Greg on Chess: The State of Young American Chess Talent
By IM Greg Shahade   
December 10, 2012
Kayden Troff with GM Garry Kasparov at the World Youth. Kasparov taught Kayden via the "Young Stars" program.
The U.S. took home four medals in the recent World Youth (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) and it feels like a good time to discuss the state of young players in the United States. Youth chess in the United States has improved leaps and bounds in the last five years.

Below is information from the top rating lists from the current rating list (October 2012), and from December 2007. I looked at the rating lists of the top 16 year olds, 13 year olds, 10 year olds and 8 and under players, and noticed that today everyone’s ratings are much higher. Below is a simple chart to clarify this--I focused on the 10th highest rated player in each Group, notice that in each list that figure is 100 points higher for today’s player. This demonstrates a clear and marked improvement in the playing ability of our young players.
#10 Player in Age Group
Dec-07 Oct-12
16 Years Old 2140 2224
13 Years Old  2031 2125
10 Years Old  1880 1975
8 Years Old 1447 1688

I also looked at the 100th rated player in each age group  from 2007 and 2012: 

#100 Player in Age Group  Dec-07 Oct-12
16 Years Old 1717 1862
13 Years Old  1640 1753
10 Years Old  1352 1490
8 Years Old 1028 1197

This shows a tremendous improvement not only in the top players in the country, but also demonstrates that as a nation, we are likely doing a great job of guiding our young players and making them stronger than ever. In addition to increases in coaching and programs that supports our top players (which I’ll discuss in this article), part of this strength increase likely stems from better technology.  Young players from all over the country can gain experience and knowledge at a faster rate, allowing them to reach higher ratings quicker.

Now that we’ve determined our young players are clearly superior today as they were five years ago, let’s look at the specific players who fared so well in the World Youth Championship. Being a poker player, I have trouble with tournaments like these, or at least the supreme importance that’s placed upon them by kids and their parents. They are so important and so prestigious; however there is also a good share of luck to win them. For instance, Hikaru Nakamura never won a gold medal at the World Youth despite numerous attempts, and clearly he is one of the best players in the world. Those who won should be very proud, but those who don’t win or who have a bad result, shouldn’t beat themselves up over it. It’s one tournament against lots of other extremely talented players from all over the world.

Christopher Shen in Slovenia, Photo Cathy Rogers
So now on to the stars who took home some medals. Forgive me that I am not going to give much focus on Christopher Shen who won a Bronze in the U8. He is too young to have attended the U.S. Chess School, and so there isn’t really much I can add other than “good job!” I’m sure he is someone to keep an eye on however.

The two gold medalists were Sam Sevian and Kayden Troff. They both have very different stories. In the U12, the United States had three of the six top seeds, with Sevian as a huge rating favorite (2347) and the closest in rating behind being his countryman, Jeffery Xiong (2252). Sevian won the tournament in convincing fashion.

Samuel Sevian in the 2011 Los Angeles US Chess School, where he faced Greg in a celebrated YouTube video
I got to see Sevian at one of my US Chess Schools when he was just 10 years old, and I expect huge things from him in chess. He reminds me somewhat of Hikaru Nakamura with a ferocious fighting spirit and an incredible will to win. I expect him to be in the U.S. Championship in a few years, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him become one of the top players in the world someday.

Also performing heroically in the U12 championship was Cameron Wheeler, winning the silver medal. In fact you could say that his performance was more impressive that Sevian, if only because Sevian was the rating favorite to win, while Cameron was seeded just 6th.

GarryCam.jpgFrom observing Cameron at a few U.S. Chess Schools, I know he is a clearly a very determined and talented player and very mature for his age. He mentioned to me that his goal was to do better in the World Youth this year, and to finish in the top 5, so I’m sure he’s quite happy about his performance. Cameron may be overshadowed by the higher rated Sevian and Xiong. However this could drive him to become even stronger, as it may annoy him to constantly see these two 150 points higher rated than him on the USCF lists, especially after he just won the silver medal in the same age bracket. I expect Cameron will get to the 2400 level sooner than most people expect.

And now for Kayden Troff, who won the gold in the U14 section despite opening the tournament as just the 7th seed. Kayden has a history of success in the World Youth, as he also won the silver medal in the U12 in 2010. Kayden’s rating doesn’t jump off the page but he has played well in high pressure games. Winning a silver and a gold in 3 years of play, despite not entering the tournament as one of the top seeds, definitely shows you something. His final round game was a complete massacre, very impressive to watch.


World Under 14 Champ Kayden Troff at the 2009 US Chess School at the Marshall, Photo Ted Wu
Kayden lives in Utah, making his success even more inspiring to parents and kids who think their child is handicapped by living far from major tournaments. Kids like Kayden show you can overcome living in an environment that isn’t chess heavy if you work hard enough. Kayden is a very nice and humble kid and so everyone was extremely happy to see him win yet another medal for himself and the United States.

Much credit goes to the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the recent partnership with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for the “Young Stars” program. Read here for more information on the exceptional training that Sam and Kayden have received.  Programs like this are appropriately celebrated by chess fans, but can cause resentment from young talents who aren’t included. The problem is that those players who are extremely talented, yet not getting these amazing resources, can sometimes feel like it’s an unfair disadvantage. However from a practical standpoint, our best chance of success on the World Stage if we have limited resources may be to throw everything at a few select players. Give them nonstop and consistent training. This approach has paid off in gold for Sam and Kayden.

If we had the resources to give all of our top young players serious and consistent training, I suspect you’d see a number of 2700 FIDE players at the top of the U.S. FIDE rating list in 5-10 years. However for now the resources are limited and it’s hard to argue with the choices that the KCF has made so far as Sevian is 11 years old and about 2350 FIDE, which puts him right on track to become a World Championship contender in 7-10 years.

If you want your child to be included in the Kasparov Chess Foundation’s plans and they are very close in strength to the players who are currently being trained, I would recommend that your child work harder than ever before.

I’m very happy to be able to run the US Chess School, a complementary program, as the USCS is able to be much more inclusive. We usually get to invite 10-12 kids to each of our programs and so we get to see not only the absolute best young players in the country, but also the kids ranked from 2nd-10th in their age group. Dr. Jim Roberts has been sponsoring this program since 2007. Our goals for the future would be to run more camps (5-6 per year instead of 3), and to emulate what the KCF is doing in terms of allowing a few select kids to get regular training outside of the camps.

Other programs which deserve a hearty “thank you” include the Samford Fellowship, which gives a hefty 2-year scholarship each year, and the Schein-Freidman foundation (see details on their 5th project), for helping select kids with scholarships each year, and for supporting a few of the U.S. Chess School programs.

Finally, I’d like to give one more heartfelt congratulations to all of our coaches and medal winners. Kayden, Sam, Cameron and Christopher, I believe that you have spearheaded the most impressive contingent to ever compete at the World Youth Championship. I expect that in the years to come, our results will continue to get better and better, we will be winning medals at an exceptional rate.

Find out more about the Kasparov Chess Foundation on their website, and the Young Stars program on the STL Chess Club website. Also see more info on how to apply for Samford and Schein-Friedman scholarships and the latest CLO piece on the US Chess School.