Home Page Chess Life Magazine Kasparov’s Curriculum
|By Macauley Peterson|
|February 20, 2009|
Building upon your strengths is always a smart business strategy. After a few years of steady, top-flight results by our youngest players on the international stage, Garry Kasparov comes to New York to work with a group of America’s best and brightest scholastic chess players.
On the shortest day of 2008, a gray and bitterly cold Sunday in New York, Garry Kasparov arrives in a very good mood. His eight pupils for the day are hard at work on an endgame study he had left for them as a morning warm-up, and now the 13th world champion is eager to show the solution. The Kasparov Chess Foundation’s (KCF’s) Master Class is in session.
The room, on the 25th floor of a midtown office building, is long and narrow with windows lining one wall and a corporate conference table stretching the full length. A large LCD display hangs on the wall at the end of the table which mirrors the laptop at Kasparov’s seat. The kids sit in plush brown leather chairs with six individual display terminals at their disposal, sprinkled around the table. There are no chess sets or demo boards —too slow and unwieldy. The KCF has sponsored five training sessions for talented young Americans over the past few years, but this weekend is unusual for the playing strength of the participants: Alec Getz, Kassa Korley (who was only able to attend on Saturday), Daniel Ludwig, Alisa Melekhina, Mackenzie Molner, Andrew Ng, Ray Robson and Sam Shankland, are all masters. Anna Matlin, the youngest in the room and just shy of a 2000 rating, was also invited to watch. Ranging in age from thirteen to twenty they are a cross section of America’s chess future.
Prior KCF classes were comprised of much larger groups—at first more than twenty, then fifteen—but Kasparov and his long time friend and collaborator Michael Khodarkovsky decided the group was still too big and the gap between the players was too wide. It became difficult to explain certain concepts in a way that was both clear to the weaker players yet instructive to the strongest. Kasparov himself has led every class, and readily agrees that this group stands out from the rest. “This session we moved into smaller groups, to concentrate on the best kids.” The exclusivity of this class has its benefits. “The level of discussion is very high because the average rating of the group is high, and also most of the games they show [are] the games against even stronger players,” he explains. “Everybody speaks, let’s say, the same language.”
After settling in and going over the warm-up exercise, Kasparov decides another study is in order. The students ruminate for a minute, before Kasparov offers them a hint. “Let’s try to attack.” Daniel Ludwig mutters some variation to himself. “What line cowboy?” asks Kasparov. No response. Everyone is hunched over the small screens searching for the answer.
Not even Kasparov has it worked out entirely. “I vaguely remember the final idea, but we still have to get there.”
We would look at several studies during the day, all composed by a Russian chess problemist named Oleg Pervakov for a book in development with Mark Dvoretsky. They’ve given part of the work to Kasparov for review, and as of today’s session he had reviewed about a hundred of the problems, and refuted five.
The next problem, Kasparov explains, is “just something easy and nice. It’s about domination ... an unusual domination.” He quickly sets up the position, flipping virtual pieces at the sixty-four squares like playing cards on a blackjack table.
White to play
Sam Shankland protests, “I heard that in every study every piece has to have a purpose. What is the purpose of the pawn being on a6? Kasparov concedes that this one may not be perfect—the pawn could perhaps be on a2 instead—but that’s not the point.
Sam is the most talkative of the crew, always throwing out variations or cracking jokes. “Last time I had that many extra pawns I was playing my grandma,” he blurts out during one endgame, eliciting giggles. He is tactically sharp with a self-confidence as impressive as his ratings history graph. Credit goes, in part, to the KCF training.
“When someone improves,” Sam told me later, “you can point to a whole bunch of reasons and it’s very hard to single one out as the reason, but I do know that, for better or for worse, I went up from a 2200 to 2450 FIDE IM in less than a year, and [Kasparov] was in the middle of that. And I don’t think that played a small part. It’s probably a bigger part than working with my friends and everything.” I wondered how working with Kasparov compares to working with other grandmasters. Sam indicates it’s a difference of degree, not kind, but he definitely sees a difference. “It’s always good to go over games with strong players, and this guy is the king of strong players.”
Oh yeah. This guy. The short-hand reminds me of another brash and affable player, GM Loek van Wely, who’s been known to refer to his opponents in a similar way. Sam elaborates: “One thing about this guy is he’s a lot faster than any other, and a lot better than any other. ... I remember when I went over my game [against] Alexander Ivanov with him, and I saw this tactic that was maybe fifteen moves deep that I was really proud of, and it led to a better endgame for me. And it took me about twenty to twenty-five minutes to figure it out and I got into time trouble. [Kasparov] looked at the position and about ten seconds later he found a problem with my variation, where Ivanov could have proven an advantage. I put it into Fritz, Fritz disagreed, and then when I let it run about a minute, it agreed with [Kasparov], and I was just like, ‘wow!’”
With the morning exercises out of the way, they get to the meat of the session: Analysis of the student’s games. Each participant was asked to bring four-six recent games to analyze with the entire class. Daniel Ludwig is up to bat. He takes a seat to Kasparov’s left and inputs the moves on the laptop hooked up to the LCD wall screen. Ludwig shows a game against GM Leonid Kritz, an Alapin Sicilian, in which Black plays ... b6 and ... Bb7. It reminds Garry of a game he played with black against Peter Svidler, the current Russian champion, and he rattles off about ten moves from that game on the computer.
Kasparov frequently goes off on tangents like this during the eight hour session. The day is largely unstructured, and Kasparov’s broad aim is to share his vast experience with the kids. When I later ask him about his pedagogical approach, he is unequivocal. “I’m not a teacher ... I learned a lot from Botvinnik, and I think his method works because I’m sharing my experience. I’m teaching them how to understand the game of chess. I mean some say, ‘oh, [the class is] very short it doesn’t change anything’—no, it does, because I remember when I was a kid and I could hear an opinion of a person who represented a great authority in the game of chess for me and for others. It doesn’t guarantee tremendous progress, but it helps them, actually, with their work, with their preparation, because they know more about chess wisdom than their competitors ... It helps them to broaden their vision of the game.”
Daniel comes to a critical moment in his game with Kritz. “Here he offered me a draw, so i thought for a really long time because I figured if a grandmaster is offering me a draw with white, then there must be some reason why I can’t take on a1,” winning a pawn, he explains. “But there is no reason, so I took.”
Fair enough, but Kasparov suggests, “a more logical conclusion would be that since he’s offering you a draw it means he blundered the pawn!” Thus begins a running joke throughout the day: Kasparov is regularly critical of grandmasters who offer draws in worse positions.
Daniel flips through his games to find another one to analyze. “I don’t have many games with white to show you because I just switched to d4 a month ago.”
“Anand did the same!” Kasparov laughs.
Kasparov’s own knowledge of opening theory during his playing career was unparallelled, and although he no longer keeps up with the latest theory, he was pleased to answer any questions the students could throw at him. For instance, from move one he says, “d4 always offers you a variety of options. It doesn’t mean that e4 is weak, but it’s no accident that leading players are all moving to d4. With e4 there are too many complex problems that White has to solve.” In other words, you’d rather deal with the Grunfeld than with the Marshall, and confronting a solid Queen’s Gambit is still more pleasant than facing the Petroff.
Daniel finds a new game, against Marc Esserman whom Ludwig says had been sort of stalking him by following all his games live on the Internet Chess Club and using his blitz history to prepare for their tournament match up. “But now we train together,” he hastily adds, as though to diffuse any suggestion of impropriety. Playing through the opening, Daniel’s position seems preferable, prompting Kasparov to quip that Esserman’s “genius preparation isn’t working.” “You should send him more blitz games.” The kids eat up this kind of snark from the champ, a sort of ex post facto trash talking that would be petty coming from mere mortals, but not from their hero.
Daniel continues, “and here I didn’t even consider taking the knight.”
Kasparov is amazed. “I wouldn’t even consider any other move ... Clearly the knight is better than the bishop. Black has only one good piece. You have lots of good pieces.” The observation provides a clear difference between Kasparov and other grandmasters, according to Daniel. Kasparov is able to hone in on flaws in his play, that he hopes to correct.
Sam and Daniel are friends. They have roomed together at the U.S. Championship and World Youth. They’re about the same rating. In this room they’re like chess-crazed versions of Dumas’ Aramis and Porthos, minus the wine, women and song. “I think we’re both pretty good at this game,” says Sam. “We both are not shy, and we just like to contribute our variations, and if it means they just get refuted, then great, we realize what we did wrong.”
When the gang breaks for a pizza lunch at one thirty, I expected they would all want to have a walk, or get some fresh air, and some do. But within a few minutes of eating, and despite being mid-way through a day full of chess analysis, I find Daniel and Ray Robson in the midst of a blindfold game.
“This is kind of just something we do all the time,” Daniel explains. “We went to the World Youth together one time and we traveled around before that, and we just did nothing but blindfold chess. Even in front of, like, the Parthenon and stuff we were still too busy playing blindfold chess to notice.” A tad obsessive, maybe? “No, I mean it’s fun! Well, I never get to play blindfold chess with anyone and Ray’s the only one I know who plays it.”
From across the room, Sam catches wind of the conversation and pipes up, “Daniel, d4.”
“No! I’m already in a game!”
“Blindfold simul!” Sam shoots back, jokingly.
Ray is skeptical, but Daniel says it’s not too hard. “When you get to about five boards that’s really hard, but two I think is doable.”
“Well I play Rc1,” says Ray, preferring to focus on the game at hand. Daniel is busted, or so he says—I, of course, have no clue of the position.
Daniel echoes the general consensus that this more exclusive training session is much better than the only one he attended before, in 2005. Back then the larger group necessitated that each student bring only two games instead of four to six. The smaller class size is a noticeable improvement, he says. “As close as you can get to one-on-one the better.” Daniel likes the group dynamic as well. Although he has studied with experienced trainers Gregory Kaidanov and Larry Christiansen, “when you’re working with Kasparov, the brilliance is so obvious and so apparent,” he has noticed. “The ideas they just come so quickly and so naturally. I think the biggest thing about working with Kasparov is if there’s some position that seems unclear to me, he can immediately write it off as much better or much worse or winning, and that’s something I can’t do at this point.”
After lunch, the group tackles another brief endgame study, to get the mind moving again.
Mackenzie “Mac” Molner, the oldest participant today, is generally silent. He and the two young girls (Alisa Melekhina and Anna Matlin) give the impression that they are mainly waiting for their turn to show Kasparov their games, and are otherwise happy to passively listen.
When I ask Kasparov about this after the session he insists that one thing he learned from Botvinnik is the importance of involving everyone in the discussion. It is not ideal that some are just watching. “I’m trying to encourage more participation, but sometimes you have to fight certain problems of the character.” Some kids are bound to be the quiet type. And yet the work should be very intense for each of them, including Kasparov himself, he says. He wants the students to learn not only from their own games, but also from the games of their fellow classmates.
The conclusion of Mac’s win over GM Julio Becerra, a tactical slugfest, generates some camaraderie. Andrew Ng spots the final flourish. “Rg7, ‘gg.’ Aww. Nice Mac. Poor Becerra.”1 Everyone is impressed. “Next time, I think we should make a note,” Sam chimes in. “Let’s just go over Mac’s games ‘cause they’re the most interesting.”
In the next game Anna Matlin tries to get in a small suggestion, one of the few times the group has heard from her. Sam shoots it down at first, an unfortunate inclination, but this time Daniel comes to her aid. “Nf5, I like it.”
“Interesting,” Kasparov agrees. “Keeping the bishop alive.”
At this, a tiny hint of a satisfied smile creeps onto Anna face. But almost immediately the boys move on. A moment later Anna proffers a new idea. Again, it is initially brushed off, but then Kasparov warms up to it after all. Sam turns to Anna and whispers, “he just said your suggestion was right. I guess we should listen to you more.” This time her smile is unambiguous.
Sam can take criticism. “Once you wipe the tears away, you’re stronger and you have a better sense of the position,” he says. “I know some people who are like, ‘oh my god you said my move is bad,’ and they go cry in a corner ... but you don’t get better by someone saying, ‘all your moves are perfect,’ because, unless you win every game, all your moves are not perfect.” Not everyone is so thick-skinned, but the best learn how to recover and move on from failure, and everyone needs a little encouragement from time to time.
Today, Kasparov is satisfied. “You know, I think it’s working nicely, because in a small group, almost everyone participated. Even the girls, they had a few questions and they had a few comments, but of course when you have a couple of strong players and they’re bright, they’re quick, they’re trying to dominate, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Ray is one of the youngest. His family drove to New York from Florida, and this is already his fourth KCF session, second only to Andrew, who has attended all five. The pair are the same age—fourteen —and sit next to each other during the day, huddled around the same computer screen, whispering variations. They are not as aggressive as Sam and Daniel, but nevertheless do not hesitate to jump into the conversation when they think they’ve found something noteworthy. Ray in particular speaks up often, and often seems to be just a little bit ahead of the discussion, nearly keeping up with Kasparov move for move.
When it’s his turn to show his games, Ray picks a tough last round loss from the Miami International. Kasparov is incredulous. “Did you need to win the last round?”
“No, I was a point ahead,” says Ray.
“You were a point ahead and you lost?
“With white?” He resets the pieces on the monitor.
Kasparov’s criticism can be swift and uncompromising. When Ray explains that he feels he played too passively in the middle game, he’s met with a slightly sarcastic, “we can see that.” A few moments later, Ray, moving the mouse, indicates, “I went here,” provoking an immediate and audible cringe from Kasparov, who gasps and shakes his head. He doesn’t have any words of encouragement after Ray’s loss. He just lets it go by and moves on to the next game.
Sometimes I would expect Kasparov to have some salient observation about a given position, especially during a lull around the table, when no one seems to have a comment or even to understand clearly what’s going on. Instead he is silent, just subtly urging Ray to continue. I asked him about this later, whether there was a difference, or if it was just my imagination.
“[Ray] has huge potential,” said Kasparov. “He plays, I would say, mature chess, and it was a pleasure to watch this very young kid showing the lines and playing very high quality games. I could have offered criticism, but I appreciated the fact that it was a very different strength. He plays chess which already could make him a GM. So that’s why I told him, ‘don’t be too concerned about the title. You will get it soon if you keep playing the same chess.’”
The next game from Ray goes somewhat better. GM Renier Gonzalez offered Ray a draw in a dead lost position, misbelieving that there would be a perpetual check. This precipitates uproarious laughter, as yet another illustration of the weekend’s inside joke. Grandmasters don’t like to lose to young upstarts. Kasparov is amusingly dismissive of many grandmasters, even top ten players, the way an ordinary grandmaster might be with masters, or the way a master is with a C player.
Ray’s last game for the day is from the Essent Open, in North Holland, played on Ray’s birthday, “but it didn’t work out” as a celebration. In a sharp Richter-Rauzer, Kasparov advocates White dropping his bishop back to e3 and pushing g2-g4 because Black’s bishop is misplaced on d7 in an English Attack setup. The f6- knight has no retreat square.
He goes on to explain several other strategic points in the game with GM Abhijeet Gupta from India, plucking out key moments with incredible speed. When a line isn’t working, he is decisive as to where to revert to find the right path. He doesn’t like to admit defeat, but will occasionally reach a dead end and back up, with a casual, “well, we tried.”
Only once, toward the end of the day, when everyone was a little tired, does he turn Fritz on to confirm the end of a tactical sequence. In this case Fritz confirms a clever only-move defense that Daniel spotted.
In general, appeals to authority don’t work on Kasparov, and he constantly emphasizes the need to think for oneself. He doesn’t once refer to theory, or any other authority other than his own assessment, analysis, and games. That’s not to say he won’t refer to other games—he does—but not to make them the final arbiter of truth.
For instance, after the game analysis, Kasparov opens the room for questions. These are mostly centered around opening selection. Regarding 4. Ng5 in the Two Knight’s Defense (a.k.a. The Fried Liver Attack), Kasparov approves, although he says it’s still not properly analyzed, probably. Daniel is dubious. “This is actually okay for Black, according to Informant,” he proclaims.
“Well, what about common sense?” comes the immediate retort.
Sam asks, “do you think the Dragon is better than its reputation?”
“Look many strong players are playing it again, but I don’t think it’s an opening I would rely on.”
As to why Radjabov has revived the Kings Indian Defense, he remarks, “Radjabov must play complicated unbalanced positions, because his level of understanding of simple positions is not sufficient to top level tournaments.”
Karjakin’s aptitude for opening innovations “still lags behind” the rest, but as for Morozevich, “he finds something, every second or third time.”
For more down to earth advice, he suggests that, with the caveat that each player is different, you can exclude certain lines. “There are dead openings, like, you know, the Benoni.” Everyone laughs. “What would you recommend instead of the Benoni?” asks Andrew.
“Anything!” Kasparov says.
Meanwhile the Marshall attack, “statistically, is like a dead end.” Another top level game, another draw, and “White has nothing.” Therefore, the anti-Marshall is the way to go. “I would recommend to avoid it. That’s why they play [d2-]d3, and these kind of maneuvers ... that’s why they play [d2-]d3 at move 5 or 6 even.” I begin to notice that Kasparov even speaks very fast.
It’s after 6:00 now, well past dark. One last study before they adjourn for 2008.
White to play
The main defensive idea is for the black rook to get to either the h-file or eighth rank (and apparently there is no way to stop it). Kasparov is disappointed as he concludes that this is another Pervakov problem that will need to be be added to the “refuted” list. (A few days later the students receive an e-mail containing the winning line. They had all missed the key.)
The KCF has a difficult task, which Kasparov fully understands. “The chess world has been stagnating for a while. It offers few options for talented kids, so unless you are top ten, you will not make a decent living, so everyone is looking for a better job and for a better future.”
He argues that more attention will be needed from private sponsors, or state and local authorities. “Unfortunately, in the United States, difficult time now in the economy we see the talented kids reaching a certain point and then being forced to make a tough choice for their career, and they move out.”
He hopes a few of the talented kids here will continue. “First you have to build the structure to find the talent, to encourage kids to play chess. So that’s what we have been doing here, and doing quite successfully. The next problem is how to make sure this talent stays in the game of chess, but that’s beyond our task.”
All the students show talent and determination, and have the potential to move onto the professional level, if they stick with chess. If today is any indication, it’s hard to imagine we won’t see some of them competing on the U.S. Olympiad team in a decade.
It’s the shortest day of the year, but for these kids, not nearly long enough.
1. Andrew uses the Internet chess abbreviation for “good game.”
The KCF was the main sponsor of the U.S. Olympiad teams (see February Chess Life). For more information, including how to order their curriculum guide, see kasparovchessfoundation.org.
Previous KCF class articles in Chess Life can be found in the September 2006 and August 2008 issues.