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Matan on Learning: A New Chess You in 2014 Print E-mail
By Matan Prilleltensky   
January 16, 2014
The K-12 Championships site, Photo Frank Johnson
This December, the K-12 NYC public school where I teach chess (NEST+m) won the 2nd grade and 9th grade National Championships. I would like to share some elements of our preparation and post-tournament work so that CLO readers can use them in their own training.

I. Preparation

Tactics and Calculation

I believe chess improvement has two broad components: Increasing skill, and increasing knowledge. Increasing knowledge involves building your mental database of patterns that you can access during your games. For example, if you study key examples of middlegames with bishops of opposite colors, you will have more patterns and ideas to draw upon when they appear in your games. Increasing skill is more like what athletes call practice: You take a skill you use in tournament games and practice it so your ability to perform that skill improves. We all calculate variations in our games. If you solve tactics problems that require visualization, you are practicing your ability to calculate. Naturally there is considerable overlap between skill and knowledge. When you solve tactics problems, you are probably accumulating patterns in addition to calculating variations. 

Many tournament players concentrate on increasing knowledge to the near-complete exclusion of increasing skill. There are a wide variety of reasons for this, but I suspect the main one is that working with knowledge tends to be fun, while working on skill can feel like work. The problem, of course, is that both are necessary for competitive success. This past summer, I played in the World Open and DC International, with indifferent results. Prior to the tournament, I had spent a great deal of time learning a new opening, and neglected to work on calculation. In my post-tournament analysis, I identified this is a key mistake. Although I scored well with the new opening, it only appeared in 4 (of 18) games. On the other hand, I had to calculate variations every move of every game, and my rust told.

After this experience, I resolved to focus on skill training in tournament preparation moving forwards. Most days, and particularly with tournaments approaching, I solve problems from Maxim Blokh’s “Combinative Motifs”, highly recommended to me by my coach, GM Alex Stripunsky. Results followed – since the end of the World Open, I have gained over 70 rating points (some old, some new) and broken 2300 USCF for the first time.

At the beginning of the school year, I decided this lesson was equally important for my students involved with tournament chess. Every morning at 7:30, the most serious players at NEST+m come to my classroom for a “zero period” competitive chess class. Almost every single day, they receive tactics homework. We have been working through “Improve Your Chess Tactics” by Yakov Neishtadt – another recommendation from Alex – and going over the homework problems the following day. Since many of the students are strong tournament players, the patterns themselves are not always new. The key is the processes of calculating variations and finding key forcing moves in tactical situations. (Edit: After going over their games, I believe the latter is even more important than the former).

It would be silly to attribute winning the 9th grade National Championship exclusively to work on tactical skill. Any teacher knows how many variables go into academic or competitive performance. We entered the tournament with the strongest 9th grade team, and our players performances generally reflected their top seeding. But because this is a chess website, and I am discussing skill focused practice, I am happy to offer some examples of fluent tactical play from our top scoring 9th graders. Don’t skip ahead to the answers - I suggest you use these positions for tactical training yourselves!

Jack Wen played on the top boards throughout the tournament, finishing with 4.5/7 and not losing until the final round.

Brandon Huang vs. Jack Wen, rd. 2

Black to Move

This comes from a key head to head match with Stuyvesant, the eventual 2nd place finisher. White has just played 24.Qe5, threatening to take on d5. How should black respond to the threat?

Show Solution

Jack Wen vs. Corey Riegelhaupt, rd. 4

White to Move

Black, in time trouble, just played 28…Nd5?!. How should white meet this move?

Show Solution

Jack Wen vs. Pranav Rudra, rd. 5

White to Move

With two exact moves, white can take a serious initiative. How?

Show Solution

Teseo Torras also had a particularly successful event, scoring 4.5/7 with a key win as black in the final round. He found some key tactical resources throughout the tournament.

Connor Keuchel vs. Teseo Torras, rd. 4

White has been better throughout the game, but here a key move for black can turn the tables and let him play for a win.
Black to Move

Show Solution

Teseo Torras vs. Rachael Eng, rd. 6

White to Move

Black just played the risky 16…Bxd4?!, which allowed white to calculate a very promising line.

Show Solution

Amy Tsai vs. Teseo Torras, rd. 7

Black to Move

This key upset virtually locked up first place. Many roads lead to rome, but do you see the most decisive win?

Show Solution

Mubassar Uddin scored a solid 4/7, including the following excerpt:

Mubassar Uddin vs. Jason Li, rd. 4

White to Move

Black has just played 20…d3. How should white react?

Show Solution

I don’t have the my 2nd graders’ scoresheets handy at the moment, which is why I am not including excerpts from their games. But I want to share a trend I noticed: In many games, the players would reach some normal position out of the opening and proceed reasonably enough. Then, at some point in the middlegame, one player would make a tactical omission and the other would pounce on it, gaining a large or winning advantage. Charles Hua and Davis Zong, our two top scorers, seemed to win game after game this way, a testament to the hard work they have been putting into tactics training.

Goal Setting

Another important element of preparation deals with goal setting. Before nationals, a mutual connection put me in touch with Brian Arwari, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Miami. He was able to help me internalize something that frequently gets lost in weekend scholastic competition: The importance of process-oriented, rather than results-oriented, goals. If a student goes into a game at Nationals thinking “I want to score 5.5/7”, this is unhelpful, because it places the focus on the outcome rather than the game. In other words, thinking about 5.5/7 will definitely not help you while you make a key middlegame decision.

Instead, students should set goals based on what is important for them to work on. The more advanced the students are, the more different their goals are likely to be. For example, one 9th grader went in aiming to play more dynamically, another looking to play with confidence, etc. Many of the 2nd graders went in focused on spending as much of their time as possible – a typical goal was to use at least 50% of the allotted time (45 out of 90 minutes), with 66% time usage an aspirational target. These goals support the process of making good moves, because they direct your attention where it is most needed. Many students applied dogged determination to meeting their goals: I was thrilled to see some 2nd graders returning from hard-fought games with less than ten minutes left. Success should be framed in terms of whether the goal was met, rather than the result of the game. So if your goal is to use your time, and you win the equivalent of a blitz game, the game was not successful. This can be hard to accept, especially for children who regard chess as a competitive game where the result is king! (Of course, the lesson is easier to accept when it turns a loss into a successful game). But the more we all practice this mindset, the more natural and convincing it becomes.

Post-Tournament Analysis

Like many New Yorkers, most of my students play a disproportionate amount of g/30, and just a handful of slow tournaments a year. As a result, their Nationals games are unusually valuable sources of information regarding what they need to work on. After the tournament ended, I collected my students’ scorebooks and analyzed their games with Houdini. I made a table for each student that looked like this:

Nationals Results


In the first 4 columns, I would track how a student’s position changed throughout each game. For example, for rd 1, student x might have += as white after the opening but only =+ after the middlegame, indicating that the position deteriorated in the middlegame. The spaces for tactics and strategy would describe the student’s comfort with tactical and strategic play in each game. The idea of categorizing play by stage of game is hardly new – something similar was advocated in Chess for Tigers, by Simon Webb, and The Road to Chess Improvement, by Alex Yermolinsky. I personally learned about it from seeing Alex Stripunsky do this sort of thing with my own games.

Finally, after going over everything, I would make conclusions and discuss them with the student. After conferencing, we would make an individualized study plan for the next few months. For example, one student who is aiming to become less materialistic will be studying Mikhail Tal, while one working toward superior tactical vision is beginning Combinative Motifs.  

I strongly believe in the preparation and study ideas described above – if the students do the work. If students are not motivated to work hard on chess, all the skill-based practice and postgame analysis in the world will be useless. As a teacher, I am incredibly blessed to have an early morning class filled with intellectually curious, ambitious chess players who are hungry to improve. These kids get me up in the morning and make me excited to come to work every single day. They also make me more ambitious about my own chess. For anyone looking to apply these lessons of preparation and post-tournament analysis to self-teaching, the most important precondition is that you commit to being your own best student.

Find the full story on the K-12 Nationals here, along with full results, and Matan's latest CLO contribution on the US Chess School here.