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Jennifer Yu breaks through as Virginia’s first female chess grandmaster

August 1, 2018 GMT

Ashburn, Virginia, is the cradle of champions, and by that we are certainly not referring to the fact that our beloved but beleaguered Washington Redskins practice there.

Ashburn’s true world beater these days is Jennifer Yu, the 14-year-old junior star who just became the first Virginia woman ever to earn the women’s grandmaster title. FIDE, the international chess federation, made it official at its most recent board meeting in Bucharest this month.

This column has been following Yu’s brief but impressive career for several years now, including the victory in the World Under-12 Championship in Turkey in 2014 and the third-place finish in the World Junior Girls Championship in Tarvisio, Italy, last year.


Fortunately, we have an even more recent sample of Yu’s talent to offer this week, as she is competing as the top seed in the U.S. Girls Junior Championship now underway at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Shaking off a Round 2 upset at the hands of WCM Rochelle Wu, Yu had a 3-1 score through the weekend’s first four rounds and is very much in the hunt.

She can do tactics, but Yu has long displayed a precocious appreciation for the finer points of chess strategy, a positional understanding and strong technique that has garnered some excellent results against top-rated players. WFM Sanjana Vittal put up a spirited fight against Yu in their Round 3 battle in St. Louis, but Yu proved just a little stronger when crunch time came.

Vittal as White gets a very acceptable game out of this Colle-like Queen’s Pawn Opening, developing her pieces efficiently and grabbing central space with 9. e4 Be7 10. e5 Nd7. But 11. h4?! (simply 11. 0-0 keeps White’s game flowing, while getting the king to safety) proves to be too much too soon, as after 11...f5 (h6 has also been played in this position) 12. exf6 Rxf6 13. Qe2 cxd4 14. cxd4 Nb4 15. Bb1!? (trying to preserve such a great bishop is understandable, but now the White king truly lacks a refuge) Ba6 16. Qe3 Rc8 (threatening mate on the move) 17. Kd1, the iffy position of the Vittal’s king hampers all her plans for the initiative.

A pivotal and fascinating moment arrives at the diagrammed position on 19. Bxe5 Rfc6 20. Bf5 White’s light-squared bishop is both her best offensive and best defensive piece, and Black would dearly love to sacrifice the exchange, giving up rook for bishop to remove one of White’s most valuable assets. Yu should have forced the issue with 20...g6!, when White’s best just may be 21. a3!? (Bxc8?! Qxc8 22. Qh6 Bf8 23. Qg5 Nd3 dramatically illustrates how the absence of the bishop hurts White’s defense) Nc2 22. Bxc2 Rxc2 23. h5 g5, with play for both sides.


On the game’s 20...Bf8?! (far less forceful, and opening the way for 21. Qf3! [threatening 22. a3] g6 22. Qg3 Kf7 23. Bxc8 Qxc8 with much better prospects for White), White can’t resist and seizes the poisoned chalice with 21. Bxc8? Qxc8 22. Qh3 Nd3! 23. Qxc8 Rxc8 24. Rh2 Nxf2+ 25. Ke1 Nd3+ 26. Kd1 Nxb2+ 27. Ke1 Bb4, and Black’s minor pieces dominate despite her slight material deficit.

White keeps fighting, and after Black misses a strong shot (28...Rc2! 29. Bf4 Bc3 30. Rb1 Bxd4 was very powerful), Vittal generates some real counterplay with 34. Ra4 Bb5 35. Rxa7, and the White rooks finally come to life.

But the Black bishop tandem proves too powerful in the end, pinning the poor White knight and breaking through after one more White defensive inaccuracy: 37. h5 h6 38. Kc1? (the more active 38. Rb7 Ba4+ 39. Ke1 Bd4 40. Rf3 Rh4 41. Nb3 Bxb3 42. axb3 Rxh5 43. Kd2 would have made Black work much harder in the endgame) Bg5 39. Rh2 Bd3 40. Kb2 Bf6+ 41. Kc1 Bf5 42. Re2 Bg4 43. Re8+ Kh7 44. Rb7 Bxh5, and Black picks up a useful pawn while stymieing the White rooks.

The finale: 45. Re6 Bg5 46. Rc7 (Re5 Rf1+ 27. Kb2 Rf2 48. Rxd5 Rxd2+ 49. Rxd2 Bxd2 50. Rxb6 Bg6 and Black is winning) Rf1+ 47. Kc2 Rf2 (collecting the unfortunate knight, which hasn’t budged since Move 5) 48. Rxb6 Bxd2, and White resigned the hopeless ending, as doubling on the seventh ranks fails to 49. Rbb7 Ba5+.

Vittal-Yu, U.S. Junior Girls Championship, St. Louis, July 2018

1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 Nf6 3. Nf3 e6 4. e3 Bd6 5. Nbd2 O-O 6. Bg3 c5 7. c3 Nc6 8. Bd3 b6 9. e4 Be7 10. e5 Nd7 11. h4 f5 12. exf6 Rxf6 13. Qe2 cxd4 14. cxd4 Nb4 15. Bb1 Ba6 16. Qe3 Rc8 17. Kd1 e5 18. Nxe5 Nxe5 19. Bxe5 Rfc6 20. Bf5 Bf8 21. Bxc8 Qxc8 22. Qh3 Nd3 23. Qxc8 Rxc8 24. Rh2 Nxf2+ 25. Ke1 Nd3+ 26. Kd1 Nxb2+ 27. Ke1 Bb4 28. g3 Bc3 29. Rb1 Rf8 30. Bf4 Nd3+ 31. Kd1 Nxf4 32. gxf4 Bxd4 33. Rb4 Bc3 34. Ra4 Bb5 35. Rxa7 Rxf4 36. Rh3 Bf6 37. h5 h6 38. Kc1 Bg5 39. Rh2 Bd3 40. Kb2 Bf6+ 41. Kc1 Bf5 42. Re2 Bg4 43. Re8+ Kh7 44. Rb7 Bxh5 45. Re6 Bg5 46. Rc7 Rf1+ 47. Kc2 Rf2 48. Rxb6 Bxd2 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.