Teamwork Made the Dream Work at 2022 USATN Tournament

(Photos by Matt Zatkoff)

Over Presidents Day Weekend, 332 chess players formed 79 teams in Schaumburg, just north of Chicago, Illinois for the 2022 US Amateur Team North (USATN), the first in-person iteration since the record-breaking, pre-pandemic showing in 2020.

Chicago-area blitz legend Tom Murphy using his 84-minute time advantage at the 2022 USATN.

Considering the state of the world, this well-above-average attendance was inspiring and an encouraging reminder of the power of the chess boom we are experiencing. As always, the story of the weekend was one of vibrant tomfoolery, replete with jokey names, silly costumes, and the joy of watching several generations of chess players, from unflappable seasoned vets to fidgety first-timers, all sharing in a special annual tradition .

The action on the boards was far from amateur hour and maybe a little less warm and fuzzy.

The main point of contention at the USATN was between local teams from the storied University of Chicago: UChicago A and UChicago B. Lettering aside, their primary distinction was their approach to their rosters.

Per USATN rules, a 4-player team’s average rating must be below 2200. UChicago A fielded a strong and balanced team, with an impressive average rating of 2195.

UChicago A

FM Chandran, Kapil

2445

Eichinger, Christophe

2252

Sunjic, Dylan

2151

Heggli-Nonay, Oliver

1934

UChicago B employed a different strategy, fielding not one, but two grandmasters for their top boards, and an FM on board three. Now you may be saying, “Well, JJ, who could possibly be on board four to keep their average under 2200?” That would be Brian Hu, provisionally rated 812 at the start of USATN, his second-ever US Chess rated tournament.

UChicago B

GM Liang, Awonder

2701

GM Balakrishan, Praveen

2604

FM Graif, William

2338

Hu, Brian

812 (P)

With UChicago B’s rating averaging a mere 2113, these killer “B”s floated like a butterfly behind a half-dozen other groups in the pre-tournament standings. It was an open question whether the imbalanced makeup of these Bs could sting against teams with four players rated above 2000.

UChicago B’s top boards, GMs Praveen Balarishkan (left) and Awonder Liang assess the situation at the 2022 USATN.

Their strategy seemed precarious. All it would take would be one freak loss from a titled player to blow the race wide open. And it did. In the second round, team “TrixR4Kids” came through on board three with Ekansh Mehrorta (1909) pulling a 429-point upset over Graif.

By round four, non-collegiate super team “dreamy knights,” captained by Iowan masters Joseph Wan and James Neal, slowed down UChicago A thanks to boards three and four victories by Shreya Mangalam and Aria Hoelsey.

Going into the fifth and final round, local high schoolers “GM Wannabes” were the only team to hold a perfect score and looked like favorites to win.

GM Wannabes

Ladan, Nicholas

2256

Gupta, Aditya

2208

Platnick, Elijah

2123

Barretto, Ryan

2054

On board one for the Wannabes, Nicholas Ladan was in fine form, holding off an all-in attack from fellow local Michael Auger.


(Annotation by JJ Lang)

It was up to UChicago A to slow the Wannabes down for either university team to have a chance. They needed a win to secure a shared first place and appeared on track to deliver, with FM Kapil Chandran and Christoph Eichenger winning on the top two boards.

Chandran conducted a remarkable attack in an unusual Ruy Lopez Exchange where Ladan, as black, chose to keep queens on the board but could not get his counterplay to materialize in time.


(Annotation by JJ Lang)

Eichenger likewise began with an overwhelming position shortly out of the black side of a closed Sicilian, but after missing a few chances to clarify, gave Gupta chances to clinch the entire event with a draw, but eventually pushed through.


(Annotation by Christoph Eichinger)

The Wannabes did not wanna be rolled over and bounced back to salvage a draw on the bottom boards. When the dust settled, the Chicago collegians held the high schoolers to a half-point. But in doing so, cleared the way for their classmates on UChicago B to catch the Wannabes.

The final round saw UChicago B pitted against the dreamy knights.

dreamy knights

Wan, Joseph

2294

Neal, James

2201

Mangalam, Shreya

2167

Hoesley, Aria

2071

With the white pieces, Balakrishnan’s clutch victory over Neal was a one-sided affair.


(Annotation by JJ Lang)

This, along with Graif’s win over Mangalam on board three, looked like it would close the book on any dreams of Wannabe upsets, as long as Liang could hold a draw as black.

After Liang saw his advantage drift away following a few inaccuracies, a draw appeared to be the most likely result. That is, until he pulled out one of those last-minute saves that always seem to show up for GMs, but not the rest of us.


(Annotation by Awonder Liang)

Although Hoesley leveraged her 1200-point rating edge over Hu for a board four win, UChicago B was ultimately victorious, scoring 3-1. This performance tied the Wannabes at 4½/5, but UChicago B edged them out on tiebreak points, allowing them to come out on top.

Call a stretcher! UChicago B playfully carry out their board four, Brian Hu, who came into the tournament with a provisional rating of 812.

Whether an upset or a cause to be upset, UChicago B finished atop the standings thanks to 5-0 performances and board prizes from GM Awonder Liang and GM Praveen Balakrishnan on boards one and two.

FM William Graif, the 2019 Canadian Junior Champion, clinched a number of matches with a 4-1 performance on board three. On board four, 812-rated Brian Hu picked up 116 rating points with a 1-4 performance, underscoring the immense difficulty of his pairings.

“The Avengers” await their next opponents in the u1600 section of the 2022 USATN.

I was impressed by the significant number of traveling teams from other midwestern universities. The University of Illinois sent two teams from Champaign, and Washington University sent two more from St. Louis. There were also teams from Oberlin, Northern Illinois and, get this, five teams from Purdue.

My own team had the (mis)fortune of playing Purdue’s A squad in the second round, losing 2.5-1.5 in large part due to my opponent Andrew Bernal fighting through my unorthodox opening choice (and a 170-point rating gap) to thoroughly outplay me and earn the win.


(Annotation by JJ Lang)

The amateur spirit of the tournament was in full effect from psychedelic costumes down to team names ranging from timely to irreverent.

First, we had the fan-favorite names like “The Socially Isolated Pawns,” who also managed to win clear first with a 5-0 score in the u1600 section. Some of the high school teams chose to take the opportunity for inside jokes.

Barely a week off their Illinois state championship victory, Stevenson High School registered under the name “44-24,” a not-so-subtle nod to their victory over rivals Barrington, or, as they appeared on the cross-table, the “ 3x State Champions…almost,” referring not to their failure as a three-peat, but their success at almost getting to the top spot three years in a row.

Avi Schneider of the Fat Cat Chess Club giving ’em the ol’ razzle-dazzle at the 2022 USATN.

While the rest of us will wait for next year (and can only hope that Liang and Balakrishnan graduate a year or two early), UChicago B is off to the semi-finals against the other amateur directionals.

This may some ruffle feathers in the East, where there is a rule preventing teams from having a more than 1,000-point differential between boards three and four.

While this rule is logical for preserving the amateur spirit of the event, my own sense throughout the weekend was that many players were excited to get paired against grandmasters (“And I almost had him, too!” declared local blitz legend Tom Murphy, referring to his round one encounter against Liang), and the true camaraderie of the various college teams added to the feel of a weekend designed to bring out the team spirit in chess.

So, UChicago B’s victory a story of a group of come-from-behind plucky underdogs, or of a rule-skirting super-team? Quite frankly: who cares!

Perhaps a team of three titled players who did not know each other would compromise the feel of this event, but instead what we witnessed was two teams of local college players who seemed to genuinely enjoy spending the weekend together, sharing their love of the game.

While I can’t imagine calling UChicago B’s victory an “upset,” I also can’t imagine being critical of two grandmasters choosing to put in a full weekend of entertaining chess for a pair of $50 Amazon gift cards and a chance to hang out with their friends.

Sounds like a bunch of amateurs to me.


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