Awonder Liang, a 19-year-old chess prodigy and native of Madison, Wisconsin, is no stranger to international competition. He has twice won world youth chess titles: in 2011 he was the World Under-8 champion and in 2013 was the World Under-10 champion.
He snagged one of chess’s greatest prizes in 2017 when he became a grandmaster (abbreviated GM) at the age of 14, becoming one of the youngest people ever to qualify for the coveted international chess title.
GM Liang, who this autumn became a first year student in the college at the University of Chicago, recently completed play in this year’s U.S. Chess Championship. The tournament held in St. Louis from Oct. 4 through Oct. 20, featuring 14 of the country’s top players in an all-play-all format where Liang tied for third place and earned a $30,000 purse.
GM Fabiano Caruana won the tournament with four wins, nine draws and no losses, for a total score of 8.5. GM Ray Robson took second with 8, while Liang and GM Leinier Dominguez Perez each scored 7.5.
Liang charmed observers with his swashbuckling play in Round 5 on Oct. 10, selecting an exciting gambit not typically seen in top grandmaster play. Yet the teenager’s sharp continuations and careful calculation meant that he beat GM Levon Aronian, a former Armenian player, a man who has achieved the fourth highest rating in chess history and a player described by CNN as the “David Beckham of chess.” Liang’s 32-move win in the Scotch Gambit was selected as Game of the Day by Chess.com, one of the world’s most popular online chess sites.
There was added attention and at times an almost frenzy of excitement because the tournament took place at the St. Louis Chess Club, the site of an international tournament just before the U.S. Championships. It was at this earlier tournament that World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway accused American GM Hans Niemann of cheating, sending shockwaves through the chess community. Niemann was one of the 14 players to play for the U.S. Championship and was often photographed or peppered with questions. Liang played Niemann in the final round of the championship; Their game was drawn.
After the tournament Liang was asked by chess journalist and Ukrainian chess player Anastasiya Karlovich which game from the championship was his favorite. Karlovich and her fellow chess commentators expected Liang to name his win over Aronian, but he instead selected as his favorite game of the tournament his draw against the eventual championship winner Caruana. GM Caruana is often referred to as a super GM, the best of the best. He is a former No. 2 in the world and is one of the few players in the world to have won the right to play Magnus Carlsen for the world chess title. Caruana lost his match against Carlsen in London in 2018.
Liang’s tournament interviews were also notable because he regularly referred to the fact that in addition to preparing for each day’s chess game, he also had to prepare university homework. The young grandmaster also reported that one of his U. of C. professors was eagerly encouraging him to play exciting and unusual openings.