FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) Twelve pianists have advanced to the semifinal round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, including the prestigious contest's first blind competitor, officials announced Wednesday.

Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan, who is blind, is among the dozen pianists from nine countries who will compete in the semifinal round that starts Thursday.

Two semifinalists are from China, two from South Korea and two from Italy. Besides Japan, the countries with one semifinalist are Bulgaria, Israel, Russia, Australia and Germany.

The competition started last week with 29 pianists from 14 countries, selected from more than 150 who had auditioned at recitals in several cities around the world. Initially, 225 pianists applied for the contest held every four years in Fort Worth.

The competition is named for Van Cliburn, the acclaimed pianist from Fort Worth who gained prominence after winning the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958. The Cliburn contest started in 1962 and was held in 1966, 1969 and every four years since then.

Cliburn himself is not one of the judges but presents the awards, including $20,000 for each of the top three finishers and managed concert tours worth $1 million for all six finalists. This year's awards will be presented June 7 after the final round.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.