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U.S. Chess School Comes to San Diego Print E-mail
By Elizabeth Vicary   
July 8, 2008
GM Gregory Kaidanov plays a blindfold blitz game against U.S. Chess School campers while USCS founder IM Greg Shahade assists. Photo E.Vicary

Three times a year the U.S. Chess School, a non-profit founded and organized by Greg Shahade, brings together eight of the country’s top juniors and one of the country’s top grandmasters for a week of intensive chess training. The camp is free for students, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Jim Roberts, in conjunction with the America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C). Each session is held in a different location and targets a different age group. The previous camp was held last January in Chicago with GM Yury Shulman; the next will be in New Jersey in August with GM Joel Benjamin. Past participants have included GM-elect Josh Friedel, IMs Lev Milman, Sal Bercys, Ray Robson and Daniel Naroditsky, who recently won the gold medal in the World Youth, Boys Under 12. The most recent session was held in San Diego, California, from June 23-28. All students were 9-12 years old and rated from 1900-2100; the teacher was GM Gregory Kaidanov, a leading grandmaster and world-class trainer. Watch a video from last summer's U.S. Chess School session, held in Kaidanov's homebase, Lexington, Kentucky. For more information about the US Chess School, see the website: www.uschessschool.com, or email [email protected].


Back Row: Gregory Kaidanov, Kevin Wang, Jarod Pamatmat, Joseph Moon. Front row: David Adelberg, Varun Krishnan, Sasha Velikanov, Luke Harmon and  Aleksandr Ostrovskiy.

Aleksandr Ostrovskiy is rated 2064 and ranked #4 for 12 year olds. He attended the US Chess School last summer and felt it really helped his chess. “Before the camp I was in a big slump—I had lost 80 points in the last three tournaments, but afterwards I had a fantastic result at the US Open. I scored 6/9, and 3.5/6 against masters.”

This year’s camp has been a very different experience for Aleks: last year he was the youngest and the lowest rated; this year he is one of the older students and clearly one of the strongest. Aleks analyzes quickly and confidently, answering by far the most questions of any participant. Of all the material covered this week, Aleks especially enjoyed the idea that automatic exchanges are a common and serious mistake. He loved the puzzle solving sessions and the analysis of students’ games. Aleks also composes chess problems, including the one below

White to move and mate in four, two solutions

Show Solution

Varun Krishnan is rated 1969 and is ranked 7th for 10 year olds. He attended a session of the US Chess School six months ago and, like Aleks, saw immediate benefits. He felt the camp “gave him a lot more ideas” in his games; this has translated to a rating gain of 100 points in the last six months. Varun learned the most when Kaidanov went over students’ games, especially from the summaries at the end (“An excellent idea! I never would have thought of this, but will definitely do it in my own games now!”). He also really enjoyed analyzing with the other students and felt that he got a lot of ideas from their variations, whether they were right or wrong.

Jarod Pamatmat is rated 2001 and ranked #3 for 11 year olds. This was his first time at the camp. He especially enjoyed the lesson on exchange sacrifices and the guess-the-moves exercises. Jarod also found Kaidanov’s specific observation that he doesn’t look hard enough for his opponent’s resources very useful, admitting that this has been a problem for him for some time. He also really enjoyed looking at the other students’ games and seeing how they learn from their mistakes.
Luke Harmon is rated 1942 and ranked 1st for 9 year olds. He had a fantastic result last month at the National Open, where he beat two masters and won the Under 2100 prize. Despite being the youngest and lowest rated of the students in the camp, it quickly became clear that Luke was one of the strongest. When he solved several difficult endgame studies immediately, Kaidanov asked if he had seen the positions before. Luke replied that he had—in Dvoretsky’s  Endgame Manual , which he reads in the backseat during long car rides.
“You just read it?” Gregory asked, “Or you also have a board?”
“I just read it,” Luke answered, “otherwise I have nothing else to do and get really bored.”
Normally, Luke prefers studying by himself, finding other people distracting, but at the US Chess School, he especially enjoyed the group analysis of other students’ games. “They aren’t as good as grandmaster games,” he explained, “but you can learn more about typical mistakes from them.” His favorite chess books, aside from Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, include How to Reassess Your Chess, by Jeremy Silman , and John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy. Luke’s parents have created a website (http://sponsorluke.com/mission.htm ) to chart Luke’s progress and to raise money for his chess education and upcoming trip to the 2008 World Youth Championship in Vietnam.

Joseph Moon is rated 2096 and ranked #2 for 12 year olds. It seemed to me that he had had less formal chess training than many of the other students and so sometimes seemed quieter during the training sessions, but he proved his talent and strength by tying for first in the blitz tournament. He then won the playoff game against Kevin Wang. Joseph really enjoyed guessing the moves of grandmaster games and the lessons on prophylaxis.
David Adelberg is rated 2016 and ranked #2 for 11 year olds. David enthusiastically proclaimed the US Chess School “the best camp I’ve ever attended.” He really enjoyed guessing the moves to grandmaster games, and intends to incorporate this study method into his chess work at home. Because Kaidanov suggested David’s weakness is indecisiveness, he’s going to do use the games of Tal and Shirov to do this in order to practice playing more actively. Another study suggestion David appreciated was Kaidanov’s recommendation to keep a study journal. The idea is that before you sit down to work, you enter into a study log exactly what you intend to work on; at the end of the study session, you note what you actually accomplished. This keeps you focused and away from distractions like ICC.
David also enjoyed using the computer to find opening novelties. David has always been a positional player, and so appreciated the lecture on positional exchange sacrifices, but also really enjoyed the tactical problem solving.

I was extremely impressed by David’s obvious maturity, which set him apart from the other students. When asked what the most valuable lesson he learned from the camp was, David thought for a long time before giving this insightful response: “Kaidanov told us that when you feel like you position is good, but then your opponent makes a move you didn’t see and suddenly you feel like you are worse, that you should stop and think for a long time. Your position probably didn’t change that much in one move, and it’s important not to overreact emotionally.”

Kevin Wang is rated 1976 and ranked #4 for 10 year olds. A self-proclaimed “opening addict,” his favorite part of the camp was learning Najdorf theory and the instruction on how to study openings. But the most useful thing he learned was prophylaxis: to constantly ask himself the question “What’s my opponent’s next move?” Kaidanov suggested Kevin’s weakness was endgames, and he intends to begin working on this area immediately. Like many other players, he found guessing the moves to be the most useful part of the camp, and thinks if he does this enough, he’ll be thinking like a grandmaster soon.

Alexander Velikanov (Sasha) is rated 2066, ranked #3 for 10 year olds. Sasha called the camp “awesome” and loved the blitz tournament and the group problem-solving exercises the most. He felt the most important lessons he learned from the camp were to avoid premature exchanges, to practice prophylaxis, and specific ways to prepare for opponents. Sasha especially appreciated the getting to know the other kids at the camp, and felt like he had made a lot of new friends.

Day to Day Activities

I arrived a day late for the camp, and consequently missed the first game analyses and two lectures on positional exchange sacrifices and how to prepare for an opponent. The second day began by studying a loss by Luke Harmon in the French. Kaidanov’s comments: “When I asked the question, ‘How do you feel about your light-squared bishop?’ I expected the answer ‘I feel very bad about my bad bishop,’ but you seem to feel quite ok about it! I really admire that you are not disgusted by this position. You think it’s kinda normal... (students laugh) You see, it’s important for chessplayers to be willing to play bad positions.” Many interesting lessons came out of this game, including how important it is to avoid premature exchanges and to resist making developing moves that look good but aren’t part of an active plan.


1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5
[4...Ne7 5.Bd2 b6] 5.Bd2 Ne7 6.Nb5 Bxd2+ 7.Qxd2 0–0 8.f4 Nbc6?!
8...cxd4 Black should take on d4 now, since delaying this for one move allows white an additional choice-- to recapture with the Nf3.
9.dxc5 b6
9...cxd4 10.Bd3 Qa5 [10...f6] 11.Qxa5 Nxa5 12.Nbxd4 Nac6 13.Kd2 Bd7 14.c3
What should black play here?
 This move looks good, but doesn't do very much. If black's idea is to put the rook on the open file, he should first trade knights on d4. If white recaptures with the pawn, then Rac8 makes sense, but if white recaptures with the knight, it doesn't make so much sense and black should continue more actively with ...f6.  [14...Nxd4 15.cxd4 (15.Nxd4 Nc6 16.Nb5 Rac8) 15...f6 16.exf6 gxf6 17.Rae1] 15.b4?! This is a bad move because it makes unnecessary weaknesses. 
How should white recapture? 
16.Nxd4 Now what should black do? If  16...Nc6 (16...a6 Since black has prevented Nb5-d6, what other ideas does white have for the knight? Answer: Nb3-c5, although maybe white wants to wait to play Nb3 until black plays Nc6, otherwise Nb3 allows ....Bb5 exchanging the bad bishop. However, waiting might not be necessary because the doubled b pawns might be quite bad, i.e 17. Nb3 Bb5 18. Bxb5 axb5 19 Nd4. 17.Rhe1 Nc6 18.Nb3) then  17.Nb5 might be annoying.
16...Ba4 17.b5 Rc7 18.Rab1 Rfc8 19.Rhc1 Rxc1 20.Rxc1 Rxc1 21.Kxc1 Nc8
 17.a3 f6 18.exf6 Rxf6 19.g3 h6
19...g5 20.Nxg5 Nxd4 21.Bxh7+ Kg7 22.Rab1
20.Ke3 Kf8 21.Rac1 Ke8 22.Rc5 b6 23.Rc2 Kd8 24.Rhc1 Ne7 25.h4 Rxc2 26.Rxc2 Be8 27.Ne5 Bg6
27...Nc8 28.b5 Nd6 29.a4; 27...Ba4 28.Rc1 Nc8 29.b5
28.Bxg6 Nxg6 29.Nc6+ 1–0

Next, Alex Ostrovskiy’s showed his complicated and hard-fought loss to Sam Shankland, which featured a rook ending that looked lost, but was in fact drawable. The lessons that emerged from this game were both simple (Alex missed an opportunity to put his rook behind his opponent’s passed pawns) and complex (Kaidanov showed how connected pawns in rook endings are not as good as most people assume, because they are generally slower than a single pawn supported by a king or rook.)

In the afternoon, Kaidanov talked about this balance between material and initiative and had students guess the moves of three games on the theme. He explained that developing chessplayers often overestimate material at the cost of initiative, and that this can take two forms: you can be materialistic about your own pieces (reluctant to sacrifice) or materialistic about your opponent’s piece (inclined to take material when it’s bad).

As a teacher myself, I was repeatedly impressed by the guidance Kaidanov offered regarding how students should continue studying and improving after the camp was over. For example, on Thursday morning, we saw Jarod’s game, in which he had missed some in-between moves for his opponent. Kaidanov asked the group “How would you fix this problem?” Someone suggested in-between move tactics puzzles, and Gregory replied, “Yes, this will help, but most likely it will help you to find in-between moves for yourself but not for your opponent.” He went on to recommend solving the “finding resources for your opponents” exercises from Dvoretsky’s book Secrets of Chess Tactics. This led to a general discussion of what tactics books are good for the kids’ current levels. Kaidanov’s list included Imagination in Chess (Paata Gaprindashvili) and John Nunn’s Chess Puzzle Book.

On Thursday, we began looking at openings. Kaidanov’s introduction: “Openings are important, but not as important as everybody thinks. The reason people study openings is that it’s easier—you open a book or a database and it looks like you’re studying.” The day’s lesson combined teaching kids the theory and middlegame ideas of the Najdorf/ Schveningen for black (with enough detail and comprehensiveness that they could begin playing it in tournaments), with advice on how to study openings quickly and effectively. The lesson included step-by-step instruction on how to set up and build computer files on your opening variations. My favorite new trick is using the reference button to find key games in a variation, then highlighting them, right-clicking and selecting “copy to notation.” This automatically merges key games into your opening tree.

Thursday also included a lesson on and problem-solving exercises in prophylaxis.

Can you find the best move for Black?

Show Solution

Friday was dedicated to endgames. Kaidanov pointed out that there are really two kinds of endgames. The first are positions with very reduced material that you might find in endgame manuals (he recommended Silman’s Complete Endgame Course and Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual); these happen very rarely in most people’s games. The second type is much more common: positions with 3-4 major/minor pieces on the board. Playing these positions well is what most people mean when they say someone has “good technique.” Kaidanov explained that this second type is very important to study, and this is best done by looking at the games of players who are good endgame technicians: Karpov, Rubinstein, Capablanca, Fischer, Lasker, and Ponomariov. Students then guessed the moves for several Ponomariov endings, all of which focused on the theme of how to win bishop vs. knight endings by creating a zugzwang position. “In order to be good at something,” Kaidanov advised the group, “you have to love it. In order to be a good endgame player, you must have a love for detail.”


Kaidanov also showed how to use computers to improve your technique—an idea borrowed from John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess. You set up a position where one side is winning, and play it against the computer. To do this, open an engine, but make it as small as possible so you can’t see the analysis. When you have moved, give the computer a few seconds, then press the space bar and the computer will automatically move. If you don’t win, reverse the colors and watch how the computer wins against you. This will show you the typical winning ideas in a position. He showed how Nunn practiced this technique in the following example.


1.h4 [1.g4 g5] 1...b5 2.g4
 Kaidanov: White pushes his pawns on the side where he has an extra pawn.
  2...a5 3.Kg3 a4
Kaidanov: How should white set up his queenside pawns? Answer: a3 b2 c3. This means White has only one weakness to defend: b2. If white tries b3 here, black will play a3 and Rd1–a1 or Rd1–b1–b2, winning.
4.a3 Rd1 5.h5 Rb1 6.c3 g5 7.hxg6+ hxg6 8.Kf4 Rd1 9.Ke3
At first Nunn tried  9.Ke5 but after  9...c6 he realized that black will play Rd5 next and the king will have to come back, so
9...Ke6 10.Ke4 (10.Rd2 Re1+ 11.Kd4 Kd6) ]
 10.Rd2 Rf1 11.Rd5 c6 12.Rc5 Rb1 13.Rxc6+ Kf7 14.Kf4 Rxb2 15.Kg5 Rb3 16.f4

16.Rc7+ is also good 16...Ke6 17.Kxg6 Kd6 18.Rc8 Kd7 19.Rc5 (19.Rb8 Kc7) 19...Kd6
 16...Rxa3 17.Rc7+ Ke6 18.Kxg6 Kd6 19.Rc8 Kd7 20.Rc5 Rb3 21.f5 a3
What should white play if Kd6 here instead of a3?
Analysis diagram after 21...Kd6

Show Solution

22.f6 Rb1
 22...a2 23.f7 a1Q 24.f8Q Qb1+ 25.Kg7 Black has no checks and his king will be mated quickly.
 23.f7 Rf1 24.Rxb5 a2 25.Ra5
Position after 25.Ra5

Ke7 26.Rxa2 Rf6+ 27.Kg5
Now if 27...Rxf7, 28. Ra7 trades rooks into an easy pawn endgame, or if 27...Kxf7, 28. Ra7+ wins the black rook. 

Then we solved some fun puzzles:

White to Move, Gerbst

Show Solution

White to Move and Draw

Show Solution

Saturday was a more relaxed day, where students played and analyzed a consultation game.



1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.h3
This is a line the group had analyzed in small groups two days previously. They had been very impressed with the following Karjakin and Nakamura games.



  6...g6 7.g4 Bg7 8.g5 Nfd7 9.Be3 b5 10.Qd2

Kaidanov: White should probably challenge b5 with a4 10.a4 b4 11.Nd5 Bb7 (11...a5 12.Nb5 Na6 13.Bd4) 12.Bg2 a5 13.Nb5 Na6 14.Nxe7 Kxe7 15.Qxd6+ Ke8]
 10...Bb7 11.Be2
 Kaidanov: 11. Be2 surprised me. I understand that you didn't want to weaken the c4 square with Bg2-- is that why?
Kids: Not really. We wanted to play h4-h5.
Kaidanov: But you have a rook supporting this-- you can just do it now. the bishop should stay on f1. White should castle long and play h4-h5. Maybe at some point the Bf1 will go to h3.  [11.Bg2 is not so good because of  11...Ne5; 11.f3 is ok. ]
Kaidanov: I don't know yet about this position, but in many Sicilians ...Nc5 is good only when the white bishop is on b3 or d3. Many of you who play the Najdorf know this knight often goes to b6, then the other knight goes to d7 and then either e5 or c5. If white plays f4 to stop ...Ne5, then ...Nc5 is especially strong because e4 is weak. Arranging your knights in the Sicilian is sometimes quite a challenge.  [11...Nb6 12.a3 N8d7 13.f4 Nc5 14.Bf3]
12.f3 Nbd7 13.b4
 Kaidanov: This is a mistake. White creates weaknesses and will now have to castle short. 13. 0–0–0 is better.
 Kids: We knew it created weaknesses, but were concerned that on 13. 0–0–0, black would continue with the queenside attack and leave his king in the center.
Kaidanov: Ok, let's see what you looked at: [13.0–0–0 b4 14.Nd5 a5 15.Nb5 0–0]
Kaidanov: What was wrong with 13... Ne6?
Kids: We were worried about f4-f5 coming with tempo. 13...Ne6 14.Nxe6 (14.f4) 14...fxe6 15.Bd4 0–0 16.Bxg7 Kxg7 17.h4 Rc8 18.h5 (18.Nd1 Ne5) 18...Qc7]
14.Nxa4 bxa4 15.c3

Kaidanov: This is maybe a wasted tempo, as you play c4 soon.
 15...Rc8 16.Rc1 0–0 17.c4
Kaidanov: White is already worse. 
17...e6 18.0–0 Qe7
Kaidanov: ... e6 and ...Qe7 was a very good plan. If you look at what both sides are doing in this game, white almost every move tried to attack, while black just developed his pieces.
Kaidanov: Maybe this is another mistake. What's black's plan if white plays 19. Rfd1? Kids: ...f5 to open the position. 
Kaidanov: There is not much to look at after this, as white's position is collapsing.
 20.c5 dxe4 21.f4 e5 22.fxe5 Nxe5 23.b5 axb5 24.Nxb5 Bc6 25.Nd6 Rb8 26.Rb1
 At this point white had five minutes (of the original hour) remaining, and black had 12. Each team chose one player to continue the game alone. Alex Ostrovskiy played white and Luke Harmon played black.
 26...Qe6 27.Qg3 Nf3+ 28.Bxf3 exf3 29.Bf4 Bd4+ 30.Kh1 Rxb1 31.Rxb1 Qxa2 32.Rf1 Qg2+ 33.Qxg2 fxg2+ 34.Kh2 gxf1N# 0–1

Swinging at the closing party.

Camp finished with a closing party at the home of Varun Krishnan’s parents and a blitz tournament. But this was not the only fun activity at camp—students played basketball every day before lunch, played blitz between lessons, and went to the beach Thursday night.

Luke Harmon playing blitz

New headache remedy: blindfold blitz.
 Kevin Wang and Aleks Ostrovskiy


U.S. Chess School Founder IM Greg Shahade in San Diego