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Skywalk to Chess: The National High School Champs Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
April 18, 2012
When the only available inexpensive flight to Minneapolis, site of the 2012 National High School (K-12) Championship, routed us through St. Louis, that bastion of chess superstar power, I believed it was an omen, a sign of good things to come.  And when one of Nicky’s adult chess friends, Steve Fales, happened to be on the same flight to St. Louis to teach a seminar there, all signs pointed toward an excellent weekend no matter what the tournament results.  I began my long weekend by burying my nose in a book while Steve pulled out a small magnetic chess set to play and analyze games with Nicky for most of the flight.

Not a bad start to a chess-filled weekend.

As I perused this year’s Advanced Entries list, I could not help but be impressed by the intimidating lineup of scholastic talent.  Eric Rosen, last year’s champion who had swept the tournament with a perfect 7-0 score, topped the list, closely followed by a daunting array of scholastic chess luminaries, including Rochelle Ballantyne, showcased on the Minneapolis local news with Eric, and in the documentary Brooklyn Castle; Justus Williams, featured in the online show, X Chess Champs, and also in Brooklyn Castle; and Awonder Liang, the young 2011 World Youth champion – to name just a few.

Awonder (left), and his brother, Adream (right), flanking their father. (photo by Fun Fong)

 Naturally the tournament offered up its share of surprises: huge wins, big upsets, puzzling draws. As Sunday drew to a close, Ben Gershenov, a 12th grader from New York’s Solomon Schechter Westchester, emerged from the fray as the clear champion with 6.5 points, winning his first six rounds and drawing the final round with Arizona’s Dipro Chakraborty.  Last year’s winner, Eric Rosen, ended his scholastic tournament career impressively, taking second place with 6 points.

Ben Gershenov, the 2012 National High School (K-12) Champion, in Round 6 (photo by Fun Fong)

 Although the crown jewel of the tournament is the championship section, you’d never suspect it during the closing ceremonies: the under sections received the loudest cheers, with onlookers erupting into raucous hollering as favorite winners crossed the stage.  Under section winners included Donald Hooker (U1600), Kaustubh Sanja Nimkar (U1200), Brock Truman Morris (U800), and Andrew Hanson (unrated).  

Competition for the team crown is usually fierce and this year was no exception, with the top four teams finishing within half a point of each other.  The championship fight ended in a tie for first between two outstanding New York chess schools, Hunter College High School and I.S. 318 Eugenia Maria de Hostos (Williamburg), with I.S. 318 capturing the championship trophy on tiebreaks.  What made I.S. 318’s victory even more striking is that this is a middle school team.  It’s almost frightening to imagine what havoc they’ll wreak when they hit high school!

First on tiebreaks, the kids from New York’s IS 318

Co-champs Hunter, who shared their third consecutive title

The battle for third and fourth place resulted in another two-way tie between Thomas Jefferson High School of Virginia and Arizona’s Catalina Foothills High School, with Thomas Jefferson coming out ahead on tiebreaks.

Fourth on tiebreaks, Arizona’s Catalina Foothills’ team


Chief tournament director, Franc Guadalupe, oversaw another smooth tournament that encompassed three floors and multiple rooms in the hotel.  I was delighted to see my friend, Fun Fong, working as a tournament director in the championship section.  We’ve known each other since Nicky’s first Castle Chess camp six years ago, and not only has he been good to Nicky, but he’s also a superb photographer, so (selfishly) I knew that at least this CLO post would contain a few well-shot and beautifully composed pictures.

The tournament venue, the downtown Hyatt Regency, was undergoing a massive renovation, which at first was a bit rattling given the incessant daytime construction noise, but the staff was friendly and helpful, more than making up for any inconvenience.  And fortunately, construction seemed concentrated near the rooms, not the halls, ceasing completely after 5 p.m.  

As for the host city itself – well, who could not want to explore the city famous for its abundant lakes and its powerful sports teams, and the one that gave birth to Mary Richards, iconic (if fictional) symbol of feminine empowerment and independence, and to Target, purveyor of affordable chic?  

An homage to Mary Richards and her trademark hat fling

To add to its allure (for me), Minneapolis is highly regarded in urban planning circles for its unusual network of skywalks connecting the downtown and its strong commitment to public transportation.  The skywalks demonstrated their value by sheltering us when needed during the highly temperamental weather changes, which ranged from sunny and balmy, to cool and rainy, to hair-whipping tornado threats, to snow flurries on our day of departure.

View from the hotel’s skywalk


Nicky and I decided to put Minneapolis’ famed transit system to the test, traveling within the city only on foot or by public means, beginning with commuting from the airport to the hotel.  We easily found the light rail station from Terminal 2; one easy train ride and one quick and simple bus transfer later (on a hybrid electric bus, no less), we were deposited directly in front of the hotel – no muss, no fuss – for the whopping rush-hour fee of $2.25 (it’s $1.75 otherwise).  Along the way, I noticed the unmistakable bright green-and-blue bikes indicating a Nice Rides station, which is a bike rental program that’s growing in popularity around the country.

Apparently, just as in relationships, a good public transit system is all about timing and connection, and it turns out that Minneapolis has gotten it right.  

Nicky had formed a new connection of his own when he met Epiphany Peters at the National Youth Action last November.  An exchange of email addresses, phone numbers, and the all-important ICC handles led to plans of meeting again at this tournament, ostentiably as bughouse partners.  Eagle-eyed tournament director Franc Guadalupe spotted Nicky and Epiphany walking together on the night of our arrival (discussing strategy, of course) and warned me jokingly about a correlation between ratings decline and discovery of the opposite sex.  

Any fears of distraction were quickly laid to rest after the side events.  Nicky and Epiphany proved to be excellent bughouse partners: Out of 42 teams, they tied for third, taking fourth on tiebreaks behind Eric Rosen and Matthew Dahl (first); last year’s championship team of Ryan Christianson and Jeremy Paul (second on tiebreaks);  and Cristian Pena and Sam Schmakel (third on tiebreaks)

Nicky and Epiphany Peters with their bughouse trophies (photo by Fun Fong)

Nicky capped off the side events by finishing with 10 points in blitz, losing only to the eventual champion, Sam Schmakel.  He landed in a nine-way for third out of a field of 268 players, taking the third place trophy on tiebreaks.  Sam stormed the blitz tournament with no losses, followed by Andrew Ng in second place with 10.5 points.

Sam Schmakel receiving his blitz trophy

Nicky’s hopes for trophies in all three events were dashed when he ended the main tournament with 4.5 points, drawing to Sean Tuff of Minneapolis early on and losing to Justus Williams and to Joshua Colas, America’s youngest-ever African-American national master.  Still, Nicky was relatively satisfied with his performance, although he’s definitely rethinking his questionable strategy of trying out a new opening in a national event.  Here’s his last-round game against Josh Colas:


Melinda’s Stream-of-Consciousness Thoughts For New Chess Parents

This turned out to be an interesting tournament for me because it dramatically highlighted how my role as a chess parent has evolved as Nicky has grown up. Nicky, absorbed with his friends, barely found time to share a meal with me, whereas six years ago, he was rarely out of my sight even during tournament rounds.  With my role relegated to minor schedule management, and with the absence of regular volunteer duties, I had plenty of down time – much more than I’m used to.  In many ways, it was a nice respite. I was able to enjoy leisurely meals with my friends, read all four books I’d toted along, and even take in a Minneapolis Orchestra concert.  But even though my ultimate plan was to avail myself of the fitness center frequently – I’m in the final weeks of a fitness challenge at work – I found myself instead taking long walks to sit by the Mississippi River and think, a bit wistfully perhaps, about past tournaments (among other things).  

Time passes so quickly – I look with (only slight) envy upon those parents just stepping into national scholastic events and wonder what I would say to them about life as a chess parent or what wisdom (if any) I could impart.  I do know, on the surface, my role as a chess parent seems relatively simple: to organize, to cheer or to comfort, and to keep Nicky well-rested, well-fed, and well-rounded during tournaments.  

More complicated over the years was learning to temper my own ego and not allow it to become interwoven into Nicky’s tournament performances.  A simple phrase from Gary Robson’s excellent book, Chess Child, stuck in my head ever since I read it almost two years ago: Highlight and delete.  Gary writes: “What is at one point in time considered an absolute tragedy, at another point becomes insignificant and barely remembered.  Conversely, what at one time seems to be it – the most important event – disappears from a draft written two years later with two simple steps: highlight and delete.”  

It’s true, especially with losses.  As time goes on, those games that you think are disastrous turn out to be mere blips on the radar.  Highlight, delete, gone.

Tournament results, good or bad, usually fade in light of the memories surrounding them.  One of Nicky’s most disappointing tournaments occurred in Denver when he was brand new to national events. Yet we still reminisce fondly about that tournament: the gorgeous backdrop of mountains and clear blue skies, our long rambling walks along the 16th Street Mall, our unabashed glee in sampling all of Sonic’s artificially-flavored, multi-hued drinks (Sonic had not yet come to Florida, but their advertising had).  We loved Colorado so much that we brought the whole family back to vacation a few months later.  

Those happy memories have lived long past those particular tournament results.

Nicky’s very first national tournament (and second-ever tournament) in December 2005
That’s why it’s important to make time to relax and have fun during tournaments, for the in-between moments so often become the memories that last the longest and taste the sweetest. I tend to prefer tournaments that are held in downtown environments because we can easily get out and explore without needing wheels; if I have to choose between tournaments with all other factors being equal, I’ll always pick the urban one.  I’ve found that having an interesting escape route from the confines of the tournament hall gives us myriad and welcome opportunities to clear our heads, make some interesting discoveries, forage for local food, and start fresh each round.

Part of the lure of national tournaments, too, is reconnecting with so many interesting people.  This tournament was no exception: While grabbing coffee at Panera Bread with Debbie Gross, mom to one of the Catalina Foothills team members, I unexpectedly ran into long-time chess pal, Matan Prilleltensky, as we gulped our morning cup of java (and in my case, a pecan braid).  Our paths only cross during these events and every time we meet, it’s always with absolute delight.  I’ve been impressed with this remarkable young man’s growth and his kindness toward Nicky; it seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed his ability to connect with others.  Post-tournament, Nicky and I happened to ride the bus to the airport with one of Matan’s IS 318 students and her mother.  The mom could not stop praising Matan, gushing enthusiastically about Matan’s outstanding work with the kids.

In the end, the operative tournament survival words for me as a chess parent have become Let Go and Breathe.  As a chess parent, it’s sometimes hard to stay chill when your kid is totally bombing and you’re thinking about the money spent and vacation days used for this.  Fortunately for Nicky, there’s always been a parental balance: Nicky’s father, David, approaches every kid activity with a laid-back and casual attitude that keeps me in check whenever I start spinning (and believe me, I do).  And with the passing years and many tournaments under my belt, I’ve finally accepted that it all balances in the end: fallow periods followed by fruitful ones.  My obsessing one way or the other has never seriously affected Nicky’s outcomes (or, if anything, more negatively than positively).

Like the majority of scholastic players, Nicky is not on a superstar path.  He’s definitely good – occasionally brilliant when he’s “on.”  He can be competitive (sometimes fanatically so), and he pours his full energy into most games, but his chess dreams do not extend to taking his place on the international stage or becoming a household name in the chess world.  He does not intend to become a professional chess player.

What’s more important is that, in addition to his many friendships, Nicky’s developed some pretty remarkable skill sets: focus, creativity, extraordinary strategic thinking, sportsmanship, how to shake off a devastating loss immediately to walk back into the next round.  These are the tools that will carry him through life successfully – and he owes much of it to chess.  

And perhaps it’s been to Nicky’s advantage that neither his father nor I have ever second-guessed his moves or tried to coach him (not that either of us could).  In general, we’ve been more vigilant about letting Nicky be a kid in the midst of tournament madness; we’ve always allowed him to blow off steam during tournaments by tossing a Frisbee or football or by playing bughouse and blitz between rounds instead of studying and resting in the room.  Yet Nicky somehow continues to improve without much chess intervention from us or without following a conventionally studious path – maybe not in gigantic, attention-grabbing leaps – but in steady and regular increments at his own pace.
So in many respects, we’ve let Nicky direct his chess, just as one day soon he will direct his life.  Because ultimately, beyond today’s tournament results or tomorrow’s ratings changes, what Nicky will carry with him is a life-long love for the game.  And neither his father nor I could ever wish for more.

Browse full results from the National High School at http://www.uschess.org/tournaments/2012/hs and find information on the upcoming Junior High School Nationals (April 27-29, San Diego) and Elementary School Nationals (May 11-13 Nashville, TN).