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Sunday in Atlanta: An Elementary Nationals Wrap-up Print E-mail
By FM Mike Klein   
May 10, 2010
The Burt Lerner Elementary Nationals concluded this weekend in Atlanta, but not before more than 100 scores of youngsters put their mark on nationals history. Though the last of the three nationals to have formed in 1976, the Elementary Nationals has become the flagship scholastic event for the USCF. A field of strong and determined players pulled above the rest and can now call themselves national champions. For some, their catalogue of accomplishments inched larger; for others, this is the pinnacle of their fledging chess careers.

The K-6 section went the way of the K-12 Championship section of High School Nationals - six out of seven was good enough to win, though in Atlanta only four players tied instead of 10 in Columbus. Expert Justus Williams (NY), and A-players Mika Brattain (MA), Benjamin Moon (GA) and Daniel Liu (CA), all sixth-graders, shared the title in the final year qualifying for the section.

After the following round six win, Williams had 5.5/6 going in to the final round.



But Williams had to survive his largest scare of the tournament in the final round. On stage and on board one, Williams held an exchange-down ending to clinch the shared title.

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Surrounded by trophies, Justus Williams faces off against Christopher Wu. Photo Shaun Smith


"I thought I was lost after move 12," Williams said after the final round, "If I didn't [sacrifice the exchange], he would just crush me...I usually get out of these positions." 



Moon, the only other player at 5.5 after round six, was unable to convert his space advantage on board two against James A. Black. Williams said he had been following the action on board two to make sure a draw was still good enough for the title.
 
Williams is a product of powerhouse IS 318 in Brooklyn, NY and of the Chess-in-the-Schools program. Though an admitted park player, he carries the opposite demeanor of a hustler. Mostly reserved but quietly confident, he exudes the expression of a player who expects early achievements to be a footnote at the end of his career. Pressed for a sign that he knows his place in the scholastic chess hierarchy, he allowed, "Later on I like to brag with my friends, but not that much." Still, it felt more like a mature kid throwing a bone to a reporter than actual truth. Since his tiebreakers bested the others, Williams also wins an America's Foundation for Chess scholarship to the next U.S. Chess School. He said he plans to accelerate his chess schedule over the summer, with planned stops at the New York International, Pan American Games and the World Open.

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Daniel Liu, Photo Shaun Smith
Daniel Liu is a lesser-known player in these circles, having only played for the last 2.5 years. He hails from Palo Alto, CA and studies under GM Larry Christiansen, but began with Michael Aigner. "I'm his first coach!" his father chimed in, probably echoing the sentiments of many fathers at the tournament. Liu said his final round was also his toughest, but he needed to win to catch the leaders. "He was winning and he blundered," Liu said of his opponent. Since he hails from the west coast, Liu plans to play in Las Vegas and at the U.S. Open in Irvine, CA later this summer. His celebration plans for Sunday night were apropos for a chess player - he planned to see "How to Train Your Dragon." Neither of us knew what the film was about, but it sounded suspiciously like a chess DVD for sale in the bookshop. Further research indicated that it is a product of DreamWorks, not Foxy Openings or Roman's Lab.

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Mika Brattain, Photo Shaun Smith 
Fellow co-champions Mika Brattain and Benjamin Moon are friends that share a unique quality that sets them apart from the other champions in Atlanta - neither claim to have a coach. Neither seems to need it either, as Brattain also won last year's K-5 title at the SuperNationals.

The Moon surname has been the bright star of Georgia chess for the past few years, with brother Ryan Joseph Moon already becoming a Master. Benjamin Moon said he could not count how many nationals he had won. Playing in the last round for the outright title, Moon could only muster a draw as White against Black (James A., that is). Still, since he had lost 0-2 to Black in the Blitz Championship, which Black went on to win, a draw and another title did not yield the worst result ever for Moon. More litotes for Moon - he is now not unclose to becoming an Expert, with only 12 more points needed.

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Benjamin Moon, Photo Shaun Smith


Brattain said his fourth round was his toughest, against Floridian Rachel Gologorsky. "I was trying to squeeze my opponent off the board, " he said, "Then I blundered, then I had to hang on to the draw."

The K-5 section avoided the photo finish as 5th-grader Allan Beilin of Fremont, CA was left all alone at 6.5 to win the section outright. Beilin and Liu are friends, and the two benefit from their two Northern California homes. Palo Alto is only 30 minutes away across the Dumbarton Bridge. Beilin's father and grandfather both player, but the latter, rated about 2000, doubles as his coach. He also takes lessons from GM Yury Shulman.
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Allan Beilin, Photo Shaun Smith


Like most others, Beilin claimed that the seventh round was his toughest. His situation was different from the K-6 players in that he was the only player with a perfect 6/6 going into the last. "My dad told me not to play for a draw," Beilin said. "Because if you play for a draw you always lose," and Shulman would surely agree.

"I could tell he was the highest-rated," Beilin said of 1900-rated last round opponent Kesav Viswanadha, whose talent suggests a lineage with a certain player currently playing in Bulgaria. In the game, Beilin played the Black side of an French Defense  Advance but was down a pawn. Viswanadha was in bad time pressure and eventually Beilin sacrificed a knight for the pawn and reached a dead-drawn ending.



The two are not strangers - they are both part of the same scholastic chess scene. Prior to this game, Beilin estimated his lifetime record against Viswanadha as +3=6-3. It seems now he owes Viswanadha one.

Beilin was the most animated of all the winners and had the exhausted but excited look of someone who just finished a period of three days of intense concentration. Asked what he will feel next year when his name is printed in the tournament booklet, he said, "I'll feel really (long pause) good."

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Roland Feng, Photo Shaun Smith

The K-3 winner was Roland Feng, one of only two players in Championship sections to score 7/7 (K-1 winner Praveer Sharan  also matched the feat).  Feng actually boasts a higher rating than the K-5 winner. The quirky and diminutive Feng only came up to USCF Executive Director Bill Hall's coat buttons as he accepted his trophy. Feng is from Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle. He also won the K-1 Championship in 2008. Feng said he likes to play 1. Nf3 and varies his pawn structure based on his opponents' replies. He also likes the Taimanov Sicilian and the middlegame attacks that follow. In the final round, Feng defeated World Youth silver medallist Tanuj Vasudeva.



Feng did not have a team at the tournament, and said he won't make a big deal out of his title to his non-chess friends back home. He acceded to youthful hyperbole in his answers. "I'm not going to go over the details," he said in mock exasperation. "Then I'll get a million questions. They're going to shower me with ‘Oh my gosh!'"

Sharan, from Oregon, raised his rating from 860 to 1145 in winning the K-1 Championship. Though the section had players with gaudy ratings as high as 1500, most rounds, including the last, had all games finish with 30 minutes or so. Many chess-playing adults might quiver at the thought that a 1500 can't win a section for five-to seven-year olds.

In the team competitions, IS 318, paced by Williams and Black, won their second national championship of the year in the K-6 section (even though the middle school was necessarily only sending its sixth-graders). They had previously won the K-8 Championship earlier this year in Minneapolis, MN. The team is coached and mentored by faculty chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary, whose nonpareil work ethic had her analyzing games right up until the awards ceremony.
  
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IS 318, K-6 Champs, Photo Shaun Smith

IS 318 also benefits from instruction by GM Miron Sher. If you want to up the odds of your child or team winning the nationals, you should tap into Sher's goodie bag of old Soviet chess secrets. Consider that in this year alone, Sher had coached individual winners of the championship sections of the K-12, K-9 and K-6 and had second-place students in the K-3 and K-1.

Half Day School from Illinois took home the K-5 Championship over continuing powerhouse Stevenson Elementary from Washington State. New York City's Hunter College Campus School added to its lengthy scroll of titles by edging Weibel Elementary on tiebreakers.
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Hunter College Campus School, Photo Shaun Smith

Team Weibel, like Beilin, is from Fremont. The Upper East Side's Dalton, which always contrasts Hunter's purple shirts with its royal blue, easily won the K-1 Championship.

For complete standings, see the offical results & pairings page.
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PS 98 from Chess-in-the-Schools, K-6-Unrated Champs, Photo Shaun Smith

The round one pairing fiasco, detailed in the previous report, mercifully ended. Coaches expressed the need for more clarity in the appellate process going forward. Several scholastic forums and feedback sessions were hosted by the USCF, and at one meeting parents and coaches also expressed frustration with the trend by some players to play non-USCF rated events and arrive at the nationals with ratings that do not accurately reflect their skill level. USCF Executive Director Bill Hall admitted to being aware of the issue. "This has been a problem going back a few years," he said. "We've got a board meeting in a few weeks and I'm sure it will be discussed there. It is tricky. Recognizing another system that we have no control over is problematic."

After being made aware that some players in the unrated sections at this event have actually played more than 100 competitive games under the auspices of another rating system, Hall said, "With the unrated section, there's not a lot we can do."

Ever since they have taken over the organizational elements of national scholastic events, the USCF has pulled in the reigns on their punctuality. Gone are the days of late starting times and midnight awards sessions. Though there were space issues as previously reported, the on-site directing team, led by NTD Francisco Guadalupe, began every round on time and at two minutes past the start time effectively quieted a recalcitrant crowd to begin the ceremony.

Stepping to the microphone to commence the trophy presentations, Guadalupe intoned with a straight face, "Okay parents and players, remember, the next round starts at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning." Parents chuckled, squirmy kids remained squirmy but seated, and smiling youngsters waited for their turn to cross the stage.
 
See complete standings & pairings here and look for more writing by FM Mike Klein, see his Best of CLO bio, which links to more articles by him. Klein will also be writing from the site of the 2010 US Chess Championship.
 
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