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Interview with GM-elect Robert Hess Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
April 17, 2009
Robert Hess has many good reasons to be happy. Photo Betsy Dynako
Robert Hess's Spring 2009 streak began with the SPICE Spring Invitational  (March 16-22, Lubbock, Texas), where Robert scored his second GM norm. A week later in Nashville, Robert swept the High School Nationals 7-0, leading his team, Stuyvesant to a National title. A couple days after that, Robert was off to Foxwoods where he defeated GMs Ehlvest and Nakamura on his way to norm #3. Between catching up on schoolwork and preparing for the 2009 U.S. Championship (May 7-17, Saint Louis), GM-elect Robert Hess talked to CLO about his philosophy on chess openings, confidence and his relationship with coach GM Miron Sher.

Jennifer Shahade (JS): Triple Congratulations on behalf of CLO and USCF for your earning your two norms and a National Championship title in just 3 weeks. Did the High School Nationals prepare you for your fantastic result in Foxwoods?

Robert Hess (RH): Not really -  at the Nationals I did not play my best chess. I believe it was the SPICE tournament that brought up my Foxwoods result. (My coach) Miron Sher always told me that if I played in successive tournaments, I would achieve a great result. 

JS:What was your best game from Foxwoods?
RH:My game with Black against Nakamura was a very clean game.


I reached equality, and then I had a slight edge as Black. It was an easy draw but when he tried to win... I took the advantage. Sher pinpointed ...a5 (which Hess played in the position below) as a very strong move in this game.

Nakamura-Hess, Foxwoods 2009


JS: Tell us about your topsy-turvy game vs. GM Timur Gareev in the SPICE tournament in Dallas, which clinched you the second norm?

RH: Gareev stopped thinking. He was winning through the majority of the game and then he shut off and played several bad moves. At the point where he equal and then on the worst side rook vs. knight endgame, he completely collapsed. He went from winning to drawn to the worse side of a draw. It was sort of a meltdown.


JS: At the Spring Spice Invitational, you also won a drawn position against Robson?
RH:Yeah, the time control was 90 minutes+30 seconds, but he thought there was also an extra 15 minutes after 40 moves.

Position after 41. Kc6 in which Robson lost on time.

So he thought he had made time control, got up from the board and started walking around. At first I was thinking of telling him about it. I felt bad about it but there was nothing I could do.

JS: When you say you felt bad do you mean, if you had to do it over you would act differently?
RH:No, of course not. It helped me to get the norm. I just felt bad winning in what should be an equal position.

JS: How did you feel going into SPICE?
RH:I took the SATs on Saturday, and then I flew to Dallas but the flight to Lubbock was delayed, so I spent the night at 7 AM and we landed in Lubbock. I was exhausted and I crashed until the tournament started. I felt like I had a disadvantage.

JS: How you feel you did on the SATs.
RH:I feel I did well. We'll see.

JS: When were the highlights of SPICE for you?
RH:Well, I really liked my two games against Antal. I got confident when I started with 2.5/3 and then after beating Ray, I was just like, "I'm just getting a norm, that's it, there's no way I'm not getting it."



JS: You seem to have a great sense of confidence, which obviously helps you in chess. Do you agree that most people struggle with that and doubt themselves?
RH:Yes, my girlfriend reminds me of that all the time. I know that other people are not as confident as me, and that allows me to prey on them. I can read expressions and get a vibe if someone is uncomfortable in a certain position.

Chris Bird snaps a shot of Robert's proud parents. Photo Betsy Dynako
JS: How did you celebrate your recent success and the holidays? 
RH:Foxwoods was a great way to kick off my spring break! I have not had too much time to celebrate much though. The successes have been so sudden and I have had way too much schoolwork to catch up on.  We do celebrate Passover, which limited me to ice cream and salad throughout the Foxwoods Open!
JS: Where do you want to go to college?
RH:I will apply early action to Yale.

JS: Why Yale?
RH:My sister goes there and my dad went there. I liked it when I visited.

JS: What do you intend to study at Yale?
RH:I'm not sure what career I'm heading for.

JS: What about a chess pro?
RH:I did apply for the Samford, and I'd love to focus on chess and travel abroad to play in tournaments, but not to be a chess professional. There is no money in chess. I love playing the game, but I just don't see it as a profession.

JS: Why did you decide to play in SuperNationals?
RH:I haven't played in a Nationals since third grade but I promised my very good friend Zach Weiner that I would play one of my years in High school. So, I decided "Why not this year?"

JS: Were you confident about winning the event?
RH:Well, there are always a lot of upsets at Nationals. It wasn't like I was worried or feared any of the players but still, even players below 2200, the type of people who in Foxwoods, I'd say, "first round victim" are dangerous. At Nationals, these players are very hungry.
Robert Hess in the final round of the SuperNationals, facing Alec Getz.

JS: Do you study with any other young talents?
RH: No, I just study just with Miron and I prefer it that way. Some of the other young stars like Ludwig is very booked out, and it's just so different from me so I don't think it would be a good match-up for studying. Ray and Sam too...they are much more booked up than me. I like to play my own game. I do know many main lines but I prefer not to venture into 30-move variations, because to me chess is not about memorizing but finding a combination in the middlegame.

JS: What would you tell to amateur players looking to make expert or master, who feel that they need to study and memorize a lot of main lines to get better?
RH:I'd tell them that talent and an equal position is a dangerous combination. In chess, my openings have never been my strongpoint. I like to think that as the game progresses, my game gets stronger.  That's why I play the Closed Sicilian and with Black I play some offbeat lines. 

JS: But obviously you can go too far with that strategy, do you remember when Hikaru was playing 1.e4 c5 2.Qh5 a few years back?
RH:A lot of  top GMs like (Sergei) Movsesian and (Shakhriyar) Mamedyarov, don't play the most common lines, but play things like 1.e4 c5 2. b3. I don't have to take it to the extreme with 1.e4 c5 Qh5 but what about the Closed Sicilian?  Spassky played it so it can't be that bad.  I just like playing. That's why I like Fischer-Random chess, (or chess 960) so much, it's a random position and you just play. It really shows talent. Nakamura is very good at that game.

JS: What do you think of Nakamura?
RH:I'm not totally in a position to comment on a 2700 player. But I guess people would say his weakness is openings, cause he plays the Alekhine. But regardless of the opening, Hikaru finds amazing tactical opportunities.

During a SuperNationals Chess Life Magazine cover photo shoot with Kasparov and three other top juniors, Alex Betaneli interviews Robert Hess for Chess Life Magazine.
JS: Who is your favorite player?
RH:Levon Aronian's style is the most intriguing to me. Because he plays with his heart.

JS: How do you feel about the field at the U.S. Championship?   
RH:I'm very happy to see that Kamsky is playing. It's not every day you get a chance to play Kamsky- I actually drew him once in the New York Masters... which is a 30 minute game so it didn't mean that much. I want some revenge cause he beat me in Foxwoods. A lot of people criticize Kamsky's openings a lot too although he was fine in the openings against Topalov. Topalov's edge was psychological. Topalov is not afraid of anything, he just plays to play.

JS: Who's the favorite to become U.S. Champion?
RH:In Saint Louis, Kamsky's the favorite and after that, it's between Hikaru and Onischuk, but it's hard to say because they have such different styles.   
JS: Would you define yourself more as a positional player or a tactician?
RH:I'd define myself more as a tactical player. I don't think there are that many people who can outcalculate me but sometimes my openings create a problem... that's why I like round robins so much. There is time to prepare lines that suit you. 

JS: Does Miron ever give you tough love?
RH:Miron told me after the SPICE tournament that I played much better in Foxwoods 2008 (where I earned my first norm.)
JS: How has your relationship changed over the years?
RH:We are very close. We travel to plenty of tournaments overseas. He's almost part of the family. We have a very good relationship. He's a fantastic coach. He shows me how to avoid my weaknesses and emphasize my strengths. He's VERY good at mindset, and at predicting what openings my opponents will play.

JS: Can you give us some examples of how Sher helped you with your openings in the SPICE Cup? 
RH:When Antal  had 1/5, Miron guessed that he'd probably play the Caro-Kann rather than the Sicilian. Against Robson, where I played the BB5+ Sicilian, Robson  had games in the database with Nd7, Bd7 and Nc6 but Sher said, "he's probably going to play Nc6." Again, Sher was right.
When I was playing Black against Robson, (we couldn't get enough info in the line we were playing) so Sher looked through his coach, Onischuk's games. In the game, Almasi-Onischuk, as White, Almasi had a very good position so we guessed that Onischuk would have Robson to play that way as White. I had an improvement...upon Robson's game against Sadvakasov. I'm not afraid to play that line (the Steinitz Deferred) against anyone.  I can open the a-file at any moment. The ...Nh4 idea was my preparation. I don't know if it's a novelty but it's my book.
Position after 14...Nh4. A few moves later, Hess and Robson agreed to a draw.

JS: Has your work with Sher become more or less frequent in recent years?
RH:Well, I used to have more lessons. In sixth grade, I said, "I don't want to have as many lessons so I can have more time to hang out with my friends!"

JS: Is Miron coming with you to the U.S. Championship?
RH:No, unfortunately, I am going to prepare myself. But if I have any questions, he'll be available on the phone.   

JS: Tell us about your high school, Stuyvesant. It is extremely selective, right?
RH:Yes, there's a test to get in (that's the only way to get in) – 30,000 take it, only 800 get in. It's definitely a great feeling to get into Stuy.

JS: What was the reaction at Stuy of your chess successes?
RH:All my friends were really happy for me. Most of my teachers were pretty nice but they also wanted to see the homework..

JS: It seems that the image of chess has changed and that most people don't really consider it "dorky" anymore-what's your sense at Stuy?
RH:No one has given me any sort of problem of it. Most people know how to play and consider chess the most extreme mental sport. They praise me, instead of giving me a hard time.

JS: Do your friends play chess?
RH:It's funny because my girlfriend is Russian, but she doesn't play chess.   Sometimes, when we hang out together with her Russian friends, they start speaking Russian and I'm like, "Oh this is just like a chess tournament!"

Robert Hess in his football gear
JS: A couple of years ago, there were some really cool photos of you in the New York Daily News playing football and chess. What did you think of them?
RH:I was really happy about these pictures... It was an innovative idea to combine visually a physical sport with a very intense mental sport. Besides, my mother liked it, which is always the most important thing.

JS: How is football going? 
RH:I didn't play this past year. I hurt my shoulder toward the end of last year. Besides, in junior Year it's important to focus on school colleges really look at your grades this year. Between SATs, school, chess and football, I had to make some tough decisions. 

JS: Do you see a lot of links between football and chess?
RH:I see more mental aspects to football than physical aspects to chess. In chess concentration is absolutely key. You see plenty of people who are at their board but not paying attention. When I am playing the game of chess, that's the only thing I'm doing- playing that game of chess. I'm not thinking about "What I'm going to get my friend for his birthday?" You definitely have to be in good shape... to help concentration...but still, there are so many chessplayers who are not in good shape! 

JS: Now that you made all the requirements for GM, what is your next goal? 
RH:My next goal is to keep playing strong chess and hopefully climb to 2600 FIDE. This will be extremely hard to do, but I feel capable of it. After Foxwoods I am at around 2525 FIDE. The US Championship is coming up and a top ten finish would be great. Eventually, I would like to play for the Olympiad Team, but this will take much work and progress.

JS: What's your chess study routine like?
RH:I work with Miron Sher about once a week and he gives me homework, usually nine tough puzzles. I also go over games daily, download the latest games and am always on the ICC always checking out current tournaments. I don't work nearly as much as I should.

JS: To make GM at 17 years old, I'd think you'd need to do a lot more work. How did you manage?
RH:When I play, I have a lot of desire... I never give up. I think I make up for what I don't do at home at the board. 

GM-elect Robert Hess is a contender in the 2009 U.S. Championship (May 7-17, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.) Look for more about Hess in Alex Betaneli's June Chess Life Magazine story on the SuperNationals, and in Jerry Hanken's July Chess Life Magazine article on Foxwoods.


April - Chess Life Online 2009

Jennifer on Chess Talk with John WatsonRoad to GM: Not Broken Games and Photos From the All-GirlsWorld Chess Live Tournament of College Champions Daily Fantasy Chess Prizes USCF seeks FIDE Zonal PresidentIM Ray Robson Wins Samford Fellowship Akobian Wins Californian Challenge Megan Lee the Big Winner at All GirlsFantasy Chess 2009 Gata Scores After SlumpAdventures of a Samford: Perfect in TorontoBasketball Chess Video Akobian Leads Against Shulman Landon Brownell (1989-2009)Member Appreciation Program UpdateKudrin Takes Far West Open; Youngsters ShineSadvakasov Takes on 22 Columbia StudentsChess Camp 101Onischuk on Mexican EndgamesGarry Kasparov in Nashville: "Hard Work is a Talent."USCF Legal Update Interview with GM-elect Robert HessKamsky in Nalchik for Grand Prix Adventures of a Samford: Another Run at Cappelle2009: A Chess Odyssey....or By The Time I get to Nashville Chess Silhouettes Revealed Hilton on Foxwoods: Norms for Hess and Enkhbat, Title for SadvakasovHilton on Foxwoods: Shulman, Shogi and Imitating BecerraFar West Open Begins in RenoBryan Smith Tests Himself in MarchandFrom Nashville to Foxwoods Kosteniuk on 100 Wins in Nashville The Local View on Nashville More Than Trophies at the SuperNationals Shankland Wins Final Spot in Saint Louis Live From Nashville: Coaches Interviews Results are in at the SuperNationals! A Parent's Perspective, This Time Supersized: Part II SuperNationals Interview with Yury ShulmanLive From Nashville: Fun Between Rounds Live From Nashville: Fox Coverage, Simuls and More Live From Nashville: Tornadoes and an Astronaut Garry Kasparov Kicks Off SuperNationals Live Video From Nashville: Bughouse, Blitz and an InterviewA Parent's Perspective, This Time SupersizedJennifer on Simuls, A Little Different