August 25, 2016

On Chess: Jeffery Xiong, World Junior Champion, shows the bright future of U.S. Chess

By Alejandro Ramirez

I've had the pleasure of knowing Jeffery Xiong since he started taking his first pawns. Jeffery is the current rock star of the junior chess world, having last week won the World Junior Championship in Bhubaneswar, India.

The tournament brought together the strongest players from around the world age 20 or younger, and it was the 15-year old grandmaster from Coppell, Texas, who achieved the remarkable. It was the first time in 19 years that the title went to an American - already quite notable. However, and perhaps most impressive, Jeffery is the youngest player in history to have won this title.

Over the years, Jeffery has spent a lot of time at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and has improved his game to the level that chess fans wonder whether he will occupy the fourth board of the U.S. Olympiad team one day. He captured the 2016 U.S. Junior Closed Championship in St. Louis back in July.

Jeffery started playing chess seriously in the Dallas Chess Club. The DCC is very active, with a weekly rapid tournament on Friday. Its proximity to the University of Texas at Dallas, my alma mater, makes it very convenient for grandmasters to attend. The university has one of the strongest collegiate chess programs in the world and grandmasters can easily stroll by DCC each Friday and try their luck against the local youth.

It’s interesting to watch as these kids, easily beaten at first, grow by leaps and bounds. When I started playing the DCC Friday night tournaments, the first three opponents of the four-round tournament would fall within minutes, or often I would simply read a book while I dispatched the “club-level” student against whom I was paired.

The final round would be the interesting one, in which some bloodbattle for all the marbles against a fellow UTD student would ensue. But as the years passed, things changed. The 1400 and 1500s turned into 1600s, then 1800s, then they leaped to 2000 finally able to call themselves chess “experts.” Games weren't so easy anymore! Every once in a while, the kids at DCC would snatch half a point from us. Finally, one day, they started playing toe-to-toe against us grandmasters.

Jeffery is clearly the leader of the DCC pack, but he is not the only prodigy to come out of Dallas. Names that are familiar to chess circles like Darwin Yang, Ruifeng Li, Sarah Chiang, Dachey Lin and many others have been a product of long hours of effort, numerous coaching sessions, plentiful tournaments around the world and, of course, those Friday night rapid tournaments.

The Dallas chess scene, as amazing as it is, was only a stepping stone in Jeffery's chess progress. The Saint Louis Chess Club, in conjunction with the Kasparov Chess Foundation, formed the Young Stars program a few years ago to identify the most talented American juniors and support their growth. Grandmasters Kayden Troff, Sam Sevian and a few other talented players are part of the program. The group meets every six months with Garry Kasparov himself for evaluation, and are trained by Kasparov’s hand-picked coaches throughout the year.

Jeffery spent a considerable amount of time in St. Louis, not only for training sessions, but for the many elite tournaments the club hosts. His father, Wayne, even opened an office for his business in Clayton since he is here so often. There is no doubt that the CCSCSL played an important part in the growth of the current World Junior Champion. Indeed the future of American chess is bright.

At the pace Jeffery is going, he is poised to one day stand among America’s top players to represent his country at the Olympiad. With the elite trio of top-10 players at the pinnacle of American chess - namely Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana, chess fans are now talking about the fourth board in the upcoming Olympiad. Despite the fact that Sam Shankland and Ray Robson, boards four and reserve this year for our team, are excellent grandmasters, they don't quite reach the level of the top 10.

It is everybody's hope that Jeffery, in a few years, will have the strength that fourth board needs. The kid I used to trounce at the Dallas Chess Club is now, at only 15 years of age, just a few spots outside of the top 100. As a rising star among the tournaments at the Chess Club, Jeffery could soon enter the elite and compete alongside America’s best.

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