Tuesday, December 22

How Kiddie Became an All Star!

The 2009 US Chess League season drew to a close with the Championship match on December 7. The New York Knights, behind GM Giorgi Kacheishvili on board 1, knocked off the Miami Sharks in a thrilling blitz playoff that ended after 1:00 in the morning Eastern time. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Mechanics (team photo above) were eliminated from the playoffs in the semifinals by longtime nemesis Miami.

Over the past two weeks, the league announced its post-season All Star teams. Only twelve players earned this distinction out of 122 listed on the unofficial league rating list. In past seasons, the Mechanics were led by their well-known stars GM Josh Friedel, GM Vinay Bhat and IM Sam Shankland. However, this year Mechanics unveiled a secret weapon, and en route the playoff semifinals, unsuspecting opponents were left moaning "Yawn, Who?"

Having seen him in action, I think few would question that 12 year old NM Yian Liou deserved his spot as the 3rd Team All Star for Board 4. Yian definitely was San Francisco's MVP! While the regulars on boards 1-3 were busy traveling to Europe for tournaments, the always cheerful middle school student (photo by Shorman at top left) played 10 out of 12 rounds, scoring 65% against opposition that included one International Master, one Senior Master and eight masters in all. He defeated IM Mehmed Pasalic of Chicago in a back and forth middlegame and then outwitted 2008 All Star WFM Bayaraa Zorigt of Dallas in an endgame study! Despite losing in the pivotal semifinal round, "Kiddie" finished with a mind-boggling 2360 performance, significantly higher than his 2226 USCF rating. In addition to being named an All Star, Yian was also a serious contender for the USCL's Rookie of the Year.

Certainly, this far exceeded what team captain IM John Donaldson had in mind last July when he emailed me if I knew a suitable junior to add to this year's Mechanics roster. Ironically, I was in Agoura Hills, playing at the Pacific Coast Open. I wrote back to John:
This one is easy! Yian Liou was 2019 in September 2008 and is exactly 2200 after today's games in Agoura Hills. He is tied for 2nd after four rounds against 2300+ average opposition. He showed me some of his games a few minutes ago and I was impressed how he squeezed IM Edward Formanek as white and then drew a pawn down endgame against NM Garush Manukyan with black.
After recruiting a young player who could hold his own more than 300 points above his official league rating (2019 on September 2008 rating list), captain Donaldson submitted an unusual team roster. Given the league's rating limit of 2400, San Francisco was left with only two options for board 4; Yian plus alternate NM Greg Young who, per rules, could play no more than twice. This strategy could easily have backfired, but it allowed the Mechanics to rotate its six titled players to match their busy travel schedules.

So how did a precocious and unknown youngster from the Bay Area find so much success in the country's professional chess league? Yes, Yian is ranked #2 for his age in the nation and he won the CalChess High School Championship last year as a sixth grader, defeating the 2300+ rated defending champion in the final round. Perhaps unknown to the country, Yian already made waves here in California.

Most importantly, Yian took each week seriously like a class in school. He prepared for every opponent, both with Chessbase (see photo at right) and by reviewing opening material from his stronger teammates. Having always been creative in the middlegame and competent in the endgame, the time spent on openings made the biggest difference. I am sure that Yian will benefit from these hours of preparation in many future tournaments--but hopefully not against me!

Yian also benefited from analysis with the team's Grandmasters. Usually sporting a wide smile, "Kiddie" quickly became the club favorite. IM John Donaldson described it best in one of the Mechanics Institute's chess newsletters: "Seeing GM Patrick Wolff patiently explaining the intricacies of an ending to Yian in a post mortem was watching the knowledge of a great player of the past being transferred to a future star right before my eyes." Not only did the 12 year old star contribute to his team's success, but the experience should help propel him to even higher chess goals. Some other teams seem to have already copied this strategy, most notably New Jersey and Arizona.

What does the future hold for the San Francisco Mechanics? IM Sam Shankland (new website!) attends Brandeis University next fall; and I'm sure the Boston Blitz will gladly accept the services of a near-Grandmaster. The loss hurts, but the Bay Area has a deep pool of GMs and IMs. Likely the strongest lineup for captain Donaldson next season will feature two titled players plus two kids. I quietly hope that, one day we will see a GM and three elite juniors: GM Josh Friedel, FM Danya Naroditsky, NM Greg Young and NM Yian Liou. The youngsters need to improve by about 50 points each for this lineup to be competitive.

That beckons a final question: Who will be the Mechanics' secret weapon next year? I can think of at least four juniors that may fit the requirements: rated under 2100 in September 2009 yet having sufficient potential to play at master level by next summer. We shall see!

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