a day US Championships, quite in contrast with the three-round day at nationals.

Holding my 24th (!) place trophy with WGM Jennifer Shahade. Although the High School Nationals wasn’t my finest result, it was an invaluable experience before the US Champs.
Photo: US Chess

My strategy for the US Championships was, in essence, to have no strategy at all. In previous years, I had always frowned upon draws and gone all out for wins which sounds good, but really means losing perfectly fine positions by taking unnecessary risks. This basically sums up my 2018 US Junior Girls where I was so adamant against draws that I would rather go into an unsound and probably worse position if it meant I could have a chance of winning. Instead, that just led to several disastrous upsets and losing around 30 rating points. This acknowledgement of draws didn’t mean I would be happy with draws this entire tournament either, but my open mentality of accepting draws if the position calls for it led to a calmer approach to the game. It’s ironic because most of my games were unpredictable, fighting chess but I did feel like my “play what I get non-strategy” had a significant impact.

The first few rounds of the US Championship were fairly smooth sailing. I took an early lead with 4/4 but didn’t think too much of it. It was only a small lead as Anna Zatonskih trailed behind me by half a point for most of the tournament, and in round robins, early leads don’t signify much. I was fairly certain that I would get knocked down at some point and wasn’t hoping for too much. I just tried to focus on each coming game and ignore the tournament situation. In several games, I had extremely close calls where it could’ve gone the other way easily such as my games against Maggie Feng (round 6) and Sabina Foisor (round 7). These games made it easy for me to not get carried away by my lead since it was evident I had done something very wrong in both games but managed to survive only by a few practical choices, opponents’ mistakes, and sheer luck.

Pictured on the rest day with my good friends Annie Wang, Emily Nguyen, and Carissa Yip. (left to right)
Photo: St. Louis Chess Club

In the crucial 10th round, I was due to play IM Anna Zatonskih, my closest competitor point-wise who was playing brilliantly throughout the tournament. I had a half a point lead with 8/9 points versus her 7.5/9 so if I won, I would clinch the title on the spot with a round to spare. I never considered winning because in previous encounters I have always been initially worse and I was playing with black. Moreover, I didn’t know what opening to expect since she has a wide repertoire, so I decided to just give up on prepping something new altogether and stick with what I knew. My main goal going into the game was to treat it just like any other game and forget about the tournament situation. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel any pressure because needless to say, it was the most important game in my life. I wasn’t too worried because previously I have performed well under pressure. Also reassuring was knowing that she had more pressure on her side of the table because she was in a must-win situation. If we drew, she would have to risk me winning in the last round and winning the title without a chance of a play-off.

In our game, she repeated the same slav line against me as my earlier game against Annie Wang in round 5. For a brief minute, I considered diverging from my earlier lines in order to avoid whatever preparation she had in store but quickly rejected that idea since I had faith in my original prep against Annie and it was an unnecessary risk. She diverged from Annie’s line and began to quickly eat up time after a few moves. I was confused because I had no idea where her prep ended and at that point I was confident that she was on her own.

We reached this position:

The immediate move that jumped out at me was 17…Nc5! I had seen the game Shankland,S -Alonso,S Praia da Pipa 2014 where a similar Nc5 idea was made in a slightly different situation. Although it looks like it hangs material, all the lines work out into Black’s favor. I had to make sure I wasn’t making a huge mistake and spent around 20 minutes calculating complications. This was definitely my favorite move in this game because it changed the nature of the position, declaring that I wasn’t going to passively defend by immediately challenging the center. It also enters a position where it’s possible for White to make mistakes, essentially making Black completely equalized. This actually happened in the game after 18. Rxd8 Qxd8 19.Nxc5 Bxc5 20. Nxe5?! Bxf2+!

The bishop is immune because if 21. Kxf2 results in 21… fxe5 where the pin on the f-file will allow me to recapture the piece with a huge positional advantage. She had to decline the inbetween move bishop sacrifice and I was extremely happy with my position. I knew it was more than equalized at this point and I was probably better, but I somehow forgot about the possibility that I could win. That is the danger of restricting your expectations because it took awhile for me to realize that my assumption of a draw being the best result no longer held true. When I woke up from the belief that I would be worse this game, I attempted to restrict her play as much as possible and take advantage of her dwindling time. After a few passive moves by her that I didn’t anticipate, we entered the following position where she made the fatal blunder 30. Qe1??

I had seen this variation a few moves earlier and felt my heart pounding because I knew I had the game in the bag. I still took a few minutes to confirm my calculations because now was not the time to get hasty. But after 30…Bf2! 31. Qd2 Bxg3+!! the game was essentially over.

She had to take the bishop because if 32. Kg1 Qxh4 and mate on h2 will soon follow. After 32. Kxg3 Qc7+ 33. Kg4 (33.Kh3 Be6#) Be6+ she resigned because 34. Kh5 Qf7+ would lead to mate and 34. Kg5 Qg3+ would lead to mate.

I was in absolute disbelief after the game and it took me a long time to realize that I had actually become the US Women’s Chess Champion. This had always been the goal every time I had played this tournament but it was always a pipe dream that I never considered would happen. But, I’m sure glad it did! However, I still had one game remaining in the tournament and I wanted to take it seriously. It might sound a little bit funny, but I felt like I had more pressure going into the last round after I had already won the tournament than before the pivotal 10th round. I felt like I had something to prove, and after a rocky middlegame, I won an interesting endgame and ended with 10/11.

I am really proud of my result in this tournament, but it also has to be noted that I was incredibly lucky in several games. I made some inexcusable mistakes that should’ve been punished, but it managed to work out for the best. Looking forward, I’m going to work on improving my weaknesses even more as I strive for future aspirations. Winning the US Championships proved to myself that I can do it and it opens a door for all the possibilities that I never considered. I’m currently working on securing my IM title, because I only have the 2400 rating requirement left, and you can bet I’ll get started on the GM title hunt right after.

Words can’t describe my gratitude towards everyone who supported me along my chess journey because I could not have become US Champion by myself. To my family, coaches, friends, competitors, and supporters — thank you. However, this is not where my journey ends, and I hope to make y’all proud in the future.

Congratulations to GM Hikaru Nakamura for winning the 2019 US Chess Championships!

2019 US Chess Champions
Photo: St. Louis Chess Club