Home Page Chess Life Online 2009 U.S. Chess School Comes to the Marshall
|U.S. Chess School Comes to the Marshall|
|By Elizabeth Vicary|
|July 27, 2009|
The ninth US Chess School (NYC, July 8-12) was the largest and youngest ever: there were so many qualified candidates that twelve students (instead of the usual 8) were invited. Ranging in age from 9 to 12, and in rating from 1900 to 2100, they came from around the country: 3 each from New York, New Jersey and Texas, one from Connecticut, Idaho and Utah. GM Alex Onischuk debuted as a USCS instructor. The Marshall Chess Club generously hosted the event.
Because these were the youngest kids that U.S. Chess School founder Greg Shahade (who volunteers his time to organize and help coach the USCS) had ever gathered, I was especially curious to meet them and to see how they handled the intensity of the US Chess School. (After five nine-hour days of hard-core chess analysis, I’m usually unable to even see straight.) I was also worried, beforehand, that kids who were so high rated and so young would almost have to fit the stereotype of the tortured prodigy, forced by their crazy, over-ambitious parents to study unhealthy amounts of chess.
I was surprised and happy to be completely wrong on both counts: the students seemed like genuinely carefree, outgoing kids who love chess, and because of this, they almost always seemed to be having fun. While they treated the lessons seriously, a lot of spare time was also spent joking around, giggling, writing notes back and forth, drawing pictures, and playing blitz and Frisbee. Tellingly, every student mentioned the other kids when asked what their favorite part of camp was.
It was an enormous pleasure and a humbling experience for me to meet the young players profiled below. I hope the descriptions give a small sense of how quirky, creative, funny, and thoughtful they are. A second article describing the chess content of camp will follow in a few days. A small note about the rankings: because the August list came out as this article was being revised, the ratings/ rankings were updated from the original June to be more current. However, some students had summer birthdays, and had moved up an age category; in these cases, two rankings are given.
Kapil Chandran (1952, ranked 5th among 10 year olds)
Five-year-old Kapil Chandran was on a trip to India with his parents when he saw a chess set in a store and convinced his parents to buy it for him. Within weeks, he was beating his father regularly. Kapil still prefers playing to studying, and plays all the time, (18 tournaments in the last 4 months!) often traveling from his home in Connecticut to tournaments in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. I first met Kapil when we played in a recent Marshall G/60 tournament, and would never have imagined he was only ten. Self-possessed, relaxed, and well-mannered, he seems much older.
At camp, I saw a more informal side of Kapil: chatty, friendly, often laughing with whoever sat next to him about the position and its evaluation. He later commented on “what a great experience” it was “meeting kids of my age who also play chess.” In addition to playing chess, Kapil is lead drummer in the school band and plays tennis and basketball.
Kapil enjoyed “every part of camp, especially the blitz tournament Friday night and the lunch breaks." He singled out solving problems and participating in the analysis of students’ games as the most instructive activities. “Other kids’ games are really tactical,” he explained, “and they always have these saving chances that don’t happen in grandmaster games. Also, the other kids play some of the same openings that I do, like the Maroczy Bind against the Accelerated Dragon.” From the grandmaster games, Kapil reported learning more positional ideas and how to play in closed positions.
Kapil describes his favorite parts of chess as “attacking, sacrificing pieces, and calculating long, cool, variations.” When he does hit the books, Kapil prefers solving tactics to memorizing openings or learning endgame motifs. “I have Silman’s endgame book,” he confessed to me, “and I read it sometimes, but it’s kinda boring. I don’t like rook endgames at all, and it has too many of them.” Kapil wants to learn more about planning and positional chess and to refine his white opening repertoire.
Jonathan Chiang (1886, ranked 4th among 9 year olds)
“What do you like more than chess?” was the first question I asked nine-year-old Jonathan Chiang. Without any hesitation, he grinned broadly and answered instantly: “My family!” His two loves are closely connected: Jonathan’s sister, Sarah, who also attended the camp, is a big talent in her own right, and Jonathan’s father was his first coach. (“I have thirteen coaches in all!” Jonathan told me proudly. He glanced up at his sister who was standing nearby to see her reaction to this comment. She raised her eyebrows at him quizzically and he hastened to add, “Well, only two right now.” “Who is your favorite coach?” I asked. Jonathan thought for a second: “My dad!”).
Jonathan describes his style as tactical, but adds that he also likes closed positions for their attacking potential: “When the center is closed you can build up an attack on the kingside.” But if he could be the world’s greatest at any part of chess, he would choose positional chess and endgames. “I don’t get into endgames much, because I either mate or get mated in the middlegame,” he explained. “But because I don’t study endgames much, when I get into them I usually lose.”
Jonathan told me he studies an incredible five hours every day. I was amazed to hear this from such a seemingly happy-go-lucky, playful kid, so I asked if he chose to study that much, or if maybe his parents pushed him. “Sometimes I feel burnt out,” he agreed, “and then I take a break day, but usually I really like to study, because I want to win, and I want to be good, and especially I want to win the World Youth.”
Jonathan enjoyed the camp and thought he learned a lot: “Alex was very good telling us main ideas and also good at looking at famous games. Looking over my games was also very useful because I wanted to know what I did wrong and to see my weak and strong points and looking at his games were more useful because it was kinda cool to know that you made the same move as a super grandmaster and very helpful.”
Sarah Chiang (2022, ranked 14th among 12 year olds)
Jonathan’s older sister Sarah also likes studying, but her real love is tournament competition. Sarah plays three times a week at the Dallas Chess Club, and has amassed an incredible total of 452 MSA entries in the last four years (only a hundred or so less than Jay Bonin!). She enjoys the DCC both for the chess and the camaraderie: “I know almost everyone at the Dallas club, so it’s really fun, and my best friend Caroline Zhu plays there all the time.” Sarah was also happy to have made new friends at the US Chess School: “I didn’t know about half the people there when I first came to the camp, so this camp was also a place to get to know some different people that have different styles of chess play.”
Sarah doesn’t work with her brother much, preferring to read chess books alone (her favorite? Bronstein’s Zurich 1953) or with coaches Marko Zivanic and Igor Stern. At the US Chess School, Sarah named “playing and going over games” as the most useful activities, explaining that “it’s interesting to hear what Mr. Onischuk has to say about the game. His lessons are also very helpful and the one that helped me the most was the rook endgames because most of the ideas were new to me.” She also mentioned enjoying the lectures on candidate moves and bishops vs. knights.
In addition to chess, Sarah practices Tae Kwon Doe an hour each day. “I do it to learn how to protect myself,” she explained. She added that the sense of struggle in TKD and the need to be mentally prepared are similar to chess: “When you fight against someone, you have to know what’s coming and what to do about it.”
Michael Bodek (2015, ranked 7th among 11 year olds)
I met Michael when he won the 6th grade section of Grade Nationals last December, rated 1860. Two months later when I played him at the Amateur Team East, he was already over 2000. In a complicated, theoretical Sveshnikov, Michael creatively sacrificed a pawn for development and pressure.
Michael played 15. c5! with the idea of 16. Bb5 followed by Nf5-d6
I was duly impressed, because this kind of abstract compensation is generally hard for younger players to understand. Michael feels that openings and endgames are the best part of his game, but I was most impressed by his imagination: more than once during class he came up with unusual and creative ideas.
How much does Michael study? It depends a lot on the weather: “If it’s a sunny day, maybe I go outside, and then it’s just an hour a day. But in the winter, or when the weather is horrible, then 3-4 hours. There have been a lot of rainy days lately, so I’ve gotten to practice a lot.” One thing Michael deliberately practices is his positional chess. To do this, he sometimes sits down to play blitz with the conscious intention of steering the game into quieter positions by choosing less aggressive openings, or positional variations. He also likes solving tactics and studying openings.
Michael’s other hobbies include basketball and Scrabble. “Scrabble is like chess, in that you have to be creative. Finding weird words is like finding weird tactical ideas.”
Tommy He (2108, ranked 1st among 9 year olds)
“The Amazing Cornbread” could not possibly have guessed what he was in for when Tommy He, the youngest and most mischievous US Chess School participant, sat down at his table in Washington Square Park. The park hustler couldn’t have imagined that his giggling, wide-eyed opponent was one of the most talented juniors in the country, and an expert blitz player. Tommy won the game easily, and then got up to let Jonathan and Kapil have a turn. It was lunch break of the first day of the ninth US Chess School. (It was also the last day they played, since despite the kids’ perfect score, the hustler’s sneaky “pay to play” policy cost Greg a couple dollars.)
Tommy’s mother remembered her son’s first days of playing: “Tommy began to learn chess at 4 years old when he stayed in day care school. After he studied 2 months, he went to join a National Chess Tournament in Shanghai. His coach told us that was great if Tommy would get 1 point of 9 rounds. At that tournament, Tommy got 4 points of 9. Since that time, Tommy has been making progress every day.”
“What do you like better than chess?” I asked Tommy, and just as quickly as Jonathan he shouted “Tennis!” I asked if there’s anything about tennis that reminds him of chess: “You have to think where to hit the ball in tennis, and you have to think how to move the pieces in chess!” He continued by suggesting that science was a better comparison: “When I do science problems, I have to think many times,” he explained, “like if someone asks you how many miles per minute the earth revolves around the sun.”
Like Sarah and Jonathan (his best friend), Tommy also spends a huge amount of time on chess. His goal is to become a grandmaster, and to accomplish this he plays in three tournaments each week and studies two hours a day. His favorite part of chess is “tactics that have sacrifices in them. They make me feel good.”
Kayden Troff (2062, ranked first among 10 year olds/ 5th among 11 year olds)
It’s an extraordinary accomplishment to become an expert at age ten. It’s twice as amazing to do so in Utah, which isn’t known for the strength or size of its chess community (Kayden already ranks among the strongest players.) He makes up for the lack of local competition by playing 4.5 hours a day on ICC, two hours in the afternoon, and another two and a half before bed. He treats this playing time very seriously, playing in tournaments so he gets a chance to face top players. In addition to ICC, Kayden studies chess two hours a day, watching opening videos, playing over grandmaster games, and reading chess books with his father.
Kayden describes himself as both a positional and tactical player. His favorite part of chess is "when my opponent goes into the kind of opening I want, like the openings that I study all the time. It is exciting when I know from the beginning that they are in lots of trouble - especially the lines with lots of tricks and traps.”
Kayden’s father related a story from the last day of the US Chess School, which I include here with his permission because I think it nicely illustrates his son’s sweet and unpretentious personality:
“Kayden watched a twenty person simul with GM-elect Alex Lenderman in Washington Square on Saturday. When Kayden went to the National Open in June he went to introduce himself to Alex Lenderman. He said, "I'm…" and before he could say his name, Alex Lenderman said, "Kayden Troff." Kayden was impressed that Alex Lenderman knew him. So at the park in Washington Square, Kayden was analyzing the games that Alex was playing as he walked around, and he was interested to see if Alex would still recognize him, even though for Kayden to be in the park in New York would be a very unlikely and unexpected setting. Kayden was pretty excited when Alex turned around and said "Hi Kayden."
You can learn more about Kayden and follow his progress on his website, http://kaydentroff.blogspot.com (don’t miss the link at the top of this page to http://kaydensstory.blogspot.com , which gives more details on Kayden's history.) He is also an expert (2162) at quick chess, and is ranked first on the 13 and Under list.
Justus Williams (2001, ranked 6th for 10 year olds/ 8th for 11 year olds)
Justus Williams learned to play chess just two and a half years ago through a Chess in the Schools program in his elementary school, CES 70 in the Bronx. He is the first graduate of the program to reach expert. Justus loves chess because “it teaches you to be creative” and makes him “feel like I’m getting better all the time.” Blitz chess and openings are his strengths, Justus believes; he thinks his positional sense and middlegame play could be improved. “Sometimes I make mistakes when it gets really boring in the middlegame,” he explained, “I have trouble choosing a plan, and then sometimes it’s the wrong plan and that’s frustrating.”
I asked if he could be world champion at any one part of chess, what he would choose, and Justus gave a curious response: “I would be the master of boring and open middlegames.” By boring, he explained that he meant “positions where there aren’t many options but you find good squares for your pieces and everything works out for you,” and by open, he’s referring to “positions where there are multiple options and any one of them works, but you have to choose the one you would like more.”
Justus found the camp challenging: “The problems are hard and take time, but you can solve them if you focus.” He enjoyed both the cooperative group analysis, (“You come up with an idea, and someone either helps you or finds a way it doesn’t work”) and hearing Onischuk’s insights. (“He gives analysis that really fits the position. It might not look good at first, but it really fits the position.”)
Justus also enjoys playing basketball (“I would like to say I’m good at it, but I don’t know.”)
Arthur Shen (2107, ranked 6th among 12 year olds)
Arthur Shen is a modest (“All camp I felt like kids saw stuff faster than me.”), polite, and extremely likable young man. He immediately impressed everyone with the smoothness and precision of his win over Luke Harmon in their training game. Trainer GM Alex Onischuk described his play as “something I would expect from a 2500*”
Over the last year, Arthur has improved substantially, gaining more than 250 rating points, and mostly doing it the hard way: facing masters and experts in weekly quads at his local club. But he also enjoyed one big victory: winning clear first in the U2200 section of the 2008 National Chess Congress with 5.5/6. In his typical self-deprecating manner, Arthur downplayed the achievement, explaining that “all my opponents either blundered or tried too hard to win. One guy sacked a piece, but it was bad.”
Arthur studies chess a couple of hours every day, mostly reading books (My System and Pawn Structure Chess are two of his favorites) and playing on ICC. Although he does not regularly study with his brother, NM Victor Shen, the brothers recently played a training match to prepare Victor for the US Cadet. (Victor came second. I forgot to ask who won their match.) As a player, he likes “boring stuff” (“because opponents hate it and play worse”), or “any position I can win.”
His other hobbies include reading, playing basketball, and running.
Arthur emailed me after the camp to add: “Now that the chess school is over, and I’ve had time to reflect on my experience there, I have realized that there are a few quotes that were central themes in our lectures. I would like to share some of them with you:
Never give up.
It’s never too late to resign.
There are no bad bishops, just bishops that aren’t good.
Always consider all your candidate moves.
Endgames are more complicated than they appear.
I have learned a lot from this camp, not only from our instructor, Alex Onischuk, but also from my peers.”
* He may have added “except for one move.”
Anna Matlin (2003, ranked 18th among 13 year olds)
Watching Anna Matlin play a training game on the first day of camp, I was immediately impressed by her concentration and composure. Even after four hours of play, she seemed untired: focused and intent. Anna works on chess every day. “Lately, I’ve been studying openings more, looking at grandmaster games in variations I play.” She plays on ICC occasionally, but not nearly as much as she used to (“At first, I was addicted.”).
One of Anna's strengths is her ability to focus and concentrate and because of this she very rarely blunders. Two areas Anna has recently been trying to improve are playing actively and avoiding time trouble: “I enjoy tactics, but sometimes I get in tactical positions and spend too much time. Time trouble is one of my biggest problems.” Her work is paying off: “In January, at the Liberty Bell, I had a great tournament (tying for first (with Michael Bodek) in the under 2200 section-EV) because I didn’t get in time trouble there at all.”
Anna compared chess to two of her other interests, tennis (“When you play tennis, you feel like you are all alone, like in chess. You have to depend on yourself only.”) and math (“For example, we are doing proofs in my math class, and with proofs you have to know what you want to do and have a step-by-step plan for getting there.”). This summer, Anna will be a counselor at a tennis and chess camp.
Anna enjoyed her week at the Marshall: “The US Chess School was really fun. You get to learn from the (former) US Champion, and that’s awesome. I got to meet a lot of people. I got to see Sarah and Jonathan, who I knew from the 2008 World Youth in Vietnam but don’t get to see much.”
Joshua Colas (1999; ranked 3rd for 10 year olds)
Joshua Colas enjoys chess because “I feel free to make my own decisions and I like to be challenged.” Like many other camp participants, he plays a staggering amount: 59 tournaments in 2009 so far. Josh feels his strengths in chess are “definitely tactics and endgames. My dad taught me a lot of basic endgames. I have won a lot of games when I was behind in material by outplaying my opponent in the endgame. When I drew Michael Rohde I was down a pawn but played the endgame well.” Josh is working on “improving [his] openings and controlling [his] time.” He like to studies chess primarily by playing: memorizing opening lines by practicing them on ICC and using bullet chess to keep his tactics sharp.
Joshua also plays the cello and basketball. He finds a lot of similarities in his three hobbies: “I think making the pieces work together in chess is like keeping the rhythm when playing the cello. It’s like timing-- when to use your fingers and when to move the right piece at the right time. When you play good you feel it, just like you feel when you are playing a good chess game. With basketball, it’s about team play, like making the chess pieces work together. Also, you feel a lot of pressure when the game is almost over. The same with chess-- when there’s seconds left, your heart beats faster.”
Joshua’s favorite part of the US Chess School was “being around smart and nice kids,” but he also felt he learned a lot. “I have learned how to study with Fritz and how to analyze Grandmaster games. I also learned how to look for a plan for white and for black -- for example if the position is closed and you have the knights you want to keep the position locked. I learned to never give up and that there's always an answer when you think you're stuck, even if it’s not the best.”
Luke Harmon (2022, ranked 2nd among 10 year olds)
A friendly, serious kid with a voluminous memory, Luke, at age 10, has already amassed an impressive knowledge of endgame positions, studies, and classic games. He seems to genuinely love studying, and his parents, who are also chess teachers, keep his training routine fun by incorporating story-telling and by setting Luke puzzle challenges where he can earn points and rewards. I asked Luke how long he had ever gone without looking at chess. He struggled to remember: “Two days, but that was a long time ago. I think it was on my birthday in 2008, and either the day before or the day after.” Luke is currently reading Test Your Chess: Grandmaster Challenge, Excelling at Positional Chess, and John Nunn’s Chess Puzzle Book.
At 10, Luke Harmon is already a veteran of three US Chess Schools. Reflecting on the camps, Luke wrote, "I really like that every chess camp is different. Every GM has a different teaching style and perspective on chess strategies overall. I think that I am really lucky by getting to learn so much about chess being presented in different ways. I find great new ideas to think about that I can apply to my games, and I am always able to ask questions about opening lines or middlegame strategies and know that the answers will be correct. I find myself thinking about chess in more creative ways after each camp session.”
Like many of the others, Luke mentioned how much he values the friends he’s made at the US Chess School: “I really appreciate and look forward to the social parts of the camp. I don't get to meet many high-level chess students around my age in Idaho, but at the chess school camp I make many friends that share my love of chess. We all have a lot of fun challenging each other, and competing to find the right answers to the chess questions. The lunch time recreation is especially fun by playing basketball or frisbee with each other."
Since we had spoken last, at the Phoenix US Chess School in January, Luke has made two large and positive changes in his chess routine: he began taking weekly lessons with Gregory Kaidanov and has switched from the French to the Najdorf. Playing the Sicilian as black, he’s noticed, has also improved his understanding of the open Sicilian as white. If Luke could magically be the best in the world at any aspect of chess, he would choose calculation, because “it’s really helpful to be able to calculate deeply and accurately.”
For more information about Luke, check out his website: http://sponsorluke.com. To watch a video of him solving the Rubik’s cube in 1 minute 13 seconds, click here.
Christopher Wu (2052, ranked 1st among 10 year olds)
By: Chris Wu
"Tactics and poetry” are Christopher Wu’s self-described chess strengths. Openings are (in his mind) his main weakness. “In most of my games,” he explained, “I get a bad position out of the opening. But in the middlegame, most of my opponents make a mistake and then I come back.” He described himself as good at endgames. Why? “Well, experience. I have lots of experience in endgames.”
Chris might be the most light-hearted, whimsical, noncompetitive chess player I have ever met. Always wide-eyed and smiling, he seems to genuinely love the “playing” part of chess, without caring much about winning and losing.
Chris’ other hobbies include writing stories and poems (“mostly not about chess, mostly about different types of bugs, flowers, and money”) and playing baseball. Comparing baseball to chess, Chris pointed out how in both, you have to be able to dealing with losing: “When you lose, you just lose. You have to be able to take it; you have to accept it and move on, to the next inning, to the next game, to the next season.”
That is the Beauty of People Poem
By: Chris Wu
People are different in all parts of the world
Some are noble and some are absurd
Some are rich and some are poor
That is the beauty of people
People can be wise and people can be dumb
People can have a good smile or no thumb
Different countries throughout the world all come together to form a pearl
That is the beauty of people
Some men can work in factories and women can work in stores
They have different accents and some can sound strange
People are a mystery all around the world
That is the beauty of people
By: Chris Wu
Oh I really love money I really love money
I treasure it every day, I measure it every day
I always save up my money, and then I go on a shopping spree!!
Some days I talk to my money, others I sing to my money
Money is special cause you can spend it lend it but you can’t mend it
Oh whoever invented money I owe you a big fee!!
My money can cheer me up when I am hungry or thirsty
You can come in many shapes and sizes like 100 dollars and a penny
I am really special because money is attracted to me!!
That is just what they do Poem
By: Chris Wu
Oh some just lose their common sense
Some people just get mad if you’re rude
Some people get angry if they don’t get respect
That is just what they do
They are picky and annoying
They are old and grouchy
They are touchy and like a pest
That is just what they do
They are used to being noble
They are used to being rich
They pester they keep on calling you
That is just what they do
Look for Part II of this article, which will include insight into Onischuk's lessons. Also stay tuned for reports from the 10th U.S. Chess School, the first all girls' camp, which will take place at the Chess Club and Scholastic center of Saint Louis in mid-August.