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E.Vicary Previews Nationals Print E-mail
By Elizabeth Vicary   
April 2, 2008
Michael Lee is the highest rated pre-registered player at the Junior High Nationals. Photo Dujiu Yang, taken at the U.S. Chess School, Lexington.
Junior High Nationals starts on Friday in Dallas, Texas, and it’s looking to be uncommonly strong. Pre-entry lists show both open sections (K-9, K-8) have an unusually high number of 2000+ rated players. The team competition should be especially fierce. Early money in the K-9 is on Odle Middle School from Washington State, whose players include Michael (2277) and Megan (1792) Lee, Alex Guo (1997) and three 1300-1400 players. However, there are rumors that Dalton will bring a team headed by two superstars, Parker Zhou (2248) and Kassa Korley (2113). If this is true, all bets are off.

The K-8 section looks like a three way race between New York powerhouse Hunter (2229, 1926, 1672, 1596, 1546), Canyon Vista from Austin, Texas which boasts seven 1800s plus a couple 15 and 1600s, and the defending champions, IS 318, which has a whopping 26 players in the Open section. (Only the top four scores count.) While anything can happen in scholastic chess, I suspect Hunter is virtually unbeatable as long as Alec Getz, its top board and the section’s number one seed, goes 7-0. This isn’t terribly unlikely, since he out-rates his nearest competition by 200 points and has plenty of experience playing long tournaments and handling pressure.

The under sections are (of course) completely unpredictable, but I have noticed over the years that these trophies tend to go to schools with the largest chess programs (schools from Chess in the schools, Rockaway Middle from Florida, large programs in Brownsville, private schools with extensive programs like Hunter and Dalton).  Of course, this is partly because these programs bring 20-50 kids and this increases the chances that four of those children will have a good performance. But it’s also true that kids from these schools tend to get a lot of unrated practice against each other and thus improve without being noticed by the rating system. I suspect that there may also be areas of scholastic chess that are so isolated from the adult world that the rating system becomes distorted. Most of my kids, for example, play only in free Chess in the Schools tournaments, where they face the same opponents week after week. While these players are improving every week with practice and coaching, their ratings don’t keep up because the pool of players is closed.  

High School Nationals follows two weeks later, April 18-20th, in Atlanta, Georgia. For the last few years, the top team title has come down to last round battles between Catalina Foothills from Tucson, Arizona and Edward R. Murrow from Brooklyn, New York. Having lost IMs Alex Lenderman and Sal Bercys to graduation, Murrow is probably not a contender this year. Catalina Foothills are probably the favorites, with two masters (Landon Brownell and Vaishnav Aradhyula), an 1800, 1700, 1600 and 1300. Their main challenger seems to be Thomas Jefferson High School from Alexandria, Virginia, with an impressively deep team that includes an expert, a master, two A players, and six 1400-1600s, any of whom could conceivably have a great tournament. Stuyvesant, the most prestigious of the math-and-science specialized public high schools in New York, has no formal chess program, but because they enroll only the brightest students in New York City, they normally can field a decent team anyway. This year is no exception, as they boast an expert, three A players and a couple 1600s.

Elementary Nationals is much later this year: May 9-11, in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to make good predictions for this one because the advance entry deadlines haven’t passed; consequently there is no telling who will travel to Pittsburgh or what sections they intend to play. Nevertheless, I’ll try.

If Austin’s Canyon Vista (2x1800, 1600, 1500) plays in Pittsburgh, they will be the clear frontrunners, but historically they haven’t often traveled to Nationals far from Texas. Last year’s K-6 co-champions, Horace Mann of New York, recently proved their continuing strength by dominating the elementary section of the NY State Scholastic Championships. Despite having lost superstars Justin Karp and Michael Chiang (both 1800 last year), they are both strong and deep, with 6 players between 14 and 1600. My school, IS 318, was last year’s co-champions and will play again, but because we are a 6-8 grade school, the strength of our sixth grade team is highly variable. This year we have a 1700, two 1500s, and a couple 13-1400s. T.H. Rogers (TX), if they choose to play this section, could also have a strong team, headed by the Zhang twins, Vincent (1925) and Victoria (1568), but lacking strong 3rd and 4th boards. Finally, Vela Middle School from Brownsville, Texas (1800, 1480, 1250, 1150) has an outside chance.

Picking the K-5 section is almost impossible. Several teams, including my front-runner, All Saint’s, might easily not play, or might concentrate on a different section. Additionally, I’m basing my estimates of team strength on entries at Grade Nationals, but schools may have other high rated students who did not play there.
·    All Saint’s Episcopal School (Ft Worth, TX): 1998, 2 x1400, 2 x 800/900. However, I could not find any record of this school playing in previous years’ spring nationals, so they might not show up.
·    TH Rogers, last year’s co-champions, who return with a team led by Ellen Xiang (1768) plus a 1500 and two 1100s,
·    Hunter, who could bring a 1400 and several 11-1200s,
·    PS 124 (NY), 2007 5th grade National Champions, (1500, 1200, 2 x 1100, 1000)
·    The Village School (TX): 1598, 1343, and a nice, deep cushion of seven 11-1200s.
My Predictions

Junior High

K-9    Without Dalton, Odle has a 95% chance to win.
If Dalton shows up with its top two boards, Odle 40% Dalton 60%.

    If Getz goes 7-0: Hunter 80%, Canyon Vista 12%, 318 8%
If Getz gets anything below a perfect score: Hunter 40% Canyon Vista 35% 318 25%
Without knowing how Getz will do: Hunter 55%, Canyon Vista 25% 318 20%

High School:
Catalina Foothills 55%
Thomas Jefferson 35%
Stuyvesant 10%

If Canyon Vista goes: Canyon Vista 46%; Horace Mann 25% IS 318 9% TH Rogers 11%, Vela 9%
Without Canyon Vista:  Horace Mann 45% TH Rogers 30% IS 318 15% Vela 10%
Overall: Canyon Vista 20% Horace Mann 40% TH Rogers 18% Vela 6% IS 318 18%


All Saint’s 35% (assuming they play)
TH Rogers: 25%
Village School: 14%
124: 7%
Hunter: 5%
Horace Mann: 14% (assuming they play)

IS 318 Strategies

My school, IS 318, is taking forty-six students to Dallas, and so I’ve been pretty busy lately, frantically trying to make sure every kid knows his/her openings and is in reasonable form.  In my mind, the number one educational benefit of chess for kids is that it can make them feel smart, and I want every kid I take to leave the tournament feeling like he competed in a national championship and was successful (in whatever sense that word has meaning for the kid). Of course, this is an impossible task and makes me crazy, but below are a few of my more successful preparation strategies.

I.S. 318 at City Hall. Elizabeth Vicary, 2nd row, far left.

Do They Know Their Openings?: An Alternative To the Spreadsheet

My immediate supervisor at IS 318 is a talented administrator with a special gift for seeing the educational big picture. Several years ago he sat me down a month or so before Nationals and said “Elizabeth, we have a wonderful program. There are so many kids; they are very strong; you’ve done an excellent job of teaching them many different openings. However, I’m a little worried that we haven’t tracked anything and don’t have much of an idea of where each kid is at. What does Carlos play against the French, for example? Does anyone know? Does he? I think what we need is some assessment and a large chart.” He proceeded to describe this chart, and I took his advice and made it. It looked something like the table below...  

…only it was much, much larger. We took 40 kids that year, and the horizontal axis had at least twenty “basic” openings lines, each of which had to be initially checked in pencil (when the line was taught) and again later in pen (when the line was mastered). Needless to say, while this method of assessment identified and fixed a lot of holes, it was unbelievably time-consuming and frustrating. Never again, I swore.
This year I invented a game, which does the same thing, but requires almost no effort. Here’s how it works:
1.    I enter the mainline of the opening I want to review into Chessbase, and then search for wins of less than 22 moves. From this list, I choose one game in which the tactics are both simple and thematic.
2.    We have a Guess-the-Moves competition.
a.    The kids sit at individual boards, guessing, moving the pieces, and notating the moves as I call them out. I also reproduce the moves on a demo board. It’s important that the kids are physically moving the pieces, because people learn much better by actually doing things.
b.    I make them guess probably ¾ of the moves after move 3. The first half of the game tests their opening knowledge, while the second half measures practical strength and tactical awareness. This “assessment” also serves as a tactics lesson, a lesson on opening themes, and a fun activity. Moreover, it allows me to identify and fix common misunderstandings in openings, since kids frequently ask “Do I get any points for move x?” and I get to explain why this idea makes sense or doesn’t.
c.    I don’t always want them to know it’s a test, so I have a sneaky way of asking for results. I give a prize to the winner, who I identify by asking kids to raise their hands and keep them up until I name a score they did not reach. (e.g. Keep your hands up if you got 20 or more points.) They think I’m writing down the winners, while actually I’m making note of who scored especially badly. They have to sit through an extra review lesson in the following days. 

Darrian Robinson is the second highest rated 318 student, at 1825, behind Michael Pegureo, at 1903.

Psychological Preparation: Role-Playing the Crier, the Liar and the Cheater

For many of my students, Nationals is an emotionally overwhelming experience. They are in a completely new place, away from everything that’s familiar, eating strange food, sleeping in strange beds, and playing high-pressure chess. It’s often the first time they are away from their families for an extended period of time. All this means that it’s easy to freak out at some point, and so I try to prepare kids for difficult situations that might arise at the board.

I do this by role-playing three or four typical scenarios and then leading a discussion about what smart choices kids have in each situation. I start with the Crier—the opponent who bursts into tears when losing and begs for a draw. Several years ago, I had one player whose crying opponent added that his father would physically beat him if he didn’t at least draw the game. This is a very difficult position for any kid to be put in, but an especially hard one for girls, who are under constant societal pressure to “be nice.” For this reason I ham my performance up as much as I can, faking tears, acting as childishly as possible, whining and begging. I do this in the hopes that when my kids encounter the Crier for real, the comedy of my performance will outweigh the anxiety of the actual situation. In our subsequent group discussion, I make sure to draw a distinction between things that cause real emotional pain to people you know (like spreading rumors or ignoring a friend), and things that people might react to but that aren’t really hurtful, like beating them at chess.
Other role-play scenarios include dealing with touch move infractions (very common but the rule is rarely enforceable), rules for claiming draws, and how to deal with a tournament director who makes a ruling you don’t agree with. Many students are taught not to talk back to authority figures in any circumstance, and so need to explicit practice in saying things like “I appeal” or “I want to talk to my coach.”

“But I Don’t Know What to Think About”: Adjusting to the Time Change.

Another problem my students often have is adjusting from their default time control, G/30, to the G/2 hour pace of nationals. They often genuinely want to slow down but simply don’t know what they could possibly think about in all that extra time.
    Consequently, I do an entire lesson on what kinds of things to think about when you aren’t sure how to spend your extra time. The list will be different for each teacher and each level of student, but some suggestions I’ve found useful: 

1. Every move you must look at every capture, every check and every “forcing move,” both for you and for your opponent. A forcing move is something like a threat of checkmate or an attack on the queen.
2.  Ask yourself: “If you had four or five moves in a row (they can’t be captures and you can’t move a piece into take), where would you go?”
3. Ask yourself: “What’s your worst piece and how can you improve it?”
4. Ask yourself: “What’s your opponent’s best piece, and can you trade it off or get it to move somewhere less effective?”
5. Ask yourself: “Which of your opponent’s pieces are either ‘loose’ (not protected) or not ‘well-protected?’” A piece that is not well-protected is only protected as many times as it is attacked. For example, if a pawn is attacked once and defended once, then it is not well-defended, and another attack will win it. Do you see any possible tactics involving these pieces? Same questions for your own pieces.  6. Ask yourself: “Does the pawn structure tell you anything about your plan or which side of the board you should be playing on?” (I find that children are much weaker than adults at the abstract task of long-term planning, and often just play on the side of the board they want to (usually the kingside), rather than considering what the position wants.)

Tactics and Self-Confidence: the Myth of the Defensive Driver
I do a fair amount of problem solving before Nationals, both to sharpen kids’ calculation and to boost their self-confidence. To accomplish this, I choose tactics that are slightly below what I would normally give. For some things, like driving, having the belief that you are only moderately competent probably makes you more careful and generally more able than if you believed you were highly skilled. However, chess is the opposite:  a lack of confidence is a huge handicap. It’s all too easy to get down on yourself after a loss, so it’s important to fill up players’ “emotional gas tanks” beforehand.

I.S. 318 students at Washington Square Park

The Role of the Coach at the Tournaments: What’s With All the Pep Talks?
I do all these things well before we leave New York. Once I get to the tournament, 90% of my time and energy is spent going over games. (10% is spent pacing back and forth.) I’ve heard good arguments both ways about how necessary/ helpful this really is for players.
The anti- reasoning goes like this: It can contribute to chess overload and tiredness, and the educational benefit post-mortems offers is long-term, thus unlikely to directly influence their performance at Nationals. For me, the argument for post-mortems is that
a) Most of my students are 13-year-old boys, and they work harder when they know someone will be checking up on them. If they know they are going to have to explain what they were thinking, they take more time and play more carefully.
b) For many kids, going over a game is the only satisfying way to resolve the feelings it generated. I’ve had many kids come back to the team room crying hysterically, and the only thing that can make them feel better is to gain an understanding of why they lost. On the flip side, kids who worked hard and won want (and deserve) their coach’s admiration and praise.

What I’ve never really understood is the pep talks/team meetings I see other coaches holding before each round. To me, a pep talk sounds like a great idea for a basketball or football team, when you want to pump the players up and generate team spirit. But chess is an individual game and requires a thoughtful, reflective state of mind. Sometimes an individual child might need a private conversation, but I have never understood what I could possibly say to the team en masse that they don’t already know.

Stay informed of the results and pre-registrations in the Nationals on the pages for the
Elementary , Junior High and High School. You can also watch selected games live on Monroi.com. Look for Part II of this article on Friday, a Nationals tactics warm up quiz.