Local teenage chess prodigies Jeffery Xiong and Ruifeng Li straightened their pieces and set their minds to the task of winning during the opening round of the U.S. Junior Closed Chess Championship, which concluded in St. Louis on Monday.
By the end of the 10-day tournament, hosted by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, Grandmaster Xiong took first place, granting him an invitation to the 2017 U.S. Chess Championship and $6,000. Li finished third, winning $3,000.
Xiong and Li competed against each other in the first round, which commentators Aviv Friedman and Ben Finegold referred to as a “key matchup” in a tournament that offered “no free lunches." Li sat still as a rock during the battle, while Xiong took up his characteristic pose, placing the back of his hand against his nose.
“Ruifeng is a very strong player, and the game between us was a very exciting game,” says Xiong, who has played nearly 40 tournament games against Li. “I was very lucky to catch a moment to get into a totally winning position, then Ruifeng found a brilliant way to get out of the trouble, and escaped. It was certainly disappointing for me to miss a winning opportunity.”
The rubber match ended in a rare draw for the two local players, but from there Li ran into a string of bad luck, pulling draws in the following three rounds. Tournament commentators attributed his dip in play to tournament fatigue in his fourth round match against FIDE Master and karate black belt, Nicolas Checa.
Li managed to eke out a draw in that match, but won in the fifth round against International Master Michael Bodek. He was able to pick up two more wins in the later rounds to secure a third place position in the fifth tournament he’s competed in this month alone.
Xiong, the early favorite to win the tournament, also ran into a stumbling block after losing the lead to 19-year-old International Master Aleksandr Ostrovskiy on the fourth day of competition. Finegold called it the match of the tournament. Xiong ultimately resigned the game, but the loss did little to stymie the eventual champion’s confidence.
“When you lose and have a positive attitude about it, then it becomes not a loss, but an opportunity to learn and grow,” Xiong’s father Wayne said. And that opportunity was seized, as Xiong went on to win the following three rounds, including the match against the reigning U.S. Junior Closed Champion, International Master Akshat Chandra, who had beaten Xiong by half a game the year before.
“I was lucky to win,” says Xiong. “It did boost my confidence since I know I got my share of luck in these crazy games.”
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The eighth and penultimate round ended with draws across the board, all but securing Xiong’s victory as the second place leader. International Master Awonder Liang would have to win his match and Xiong would have to lose in order to force a tie.
“There’s two chances [for Xiong to lose],” Finegold said going into the final round. “Slim and nothing, and unfortunately slim left town.”
After “pulling a Fischer” by arriving a few minutes late to the tournament area to make last-minute preparations, hyper-focused Xiong seemed to relax. He gracefully moved his troops across the board to secure his title and his invitation for his second run at the U.S. Chess Championship, where 12 of the US’s best chess players will compete, including three of the world’s top 10 chess players.
“I look forward to a great opportunity to learn from these great players,” Xiong says. “Five of them are going to be competing in September, representing USA in the chess Olympiad. I wish them the best luck and hope they can bring the first gold medal in Chess Olympiad to the USA.”