The 2021 United States Chess Championship concluded on Monday, Oct. 18, with two SLU students, Dariusz Swiercz and Thalia Cervantes, competing in the prestigious event. The pair, who are also members of the SLU chess team, both played well against internationally ranked competitors. Świercz finished with a score of 5/11, earning 8th place, and Cervantes also finished with 5/11, earning 7th place.
The championship was played from Oct. 8 to Oct. 20, with eleven rounds and two rest days. Only one round was played per day, with games often lasting several hours. The tournament was divided into a men’s and women’s section, with a $150,000 prize fund for the men’s section and $100,000 for the women’s section.
The U.S. Chess Championship is the world’s oldest national chess tournament, and the St. Louis Chess Club in the Central West End has hosted the tournament since 2009. It is a tournament with a storied past; U.S. chess icon Bobby Fischer won it as a 14-year-old, the youngest champion ever, and later made history in 1963 with a perfect 11/11 score, a feat which has never been matched (though if it ever is, the champion will receive the Fischer Bonus Prize, a $64,000 bonus on top of the first-place prize money).
Both players took a break from busy schedules and midterms to compete in the championship. Dariusz Świercz is a master’s student in Applied Financial Economics, originally from Poland. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Economics from SLU in 2019. Świercz became a grandmaster, the highest title a chess player can achieve, at the age of 14, and is currently ranked 102nd in the world. Cervantes is a freshman at SLU, originally from Cuba, who moved to the United States to pursue better chess opportunities. She is majoring in Sports Business.
Both Świercz and Cervantes faced stiff competition in their respective sections. The top seed in the men’s section was world number two Fabiano Caruana, who won the tournament in 2016 and was also the most recent challenger for Magnus Carlsen’s World Champion title in 2018. World number six Wesley So, who won the tournament in 2017 and 2020, was the second highest-ranked player in the championship section.
In the women’s section, Cervantes faced some of the top-ranked female chess players in the world, including eight-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Irina Krush and two-time champion Nazi Paikidze. The eventual winner of the tournament, Carissa Yip, was ranked as the second seed in the tournament. Yip made history in 2019 when she became the youngest woman in U.S. history to earn the International Master title, the second-highest title that can be achieved in chess.
SLU chess team coach Alejandro Ramirez, commenting on the strength of the field, said: “It’s the strongest national championship in the world, and it is the top chess news for the two weeks it occurs. The women’s section is also very strong and has been getting increasingly stronger as a combination of international transfers and rising juniors: Thalia is one of those.”
Going into the tournament, Cervantes says she was focused on playing well, regardless of the outcome of the tournament. “I was also one of the lowest-ranked in the field, so I took it as more of a test of how I do against these players. Joining SLU and this being my first year, I have been quite busy.”
SLU chess team coach Alejandro Ramirez said of Świercz and Cervantes, “They are polar opposites…Dariusz is the most experienced and the strongest player on the team and has been a cornerstone of our team from our very first showing as a team in the 2016 Pan-American Intercontinental Chess Championships. Thalia, on the other hand, is our newest recruit. Thalia has been a top junior in the American circuit and has recently reached new heights of her chess.”
At the midway point of the tournament, Ramirez evaluated the respective performances of his players: “I think Dariusz is a bit unsatisfied with his results. He has been a bit luckless, pressing for the advantage in many games but coming up empty-handed,” adding that, “I’m sure he wants to score a couple more victories before the tournament ends.”
“Thalia comes in as the lowest-rated player in the event, and despite that, she is currently in a tie for seventh. Again, some things to fix, but it’s a nice bounce-back for her after a couple of rough tournaments leading up to the champs,” Ramirez added.
Despite several tough losses early in the tournament, Świercz played well in the second half of the tournament, finishing with a score of 5/11, earning him eighth place in an incredibly talented field. Świercz ended the tournament with a win against Lazaro Bruzon and a draw against Lenier Dominguez, two top-ranked Cuban players.
Cervantes also had a solid performance overall, finishing in seventh place with a score of 5/11. Highlights of her tournament included a draw against tournament winner Carissa Yip, who is currently the third-ranked female chess player in the United States. Cervantes described her match against Yip as “aggressive and competitive.” Cervantes also won an exciting game against Sabina Francesca Foisor in round three.
“I am proud of my win against Sabina Foisor,” Cervantes said. “It was a hard-fought game and I ended up coming out on top.”
Asked to evaluate her tournament performance, Cervantes concluded: “It was a nice experience, and overall a very solid score as I drew most of my games. I could have done a lot better, but I am content with this result. I hope my performances in this event only get better and better.”
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