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Inside the Team Room Print E-mail
By Michael Rohde   
May 18, 2007
Photo Betsy Dynako

by GM Michael Rohde

It’s the Monday after the National Elementary Championship, and at Nashville International Airport, everyone was relaxed. Kids were playing bughouse, no longer under the admonition of their coaches that it is somehow bad for their game. Strangers marveled in awe as if they were watching the unfolding of the national spelling bee. Proud parents talked quietly, looking forward to going home and back to work to re-establish order in their lives after this 72-hour playdate. Friendly flight crews chirped about pre-boarding being available to those families traveling with small children or large trophies. But let’s step back a few days …

Most people choose to travel to the Nationals on the Thursday night before the event. The diehards go on Thursday morning, so as not to miss the blitz or the bughouse. And only the hopelessly optimistic travel on Friday morning in the belief that they can navigate the nation’s airways and arrive in time for the 1 pm round. This year, the sheer number of New Yorkers playing in the event may have overwhelmed the system, as many who attempted to fly on Thursday, May 10 either did not get off the ground, ended up stranded overnight in some other city, or experienced interminable runway delays. The enterprising team from Heschel School in New York City gave up on flying out of Newark, rented a bus to Philadelphia, and from there flew to Nashville. By the second round of the event, on Friday evening, most everybody had made his or her way to the event somehow.

At the Nationals, it is traditional for schools with large enough contingents to rent team rooms at the event site. The team room serves as both a gathering place and analysis center, and allows coaches to focus the drama of the event on the team. Team scores consist of the top four scores of the school’s players in each section. I served as one of the coaches of Columbia Grammar and Prep School, a private school in New York City. Columbia sent 30 players to this event, and had competitive teams in every section. Support from the school enabled us to field an imposing coaching staff as well, consisting of Sophia Rohde and John MacArthur, both of who teach chess as part of Columbia’s curriculum in the younger grades, GM Joel Benjamin, and myself. Inside Columbia’s team room, the constant work of the players and the coaches made it clear that this was a real competitive struggle, where every ounce of effort would be required to reach the goal – which was defined by JMac as first place in each of the sections.

In the past few years, Columbia has become one of New York City’s chess dynasties. In addition to its curriculum offerings, after-school and before-school chess is offered several times a week. In the aftermath of multi-time national scholastic champion Marc Arnold (now an 8th grader), Columbia’s younger players have been inspired and now there are new stars. And Columbia’s new blue and black team shirt is featured on a recent cover of Chess Life for Kids.

Before every round, the thirty black-shirted Knights of Columbia would listen as John MacArthur would set the stage with a motivational speech, tempered by the practical advice and tips of Joel Benjamin. This year, John seemed to come up with a new mantra as he often told the kids that he knew they were going to win. But caution is always part of our preparation as the students were often reminded about the potential abilities and willpower, which the opponent might bring to bear on the situation. Serious about honing his craft, John would often spin stories about the chess battle, adjusting his presentation depending on the results it would achieve, much like a standup comic might adjust his jokes based on the laugh-o-meter. John’s teaching trademark is his “Chess Dojo” training method, in which students are awarded points based on working out the moves from grandmaster games. Four times a week, the chess dojo is in session before school starts at Columbia Grammar, and this continues in early and late sessions of various mini-camps, scholastic programs, and other group settings. With a rich array of motivational material to draw on, John was very comfortable with his role of speechmaker, as he would remind the students what they were there for, and what they might expect of their opponents.

Meanwhile, Joel would use these before-round gatherings to focus on one or two special points that he wanted the students to concentrate on for that round. These varied from making sure to take time in critical positions, or making sure to have enough candidate moves in mind even when a good move seemed apparent, or focusing on the opponent’s last move, or watching the e-pawns in the Ruy Lopez / Four Knights complex, or watching f7 in the Italian complex, or knowing when to trade and when not to.

Columbia actually had two rooms. The smaller one housed our computers, with chessbase, mostly so that students could enter their games and review them on the computer, with the extra benefit that openings research could also be done. John and Joel conducted the analysis in that room for our older students. My job was to analyze the games of the younger students in our larger team room, while continuously feasting on the chicken fingers, French fries, pasta, pastries, and other items which the parents chipped in on to stoke the energies of the players. Sophia, who had conducted all of the logistics involved with the team room enterprise, including obtaining the full support of the school for this venture, made sure that all of the parents and children were comfortable and organized.

This “it takes a village” approach to the Nationals gave Columbia a fighting chance to win many of the sections. But Columbia was edged out in tough competition in several sections, mainly by other teams from NYC.

Ironically, Columbia’s expansive chess program, with monthly tournaments and an advanced class open to students from other schools, may have provided its competitors with some of the training that they needed. Indeed, for several years, Columbia’s team room has been better known as “Columbia and Friends” because so many players from other schools have anchored their chess at Columbia. Columbia Grammar’s rich chess tradition stems from the high value placed on chess by its principal, Dr. Stanley Seidman. Formerly, Dr. Seidman had been the principal at Hunter College Elementary School, and Dalton School, generating dynasty-like chess programs at those schools as well. But at this event I learned that Dr. Seidman had also been the principal at P.S. 222 in Brooklyn, when Joel Benjamin attended! Joel told me that his mom Phyllis had started the chess program there. Thus we can conclude that really it was Joel’s mom who is responsible for the current boom in scholastic chess …

Columbia 3rd grader Lilia Poteat plays a solid, classical opening and then mixes it up in the middle game.


1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bg5 Nbd7 5. Nf3 c6 6.e3 Qa5
The Cambridge Springs Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined.
7. Qc2 Ne4 8. a3
Not effective as Black can play 8 ... Bb4 anyway and then after 9 Rc1 Bxc3+ 10 bxc3 Qxa3 and being on a3 is a liability.
8...Bd6 9. Bd3 Nxc3
9... Nxg5 10. Nxg5 dxc4 11. Bxc4 Qxg5 was winning ... as usual, placing the bishop on d3 is a dangerous proposition in the Cambridge Springs.
10. bxc3 h6 11. Bh4 O-O 12. O-O e5 13. dxe5
The right reaction was 13 e4, which does not help Black develop.
Nxe5 14. Nxe5 Bxe5 15. Be7 Re8 16.Bb4 Qc7
Suddenly a double attack of sorts as both 17 ... c5 and 17 ... Bxh2+ are the threats.
17. a4 Bxh2+ 18.Kh1 Re5
A daring rooklift, but the rook's adventures are only starting.
19. Be2 Rg5 20. f4 Bf5 21. Qd1 Be4 22. Bf3 Bxf3 23. Qxf3 Rg3 24. Qh5
Also possible was 24 Qf2 and Black will have to beat a retreat while losing the
bishop on h2.
24...Rxe3 25. Qxh2 dxc4 26. Rfe1 Rae8 27. Rxe3 Rxe3 28. f5 Qxh2+ 29. Kxh2 Re5 30.Rf1 a5 31. Ba3 Re3 32. Rf3 Re4
To be considered was 32 ... Rxf3 as thereby a passed h-pawn is created.
33. Bc5 b5 34. axb5 cxb5 35. Re3 Rxe3 36. Bxe3 b4 37. cxb4 axb4 38. Kg1
The losing move. White has to play 38 Bc5 b3 39 Bd4 with a draw in view.
After this, there is no stopping the march of the b-pawn.
39. Kf1 b3 40. Bd4 b2 41. Bxc3 b1=Q+ 42. Kf2 Qc2+ 43. Bd2 Qxd2+ 44. Kg1 Qd5 45. g4 Qd1+ 46. Kg2 Qxg4+ 47. Kh2 Qf4+ 48. Kg2 Qxf5 49. Kg3 g5 50. Kg2 g4 51. Kg3 h5 52. Kg2 h4 53. Kh2 h3 54. Kg1 g3 55. Kh1 Qf1#
(55... Qf3+ 56. Kg1 h2#) 0-1

Columbia 6th grader Linda Diaz finished in 5th Place. Here she defends well in a complex middlegame.


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Be3 Bg7 6.Nc3 Nf6 7.f3
If White wants to get to the Yugoslav Attack (with an advance of the kingside pawns) against the Accelerated Dragon, he has to try 7 Bc4 first, to forestall ... d7-d5.
7...0–0 8.Qd2 d5
In the regular dragon, Black would have already played ... d7-d6, and this might come later, e.g., after White had castled queenside, in which case this would be a pawn sacrifice. Therefore, Black is clearly ahead of the regular lines.
9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.e5 Nd7 11.f4 Nb6
Also interesting was 11 ... e6!?, looking to get ... c6-c5 in.
12.Be2 Qc7 13.Bc5
This move is effective in forestalling any advance of the Black pawns.
13...Rd8 14.0–0 d4 15.Ne4 Na4 16.Ba3 Bf5 17.Ng3 Qb7
Linda was clearly worried that if the bishop leaves f5, White might get f4-f5 in. This shows her careful style.
18.Nxf5 gxf5 19.Bd3 e6 20.Qe2
White has gotten over his earlier problems and now seems comfortable.
20...Kh8 21.Rf3 Bf8
A very fine defensive move! Linda judges that the kingside defense will be fine if she can get a rook to g7. Many other players would be reluctant to exchange a defender when the king is about to come under attack.
22.Rh3 Bxa3 23.Qh5 f6 24.exf6 Rf8 (24...Bf8 25.f7 h6 26.Qg6 Bg7 27.Rxh6+ wins) 25.bxa3 was unclear.
22...Rxf8 23.Rh3 Rg8 24.b3 Nc3 25.Qh5 Rg7
White's initiative has come to a standstill and his queenside and central dark squares may start to become drafty.
26.Kf2 Nd5 27.Qh4 Qb4 28.Kg1 Qd2 29.Rg3 Rxg3
There were some other good alternatives here - [29...Nxf4 30.Qf6 (30.Rxg7 Kxg7 31.Qf6+ Kg8 32.Qg5+ Kf8) 30...Nh5; 29...Qxf4]
30.hxg3 Rg8 31.Bc4
White had to sit tight with Ra1–f1.
31...Qc3 32.Bxd5 Qxa1+ 33.Kh2 Rg6
This refutes White's attempted drawing combination.
34.Bxc6 Kg7 0 - 1

Final Elementary Nationals Photo Gallery by Betsy Dynako

Estelle Strangmark

USCF Executive Director Bill Hall with K-5 Champ Robert Perez

K-1 champions, Dalton School

Spencer Kriss, 5th place in the K-1 Open

Josh Waitzkin signing The Art of Learning for a young fan

K-3 Champion Benjamin Moon (left) and runner-up Christopher Wu