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Stepping Stones to 2500 at the U.S. Chess School Print E-mail
By Samir Sen   
August 20, 2015
Above the beautiful Seattle waterfront, 12 promising young players congregated with chess sets, clocks, and some notebooks. Aside from some Blitz and Bughouse, there was no tournament here. Instead, we gathered to train and collaborate for an intense, but exciting four days.

When I heard that the U.S. Chess School was coming to Seattle, I have to say I got a little excited. I knew it was a rare opportunity and as a high school senior this may be my last chance to attend. I'm glad I got to learn and improve in the camp.

Each morning players could breathe in the cool air by the Seattle dock or take a little stroll around the bay. This was really refreshing - witnessing the calmness of the surrounding atmosphere. When training began, however, the scene intensified.  

The group included Aaron Grabinsky, Bryce Tiglon, Joey Kelley, Samir Sen (yours truly), Agata Bykovtsev, Kyle Haining, Megan Lee, Noah Fields, Samuel and Daniel He, Becca Lampman, and Josiah Stearman. With an average rating above 2200 from four states, the playing strength of the camp was high.

Aaron, an Oregonian aged 17, was the highest rated player at the camp at 2338. Often during class, Aaron came up with interesting ideas in complex positions. He loves the French defense.

Bryce (age 15, 2306) is a resident of Seattle. He has been a member of the all-American chess team and represented the United States in the 2012 and 2014 World Youth events. He's an ardent soccer fan.

Joey was an interesting participant in the camp because he was the only person from Kansas. Recently awarded the National Master title, Joey is the 4th highest rated player in his state overall and this includes adults.

I (Samir) am a master from Vancouver, Washington and will be attending Stanford this fall. It was my first time at the chess school. Recently, I won the 12th grade National Championship in Florida.

Agata (age 15, 2172) has an impressive history of chess achievements. From Southern California, she most recently competed in the Women's U.S. Championship. Aside from winning gold and silver medals respectively in the 2014 and 2015 Pan-American Championships, Agata enjoys surfing, math, and playing the violin.

Kyle may have been one of the youngest in the group but his chess experience was not limited. He's a 4 time scholastic state champion and he holds both the 2012 K-6 and 2015 K-9 National Blitz titles.

Megan was the oldest member at camp. Aged 19, she will be a sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design studying Industrial Design. I noticed that while Megan was one of the most composed and thoughtful participants, she was by far the best Bughouse player at the camp. Everyone was jumping in to be partners with her!

Agata Bykovtsev and Megan Lee

Noah (age 15, 2104) recently won the Washington State HS Championship and will be representing Washington at the Denker tournament. He plays an array of sports, including varsity football and basketball.

Samuel and Daniel He are identical twins from Seattle. At first, Greg expected them to give similar responses to puzzles analyzed in class. But, soon enough we found out that each had their own distinct flavor. Both strong masters, I would advise watching out for these dynamic twins.

Becca is also from Vancouver. She won the U18 All-Girls National Championships earlier this year and is going to college next year. She says she will continue to be actively playing through college.

Lastly, but not least is young Josiah Stearman. Aged 11, Josiah was the youngest member at camp. He brought a youthful optimism and playfulness that always lightened the mood and he gave us cool insider tips into a variant chess called "Decline Chess". Josiah is already rated 2137 and he came to camp ready to take his game to the next level.

Stepping Stone #1: Intuition training and enhancing creativity

IM Greg Shahade

Over the four days, we received instruction from IM Greg Shahade, IM Giorgi Orlov, and GM Gregory Serper.  In the beginning, I was not so sure how much I could improve in the limited time. But after soaking in the lessons and advice, I realized that learning about the steps I can take to become a stronger player was most important. The chess school provided concepts and ideas to work on and adopt, which can help developing players break through to the 2400 and 2500 levels.

We start with a unique training exercise that stretches your intuition. This time our coach was IM Greg Shahade.

Intuition Puzzle

White to move
During the first day, Greg gave each of us a packet of 60 positions similar to this one and allowed us 30 minutes to solve them all. The idea was to test our intuition. We had little time to think and thus, had to side with our gut judgement.
1. g4!
Applause if you found this move! If you guessed 1. h4, you are not alone. White wants to open the h-file to the king and direct checkmate on h7. The only problem is that after 1. h4, white
doesn't open the file because of 1... g4! White cleverly stops this defense
and opens all files to the king.
1...Bxg4 2. h4! g6
2... Bxf3 3. hxg5+ Bxh1 4.Qh2+ Kg8 5. Qh7#
3. hxg5+ Kg7 4. Nf6 Bxe3+ 5. Kb1 Bxg5 6. Nxg4
And black can resign.

After going over the answers to the 60-puzzle intuition test, we encountered this interesting and very complex position.

Endgame Composition


At first, it seems like white is just up a rook and a pawn. But it's not so simple. How can white prevent black from promoting and what would you play?
1.h3+! Kh4
The king has no good squares! Find white's best move! (1... Kf3 runs into 2. Rf7+ Ke4 3. Ng5+ Kd3 4. Nf3) (1... Kf5 2. Nd4+ Bxd4 3. Re7 Be5 4.Rxe5+! Kxe5 5. f4+! Most of us missed this move which wins the game instantly. Kxf4 6. Kf2 e1=Q+ 7. Kxe1 Kg3 8. a4)
2. Rd4+! Bxd4 3. Nxd4 e1=Q+4. Kg2
A rare occurence where even promotion with check is not enough to save black's queen!
4...Qe4+ 5. Nf3+ Qxf3+
And black resigned.
6. Kxf3 Kxh3 7. a4

The take away was that sometimes the craziest ideas are worth considering, especially in high stakes situations. Studying positions like this can help players broaden their vision and become more creative when it comes time to show an opponent what you're made of.

Stepping Stone #2: Study the games of great chess players

GM Gregory Serper

The next lecture was taught by GM Gregory Serper. Once a contemporary to the top 10 in the world, Serper's lessons were unique as he did not focus any specific strategic concept. Instead, he recounted stories about the critical moments in his chess development and related them to us. He brought with him his antique notebooks, filled with analysis he had done decades ago when computers were a rare availability. At one point, one of us asked what his favorite part about chess was living in Russia. He recalled that he enjoyed studying with Kasparov in the Botvinnik - Kasparov School for talented youth. All of this helped us gauge a more serious approach to chess and also made us feel privileged to be training where we were.

Throughout the lesson, Serper emphasized the importance of studying other players' games. He started with the following example. Found in his local newspaper, Serper had initially analyzed this game just for fun. Then, he became intrigued with the final result.

Klaric, Zlatko
Gavric, Miladin


Here he asked us if we thought white could win this. As you may have guessed, we did not.
22. f4 Nd7 23. Kf3
So far white is playing normal moves - his only plan is to gradually attack on the kingside.
23...h5 24. a3 Be7 25. Nc3 Nb8 26. Ke4 g6 27. Ne2 Nc6 28. Bd2
There is no rush,
but white eventually wants to play h3 - g4 - and f5.
28...Kf8 29. Bc3 Ke8 30. h3 Kd7
So far it seems like black's position is still solid.
31. g4 hxg4 32.hxg4 a6 33. Nc1 Nd8 34. Nd3 Kc6 35. f5 gxf5+ 36. gxf5 exf5+ 37. Kxf5 Ne6 38.Nf4 Nxf4 39. Kxf4
Here Serper asked us to evaluate the position once again and this time half the class thought white was now clearly better. So where did black go wrong? Before answering that question, let's see how the game finished up.
39...b5 40. b3 Bd8 41. Kf5 Kd7
The c5 and f7 pawns are two big weaknesses.
42. Bd2 Bh4 43. Be3 Be7 44. a4 bxa4 45. bxa4 Bf8 46. Kf6 Ke8 47.Bg5 Be7+ 48. Kf5 Bf8 49. Ke4 Kd7 50. Kd5 Kc7 51. Be3 Kb6 52. Bxc5+
and Black resigned
After the game, Serper told us that whenever you find yourself in a worse position, you must always try to find the source of your problems. As it turns out in this game, the source of black's problems was allowing the h3-g4-f5 breakthrough. All of black's troubles could have been eliminated had
he played ... f5 himself on move 24. Let's see how Serper used this seemingly small lesson over 15 years later. 1-0
Miles, A-Serper

1. Nf3 d5 2. b3 Bg4 3. e3 Nd7 4. Bb2 e6 5. Be2 Ngf6 6. d3 h6 7. Nbd2 Be7 8. e4
dxe4 9. dxe4 O-O 10. O-O Qc8 11. Nd4 Bxe2 12. Qxe2 c5 13. N4f3 Qc6 14. c4 Rfd8
15. e5 Ne8 16. Rfd1 Rac8 17. Ne4 Nb8 18. g3 Rxd1+ 19. Rxd1 Rd8 20. Rxd8 Bxd8
21. Qd3 Be7 22. Nfd2 Qd7 23. Qxd7 Nxd7 24. f4

Here Serper wasplaying GM Miles in the last round of the 1999 World Open. All he needed was a
draw to clinch a piece of 1st place. What should black play?
After studying Gavric's slow, grinding loss, Serper knew exactly what to do to avoid any turmoil and secure the draw.
25. Nc3 g5 26. Kf2 Kf7 27. Nf3 g4 28. Ne1 Nc7 29. Bc1 Nb8 30. Be3 Ke8 31. Nd3 b6 32. Ke2 Kd7 33. Kd2 Kc6 34. Kc2 Bf8 35. a3 a5 36. Bd2 Be7

And here both opponents agreed to a draw and Serper won the tournament. This example gave us a lasting impression of how important studying top players' games and creating a mini database of ideas and patterns is. Even analysis that is done years ago may come in handy some day and no good chess work is wasted! 1/2-1/2

Stepping Stone #3: No plan is worst of all

Like Serper, IM Giorgi Orlov gave us a lesson about keeping a strong mindset in chess. While Serper talked about professionalism in studying and improving, Orlov demonstrated what it means to have a plan. 

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.Be2 Nge7 7.Na3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Nc2 Nb4 10.Nxb4 Bxb4+ 11.Bd2 Qa5 12.a3 Bxd2+ 13.Qxd2 Qxd2+ 14.Kxd2


What is your plan as white?
14...f6 15.Rac1
 Technically speaking, the position played correctly should be a draw. To win, white needs to pose problems to his opponent and force him to think about his moves. Anand starts with the innocuous looking Rac1.
15...Ne7 16.b4!

White is consistent with his plan of expanding on the queenside and already Rc7 is a threat!
16...Kd8 17.Bd3 Rc8 18.Rxc8+
 There is no point playing a move like Rc5 - the trade is inevitable.
18...Nxc8 19.g4!

Anand takes the opportunity to create more weaknesses. Can you guess white's immediate threat? 19...h6
19...Ne7 If black plays this "normal" move, white can immediately gain the e5 square for his knight. 20.exf6 gxf6 21.g5! f5 22.Ne5
Now white is clearly dominating. As you can see, the position isn't so simple; both players need to be thinking on their feet. 20.Nh4 Ne7 21.f4 White's next idea is to undermine black's center and continue to try to make some weaknesses on the kingside. 21...a6 22.Rf1 Bb5 23.f5! All this time, black played sort of waiting moves while white prepared this pawn break. It's already evident that black has no plan.
23...h5 24.Ng6 Nxg6

Diagram # Find the best move!
25.exf6! gxf6
25...Nh4 26.fxg7 Rg8 27.f6
26.fxg6 Ke7 27.g5!

White finally achieves what he set out to do: control e5!
27...f5 28.Bxb5 axb5 29.Rc1 Kd6 30.Ke3 Rg8 31.Kf4 b6 32.Rc3! Rxg6 33.Rh3! Rg8 34.Rxh5 Rc8 35.g6 Rc4 36.Rg5 Rxd4+ 37.Ke3 Re4+ 38.Kf2 1-0

This lesson was instructive to me as most players would agree to a draw relatively quickly from the initial positon. Seeing how Anand followed a simple plan and caused his opponent (who, conversely, had no plan) significant problems motivates me to play for the win no matter how drawish a position may seem - and, of course, to always have a plan.

Stepping Stone #4: Openings might be important after all

The last thing we talked about was how to approach openings. Earlier in the camp, Serper explained that at our level, openings should account for approximately 20 percent of our chess study and the rest should be utilized to improve tactical vision and of course, study the games of world champions.

Greg Shahade, however, slightly disagreed. He claimed that opening work should account for 20 percent only once a player already had a solid repertoire. And thus began our discussion on how to achieve a fighting position out of the first 10 - 15 moves.

As we analyzed our individual games from recent tournaments, Greg noted that some of our opening choices would not stand up very well against players at the IM level and higher. We either tried to avoid main line continuations and opt into not-so-established pet lines or entered into uncomfortable territory where our higher rated opponents were simply better prepared. To fix this problem, Greg showed us what he does to prepare.

In any opening, Greg usually looks at least 10-20 related games played by strong players to get a feel for the positions. Then, ChessBase or a similar program is necessary. Greg showed us a way to create a separate reference database containing the games of all players rated above 2400 from the past 3 to 4 years. Using the reference, we took a look at what the most popular continuations in a few openings are. What we found was that studying these popular lines will lead to positions that are sometimes dynamic and sometimes more solid, but they will always produce positions that allow some nice, fighting chess. To remember these lines most players play many Blitz and Bullet games online. But if you're a fanatic (like Greg), you can download the notecard app on your smartphone and quiz yourself on key positions.


And so there they are - four concepts to work on to breakthrough to the next level. I would like to thank Greg Shahade for organizing this edition of the U.S. Chess School in Seattle. The event wouldn't be possible without the support of Dr. Jim Roberts and the Scheinberg Family and I would like to thank them as well for sponsoring and hosting us in the humble Matrix Genetics.

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone who has supported me through my chess endeavors, especially my parents and former coach, Gregory Serper. Without them, I could not be wherever little I am today.

So as the sun set over the misty shoreline, the camp concluded and 12 young players receded back into their homes. But alas, their fun was not over - they gained a new-found inspiration, a drive to reach new heights. And that was the beginning of a new adventure. 

Find out more about the US Chess School on their website , Facebook page, YouTube Channel and also see David Brodsky's article on another USCS session this summer, in New York City.