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The U.S. Chess School Comes to Saint Louis Print E-mail
By Victor Shen   
September 22, 2011
I came to participate in the 16th U.S Chess School almost by accident. After winning the Cadet Championship in July (along with Michael Bodek), my brother, Arthur Shen, was invited to the school which would take place from August 9-13 at the beautiful Saint Louis Chess Club. I decided to accompany my brother to Saint Louis in place of my father, which would give me a week of relaxation and a chance to return to the now famous club. Upon telling Greg Shahade this, however, he generously offered me a spot as a participant, an invitation that I accepted immediately.

Meet the instructors:

GM Yasser Seirawan: Seirawan the chess player needs no introduction, but before the school I had no idea that Yasser the person was equally fantastic. His patient, laidback demeanor, coupled with his sense of humor made him feel like our friend as much as our teacher. Yasser loved to play bughouse with the students during each break, participating in our trash talk in his own easygoing way.

IM Greg Shahade: Along with his lectures, Greg also held one-on-one sessions with all 12 participants, going over their recent games and suggesting areas to work on. One student even pinpointed that session as the most beneficial experience of the camp.

GM Alejandro Ramirez: A fantastic presenter, Alejandro generously provided us with several guest lectures throughout the week, impressing everybody with his detailed opening preparation and deep positional understanding. His lecture on the French Defense, in which he revealed his own home-cooking, was so thorough that when I played blitz with him I had him promise he wouldn’t play the French before I played 1. e4.

Meet the Students:

Jeffrey-Xiong.jpgJeffrey Xiong (2279 age 10): Jeffrey won the silver medal in the World Youth Chess Championships in 2010. A big fan of bullet, bughouse and other chess variants, Jeffrey was often playing 1 minute games during breaks. His love for ICC was ever apparent, as his parting words to Alejandro were, “I’ll see you on ICC tonight at 11 P.M and we’ll talk.”

Kevin-Wang.jpgKevin Wang (2264 age 13): At only 13 years old, Kevin is already the 14th highest rated player in his home state of Maryland. I noticed that Kevin was one of the few who seemed to prefer playing blitz to bughouse during breaks, which reflects his serious attitude towards chess.

Michael-Bodek.jpgMichael Bodek (2288 age 13): Michael recently tied for first in the U.S. Cadet Championship Crossville, TN, breaking 2300 in the process. I noticed that during the school, Michael was one of the most focused and active students, often being the first to volunteer his ideas to the class.

Kevin-Cao.jpgKevin Cao (2215 age 14): Kevin is a three-time national scholastic champion and has seven state scholastic titles under his belt. Despite his young age, I found Kevin to be very mature. During the school, while many students would fire off random moves, Kevin preferred to sit quietly and listen, speaking only when he was certain of the solution.

Jialin-Ding.jpgJialin Ding (2244 age 14): Jialin is already the highest rated junior in Missouri, and tied for first in the 2011 Mid-America Open, beating GM Kudrin along the way. Jialin was always very modest with his solutions, reluctant to claim he was sure, but once Greg was able to get him answer he always suggested the most logical continuation.

Arthur-Shen.jpgArthur Shen (2291 age 14): Arthur recently tied for first in the U.S. Cadet Championships with Michael Bodek, breaking 2300. It’s rumored that he had an extremely strong coach with him in Tennessee. During the week, Arthur won the participation award hands down. As for the accuracy award….

Yian Liou (2365 age 14): Yian is the 2010 U.S Cadet Champion. Throughout the week, Yian always waited until he was absolutely certain of the solution before he volunteered his answer, probably giving him the “accuracy” award. Whenever somebody volunteered a bad move, Yian would also be the first to refute it.

Yian Liou playing blitz against Ostrovskiy

AlexOstrovskiy225.jpgAleksandr Ostrovskiy (2402 age 15): Alex recently tied for first in the U2400 section of the World Open, and has made rapid progress as of late, crossing the 2400 barrier. He has one IM norm. Alex was my bughouse partner during breaks, and we had a lot of fun winning.   

Robert Perez (2344 age 15): Robert tied for first place in the U2400 section of this year’s World Open (with Alex). A math prodigy, Robert is matriculating at MIT this fall. Did I mention that he’s fifteen?

Michael Vilenchuk (2288 age 17): Misha won the prestigious Denker Tournament of High School Champions right before the school began. He was another student that volunteered his answer only when he was sure, and was the only person to find the brilliant solution to the puzzle Kovacevic-Seirawan (further in the report).

Eric-Rosen.jpgEric Rosen (2333, age 17): Eric is the reigning National High School Champion, a title he won with a perfect 7-0 score. He is very polite, mature, and modest, which didn’t stop him from tearing through the traditional blitz tournament en route to clear first place.

Victor Shen (2446 age 18): The oldest participant in the school, I was grateful for this last opportunity to participate in the USCS. On the last night, I was lucky enough to play a bunch of blitz games with Yasser in the lobby of the hotel, as he patiently crushed me with that deadly positional style over and over again.
GM Yasser Seirawan and Victor Shen

Yasser explained that his lectures would focus on openings, or more specifically, classical openings (aka you little kids play all kinds of crap nowadays so I’m going to teach you what REAL chess is). He started out by explaining the three essentials to avoiding poor positions in the opening:

1.    Fair share of the center
2.    Safe King
3.    Harmonious Development

Every beginner knows that, right? Apparently former top ten GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov could’ve done with a little reminding…

On a demonstration board at the front of the room, Seirawan explained what was running through his mind at this point. “The move c5, which characterizes a Benoni, is known at the top level to be slightly dubious/risky. The same can be said about f5, the Dutch. When Shak played c5 AND f5, I thought, wow I must be winning, he just combined two bad openings!” And so Yasser played 3. e4! seizing the initiative.

After 12 moves the players reached this position:


Here, it’s time to assess the outcome of the opening. White has a safe king, harmonious development, and more than his fair share of the center. Black has none of these three (a safe king is debatable, and perhaps Mamedyarov realized this as he chose to go into an unpleasant endgame which Seirawan converted convincingly.) Even top players aren’t safe from opening disasters…remember the three rules!

One of the “classical openings” that Yasser discussed was the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez. In particular, we spent several hours analyzing a rather obscure line that began with the move 10…g6!?


The general reaction all around was “what?? That can’t be good…looks weakening…Nd4 and white wins!” Yasser just smiled and took the pawn on e5. “Okay, I’m up a pawn now. Beat me!” And try as we might, we were unable to. I’ll leave it to the readers – after Nd4, is the attack worth the sacrificed pawn?
For the “solution,” see Karpov-Kortchnoi 1978.

Greg Shahade took us out of the opening phase and into the middlegame. Greg’s lectures consisted of two different types of puzzles: “find the best move,” and “evaluate the position.” The following are some samples from Greg treasure trove:

White to Move

Show Solution

Black to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

Greg also devised a simple yet effective form of solitaire chess. He would take a game between two top GMs, skip to move 25 and ask the class to explain the dynamics of the position out loud. Afterwards, we would choose a move to play and then Greg would reveal the actual move. Yasser’s insight during these exercises demonstrated the difference in thinking between an experienced grandmaster and talented teenagers. He would often point out things about the position that none of us had even considered. Sometimes, however, there are multiple good moves in a position, in which case Yasser’s solution ended up differing from the move played in the game. The following position provided some entertainment:
White to Move

Ostrovskiy: First I would like to play h4, followed by h5 and maybe h6 to get a strong pawn that restricts the black pieces. Then maybe I can play Re7 and take control of the seventh.

Seirawan objected. “I wouldn’t want to play h4 at all. To me, that knight on g6 is doing absolutely nothing – it’s a terrible piece! Why would I take two moves to chase it away from a bad square? I like the move Re8, trying to completely paralyze black and put pressure on the d7 knight. I think the idea of Qc3 and Na5, with possible sacrifices on c6, is also worth consideration.”

Greg listened to a couple more suggestions and then revealed the Alekseev’s move. 25. h4 appeared on the screen to smiles and laughter. I think the position was already so strong that white could play several different moves to improve his position. The plan of h4 h5 seemed very natural to me, and that was also my first instinct – however I was really intrigued by Yasser’s difference of opinion here, even if Alekseev did play it. I don’t think that any of us really considered that the knight was so bad that it didn’t have to be chased. The real strength of h4 probably lies in the clumsiness of the g6 knight, the gaining of space and the future creation of a passed pawn.

Alejandro Ramirez was teaching classes at the Saint Louis Chess Club during the time the school took place, and he kindly gave several guest lectures during the week. His first lecture was on the sometimes necessary cold-blooded calculation in place of intuition. Alejandro showed us a game he played against GM Alexander Goldin in the 8th round of the 2011 US Open. After 9 moves the players arrived at the following position:


Ramirez: “The tournament situation dictated that 1.5 out of the final 2 rounds would probably be enough to tie for first. Most people would probably try to hold with black and win with white, but I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to win my 8th round game and draw safely with white in the last round. So I was feeling particularly ambitious in this game. 9...e4 looks like an aggressive, forcing move – but it also looks a bit premature. The important thing here is not to disregard it just because your intuition tells you that it is risky. You have to calculate.”

One of the first things to realize is that Ng5 seems like it will eventually win a pawn. The other thing to notice is that Nd4 fails to the annoying Be5! After Bb2 Nc5! the threat of Nd3 gives black a big advantage. So now the question is: Can white play Ng5 and prove that the black pawn is overextended and lost? Or can black cause enough disarray in the white position to seize the initiative? For the solution, see the full game below.


Finally, who can forget all the blitz and bughouse played throughout the week? Yasser was always up for endless bughouse games with the participants, and Greg was always willing to demonstrate his prowess in blitz. The traditional blitz tournament, held on the morning of the final day, was won by Eric Rosen with a powerful 8.5/11. I admit that I had harbored a secret desire to win the tournament myself (scandalous, I know) as I had won the tournament the previous two times I had participated in the school and wanted to keep my unblemished record. I was the oldest participant and top seed, and on top of that, I had managed to beat the renowned Greg Shahade a couple times earlier in the camp…what went wrong? Well, in the “middle” of the tournament, I lost seven games in a row, finishing clear last. I even lost to my brother….Greg consoled me afterwards, saying “Well, at least you finished decisively. I mean it’s better than ending up like, fourth. Who wants to be fourth??”

I would like to thank Dr. Jim Roberts and the Saint Louis Chess Club for their generous support, without which the 16th U.S. Chess School wouldn’t have been possible; Yasser Seirawan, who was an amazing teacher and friend to all of us throughout the week; Alejandro Ramirez, who was a fantastic lecturer and “can do this because he’s a pro,” and of course the indefatigable Greg Shahade, who is the most ambitious and creative person in the country in terms of promoting chess. Until next time!

Find out more about the US Chess School on the official website and also see FM Michael Klein's recent article on the Charlotte edition of the school, which was led by GM Gregory Kaidanov.

September - Chess Life Online 2011

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