Emily Nguyen
Emily Nguyen

Going into the 2019 Denker Tournament of High School Champions, I had zero expectations. I was the fifteenth seed, and the always-prestigious tournament featured top seeds like IMs Ben Li and Bryce Tiglon as well as a myriad of other strong masters. On top of that, I had been playing such inconsistent chess throughout summer and failed spectacularly at all of my tournaments prior to Denker, such as the Junior Girls Championship and the Susan Polgar Girls’ Invitational. To be honest, I had kind of given up on my chess or any hopes of good results at this point. For me, Denker was just one last stop for summer, one last tournament before a long-needed hiatus from chess so I could focus on the onslaught of senior year and college apps.

This year, Denker was held in Orlando, Florida (a nice, touristy location — I even got the chance to explore Universal Studios later on!) at the beautiful Rosen Centre Hotel. We arrived pretty early in the morning of the first round, and the rest of the day was pretty hectic; the opening ceremony formalities and activities were quickly followed by the posting of pairings for round one. And so it began.

For the first round, in typical Swiss fashion, I was paired against one of the lowest seeds, a 1900 from Kentucky (which goes to show how strong the tournament was). I found myself in some variation of the Sicilian that I wasn’t quite familiar with, and somehow I let him sacrifice his rook to open up my king in the center. I was probably losing at some point, but I managed to consolidate and escape with a win.

The next round, I was paired up against Bryce Tiglon, one of my closest friends. He beats me about 99% of the time in classical games, online blitz, and GamePigeon chess games, so I wasn’t too surprised when I lost. It was a pretty interesting game, though, arriving from an unorthodox opening he had prepared where neither of us were quite sure of what was going on.

In round three I found myself in one of the most boring positions against another 1900 player. After a lucky trick, I won a piece and the game. With that win, I was paired up against a 2350 for the fourth round. Up until this point, my play had been pretty mediocre, but for some reason I started to play well this game. While I’m not quite sure what happened, I just got a slightly better position out of the opening and outplayed him from there for a pretty smooth victory. The next game was pretty much the same case against another 2350, and I was able to finesse a win after he made some key errors.

Somehow, I now have 4 out of 5 points going into the last game. Given the tournament situation, I theoretically had winning chances. If Bryce and Ben draw on the top board and I win, the three of us would tie for first. However, I was almost sure there was no way that would happen since I was paired as Black against yet another strong 2350 player. My mentality going into the game was to just play sound chess and end the tournament without blundering. I decided to opt out of playing my usual Sicilian and choose a more solid approach against his 1.e4, so we entered an Italian. However, I wasn’t quite as familiar with the ideas and setups of the position as he was, and pretty soon I thought I was just much worse. All of my pieces were awkwardly placed and my pawn structure was all over the place; I thought my position would soon crumble. However, he was getting low on time, and I used this to my advantage as I launched a pretty desperate attack on his king. I thought there was no way it would work, but he allowed me to play a neat idea and soon my pieces invaded his kingside and I won the game.

Bryce and Ben had drawn their game pretty early on, so with that win, I was guaranteed to be a 2019 Denker Co-Champion. You’re probably just as shocked as I was. To tie for first at such an elite tournament was already a great honor, but this victory was particularly special to me because I was the second female to accomplish this feat, the first being Abby Marshall in 2009. It was honestly just unexpected. When the final standings were published, I found out Bryce deservedly won on tiebreaks and secured the spot to the 2020 Junior Championships. Ben finished in second and I in third, and I thought that was pretty fitting to how the tournament went.

I would like to thank my coach, Vladimir Georgiev, for helping me along throughout such a disappointing summer and pushing me to keep trying and studying for the next tournament. And to Greg Shahade and Jacob Aagaard, who organized the strongest US Chess School I have attended, two weeks prior to Denker. I would like to thank Texas Chess Association for nominating me to the event. Finally, to the tournament organizers who ran a smooth event (as always) and presented me with such a great opportunity.