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Curtis Winter's Junior Grand Prix Odyssey Print E-mail
By Andrea Rosen   
June 3, 2010
Curtis Winter
USCF welcomes the sponsors of the Grand Prix chesslecture.com, and the Junior Grand Prix, chessmagnetshool.com, and presents the first in a series of articles on these competitions, and what it takes to win. 

In our first piece,
Andrea Rosen gives an in-depth look into Curtis Winter’s yearlong odyssey to capture the 2009 JGP crown. Rosen sums it up as "One player, twelve states, 35 rated tournaments, 258 rating points, and one tough goal:  to win the 2009 U.S. Junior Grand Prix."

At the end of 2008, 14-year-old Curtis Winter was in a chess slump, and decided to approach the problem like he would a chess game---he devised a plan of attack.  He knew that to get better, he would need to play lots of games against stronger opponents, so he made a New Year's resolution to win the 2009 Junior Grand Prix, where you can only earn points by playing higher-rated opponents.

He had no idea that it would begin an odyssey involving thousands of miles, 12 states, and 132 rated games in 35 over-the-board tournaments, and that in the end, it would not only improve his chess game but even more importantly teach him life lessons about setting goals, persistence, and learning to lose. 

Curtis, who will turn 16 in July, had been playing chess for six years, but he seemed to have reached a plateau. He ended 2008 with a rating of 1693, just four points over his 2007 peak of 1689.  While the Annapolis, MD high-schooler is a well-rounded young man with many interests (tennis, music, and his school newspaper), chess had been an important part of his life for a long time, and he dearly wanted to take his game to the next level. 

He felt setting his sites on the junior grand prix would be the perfect motivator.  The Junior Grand Prix is a yearlong contest established by the USCF in 2008 in part to encourage youth players "to make the transition from scholastic players to lifelong chess players," according to Hal Bogner.  Bogner, whose company chessmagnetshool.com is the 2010 JGP sponsor, credits USCF board member and Continental Chess Association president Bill Goichberg with coming up with a brilliant idea.  The real genius about the JGP, says Bogner, is that it's structured to encourage youth players to play stronger competition in longer time control events---players can only earn JGP points by playing opponents at least 100 points higher, and are awarded five points for a draw and 10 points for a win.  If you don't stretch yourself by playing higher rated opponents, you don't get points.  "It's akin to entering a river upstream of Class V rapids" and learning to navigate, says Bogner.

Curtis was aware of the JGP contest because in the spring of 2008, he was first in the country in the standings, but his summer plans didn't include much chess, and in the fall, when he resumed tournaments, he stalled.  "Instead of letting it go like I did the previous year, I decided I would go for it," he said, and in January, 2009, he announced to his parents Lynn and Prescott that he wanted to win it this year.

He was fortunate to have the full support of his parents. "He said to me, ‘Mom, I really want to win this,' and because it came from him and it wasn't us trying to push him, I felt it was important to support it," said Lynn.  She and his dad decided to make it a family project, and told him they would make the commitment to travel to tournaments near and far. 

In addition to family support, Curtis had geography in his favor.  Annapolis is within reasonable driving distance of many large tournaments.  "We can get all the way up and down the East Coast very easily by car, and we did," said Prescott.  But by year-end, they also traveled to tournaments as far away as Texas, California and Illinois.

Of the 132 rated over-the-board games Curtis played during the course of the year, 90 were against opponents at least 100 points higher than him, so he was constantly being challenged.  In tournaments with class sections, he always played up, and was usually near the bottom of the section.  He got off to a promising start right away.  In his second tournament of 2009, the Liberty Bell Open in mid-January,  he was paired up 100 points or more in five rounds, getting 2.5 points in those games and finishing with a total score of 4/7 , netting him 25 Grand Prix points and 47 rating points.  And at the Virginia Open in March, when all five of his opponents were more than 100 points above him, he also scored 2.5 points and earned 25 more JGP points. 

Having the perspective of a yearlong goal created a subtle shift in Curtis's short-term goals for each tournament.  Instead of going into each tournament just wanting to get as many points as possible, his main focus was to do well enough to have the opportunity to play strong competition.  "Every time, the goal was to have a good first round," he recalls,  "That would ensure that I'd have good pairings later."

But the better he got, the tougher it became to earn JGP points.  Because he was having to face stronger and stronger players as the year went on, part of what had to happen was that he just had to get used to losing, and learn how to move on without being discouraged.  And because he played in so many tournaments, he got lots of practice at that, too.  Of his 90 games that would count toward the JGP, he scored just 31 points.

Curtis's chess coach Daniel Ludwig, who he's worked with on and off for the last five years, notes that one of the best things that happened to Curtis during the course of the year was developing the mental wherewithal to withstand the inevitable number of losses he would incur.  "A (bad) result that would have affected him poorly in the past doesn't do that anymore," said Ludwig.  "He's matured quite a bit as far as the mental aspect of the game." 

In addition to playing often and always playing up, Ludwig also notes that a key to Curtis's success was that he studied a lot on his own.  "When you're playing as much as he did, you have to be familiar with a wide variety of openings, and he spent a lot of time on that on his own," Ludwig said.

Curtis said that expanding his repertoire to include a d4 opening boosted his results.  "I got immediate encouragement by notching up some victories against players in the 2000s."  At the 2009 World Open, he bought the book Grandmaster Repertoire: 1.d4 by Boris Avrukh, which became his favorite book.  "It was a big part of my success later in the year."

Curtis also had the added encouragement of the Maryland Chess Association, which was offering cash prizes totaling $1,000 to the top five JGP performers in the state.  MCA President Jim Becker said the state association liked the fact that the JGP rewarded players for playing tougher opponents.  "You have to play players better than you in order to test your ability," Becker said.  "If you play only people at your strength or below, what are you learning?"  He and MCA Scholastic Coordinator Mike Regan also believe that playing longer time controls is good for developing young minds.  "You have more time to analyze, and it deepens your understanding of what's happening with your position," said Becker.   The MCA, which runs all the state's scholastic events, also structured them in such a way that the top section was always a G65 time control and so players always had a chance to earn JGP points.  That and Maryland's added prize incentive seemed to motivate many of the state's players. In addition to Curtis, two of the 2009 JGP top five hail from Maryland.

By the end of July, Curtis had played in 12 tournaments, all on the East Coast, and racked up 160 JGP points, but was neck and neck with another player, and was sometimes slipping into the number two spot.  Because his rating climbed 172 points from 1693 to 1865, he had to play even stronger competition to get JGP points. No longer was it good enough to beat or draw players at 1800 or 1900---he now had to set his sights on experts. At that point, with the support of his parents, Curtis decided to go on the equivalent of a chess tournament marathon.  His mom scoured the USCF listings for tournaments anywhere in the country that would be eligible for JGP points, and he played in five back-to-back events from August to early September, and traveling, in order, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Washington, D.C. and New York.  While his chess rating actually dropped two points over that time span, he got to play 17 games against opponents high-rated enough to earn him JGP points, and while a score of 4/17 might have been disappointing in the past, it was still enough for 40 more JGP points. 

But more importantly, said his mom Lynn, she saw a big change in his outlook.  "I was amazed that he didn't get as discouraged as he might have when he had a tough tournament," she said.  She chalks it up to the sheer number of events he was playing.  "He was like ‘OK, maybe this one didn't go so well, but  I have another chance next week.'"

Curtis says that playing that number of games against much stronger opponents also set him up for having some breakthrough tournaments in the fall.  When the JGP race was still close in the fall, he played the Maryland Open at the beginning of October and then made a last-minute decision to come to the Midwest Class in Illinois in the middle of the month.   "It turned out to be an important tournament," he said.  He defeated a 2100-rated opponent, got paired up in every round, and broke through 1900 for the first time.


1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bf4 d5 4.e3 Bd6 5.Bg3
The immediate 5.Ne5 looks stronger.
5...0-0 6.Bd3 Ne4
6...c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 would have given Black equality.
 7.Nbd2 f5 8.Qe2 Nbd7
The position is almost dead equal. 
9.0-0-0 Ndf6 10.Ne5
This is a very poor move that gives White a large advantage. Better would have been 10...Nxg3 11.hxg3 c5 12.c3 Bxe5 13.dxe5 Ng4, when the position is approximately equal.
11.Bxe5 looks much stronger, which gives White a large advantage after 11...a5 12.f3 Nd6 13.h4.
11...Nxg3 12.hxg3 Ng4 13.f4

The tactical 13.Rxh7 Kxh7 14.Qxg4 looks even more promising for White.

13...c5 is much stronger; White can now obtain a nice advantage with either 14.Nc4 follow by 15.Nd6, or....
14.e4 g6?

This isn't a very strong defense. Better would have been 14...Qb6, after which White would gain a nice edge by way of 15.exf5 exf5, when he can choose any number of plans
15.exf5 gxf5
Black is completely lost after this move, but White doesn't take advantage of the situation. Necessary was 15...exf5, when White has a nice advantage
16. Rh4
Though not a terrible move, White gives away the decisive advantage he had after Black's last move. Instead 16.Rxh7 is completely winning for White; 16...Kxh7?? loses immediately to 17.Qxg4, while any other move for Black just drops a pawn and White's attack will rule.
16...Rf7 17.Rdh1 Rg7
Black's last two moves were imperative.
18.Nf3 followed by Ng5 looks decisive; White's advantage has instead waned.
Black doesn't take advantage of White's errors, 18...Qb6 was stronger.
19.Ne3 Nxe3 20.Qxe3 c5 21.g4 and White will break through decisively.
19...Nxh2 20.R1xh2 Bd7?

The obvious 20...Rxg3 was clearly superior.
21.g4 Rf8 22.gxf5 exf5 23.g4

White keeps the attack moving, breaking open the position further.
23...Be6 or 23...c5 look much stronger, though White is still clearly winning.
24.Rxh7 Rxf4 25.Rh8+ Kf7 26.R2h6 Be6
At this point White's advantage is totally decisive and Black has no real hopes of winning, until...

The game flips from winning for White to winning for Black in one move. 27.Qd2 followed by Bg6+ would lead to mate shortly. Or if black plays 27...Qg5 then 28.Rh5 picks up the rook.
27...Rxg6 28.R6h7+ Rg7 29.Qh2 Rf1+ 30.Kd2 Qb4+ 31.Ke3 Re1+ 32.Kf2 Qd2+ 33.Kg3 Re3+ 0-1
Though an imperfect game by both players, and admittedly, a game that Black should have lost, this wild type of game was typical for me last year. It was also an important win because it pushed me over 1900 for the first time.

In the fall, he also found that he had what in his mind was an ethical quandary.  In addition to the standard way of earning JGP points, all players were allowed to earn a yearlong maximum of 100 points by competing in specially designated blitz tournaments on World Chess Live, the 2009 JGP sponsor. 

Every one of the other players who was nipping at his heels in the standings had already earned their 100 points this way, but Curtis had so far opted out.  "I thought it went against a principle of the Junior Grand Prix, which was to encourage players to play slow games against strong competition," Curtis said. 

But on the other hand, he'd devoted so much time and effort, he didn't want to jeopardize his chance of winning the title by refusing to play the blitz tournaments.  "I decided that I really needed the points," he said.  And in the end, the 25 points JGP blitz points he earned made the difference, since his margin of victory was just 15 points.

One of his proudest moments of the year came at the National Chess Congress over Thanksgiving weekend in Philadelphia, where he had a victory with the black pieces in an opening that he'd previously struggled with. 


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6.Bc4
White begins with the Sozin attack, but soon attempts to transpose back to the English attack.
6...e6 7.Be3 Nbd7
Better for black would probably have been Qc7 or Be7.

8.0-0 Qc7 9.Bxe6 fxe6 10. Nxe6 leaves white better, as do 8...Ne5 9.Be2 Be7 10.f4 and 8...Nc5 9.f3 b5 10.Bb3
8...Nc5 9.f3 Be7 10.Qd2 Qc7 11.g4 b5
The offensive race begins.
12.g5 Nfd7 13. 0-0-0

The position is equal.
13...0-0 may have been slightly more accurate but the position remains equal.
14.h4 Ne5 15.h5 looks good for White.
14...Nxb3 15. Nxb3?
The tide now turns. Certainly axb3 was better; now the c4 square is opened up for the black knight.

15...b4 16.Ne2 Rc8 followed by 0-0 and Ne5 looks quite strong for Black.
16. Qe2 Nc4
...b4 was even stronger, when after 17. Na4 Bc6 18.Nb6 Rb8 19.Qf2 0-0 Black has a large advantage.
 17. Bd4
The best move in a difficult position.

Better was 17...b4

An egregious error; better would have been 18.Nd2 Nxd2 19.Qxd2 b4 20.Na4 d5, though Black is still in control.
18...Rfc8 19.Nd1 a5

19...e5 may have been slightly more accurate.
White throws it away; 20.Nd2 would have held on longer, after which 20...e5 would give Black a decisive advantage anyway.
20...a4 21.Na1 b4 22.f5 e5 23.Bf2 a3 24.b3 Nb2 25.Rg3??
Only 25.Qf3 would have held on longer, though after 25...Ba6 White will lose very quickly.
25...Ba6 26.Qh5 Nd3+ 27.Rxd3 Bxd3 28.Ne3 Qc3 29.Nd5 Qxa1+ 30.Kd2 Rxc2+ 0-1

His very last tournament of the year was the Eastern Open, where he and another player, the JGP eventual runner-up Abhinay Dommalapati of Virginia, were still battling it out for the JGP first-place title.  Going into the last round, when the stakes mattered to no one else with his score of 3 out of 5, he was a bundle of nerves.  "My nerves got to me and I blundered on move 12, losing the game," he said.  But Abhinay also lost his game, and Curtis calculated that he eked out the title by the five points, the slimmest possible margin.  Just to be sure he had it sewn up, he spent New Year's Eve playing in the final WCL qualifying online blitz event, racking up another 10 points.

For his year of hard work, he won $1,000 from USCF and free entry to this summer's US Open in Irvine, California, and another $500 from the Maryland Chess Association. He ended the year with a 1951 rating, 258 points above where he began.  But more important, he learned lessons that will last a lifetime.  "I learned that if you really work hard at something you can get there," he said.  "It was very difficult, but I worked hard and put in the time and it paid off."         

Chessmagnetshool.com is the sponsor of the 2010 Junior Grand Prix, and in addition to the top prize of $1,000 and free entry to the U.S. Open, there will be many new prizes this year, to be announced soon.  For the latest 2010 JGP standings, click here. 

Also check out the entertaining and instructional videos from our new Grand Prix sponsors, chesslecture.com. You can find the current Grand Prix standings here. 

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