USCF Home arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2009 arrow January arrow U.S. Chess School Comes to Arizona: Part II
U.S. Chess School Comes to Arizona: Part II Print E-mail
By Elizabeth Vicary   
January 28, 2009
Steven Zierk
Part I of U.S. Chess School Comes to Arizona included a lesson on queen sacrifice by the coach of the eighth USCS session, reigning U.S. Champion GM Yury Shulman. There was also a list of books recommended by Shulman and a math quiz. (Look for answers below.) In this part, Elizabeth Vicary introduces the nine participants of the camp.

Steven Zierk’s chess progress has followed an unusual trajectory. Within two years of playing in his first tournament, Steven was rated 1500 and ranked among the top eight-year-olds in the country. But then he stopped playing for four years, (“I just didn’t have the patience for chess anymore”) and only returned to the game in December 2006. Since then, he’s been making up for lost time, gaining rating points in 38 of the 40 tournaments he has played. His rating is currently 2310, and he’s ranked fourth among 15-year-olds in the country.

Steven describes his chess style as “dynamic” and likes “aggressive positions and endgames, positions where I can make a raw calculation and decide what to do, positions where I can try to force my opponent to make a mistake, and positions with some form of imbalance.” He especially enjoys rook endgames: “They say all rook endgames are drawn, and that makes people think so. I think because of that, I’ve won a lot of them.” He is working on improving his positional understanding and play in closed positions and is trying to gain more familiarity with different types of positions and pawn structures.

Steven credits a lot of his progress to working with Michael Aigner, whose formative lessons gave Steven a solid opening repertoire and taught him the importance of analyzing his own games.  Steven’s favorite chess books include Basic Chess Endings (Fine), The World’s Greatest Chess Games (Nunn, Emms, Burgess), and Art of the Middlegame (Keres and Kotov).

Steven’s other two interests are math and Tae Kwon Do.  He is already taking calculus as a sophomore in high school and enjoys studying for math competitions.  Last year, as a freshman, he had the top score in his high school on the American Invitational Math Examination (AIME); this year he hopes to goal to qualify for the US Math Olympiad. I asked what similarities Steven saw between math and chess and he agreed there were some: both require a similar set of pattern recognition skills, and in both you need to plan how you approach a problem.

In Tae Kwon Do, Steven is working on his third degree black belt and is a teacher at his dojo. He began practicing Tae Kwon Do at age eight. As he explained to me,  “when I stopped playing chess, I needed a new hobby.” I asked how directly he thought they could substitute for each other, how similar or different or complementary they seemed. Steven shifted the comparison in a surprising way:  “Both chess and martial arts require focus and patience, but I think that a better comparison is between Tae Kwon Do and bullet chess, since in both you have to out-think your opponent so quickly."

Steven’s called this draw against GM Varuzhan Akobian at the North American Open his best game ever.

Kevin Zhang
“I like playing any endgame that’s completely equal”
Kevin Zhang, on his favorite part of chess.

Kevin Zhang had a very different chess background from the majority of the camp’s participants.  “I made 2100 without any opening theory at all,” he explained, “just with simple tactical ideas and solid endgames. I would get horrible positions out of the opening and then have to fight back in the middlegame.” Recently, Kevin got Chessbase, and has begun learning some openings with the help of his coach, Robby Adamson. Still, he isn’t enthusiastic about theory, describing it mournfully as “like a research project that never ends.”

Kevin describes himself as a “solid” and “positional” player, who especially enjoys nurturing small advantages in balanced positions. His immediate goal is to reach master by the end of the next school year (which seems almost unambitious, since he’s only 40 points away.) To do this, he practices on ICC 30 minutes a day and plays in as many tournaments as he can.

Of all the students I spoke with, Kevin was one of the most articulate about how chess has affected his life and habits. He described how it has helped him with school by increasing his patience and stamina during long tests. “It’s also made me more confident in making plans generally” he added. "And I think often teenagers are impulsive about things, but chess has helped me look harder for the consequences of my actions.”

Gregory Young
I had profiled Gregory Young only five months earlier, at the last US Chess School, so our conversation at this camp was mostly about what had happened to him since then. Applying to high school has taken up a lot of his time, so he has not been playing as much chess as he would like. He hopes and believes that will change soon.

I asked him a few more questions, but it was at the end of a long day, and nothing seemed to be generating interesting answers, so Greg Shahade interjected, “Did you solve Yury’s problem from yesterday?”



Show Solution

During the blitz tournament the previous day, Yury had sat on the patio of the Adelberg’s house, and students would go out to sit with him for an individual evaluation when they had their scheduled bye. In between and during these consultations, Yury gave a few puzzles to Greg (Shahade), the students, and myself. Greg takes puzzle solving very seriously; unfortunately, after a long editorial disagreement, we have been unable to agree on how long it took him to solve this endgame. 
Gregory, however, was stumped. At least, until he talked to his mom…

“I did solve it!” he replied to Greg’s question, “I got it that night at midnight. I tried for 20 minutes at the party, and couldn’t see the idea, but then the solution just came to me while I was talking to my mom on the phone.”

“Did your mom realize you were solving a chess problem? Could you have a conversation with her at the same time?”

“Oh, she didn’t notice. She was telling me what she and my sister had been doing that day. I could follow both.”

Gregory’s favorite game is his defeat of Daniel Yeager at last year’s US Junior, where he tied for first with Tyler Hughes.

Darwin Yang
“To play cello, you have to have a certain level of maturity. Chess is different. To play chess, you have to control your emotions, but still retain them. For example, sometime in a game, I’ll make a mistake, and then it’s hard to keep playing. Sometimes it’s physically painful. Many times I was feeling really bad, and I wanted to kick chess to the dumpster. But I just kept going, and I’m doing pretty good right now.”

This was Darwin Yang’s answer to my question about whether he sees any similarities between his two hobbies, chess and cello. It left me almost speechless: at 11, Darwin seems to have figured out how to deal with losing in a way most adults never manage. I asked if he thought playing chess had affected his personality, and his response was equally considered: “I don’t quite remember… but I think it’s made me more of a modest person. When you have great achievements and these lows, it makes you a stronger person.”

Darwin’s maturity is also evident in his playing style: “I like positional chess,” he explained to me. “While people like saying that my calculation is good, I don’t like positions where I’m being attacked. I prefer maneuvering play.” He wants to improve his ability to evaluate positions: “Lots of times I calculate variations but then misevaluate them. I’m also trying to play more aggressively and feel less insecure when I’m defending.” Darwin’s goal is to make GM by age 14 or 15 (maybe 16, he added afterwards, cautiously). His best result was at the most recent World Youth in Vietnam, where he won the bronze medal in the Boys Under 12. His favorite game was a win over Marko Zivanic.

Darwin’s favorite part of the camp was the “outpouring of everyone’s ideas. It’s like people’s ideas are the ingredients and you put them into a pot and everyone can enjoy it.” This was his third US Chess School, and he feels the experiences have been invaluable: “It’s just such an event, and it’s impossible for it not to have an effect on you afterwards.”

Andrew Ng
Andrew Ng is one of the happiest and most vivacious people I have met in a long time. Always smiling, he talks quickly and enthusiastically, first going into detail about one idea and then switching subjects at dizzying speed. His brain seems always to be going at top speed—in this way he reminded me a lot of another former USCS student, Sam Shankland. Andrew calculates so quickly that I found myself unable to keep up in class, not only with his ideas, but sometimes even with the words he was saying. Unsurprisingly, he named tactics and calculation as his biggest strengths.

Asked if he plays on ICC, Andrew grew suddenly serious as he explained “I quit ICC. I felt that it didn’t really help me much.” There was a slight pause, then his eyes lit up and he continued, “Last summer I played all the time. Maybe 12 hours a day. I was addicted to bughouse and bullet. But then one day I just decided ‘That’s enough.’ And I stopped.” Now Andrew tries to make time to study chess at least 20 minutes a day, but finds the increased workload of high school makes this difficult. On the weekends, he has more time and plays in tournaments as often as he can, averaging 2-3 per month. 

Andrew was one of the easiest students to interview, since he was unfazed by even the most abstract question and has a favorite in every category I could think of. Some examples:

White opening: The slow Two Knights/Guioco Piano
Black opening: Dragon
Move: Rxc3 in the Dragon
Study method: Reading Kasparov’s annotated games from his matches with Karpov and making or reviewing opening files
Chess book: My Great Predecessors, and books one and two of Revolution in the 70s.
Other hobbies: tennis, basketball, pingpong*, video games, Facebook
*Greg Shahade has asked me to mention his disappointment in Andrew’s ping-pong abilities, as evidenced in their match score of 12-7 during the blitz party. (Greg dismissed accusations that he repeatedly cheated by engaging Andrew in conversation and then serving while Andrew was mid-sentence as “unprovable.”)

Kassa Korley
“If anything, the camp taught me how much I didn’t know”
                -- Kassa Korley, on the US Chess School

Pressed harder for specifics, Kassa described how impressed he was with Shulman’s resourcefulness when they were analyzing Kassa’s game (Each student at the US Chses School presents an instructive loss to the whole group.):  “Even when I was losing, he was always finding ways to put more fight in the position,” Kassa remembered. “I think it’s a common problem for me, and maybe for many people—you think you are lost before it’s really true, because it makes you look better when there was nothing you could have done.”

The US Chess School was one of Kassa’s first experiences studying chess with a strong player. Until recently, he did not have Chessbase or many books, but taught himself (and reached master!) by playing over grandmaster games on Kassa tries to study an hour every day and play frequently at the Marshall Chess Club, but school work and the basketball team at Dalton also take up a lot of his time.

When asked to describe his style, Kassa refused to categorize himself, explaining, “I wouldn’t describe myself as positional, or tactical, or even as an e4 or d4 player. I’m not ready to describe myself as a chess player yet; I’m still discovering my style, experimenting. One day I’ll play aggressively, the day my style might be totally different.”

Conrad Holt
Growing up in Kansas, Conrad Holt hasn’t had many opportunities to play in big tournaments or study with strong players. The US Chess School was his first camp ever. To make up for this isolation, Conrad plays fanatically on ICC, often for hours a day. Blitz has become a major part of his study routine— after each 5 minute game, he looks up the openings. (Camp organizer Greg Shahade is also a big fan of this study method.)

Conrad describes his style as positional, preferring “closed positions where you can gradually prepare pawn breaks.” He wants to work on his calculation, and notes he has strange blind spots: “In the last month, I blundered two mate-in-ones and a bishop. I had one position where I had a king on h6 and a pawn on g6. My opponent had a pawn on h4, a queen on a7, and a bishop on e4. There were other pieces too, but those are the important ones. I played g6-g5, allowing Qh7#. I think it’s because I play on such a small board on ICC, so I don’t see these long range moves.” When I first heard this, I suspected he was exaggerating: Conrad seemed to be one of the strongest players and fastest calculators in camp. But his words started to make more sense to me after I’d been around Conrad for a few more days: he does give the impression of being intensely focused and then suddenly distracted, or sometimes he seems to calculate a difficult line with speed and precision, and then miss something simple.
Conrad learned the moves from his father at age eight, and began playing in tournaments 4 years ago. His best results were all in 2008, when he won the US Cadet, the National High School Blitz Championship, and $12,000 by tying for first in the Under 2200 section of the World Open. I asked him what he spent his prize on and got what was probably the funniest response to any interview question all week: “I haven’t spent any of it because I’m too lazy. I think of myself as taking instant gratification to the extreme… I’d rather just stay home and play on ICC.”

His other hobbies include playing the piano, playing video games, and computer programming. I asked him if he saw any similarities between learning chess and learning the piano. He answered that both kinds of studying are similar in that you have to recognize where you messed up and then work specifically on those parts, but different in the sense that with piano, you get to decide when you are doing it well enough, whereas in chess, your next opponent decides.

At age 9, Conrad was given a book about the computer language JAVA and learned it on his own, asking his parents only occasional questions. (“I had to get my mom to explain what a variable was.”) Next, he taught himself PERL, and then took classes in Visual Basic and C++.

This programming has come in handy in multiple ways. In my favorite example,  Conrad’s social studies teacher gave the class a labor-intensive assignment to look up the area and population of each of Kansas’ 105 counties, and then compute the population density of each one. Instead of doing this by hand, like everyone else, Conrad wrote a program that would directly read the code from a geographical statistics website, extract the relevant numbers for each county, compute the population densities, and express the results in a chart. He’s also written programs for his father that extracts and organizes data from USCF crosstables.

Here is one of Conrad's games, against Dmitry Gurevich.

Luke Harmon
  I first met Luke Harmon last June at the 6th US Chess School. A last minute invite, he was the youngest and lowest rated of the students, but it quickly became clear that he was one of the strongest. Since then, he’s continued his intensive daily study routine, broken 2000, and turned ten. At the more recent US Chess School, he continued to shine, standing out especially because of his encyclopedic knowledge of endgames. 

Luke describes himself as “good at tactics and endgames.” He added, “I am also an attacking player. I feel that my best points are my good memory and my study skills. I also really love to find creative ways to play my games, so I try hard to think of some interesting moves during my games. I also have good time-management skills, so I do not get very nervous when I get low on time. I am not afraid to play up in Open Sections- that’s all I ever play in now. I am also really good at playing accurate moves fast when I am low on time- usually better than my opponent, so that has been a big advantage in some games.” He feels he needs to work on openings in order to improve, and, on Yury’s advice, has decided to annotate every game he plays (“even if it is a 1-minute game on ICC”!)

Luke thinks chess has taught him patience and concentration. He described how “on school tests, I take all the time I need to answer difficult questions. I think for a long time sometimes until I am sure of the right answer.” I also asked Luke if there was anything about himself he was trying to change in order to become a better chessplayer-- I didn’t really expect the question would even make sense to a 10-year-old, but his answer was impressively thoughtful: “I am hoping to become better at not being influenced by what other players say about my games. Sometimes, they are right but sometimes their analysis is wrong. I am learning to analyze my games deeper myself, so that I can have a better idea of where I can improve on my own.”

At the US Chess School, Luke especially enjoyed the lessons on sacrificing material for initiative when you are defending, and the positional game, Larsen–Donner.

Other favorites: “Kasparov is my favorite chess player because he is an aggressive, attacking player. My favorite book is the one I am reading now, Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual. My favorite opening is the Ruy Lopez. I like rook endgames.”

Luke’s other interests include math, swimming, reading, and competing in the National Science Bowl. He described how he likes studying math the same way he studies chess: “I really like to study right out of books, using just my mind to think of the concepts that I am trying to learn. So I study chess books by playing out the positions and variations in my head instead of using a chessboard. And I study math by doing the problems without pen and paper.”

Luke also helps teach at his parent’s chess academy, Vellotti’s Chess Kids, where he plays simuls, speed challenges, and blindfold chess against the other students. He explains, “I am up to playing three blindfold games at the same time, although it is hard to hold that many positions in my head. I also help my dad create puzzle workbooks, and I like to grade worksheets and workbooks too. I also like to listen to the chess stories that my dad tells the class, and I still like to solve the hard puzzles in our advanced class.”

Luke lives in Idaho, which means he and his parents have to travel frequently in order for him to play in strong tournaments. They have set up a website ( ) to help friends and sponsors support Luke and follow his progress. Luke is currently saving money in the hopes of playing in the 2009 World Youth Championship in Turkey.

David Adelberg
David Adelberg

Since our conversation at the last USCS, David Adelberg has been caught up with schoolwork. For the first semester of sixth grade, he attended an intensive and demanding charter junior high school that left him little time for chess. Despite this, he managed an impressive performance at the World Youth in Vietnam, finishing 19th, with 6.5/11. David felt he could have done even better, as he was tied for first place after nine rounds, but got tired towards the end. “I played many long games,” he explained. “I think only one was under 40 moves, the rest were mostly 50-60 moves. My longest game was 99 moves.” His favorite game was his eighth round win over Russian Candidate Master Mikhail Antipov.

He was also very proud to be a part of the US team’s bronze medal in the Boys Under 12 section, with friends Darwin Yang and Jarod Pamatmat. More recently, David tied for first in the K-6 Blitz Championship at the 2008 Grade Nationals.

David really enjoyed both sessions of the USCS. Like many other students, he found it hard to directly compare Kaidanov and Shulman as teachers, but noted that the students in the second camp were stronger and more calculation was required, which meant the second camp felt more challenging. Of all the lesson topics, David mentioned the opposite-colored bishop endings as the most enlightening (“I realized they were so much more winnable than I thought.”) Yury had shown us one example that stuck in my mind particularly: Karpov’s seemingly effortless victory over Alterman in an opposite colored bishop and rook ending, which starts on move 28. 

David mentioned being impressed by Yury’s resourcefulness and optimism in bad positions. In his game that David had shown the group, he noticed how Yury kept finding aggressive ideas long after David had mentally written the position off as lost. Several other students, including Kassa and Steven, also picked out this emphasis on the importance of determination and fighting spirit as one of the most useful lessons of the camp.
I feel very lucky to be able to observe the US Chess School sessions. I’m sure I speak for all the participants in thanking Greg Shahade, Jim Roberts and the AF4C, Yury Shulman, Alan Anderson, Dan Adelberg, and the Ancala Country Club.

Answers to Part I Math Quiz: Congrats to Megan Lee, the third highest rated 12-year-old girl in the country
for being the first to answer all the questions correctly.

1.Someone ties a piece of string around the earth at the equator. Then one meter is added to the length of the string. How far off the earth’s surface would the string lie (if gravity was inverted, say)?

Some variables s = original string, s' = new, longer string, r= radius of earth, r' = radius of new circle (earth + distance off earth that string adds) s = (pi) x 2 x r (formula for circumference), s’ = s + 1 = pi x 2) x r’length off earth = r’ – r = (s+1)/ 2(pi) – s/ 2 x pi = 1/ (2 x pi) s'-s = 1/ (2 x pi)  Here I am just replacing r' and r with the first circumference formula, and then combining terms to solve.   Strangely, it turns out to be irrelevant how big the object you are wrapping is. If the above explanation is confusing, read this.

2.    Behind one door is a treasure; behind the other is a tiger. There are two advisors eager to help you choose Door A or Door B: one always lies, the other always tells the truth. You may ask the Liar and the Truth-teller each one question, although, of course, you don’t know which is which. How do you find out which door leads to the treasure?  Correction 1/23: The puzzle can be solved by asking just one of the advisors a question.

You ask “which door would the other person tell me to open?” and then you do the opposite.

3.    Take a chess board and a box of dominoes. Remove two far corner squares, say a1 and h8. If each domino covers a 2x1 square, can you find a way to arrange 31 dominos to cover the 62 square chess board?

It’s impossible—the proof is that each domino must cover one light and one dark square, but the two squares you removed are both the same color.

4.    If you drove from Point A to Point B at 30 mph, how fast would you have to drive back to average 60 mph, roundtrip?

It’s also impossible. Imagine you drive 30 mph over 30 miles and it takes you one hour. To average 60 mph you would have to make the return trip instantly.

5.    A bookworm starts eating an encyclopedia. The inner pages of each book measure 1 inch across, and the front and back cover are each 1/8 of an inch. Worm begins at the first page of the first volume and eats its way to the last page of the 20th volume. If Worm eats at a rate of 1 inch per day, how long does this take?

You have to think about how books are arranged on shelves to solve this. The first page of volume one is actually on the right, so you do not need to chew through the pages of the first volume to reach the second. Also, you don’t have to eat through the 20th volume to reach the last page. Time = 18 * 1 (pages) + 1/8 * 2* 18 (both covers of vol 2-19) + 1/8 *2 (front cover of vol 1+ back cover of vol 20) = 22.75 hours

Check out part I of this article
, and a story on Vicary's award for last year's article on the New Jersey USCS with links to much of her other work. Go to for information on past and future sessions. For more on GM Yury's Shulman chess coaching activities, go to where you can also find out about two camps he is running this summer in Chicago.