USCF Home Chess Life Online 2011 June Diary of a Chess Uncle…Or Trophy Fishing
|Diary of a Chess Uncle…Or Trophy Fishing|
|By GM Joel Benjamin|
|June 2, 2011|
The Spring Nationals season is just behind us, but coming up are many prestigious summer tourneys for juniors including the US Junior Closed, the Denker, the Junior Girls Open and Barber K-8. All this often brings blogs from dedicated and proud chess parents. I would like to impart the joys of being achess uncle, with a cool experience from January.
I had a special pleasure coaching in the Columbia Grammar team room at the Greater New York Scholastics this year. We had three perfect scores and a haul of team trophies, but that wasn't the best part. It had been a while since I saw my nephew Jonah Klempner play chess, and I was anxious to see how he handled himself as a now mature 14-year-old. I was hired to work Saturday, when we had our best turnout, so Jonah switched his section to synchronize with me. I could not only look after him (his father had to leave early and his grandmother had to come late), but have a look at his games when I had some free time. Jonah entered the amusingly titled "Junior High Junior Varsity Junior section" (okay I made up the last junior but you get the picture). He's in high school, but as a ninth grader he can still play in Junior High sections. This one would be under 1200, perhaps slightly weaker than I would have liked for him (he would mostly be paired down in all likelihood). We didn't even realize that his unpublished rating had climbed over 1200; just as well, no need for him to feel pressured to win the section.
I was not prepared for the day of surprises that ensued. Jonah won his first game but wasn't very excited about his play. We sat down and I had a look at his scoresheet.
Carlos Espinal - Jonah Klempner [C55]
Greater NY Scholastics (1)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bc4 Bb4 5.0-0 Ng4
"Jonah, tell me you didn't play the Fishing Pole," I said as I buried my face in my hands. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of this opening. At the tournament I asked my fellow team room coaches, John Macarthur and Michael Rohde if they had heard of the Fishing Pole. Later I asked John Fedorowicz. Blank stares from all of them. It's not the sort of thing that pops up in the polite conversations of serious teachers.
I became acquainted when I started working with Jaron Bernard, the talented nine-year-old son of New Jersey Knockouts manager Rob Bernard. Looking at his games, I could see right away that Jaron was a good "finisher;" that is, he was pretty reliable when he had an opportunity to checkmate. But his play was very raw, with almost no strategy. It seemed every game he would play Nf3-g5 with White, or Nf6-g4 with Black. And not even when the attack on the f-pawn was awkward to defend; often it came after the opponent was already castled. The idea was to lure the opponent to attack the knight with the h-pawn, "defend" the knight with your h-pawn, wait for him to take the "bait," recapture with the h-pawn and mate the opponent on the h-file.
I don't recall if I saw any games end like that. A few opponents moved the rook away and allowed him to take the f-pawn (Jaron's opponents were equally unpolished but less talented). There were several rather predictable (in my opinion) consequences:
1) He learned to disrespect his opponent, because the opening is based on expecting your opponent to blunder.
2) He didn't develop other strategies because he thought he had one that would work all the time. He didn't worry about developing his pieces efficiently because he wouldn't need most of them to win.
3) He had no idea what to do if 1.e4 e5 didn't happen
4) He didn't want to castle. The castler is the victim in the Fishing Pole, and castling is incompatible with setting the trap.
Jaron will be fine because he's got talent, but the damage was a bit of a headache for me to repair.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not against teaching traps per se. It's certainly important to know how to avoid falling into them, and tactical opportunism is an important skill to develop. It's fine to set a trap if you don't weaken your position to do so. But I'm dead set against "hope chess" (a great expression from Johnny Fed). The Fishing Pole may be a valid opening to teach a player for a single game or single tournament. If you think a child isn't very good and won't get any better, go ahead. In a scholastic tournament or novice section, there is a reasonable chance that the opponent will fall into the trap. But eventually it won't work, and that player hasn't developed any universal strategies for the game. It's just a more sophisticated form of playing for the four move checkmate. If you teach a talented player schemes that go against proper strategical play (moving your knight twice, not castling, expecting bad moves) you are going to stunt their growth.
So I wasn't too happy to see the Pole, but Jonah was very excited about this opening. It was good to see him so animated about chess again. My mind harked back to Jonah's first tournament, back when he was in third grade. As he sat down for his first game, my sister Rochelle asked me if Jonah knew the four move checkmate. Uh-oh I thought.
Naturally, his opponent went for the quick knockout. Jonah stopped the mate...but the opponent brought his queen back to f3 and got him on move five. Undeterred, Jonah produced a rare brilliancy in round two.
"I got him with the Bobby Fischer double knight checkmate," Jonah exclaimed as he arrived in my team room." I congratulated him and tried to figure out what the heck he was talking about. Well, he had read Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, so he must have seen something like that in the book. What do you know, he somehow managed to produce a checkmate with two knights smothering a Black king. It was the kind of finish you could play your whole life trying to achieve. Bruce Pandolfini saw and offered to teach Jonah for free.
There was only one problem. Early in the game Jonah moved his knight to h4 (hanging his queen in the process). A few moves later, it jumps into f6 and begins the denouement.
From my teaching experience, I've learned that when beginners knock over a piece, it very often ends up replaced on a different square. So the knight must have "j'adoubed" from h4 to h5. That kind of thing happens more often in kids games that you might imagine.
Over the years Jonah has maintained a mild but less than passionate interest in chess. He frustrated his poor mother by insisting on playing hockey (with all that expensive equipment) instead of chess. But he caught chess fever again when he started high school and discovered that he was the best player in the school. That's pretty heady stuff for a freshman, especially in an intellectually competitive town like Great Neck.
Jonah told me the Fishing Pole was so powerful that it had chased Cousin Rob and Cousin Dave out of chess. "They quit after a brother and sister beat them the same way in a tournament. As soon as they castled, they got checkmated. It must have been the Fishing Pole."
My first cousins David and Robert Marcus, eleven and fourteen years younger than me respectively, have always been smart and multi-talented, and now they are married to beautiful women as well. They never really needed chess to make them miserable. But alas, Jonah's hypothesis appears incorrect; Rob remembers the checkmate had something to do with a queen and bishop lining up (a battery, it seems). He told me that he liked chess a lot but he thought the tournaments just took too long.
As for Jonah's game...nothing earth-shattering happened, nobody got hooked and fished out of the water. After a sloppy game, not worth relating any further, Jonah scored the win.
"Uncle Joel, you're not going to find anything to criticize in this game," Jonah told me as he came into the CGPS room after the next game. He was grinning ear to ear, much like he did after his double knight checkmate. The similarities did not end there.
Jonah Klempner-Ayman Mohammad [C48]
Greater NY Scholastics (2)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 a6 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nxe5 Qe7 7.d4 c5 8.Bg5 cxd4 9.Qxd4 h6 10.Bxf6 Qxf6 11.0-0-0 Be6 12.a3
The next move stopped me cold. What's wrong Uncle Joel"? Jonah asked, as I shook my head. "Something highly illegal happened," I told him.
Yes, Black castled queenside, despite the fact that his king passes through check. Jonah didn't notice it either, though if he had, he might have been tempted to allow it. With 13.Qa7!
He set up a deadly mate threat which 13...Bd6 failed to stop. 14.Qa8 # 1-0
Six years after the first one, Jonah had just won his second game ChessBase would never accept.
Jonah is a notoriously fussy eater, so his parents worried he might not eat anything substantial that day. But at Quiznos Jonah wolfed down a turkey, salami, and lettuce sandwich. Probably in about twelve years I'll get my son to finally eat a sandwich, but as an uncle I've got the touch.
The third round had hardly started when Jonah appeared back in the team room. "I found a better fishing pole," he exclaimed. I thought, this I've got to see.
Griffin Basman-Jonah Klempner [C55]
Greater NY Scholastics (3)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Nc3 Nxe4
When Jonah showed me the first game, I pointed out the "fork trick," something he had most likely learned in the past but forgotten. After practicing it with Grandma Phyllis (they are quite good sparring partners) he felt ready to give it a go.
5.Nxe4 d5 6.Bxd5 Qxd5 7.Nc3 Qd8 8.0-0 Bg4 9.h3 h5
I was almost starting to think I had been too hard on the Pole. Here the bishop is a better lure because the pin on the knight is very annoying if the bishop is not captured. The mechanism of the trap is of course the same
10.hxg4 hxg4 11.Nh2 Qh4 12.Qxg4 Qxh2# 0-1
I thought it was quite ingenious of Jonah to extrapolate this plan from what he had learned before, and realize that this version was much more dangerous to the opponent (and would not make Uncle Joel yell or moan). In the fourth round he played his best all-around game of the tournament (possibly of his life). His moves weren't always the best but he played with great originality and sharp ideas.
Jonah Klempner-Emmanuel Paulino [B21]
Greater NY Scholastics (4)
1.e4 c5 2.f4
"Where did you get that move from?" I asked. "It's okay, isn't it?" countered Jonah.
2...e6 3.Nf3 a6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Qxd4 Nc6 6.Qd1
Okay, if White wants to justify the queen capture on d4 he should play 6.Qf2.
6...Qc7 7.Nc3 Be7 8.g3 Nf6 9.e5 Ng4 10.Ng5 Bxg5 11.Qxg4 Be7?
Obviously this is a blunder; 11...Bh6 would keep the game even.
12.Qxg7 Rf8 13.Qxh7 Nd4 14.Be3 Qc6
"You're not going to be happy with what I did now," Jonah told me. But the exchange sacrifice looks highly promising for White (and probably forced, too).
15.Bxd4 Qxh1 16.Ne4 b5 17.0-0-0 Bb7 18.Bd3 Qf3 19.Nc5
19.Bc5! is a much better way to exploit Black's tender dark squares. Fortunately Black cooperates.
19...Bxc5? 20.Bxc5 Qc6 21.Bxf8 Kxf8 22.Qh8+ Ke7 23.Qf6+ Ke8 24.h4!
I love this calm, common sense solution. To prevent this pawn from queening Black will expose his king to slaughter.
24...d6 25.h5 Qf3 26.h6 Kd7 27.Qxf7+ Kc6 28.Qg6 Qd5 29.Be4 Qxe4 30.Qxe4+ Kb6 31.Qg6 Rc8 32.h7 Bf3 33.Rxd6+ Ka5 34.Qxe6 Rh8 35.Rxa6+ Kb4 36.c3+ Kc5 37.b4# 1-0
In the last round Jonah went up against the last other undefeated player, David Jin. In a good position, Jonah made an oversight and dropped a piece. He fought back into the endgame, where both players ran very low on time. Jonah was not able to keep up the game score, but related to me the facts of the finish. While racing a pawn towards the queening square, Jin neglected to stop Jonah's last pawn with his extra bishop, enabling my nephew to make a queen as well and scrape a draw.
The tiebreak did not go Jonah's way, but he was pretty excited about his giant second place trophy and a job well done. Even with the occasional piece blunder and confusion about the rules, Jonah at times shows remarkable maturity in his play. This tournament raised his rating over 1300, a mark achieved with little training and study. [It didn't hold up over his next few tournaments but I'm sure he'll be back on the rise soon] Yes, Uncle Joel is there for him, but with all of his other interests, Jonah has not called on his ace-in-the-hole very often.
Jonah is a great kid, not only talented but very funny and charming (not that I'm biased or anything). I really enjoyed our uncle-nephew bonding. My own son Aidan is the spitting image of Jonah; their baby pictures could easily be confused. Aidan is still years from playing in tournaments, and indeed, may never go that route. With a family loaded with chess genes (my mother, father, and uncle played in USCF tournaments; my wife Deborah and most of her siblings have played competitively as well) I believe he will likely have a knack for chess. So someday...I just hope he will like Quiznos, too.
Also see the aforementioned Robert Bernard's piece on chess fatherhood, A Chess Dad's Philadelphia Story and the most recent blog by chess mom & volunteer, Melinda Matthews.