|Confident Xiong Grabs Lead at U.S. Junior Closed
|By Brian Jerauld
|June 24, 2014
SAINT LOUIS (June 24, 2014) -- Experience is starting to pay dividends -- on the board and in the standings.
13-year-old IM Jeffrey Xiong, in his third Junior Closed Championship appearance, played with relaxed confidence on Monday despite leading a heavy mating assault through unclear waters. Xiong as white set the theme early with a 14. Nxe6 sacrifice, immediately exposing and launching siege on FM Arthur Shen’s uncastled king -- initiating a tension-filled game that demanded some act-like-you’ve-been-there posturing.
“Experience has been big,” Xiong said. “The first few times I played (in the Junior Closed), I haven’t been as comfortable and as confident as I feel now. Probably one or two years ago, I wouldn’t have been as confident in sacrificing a piece like I did in today’s game.”
Xiong was unrelenting in his pressure, however, finally breaking through with 32. Qh5+ as the first of seven consecutive checks on Shen’s king to collapse the black resistance.
The win sets Xiong (3.5/4) as the tournament’s first clear leader, with the Dallas star remaining undefeated and plus-3 after four rounds. Also winning on Monday was IM Luke Harmon-Vellotti (3/4), last year’s Junior Closed runner-up, who has now put together three consecutive victories -- the latest after cracking open a slight rook-and-pawn endgame advantage over IM Sam Sevian. Harmon-Vellotti’s win moves him into a second-place tie with GM Kayden Troff (3/4), who lost his share of the lead after Monday’s draw with IM Aleksandr Ostrovskiy.
Xiong’s accelerated pace also breaks the three frontrunners away from rest of the pack, as a four-way tie for fourth sits a full point behind (2/4) the leader group.
It is no longer a secret that Sevian (1/4) is having a rough tournament, now minus-three across four rounds after seeing breakdowns in all phases of his game -- this latest to Harmon-Vellotti in the form of an endgame collapse.
Normally a traditionalist to the main lines, Sevian as black managed an early surprise with 3. Nf6 and the Ruy Lopez-Berlin, immediately throwing Harmon-Vellotti out of preparation. Sevian was quick through his new line, earning the bishop pair at the expense of slow development.
The game stayed balanced throughout and brought little excitement to the middlegame, which several times offered lines into drawing endgames. As the game neared its finale, however, Sevian may have held the superior minor piece, but Harmon-Vellotti was able to fully isolate black’s remaining pawns with 23. exf6 -- and white’s f-, g- and h-pawn unit still dangerously in tact.
“I felt like the endgame was about equal, but as I looked at it more and more, I liked my position more and more,” Harmon-Vellotti said. “I think I just had more chances to play for a win; it was hard for (Sevian) to play, though I wasn’t sure exactly where he went wrong. Once he drops that f5 pawn, though, then I’m just winning after that. Two connected, passed f- and g-pawns are too strong.”
Indeed, Sevian’s 39. Kd5 in time trouble was a move to the wrong side of the board, setting up Harmon-Vellotti’s 40. Re5+. The move forked white’s king and f-pawn just at time control, leaving Sevian with ample time to look over his lost position. The game was played 62 moves, all the way to checkmate.
FMs Michael Bodek and Justus Williams played each other to a wonderful fighting draw, with both sides playing for wins -- and both players coming up just short of tempo to finish their attacks. Bodek’s shocking 2...g5?! from his game against Sevian a day earlier -- as “one of those moves you always want to play, but always talk yourself out of” -- showed that the 16-year-old was there for a fight over the board and not out of the book, and Williams was happy to oblige.
Bodek as white began in the Chekhover variation of the Sicilian, moving his queen early with 4. Qxd4, but then forfeiting the bishop pair with 6. Bxc6. White looked to load up on black’s backwards e6-pawn, but missed Williams’ 14...Nxe4 that forced some tactical liquidation.
“At first I was upset with myself for missing that tactic, as I thought I got nothing out of it, but then I realized I still had a slight pull on the position,” Bodek said. “I just felt like I had a big positional edge before Nxe4, and I felt like that all evaporated. But he had so many weak pawns on the kingside, I felt that if I could activate my pieces, I might be able to maintain a strong edge.”
Bodek was able to activate and begin an assault on the black kingside, but Williams stood stout, finding some liquidation and even winning a pawn with 29. Rxh4 -- though it left the black rook temporarily sitting out of the action. Bodek earned it back quickly, however, with a nifty 32. Rxe5 (32...fxe5? 33. Qxf5+ Qg6 34. Qxh4) and began to cramp the black king. Caught in time trouble, however, Bodek missed 37. g3, instead choosing to repeat moves with his queen to make time control. The decision allowed Williams back to 36...Rf4, laying attack on the f2-pawn and leaving Bodek just one tempo short of mate. The game drew after 50 moves.
“I was never in any risk of losing -- I could always perpetually check him,” Bodek said. “My king was safe, it just wasn’t safe enough for me to move my rook up and find that checkmate.”
Each round of the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed will see its first move daily at 1:00 p.m. CT through June 29, with a rest day on Wednesday. The tournament will be streamed live on www.uschesschamps.com, with commentary, analysis and player interviews by GM Ben Finegold and FM Aviv Friedman.