|| During the quiet summer months of 2021 on the Tak Talk Discord, a new player appeared under the name "alion02." Alion introduced himself as a developer interested in "getting decent at tak myself and watching tournaments." Everyone said hello and welcomed the newcomer into the Tak community.
Less than 16 months later, he is competing for the title of Tak Champion.
Every two years, the U.S. Tak Assocation (USTA) crowns a USTA Tak Champion. The legendary NohatCoder was the first to take the title, after a dominant performance in all qualifying tournaments and 1st place overall in the 2018 U.S. Tak Open. Then, in December 2020, top-ranked Fwwwwibib took 1st place in the 2020 U.S. Tak Open and was named the new Tak Champion.
Following the 2020 Tak Open, the USTA announced a restructuring of its tournament cycle and how the next Tak Champion would be determined. The reigning champion would automatically qualify to defend his title, and all other competitors would fill 7 spots either qualifying through the 2021 U.S. Tak Open, the new 2022 Members Tournament, or finishing the cycle as a highly rated player on USTA's Tournament Ratings. After qualifying, these top 8 competitors would face off in the USTA Tak Championship tournament.
This fall, after a surprising and thrilling cycle of upsets, close calls, and incredible games, the 8 competitors were finally set. Among them were, of course, the reigning champion Fwwwwibib, and a slate of incredibly strong opponents, including: 1st place winner of the '22 Members Tournament and 2nd place finisher of the '21 Tak Open, Abyss. Former champion NohatCoder. 3rd place finisher in the '21 Tak Open, Ally. The veteran Bill Leighton (aka rabbitboy84), and top-ranked players ManaT and PlutoTheBrave.
Alion was not among them. He had barely missed his chance in the '21 Tak Open, by falling just 1 point shy of competing for 4th place (and a spot in the championship). He finished the tournament cycle ranked #6 overall and did not qualify since #1 Syme and #3 NohatCoder took the two remaining slots.
Since first joining the Tak community in 2021, Alion was quickly recognized for his ability to create incredibly difficult Tak puzzles. His strong performance in the 2021 Tak Open and his subsequent defeat of Abyss in the 2022 Trans-AtlanTak Match proved that he had rapidly moved past being an "intermediate" player and could potentially contend with some of the best. Perhaps his opportunity to fight for the title of Tak Champion would come in 2024. Meanwhile, he signed up to provide commentary and analysis for the championship matches alongside the veteran commentator Simmon.
Then an announcement came in late November that threw the championship into a new light: the #1 rated player Syme - who has a long history of dominating in the rare tournament he actually competes in - was withdrawing. As the next eligible player, Alion was in.
His first opponent was the analytic and thoughtful Bill Leighton (rabbitboy84) who had qualified by finishing in 3rd place in the '22 Members Tournament. The Alion vs. Bill match ended 3-0, with a dominating performance by Alion. He moved onto the semifinals where he would face the formidable Abyss, ranked #2 overall, easily the best U.S. player, and recent 1st place winner of this year's Members Tournament.
Alion and Abyss battled it out, ending their four game match 2-2. In the tiebreaker match, after 47 moves, Alion emerged victorious with a flat win. After a stunning rise from up-and-coming to champion contender, only one opponent remains between Alion and the title of Tak Champion.
Who is Alion? Is he the Tak world's next champion?
We reached out to Alion a few days before his first game in the 6-game series that makes up the Championship Finals. He generously offered to answer a few questions and help the Tak Times introduce him to our readers.
Alion discovered Tak in late 2020, but only took up playing it on a regular basis after finding the Tak Discord community. Prior to Tak, he casually enjoyed the "usual suspects" of abstract strategy games - chess and checkers, as well as Onitama and Squadro. But it was Tak that really hooked his interest, "the variety and richness of middlegame and endgame positions, each one a brand new challenge, unlike anything I'd seen before." He enjoys that "Tak strategy is mostly uncharted territory," allowing him to "meaningfully contribute" with new strategies and tactics, "instead of simply going down one of the beaten paths."
His meteroic ascent from a newcomer to champion contender started with puzzles. "1-ply puzzles on puzzle.exegames.de to train my road vision." He then dived into analyzing his games to "try to figure out what the turning points were, and what I or the opponent should've done differently." His ability to pull apart games has evolved "with the advent of a strong AlphaZero implementation" - named Wilem or "Wilembot" on PlayTak.com. With AlphaZero Wilem at his fingertips, he can better evaluate old games, "figure out the reasoning behind its decisions, and try to adjust my mental model of the game accordingly." No doubt his heavy reliance on the Tak world's most powerful tool has allowed him to train for tournaments much like a chess master would.
While some players in the community are surprised to see a relative newcomer like Alion - who has no previous podium finishes in a USTA tournament - contending for the Tak Championship title, the current champion, Fwwwwibib, is not.
Fwwib acknowledges that it is "something of a surprise" to see Alion make it this far, but he is "far from shocked." Alion has "improved rapidly since joining the community, and clearly has an excellent brain for the game, and has been working hard to get better." Fwwib was a favorite to win the championship this year. Surprisingly, he was knocked out in the first round after an incredible performance by #5 ranked Ally, the one player now standing in between Alion and the championship title.
Alion's opponent, Ally, will not be easily beat. According to Fwwib, Ally is a "solid all-around player" who "particularly excels in the mid-to late game where he has the ability to navigate complex positions and find creative ways to gain an advantage." Their first two games in the 6-game series ended with each player taking a win off the other. Ally dominated the first game, but Alion came back in the second and cruised to a flat win. Four more games and a potential tiebreaker remain to decide who will be the victor.
Whether or not Alion is the Tak world's next champion will be decided in the coming weeks. Regardless of the result, he has carved out a spot among the old guard of top-ranked players. And in the words of the current champion, "it's great to see players like Alion shaking things up and bringing new ideas to the competitive scene."