The US Junior Championship – A Quick Walk Through History

 

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write a brief article on the US Junior Championship as part of the Saint Louis Chess Club’s 10-year anniversary celebration.

Today, as the US Junior 2018 is set to kickoff, I thought it would be timely to republish my article here on the blog. Here’s a quick journey through the history of the US Junior Championship and its winding path to Saint Louis, where the event has been played since 2010.

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The US Junior Championship has always been one of the most exciting chess events in the country. The invite-only tournament has served as a platform for young and ambitious juniors to display their prowess while fighting for the coveted title of US Junior Champion. A strong performance in this tournament is a good indicator of future success, as many past winners went on to become Grandmasters. Even the great Bobby Fischer tested his mettle in this tournament, winning in 1956 with a score of 8 ½ points out of 10. The evolution of this tournament over the years has been intriguing to follow and is something I’d like to take a closer look at.

For many years the US Junior Championship led a nomadic life, as each year the city and venue changed. Enterprising local organizers did their best to seek sponsorship and organize a professionally conducted tournament. Everything changed in 2010, however, when the US Junior Championship found a more permanent abode at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (CCSCSL). The last edition of US Junior before it transitioned to its new home was organized by chess player and coach FM Alex Betaneli in 2009 in the city of Milwaukee.

The move to Saint Louis was a turning point in the tournament’s history, as the CCSCSL built greatly on the successes of the previous organizers and worked hard to elevate the Championship profile. The tournament also benefitted from the meteoric rise of the chess vibe in Saint Louis. At its new home, the Junior Championship acquired the publicity and marquee status that was not always visible earlier. Conversing with GM Varuzhan Akobian, who won the 2002 edition, he related to me how the conditions were drastically different now compared to when he played. “It is much more prestigious, and the tournament has a great prize fund,” he said while musing if there was even a prize fund when he won the tournament!

Akshat Chandra - US Junior Champion 2015

In addition to a much-improved prize fund, the publicity and playing conditions of the Junior Championship have never been better. The games are now played on elegant wooden electronic boards and are broadcasted online. In addition, there is a live commentary team at the Club’s studio that covers the tournament and post-game interviews. But to me, the greatest reward of winning the US Junior Championship is earning an automatic qualification to play the US Championship, a privilege that was added during the Championship’s tenure at the Club. I won the US Junior event in 2015 in my very first appearance and had the honor of participating in the 2016 US Championship.

Saint Louis, as the nation’s chess capital, has become the grooming grounds for future top chess players, and it is only fitting that the US Junior Championship found its permanent residence here.

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