UofT Makes a Splash at the 2023 PanAmerican Intercollegiate Chess Championship

From January 5th – 9th, 2023, eight UofT students travelled over 3316 kilometers to Seattle, Washington, USA, for the annual Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championship, the pinnacle of international collegiate chess. Dubbed the “World Series of College Chess”, the Club had fundraised and fielded teams to the tournament every year between 1965, the year the Club first won it all, and 2019. The storied championship pits the best collegiate chess teams against one another from the North and South Americas. The Hart House Chess Club, representing the University of Toronto, had won the championship 6 times, the most from any non-American school.

Here is Communications Representative and 2nd year CS undergrad Victor Zheng’s report on this year’s Pan Am competition!

For the PanAms this year, I wasn’t even supposed to go! After a gruelling Pan Am qualifier, we had selected a team of 8 students including FM Eilia Zomorrodian. However, visa troubles resulted in myself being invited as the 9th finisher at the qualifiers. As the organizer of our team, it was easy for me to quickly fill out all the waivers and forms before quickly pivoting to physically join the team in Seattle.

This year’s team consisted of 8 student members of the Club who had participating in the annual Pan Am Qualifier tournament in September. Our A team consisted of International Master Nicholas Vettese, followed by Women’s International Master Yunshan Li, and FIDE Master Tanraj Sohal. Wenzhi Dai rounded out UofT Team A. Team Captain was President of the Club, Tanner McNamara.

Team A: Nicholas Vettese, Yunshan Li, Tanraj Sohal, Wenzhi Dai

Team B: Matthew Shih, Derek Ma, Cindy Qiao, Victor Zheng

This year, we fundraised for hoodies for the entire team so that we could look like a team! Team members from left to right: Tanner McNamara (coach), Nicholas Vettese, Victor Zheng (me), Matthew Shih, Tanraj Sohal, Derek Ma, Yunshan Li, Cindy Qiao, Wenzhi Dai.

The trip actually was interesting because this year’s PanAms was in January 2023. Historically, the event was hosted in late December. Additionally, the tournament would be held in Seattle, almost the definition of being on the other side of the continent. Thus, a bunch of us were in Vancouver and simply took a short flight or train down.

As someone who had lived in Vancouver for much of my life, I hadn’t visited The Emerald City in a while – the last time was when I was a little kid. As customary, we arrived a day early to acclimate to the weather and the surroundings. I had some time to spare so I checked out Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park. As the Seahawks were in the playoff race, I saw a lot of people saying “Go Hawks” alongside many jerseys and Seahawks merchandise on my trip. I wound my way North through Seattle’s waterfront and eventually to Pike Place Market. I must say that this market is unlike anything I’ve every been to in Canada – the most similar place I can think of is Byward Market in Ottawa.

This year’s competition was held at The Westin Seattle, a quite large and beautiful hotel (let alone expensive!). I wonder what the other patrons were thinking as they saw some college kids wearing hoodies with chess?! By the time the rest of our team arrived, I had already walked much of the Seattle Downtown core and visited some of the biggest landmarks.

When the rest of the team finally arrived and we headed out to a local pub for some food. Tanner, somewhat familiar with Seattle, was our official food guide (alongside his other roles as coach, team captain, and “food deliverer”). He brought us to an Irish (or maybe English) pub that tried to have too much on their menu. Yunshan and Cindy both got a soup that tasted “disgusting” and “sour”?! While Derek got a soup that they explained “was our first time making it”. Thanks Tanner!

The next day, to adjust with the time difference, a lot of us woke up early. Tanner handed in our waivers/forms and we went out to get lunch at Pike Place Market. Tanraj, who is a diehard chess player, was already studying his openings and headed out to Subway instead. After circling the market and surrounding area, Tanner exclaimed “let’s get some food”! We eventually settled on the Pike Place Chowder, nicknamed the best chowder in America – this was much better than the night before.

We then headed down to the Seattle waterfront to check out the Ferris Wheel. As none of us were interested in doling out $12 for a ride, we found a much cheaper attraction – feeding seagulls. Yunshan, who had found some extra energy from her better tasting meal, brought some extra bread from the market and we all took turns feeding the birds. Eventually, we started to head back to prepare for Round 1 only to be stopped by a special little shop. As we took a shortcut through Westlake Mall, we found ourselves outside a candy store. Our entire Team A decided that it’d be a good idea to buy candy for the day – Nicholas and Yunshan filling up bagful’s of chocolate and candies before Nicholas explained to me that chocolate keeps him awake and makes him play better. The rest of us (the entire Team B) stood awkwardly as they purchased their candies.

Tanner, our tour guide, brought us to the famous Space Needle.
Feeding seagulls out near the ferris wheel!

As one of the leaders of our delegation, Tanner and I headed to the captain/coaches meeting to learn more about the rules of the competition. The rules for the tournament would be quite straightforward, nothing different than what I expected. However, I made sure to ask if players were allowed to eat snacks while playing since we had just visited the candy store! They said yes!

Right before Round 1, we did a little team pep talk inside Tanner’s room. For some reason, Nicholas, not realizing that Red Bull was sponsoring the event, had spent $4 on a Red Bull! There were caseloads and plenty of Red Bull everywhere for anyone interested. I actually found that it was easier to find RedBull than water inside the playing hall. Tanner, meanwhile, kept on telling everyone that he was on his “sixth cup of coffee”.

In Round 1, our A team played UC Santa Cruz – Team A. This round was closer than probably what we wanted, as it came down to Yunshan’s draw to pull off the 2.5-1.5 win. Nicholas lass was against a strong International Master, Jack Zhu, who finished an astonishing 5.5/6. Team B played against Texas Tech University Team A, who had 3 Grandmasters since their board 4 had visa problems and couldn’t make it. Matthew’s game against their top-GM turned out to be the closest of the GM games, as they traded off into an unbalanced middlegame with chances for both sides. An unbelievable Qh4 on move 40 would’ve held a draw. We ended up losing 1-3.

Cindy Qiao and Derek Ma (UofT B) play in Round 1 against Texas Tech University A
Yunshan Li (UofT A) competes against UC Santa Cruz in Round 1.

In Round 2, our A team was paired with University of Texas at Dallas – Team B. On paper, their team outranked us on every board, and had an average rating of 2520! However, spirited performances from Tanraj, Yunshan, and Nicholas resulted in draws. And in the decisive game, Wenzhi played amazing to win and give UofT the 2.5-1.5 win and a 2-0 start to the tournament. This win was really special because it was an upset against a scholarship chess school – something that rarely happens in today’s game.

Wenzhi Dai (White) beat IM Saksham Rautela after black’s 47. Bc4 blunder.

Team B faced off against Baylor University’s Team A, a team that on paper, we should’ve beaten easily. However, after Derek and I won, we held our breath as Matthew faced an excruciating position. Completely lost at one point, his opponent had options to trade down and mate with a rook (there were literally no other pieces). However, he made a mistake and Matthew drew a rook vs queen endgame. This game, that lasted until nearly 3 pm (5 hours), was the last game of the round and gave UofT B an important, confidence boosting win.

Round 3 was the most interesting round of the tournament as it saw our A team take on the University of Missouri Team B. On paper, this scholarship-school outranked us again by a healthy margin, with an average rating of 2432! The round started out strong with Wenzhi continuing his unbeaten streak with a quick draw against Salah. Yunshan absolutely crushed her opponent, IM Josiah Stearman as well, after winning the e-pawn and simply pushing it down the board.

IM Josiah Stearman vs WIM Yunshan Li
IM Nicholas Vettese missed a drawing move, Nh2 against GM Luka Budisavljevic. A draw would’ve given UofT the win!

With two games to go, the live broadcast on Chess.com featuring GM Daniel Naroditsky panned to this match. Tanraj, who was under pressure the entire game (and possibly losing), pulled off the draw right as they showed the game. He was in fact winning a few moves before on move 43. In the game between IM Nicholas Vettese and GM Luka Budisavljevic, Naroditsky and GM Jeffery Xiong called it a draw before saying “Salah is Mizzou’s only hope“, even after their game had finished long ago. However, Nicholas, in the aforementioned drawn position, was unfortunately unable to hold the draw. The score ended drawn at 2-2. Once again, we showed how a Canadian school like ours still had the talent to go up against the likes of a world-renowned scholarship school.

Our Team B played against the University of Pennsylvania Team A and saw myself and Matthew pull off draws. Unfortunately that was all that we could muster as we succumbed 3-1.

Tanraj, who was somehow not tired from this long day of chess, decided to sign up with Cindy for the Seattle New Year’s Blitz. Cindy declared “I’ve gotten get some wins!”. Tanraj played amazingly and only lost to GM Andrew Tang, the winner, in the final round.

Wenzhi Dai and Tanraj Sohal (UofT A) take on Mizzou’s B Team.
FM Tanraj Sohal (UofT A) took on Princeton’s GM Andrew Tang in Round 7 of blitz. Tang won and finished first with 7/7. Tanraj finished with 5.5/7.

Round 4 saw UofT in the top-10, and facing off against another favourite, the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley Team B. Although this was their “B team”, they were still an average rating of 2436 (for context, our B team was average of 2058). These games didn’t go great for our team, and Wenzhi ended up as the only one to score a solid draw against IM Victor Rodriguez Garcia. Team B also didn’t fare excellently in this round, with a 3-1 defeat against the Georgia Institute of Technology Team A.

UofT A takes on University of Texas at Dallas-B in Round 2.
UofT A’s Yunshan and Nicholas play Princeton University in Round 5.

Round 5 saw UofT A take on a Princeton A team led by GM Andrew Tang. The Andrew Tang, who had participating in our 2019 Ivy League Challenge. Wenzhi and Nicholas both loss, but Yunshan’s win alongside Tanraj’s win against FM Aydin Turgut gave us the tie! Our B-team faced off against the University of Utah Team A and saw our close matches continue but still fall in a 2.5-1.5 loss.

FM Tanraj Sohal (2326) played 33. Nb4 against FM Aydin Turgut (2411), simplifying for the decisive win.
Team Pizza after Round 5!
We stopped by the giant teddy bear and took some photos!

Going into the final day of competition, we went in much relaxed, knowing that we had tried our best. We took this mindset against Yale University A, a team led by GM Nicholas Checa. As the second Ivy League team we had in a row, this final match turned out to be a slugfest with 3 draws and only the battle of the Nicholas’ finishing with a loss. The final score was a 1.5-2.5 loss. As for the B Team, we finally pulled of a second win against Texas Tech’s B Team – a full circle after losing in Round 1 to their A team.

The final score for UofT Team A was 3-points, finishing with 2 wins, 2 draws, and 2 losses. As we had started out with 2.5/3, this obviously was a disappointing finish, but the A team should be proud to say that they went up against 3 scholarship schools and 2 Ivy League schools. UofT Team A was awarded the Best International Team prize for their efforts.

The final score for UofT Team B was 2.0 points, finishing with 2 wins and 4 losses. These losses were in very tight matches and not many blowouts, so we should be proud of our efforts.

UofT’s A Team at the 2023 PanAms in Seattle
UofT’s B Team at the 2023 PanAms in Seattle.

Congratulations to the winners, in particular, Webster University A for taking home the top prize. Also big shoutout to Harvard, Yale, UChicago, and Princeton for finishing well – we look forward to hosting the Ivy League Challenge in March with you!

On behalf of the players and the Club, I would like to thank its many supporters for making this event possible this year and throughout the years. Since the beginning of the PanAms, we have been able to send a team of students to take on the world and represent Hart House, the University of Toronto, and Canada on the international stage. The Club’s hundreds of supporters are the attendees of our annual events – allowing us to fund and lower the cost of sending teams to these prestigious competitions.

Some all-important bughouse to wind down. And for Nicholas to “gets some wins” :)!
I shot this picture of our A team accepting the Best International Team award

As I look back on this trip, I only remember the good times that we had as a team. It goes without saying that these events create lasting memories for those who are privileged to represent the Hart House Chess Club on the international stage. As the youngest person on our team, I have learned a lot about others in the conversations that we’ve had over lunches and dinners. I know that all of us will look back fondly on this experience.

As always, thank you to Cynthia Nevins, Mauro Barillas, Jamie St Amand, and Sako Khederlarian at Hart House for their assistance in making arrangements. A very big shoutout goes to my colleagues on the Executive Board, led this year by Tanner McNamara. We initially only budgeted to send one team, but our enormous fundraising efforts have enabled us to send two teams across the continent. And finally, thank you to my teammates: Derek, Cindy, Matthew, Yunshan, Nicholas, Wenzhi, and Tanraj for making this such a fun trip!