Hailing from Goleta, 17-year-old chess extraordinaire Agata Bykovtsev will enter the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship as one of the top players in her age group. Held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, in St. Louis, Missouri, the July 8-17 event is the premier under-21 chess tournament in the country. The eventual victor will leave with both $10,000 in winnings and an automatic invitation to the 2018 U.S. Women’s Championship.
The stakes are high, but don’t expect Bykovtsev to falter under pressure. Her list of accolades is dizzying. In 2013, she captured the bronze medal at the Pan American Youth Chess Championship in Brazil as a high school freshman; she won the whole thing the next year. Another gold was achieved at the 2015 North American Junior (U20) Chess Championship in Canada. Finally, Bykovtsev brought home the bronze for Team USA at the World Youth Championship in the same year. So for those hometown fans rooting for her, fret not; she seems to know what she’s doing.
Bykovtsev was introduced to her lifelong passion through a program hosted by her elementary school. Before long, she started to study chess outside of those weekly instructions. The challenging nature of chess drew her in; to her, chess was “a series of puzzles” involving constant calculation and problem solving. From there, she sprinted past the competition, with her culminating moment coming from her participation in the World Championship for the U.S. national team. “That was a pretty big moment for me,” Bykovtsev recalled. “The top players for your age group get invited.” And although she already holds the second-highest ranking title of Woman International Master, she acknowledges that in her field, there are “so many stronger players than me.”
The Uzbekistan-born talent will encounter many familiar faces in this upcoming invitation-only tournament, particularly Woman FIDE Master Carissa Yip. “Our games are always pretty interesting,” Bykovtsev remarked. “She’s pretty feisty.” She continued with an explanation on chess openings: “The first 10 to 15 moves, we all know what we’re going to play. So they’re always pretty much planned ahead.” When players opt for more conventional openings, tactics take a backseat to automatic response. In contrast, her games with Yip have “more sharp positions and calculating involved … that’s what we both like to do.”
The emphasis on calculation and problem solving has allowed Bykovtsev to reach other personal goals outside of chess. It’s one thing to learn the concepts, but another to apply those theories in practice. “In a game, you have to think creatively,” she said, “because not every game is the same.” Her competition experience also taught her how to bounce back from missteps. Even when dealing with a string of tough losses, “you still have to play the next game in the tournament,” she explained. “You have an hour break, and you have to come back and play another game. Sometimes that’s really tough after a hard loss.”
For Bykovtsev, chess became something bigger than the game itself. Her successes outside the world of queens and pawns are testaments to her forward thinking. These include the completion of math, physics, and chemistry degrees from SBCC, academic scholarships for her academic prowess, an award recognizing her work with the Isla Vista Youth Project (for which she designed a program to teach low-income students her favorite game), and contributing to organic chemistry research at the Lipshutz Lab at UCSB. Oh, and she also plays the violin.
No doubt that chess—and all the knowledge imparted—will remain integral to her life, but for now, she’s focused on her next step: attending college. Specifically, Bykovtsev will be studying chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when autumn rolls around. Although the rigors of college prep have forced Bykovtsev to adjust her priorities in the previous months, she’s excited to devote her pre-university summer to chess and this next tournament. However, she noted that she’s not as stressed as she was the previous year. “I’ve won all the titles I was hoping to,” Bykovtsev remarked, reflecting on her short but certainly distinguished chess career. “Right now, I play more for fun.”
After St. Louis, a whole new adventure awaits her on the East Coast, and with it a whole new set of puzzles to solve and challenges to overcome. But the Goleta native has the companionship of an excess of learned lessons and ambition like no other. “I’ve been here my whole life,” she stated. “I’m ready.”