Ingredients to Victory: Greg on Coaching His Alma Mater Masterman Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
May 22, 2014
IM Greg Shahade, Steve Shutt and the winning Masterman team at the K-9 Nationals

For the second year in a row I was lucky to coach a National Championship Team. Julia M Masterman, my alma mater, won the K-8 National Championship in 2013 and the K-9 National Championship in 2014. In this article I’ll share some of the most important factors that led to our two wins.

1.     The Players

 This should be pretty obvious, but without the players we wouldn’t have won. In 2014 we had a five player team:
1.    Angel Hernandez-Camen  (2218 USCF)
2.    Srisa Changolkar  (1984 USCF)
3.    Nalin Khanna  (1937 USCF)
4.    Torin Kuehnle (1853 USCF)
5.    Shira Moolten (1683 USCF)

With an extremely solid and reliable top board, quite a few of our players on hot streaks, and with our lowest rated player being significantly stronger in slow time control games, I felt like we were the team to beat.
Angel, who goes by the name “Josh”, has been working extremely hard at his chess and went from 1900 to 2200 over the summer/fall.  It’s always nice to have a player on the team who could feasibly win the tournament, which in the process would nearly guarantee a win for the team.

Meanwhile Srisa had just reached 2000+ in an unofficial rating list and seemed to be playing super well. Nalin kept gaining points left and right. Torin recently drew the legendary IM Jay Bonin. Despite having a lower rating than her teammates, Shira has proven time and time again that in slower games she can easily keep up with players higher rated than her. She ended up leading the team in upset wins in both of our National Championships, finishing with two each tournament.
So the players are strong, but how did they get so strong?

B – Work Ethic

These kids work hard. The first year I came to Masterman to teach them, I gave them some openings to remember and memorize, and after two to three weeks I tested them on the material. They knew very little of what I showed them. They had not yet realized that studying chess is very helpful. In 2013 they definitely got better at their opening preparation, but in 2014 there was a large difference. Let me give a few concrete examples:

Last year, we won the National Championship, but played in a weaker section (the K-8), and one of our players, Alex Wleizien finished with 6/7.  With Alex, who is rated about 2100, added to our team, there was almost no chance that we could be stopped. However Alex moved to Dallas so he is no longer with the team and we had just 5 players instead of 7 from 2013. We were playing in K-9 with stronger players and stronger teams.

In 2013 Shira Moolten faced off against the 4. F3 Nimzo Indian. She basically didn’t know what to do. In 2014 she faced off against a line of the 4. E3 Nimzo. This was not a line that I specifically studied with her or tested her on, but I simply sent her an opening file with it at some point. She did the work on her own, knew what to do in the opening, played a nice game and won against an 1800+ player from the team that finished in second place.

In 2013 Srisa Changolkar didn’t know what to do against the 4. Qxd4 Sicilian and ended up losing horribly in the last round to a 2100 player. In 2014 he was much more thorough about studying his openings. In the final round against a 2100+ he played the Bogo-Indian, followed many moves of theory, understood the key ideas, and while he certainly didn’t win the game because of the opening (it was a long and hard fought game that ended as a win for him at the last moment), it was nice to see him comfortable in every single opening position he obtained.

Srisa also faced off against the number 1 seed in the tournament, Christopher Wu. Despite facing an opponent with a rating 300 points above his, he used some preparation in the Najdorf to achieve a much better position and Christopher had to work hard just to draw the game.

Torin Kuehnle completely crushed two of his 1600 opponents in openings he plays well against (the Dragon+Accelerated Dragon), while Nalin Khanna impressed me by knowing huge amounts of theory in a pretty quiet variation of the 6. Be2 Najdorf. I was especially impressed because I didn’t even show it to him, it was obvious he did the work on his own.

Overall I felt like they have a very professional approach to chess for such young kids.

C – Determination
I understand that most kids probably want to win their chess games. However our kids were just unbelievable. The typical story for a chess coach at Nationals is to go to the tournament, and after about 60-90 minutes their kids start finishing their games. Coaching the Masterman team at Nationals has to be the easiest job in all of scholastic chess. The kids are almost never done in under 3 hours (unless they crush their opponent), and it was commonplace to have the majority of our team still playing with just 15 minutes left in the round. Once the kids get done that late all I can do is say “good job, go get something to eat/take a nap and get ready for the next game.” It’s a pretty easy gig and should be extra motivation for other coaches to make their kids spend their time when they play!

In the very final round, which would determine the National Championship, the games began at 2pm. The time control is 2 hour sudden death with a 5 second increment. This basically means that without the increment, the games should end at 6. So imagine that at 6:05, we had 4 kids still playing! We were up only a half point and therefore it was extremely stressful for all of the parents and coaches. Our kids  literally comprised over half of the final few games, from a room that started with over 500 games. They take their games exceptionally seriously, and pour their entire heart into each game. There are no lazy rounds, or rounds where they move fast and don’t pay attention. Every game is treated with absolute importance by every team member.

I’d like to include a few words from our top rated player, Josh Hernandez-Camen, whom I asked a few questions to after the tournament. Josh lost to a 1700 player in Round 2, basically ending his championship dreams in a major upset loss. However the team still needed him:

Greg: It must have been disappointing to lose the 2nd round game to a much lower rated player, however you came back strong and finished in 7th place and helped lead your team to victory. Can you give some advice to CLO readers any advice on how to deal with a setback early in a tournament?

Josh: When I get ready to start a tournament I think that I’m going to crush everybody. But when I start the games, these extreme emotions fade away and I just play chess. It was definitely disappointing to lose the second round game at Nationals, but I’ve been devastated by loss before, particularly my second round in the Philadelphia Open (the week before nationals) -- a loss that truly holds the world record for the worst game ever played by a master! Even though my opponent was an IM  in the Philadelphia Open (my play) in that round will scar me forever.

I felt that I played like a big idiot in the beginning of my second round at Nationals, dropping an exchange but then I was able to come back after losing the exchange.  I had some compensation by that point, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save the game for me.  The reason I did not feel completely devastated (and quit chess, haha) was that, putting into retrospect, I did not feel that he outplayed me, but that he did get lucky. It helped me to look at it this way.

Josh went on to score 4.5 out of his last 5 games, including a key victory in the final round against one of our rival teams. Here is his sixth round victory:


D –Supporting Cast + Good Habits
 While I mention that I coached the team, our other coach is also the famous Steve Shutt, who has led Masterman to many championships before my addition to the team. (and we even won one when I was a student at Masterman in 1996!). Shutt does a great job at teaching the kids typical endgame principles, and has done an amazing job at keeping the team together. Shutt volunteers all of his time for the team, and has done so for 20+ years.

He is retired from Masterman for two years now, and many thought that this might lead to a weakening of the program. However there’s no way that Shutt is going to let a group of talented kids like this get away, and so he has continued pouring lots of his own personal time into the team, keeping everything organized, and making sure that all of the pieces are in place for another Championship.

The parents do a great job of keeping kids ready during the tournament. Whenever a kid gets done a long game, a meal has already been purchased and is ready for him or her right away. Whenever it’s clear that a nap would be appropriate, the child will go nap. Nationals is a grueling tournament, with 7 games over 3 days, and therefore we make it a priority that our kids always get enough sleep. Because of this they had that energy to fight to the very last minute in the final round of the tournament.
E: Luck
We won by just a half point. Just one blunder could have thrown away the title. Blunders happen sometimes…fortunately they didn’t happen this time.

So  the strength of our players, their hard work both at home and at the board, our coaches and parents and a little bit of luck are the main ingredients for a national championship.

Here is the rest of my interview with Josh Hernandez-Camen:

Greg: What are the main things you did to go from around 1800-1900 to 2200+ in just one year?

Josh: I played a lot of tournaments online and casual games and I studied regularly like I have for years now but in general my play was lackluster. Then at last season’s World Open I hit 2000, but it still felt that I wasn’t really playing well enough. So I was amazed when I beat a 2200 in the first round of the Manhattan Open and then beat two 2100s in a row. That tournament was when I went to 2100 and I gained the self esteem to become a 2200. Each step kind of lead me there, to become a master.

Also it’s been really helpful to have such strong teammates like Srisa, Nalin, Torin and Shira who I have been playing and studying with for the past four years. I feel really lucky to have found other chess players who are as competitive, talented &  dedicated to the game and under a great chess teacher like Coach Steve Shutt and a strong player like you, Greg.  I am also fortunate to have the opportunity to study with a weekly online group coached by GM Ronen Har-Zvi, who has this gift of being able to whip the essentials out of positions very fast. I have to give credit of course to the support I receive from my family also -- my grandfather who is always interested in my education and has helped me and my mom with the financial end of attending tournaments and for my mom for all the time and effort she puts into the logistics.

Greg: In the last round you faced off against an opponent from the team that was just a half point behind us. How did that game go? Did you feel any pressure before the game?

Josh: That game was not amazing for me in the opening. Daniel played a sideline and I didn’t know what to do and then he just slowly gave me some counterplay which was nice for me. He started to fall apart after I declined his draw offer late into the game, soon after I won. I did not feel that much pressure or nervousness because he was 100 points lower rated than me and I felt pretty confident.

Greg: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Josh: It may sound obvious but my love for the game is what fuels me to continue to improve my mastery of chess. The study I do does not feel like hard work.  There is little I enjoy more than to pick up a chess book or watch a video from the St. Louis Chess Club of GM Ben Finegold and GM Yasser Seirawan.

Find an article about Masterman here and see our coverage of the K-8 and K-9 by Todd Andrews here. Also look for a piece next week by Keaton Kiewra on coaching Joseph Wan to victory in the  Elementary Nationals.