US Chess School Comes to Dallas
By Elizabeth Vicary   
July 28, 2010
If you were going to teach chess to the top 10-year-olds in the country for one week, where would you start? What would you cover? Would you run a boot camp of calculation exercises? Make them learn all the technical endgames they would never study on their own? Trace the development of chess through the games of the world champions? And how do you get ten 10-year-olds to concentrate for 9 hours at a time? For me, as a chess teacher, these are interesting hypotheticals to speculate on, but for Greg Shahade, who organizes the US Chess Schools, they are questions he has to find new answers for all the time.

The latest US Chess School, a free five day training camp for the nation's top young players, organized three times each year by IM Greg Shahade, took place in Dallas, TX, July 7-12, 2010. Each camp brings 8-12 students together with two of the best teachers in the country for five nine-hour days of serious (but fun) hard work.
The youngest group ever comprised the US Chess School in Dallas

The most recent group was the youngest ever, with an average age of only 10.4. Greg's answer to the second question (how to keep nine hours of rigorous chess fun and engaging) was to break up the study time as much as possible: to include frequent but brief doses of blitz, bughouse, problem solving, sports, and stories; to team-teach; to make everything into mini-competitions, both individual and team; and to take most of the chess material covered in the camp directly relevant from the participants' own games.

Most people agree that looking at your own games is the single most important way to improve, but how to do that in group lessons with students you don't know? At US Chess Schools 8 and 9 last summer, participants spent the afternoon of the first day playing training games; these games provided rich material for the group to analyze in the following days. But teachable moments are always a little hit or miss, and Greg's sense that these games weren't always exactly what he wanted led him to look for more efficient ways to use students' games to create the camps' curriculum.

What he has come to do is nothing short of amazing to me. Before camp starts, students are required to email all their recent slow-time-control games to Greg. He spends days combing through them, collecting instructive moments to group into lessons. For the Dallas camp, he received and analyzed 203 games. To keep the selection of positions "human," Greg does most of the analysis without an engine.  (This has the interesting side benefit of encouraging the kids to question his answers, because they know it's possible he missed something and they are encouraged to challenge him.)
US Chess School students at work

These moments then are grouped by theme (e.g. finding opponents' resources, saving worse positions, knight maneuvers), and made into competitions. Students work individually, getting points out of ten for the completeness of their written ideas and variations, but the competition is team-based, to build camaraderie and ensure that even the lower scoring students are motivated to try their hardest. Here is a selection of positions on "finding your opponents' resources"

1. Akshay Malhotra-Dachey Lin

Black to Move

Show Solution

2. Iyer1783 - Karamsetty
Which move is better, 27. Bxf8 or 27. Qd8?

Show Solution

3. Sakurmi,Eric - Xiong,Jeffery
Black to move

Show Solution

4. Pennock1690 - Karamsetty 
What should Black do about the attack on the rook?


Show Solution

5. Jayakumar Adarsh - Chiang Sarah
Choose between 17...Nxe5, 17...Bxe5, and 17...Bxg2

Show Solution

FM Aviv Friedman debuted as a USCS instructor for this camp. He's an excellent, very engaging, easy-to-listen to teacher.
Aviv325.jpgOver the course of the week, I came to really appreciate one particular quality in Aviv as a teacher that I know I sometimes lack, and I think is easy to forget about: the importance of treating every student and every comment with intellectual respect. Students' answers given during the week-long camp ranged from moments of absolute brilliance to total eight-year-old silliness, but Aviv has a special way of responding to everyone with equanimity, focusing on the correct part of the answer, rather than the mistakes. Usually at these camps, there are one or two kids who are relatively quiet, sometimes just because of their personality, sometimes because the material is hard for them, but that wasn't the case in Dallas, and I give Aviv all of the credit for that. He has a talent for imparting self-confidence.

Aviv also has a treasure trove of prepared material. We all loved his whimsical warm up positions.
White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution


White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

Black to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

White to Move

Show Solution

Aviv also has many great classic games that illustrate typical methods of dealing with types of positions. We studied two positions involving isolated queen pawns-how to play with and against them.

Kortchnoi,V - Karpov,A
World Championship match, 1981
Black to Move

Students were first asked to write down an evaluation of the position, choosing from the 7 notations, +-, +/-, +/=, =, -/=, -/+, or -+ (white is winning, white is better, white is slightly better, equal, black is slightly better, etc.) and explain why. (put this as a caption for diagram outside answer) (inside answer: Black is better here because white has an isolated pawn, most of the minor pieces have been traded, and the square in front of the pawn (d5) is well controlled by black. Black's strategy here is to increase pressure on the d4 pawn, keeping control over the d5 square, and either to win it by attacking it more times than it can be defended, to use the pin on the d file to play e5, and/or to create a second weakness, in order to stretch white's defenses. As we looked over this game fragment, students were asked to guess most of black's moves.

Black is preparing to triple on the d file with ....Qd7 and ..Rd6, but the immediate 21... Qd7 allows 22. Ba4.
22.Qe1 Qd7 23.Rcd3 Rd6 24.Qe4 Qc6 25.Qf4
25.Qxc6 White cannot get rid of the isolated pawn for tactical reasons: 25...Nxc6 26.d5 Nb4
25...Nd5 26.Qd2 Qb6 27.Bxd5?!
27...Rxd5 28.Rb3 Qc6
28...Qxd4? It would be crazy to trade the healthy b7 pawn for the weak d4 pawn.
29.Qc3 Qd7
Black is now threatening ...e5, so White stops it with
By threatening ...e5, Black has forced White to open up his second rank and weaken his.
30...Rxd4 31.Qxd4 Qxd4+ 32.Rxd4 Rxd4 33.Rxb7
31.Rb4 b5! 32.a4
32.Kg2 If white does nothing, black is preparing to win the pawn with 32...a5 33.Rb3 b4 34.Qc4 Rxd4
32...bxa4 33.Qa3 a5
forcing white to misplace his rook
34.Rxa4 Qb5
threatening to invade with ...Qe2
35...e5! 36.fxe5 Rxe5
threatening Re1+ and Qf1#

37.Qa1 Qe8! 38.dxe5 Rxd2 39.Rxa5 Qc6 40.Ra8+ Kh7 41.Qb1+ g6 42.Qf1 Qc5+
hoping for 42...Qxa8 43.Qxf7+=
43.Kh1 Qd5+
43...Qd5+ 44.Kg1 Rd1

A great illustration of how to play against an isolated pawn:

  • Black tied white's pieces down by attacking the d5 pawn,
  • He made sure to keep tight control over d5, preventing white from advancing the pawn with tactical tricks,
  • Korchnoi played carefully, taking time to make sure none of his pawns were hanging (30...b6)
  • He tripled on the d file and threatened e5, which forced white to open up his king (f4) to stop this.
  • Black pressured white's queenside pawns and opened up a second front there, in order to misplace white's pieces,
  • Korchnoi then took advantage of the off-sides nature of white's pieces to switch back and create a winning attack against the white king. (the principle of two weaknesses!)
Next we looked at an example of playing with the isolated pawn:

Portisch,Lajos (2635) - Karpov,Anatoly (2705) [D42]
Milan, 1975
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.d4 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 0-0 6.Nf3 d5 7.0-0 cxd4 8.exd4 dxc4 9.Bxc4 b6 10.Re1 Bb7 11.Bd3 Nc6 12.a3 Be7 13.Bc2
13.Bg5 Rc8 14.Bc2 Re8 15.Qd3 g6
A quick back story about this position: it can also arise from the mainline (6... e6, 12...Nf6) Panov attack, but with white up a tempo (black's rook is usually still on e8. I had taught this game in one of my own classes at IS 318 one week on a Wednesday, and on the Saturday 4 days later had taken some of my students to the Marshall for a G/60 tournament. In the first round, my student Randy was paired up to an 1880, got the exact position we had looked at in class, but had not recognized it, played 15.Bg5 before d5, and went on to lose. Two rounds later, James Black, who was now watching Aviv show this game, was paired with the same person. We went over the trick quickly, his opponent played right into it, and James won easily. As Aviv got to this position, I looked over at James and we both started to laugh.
Black had to play ...g6 here. 14...g6
15.d5! exd5
Black pretty much has to take the pawn: 15...Nxd5 16.Qxh7+ Kf8 17.Qh8#; 15...Na5 16.Bg5 Rxc3 17.Qxc3 Qxd5
Threatening to take on f6 and then h7
16...g6? 17.Rxe7! Qxe7 (17...Nxe7 18.Bxf6) 18.Nxd5+-
17.Nxe4 dxe4 18.Qxe4 g6 19.Qh4 h5
Position after 19...h5

19...Bxg5? just trades off a defender and brings the white knight into the attack.
This move looks good, including the last piece in the attack, but Bb3 is more forceful. 20.Bb3! Qc7 (20...Bxg5 21.Nxg5 Rc7 22.Qf4) 21.Qe4 Qxg6+ 21...Kg7 22.Bxf7! Kxf7 23.Bh Qc4#,Qe6#. 23...Bf8 (23...Nd4 24.Qxd4 Bf8 25.Rxe8 Rxe8 26.Qh8 Bxh6 27.Ng5+; 23...Qd6 24.Qc4+ Kf6 25.Ng5 Nd8 26.Qh4 Kf5 27.Ne4) 24.Ng5+ Kg8 25.Qxg6+
20...Qc7 21.Bxg6
Portisch thought that this sacrifice will win, but he missed....
21...fxg6 22.Qc4+
22.Re6 Rcd8!
22...Kg7 23.Bf4 Ba6!
Position after Ba6

A surprise for Portisch. [23...b5 24.Qc3++-]
24.Qc3+ Bf6 25.Bxc7 Bxc3 26.Rxe8 Rxe8 27.bxc3 Be2! 28.Re1 Rc8! 29.Rxe2 Rxc7 30.Re6 Nd8 31.Re3 Kf6 32.Kf1 Ne6
The white queenside pawns are too weak to win the game.
33.g3 g5 34.h3 Nc5 35.Nd2 Rd7 36.Ke2 Rd5 37.c4 Rd4 38.Re8 h4 39.Rf8+ Ke7 40.Rh8 hxg3 41.fxg3

A model game for playing with an isolated pawn. Notice how white:

  • Attacked the king
  • Used the tactical motif d4-d5
  • Switched the light squared bishop back and forth between its two useful diagonals, b1-h7 and a2-g8.
  • Used all his pieces in the attack

Later that day, we saw this position from Mika's game

Ainsworth - Brattain [E42]
New York International, 13.05.2010
White has an isolated pawn, so Black wants to exchange minor pieces.
19.Bxe4 Qd7 20.Qc2 Bxe4
Black continues exchanging...
21.Qxe4 Nd5
and blockades the pawn.
22.Nf4 Nxf4
22...Rxc1 This might be even stronger... 23.Rxc1 Bg5
23.Qxf4 Qd5
A great outpost for the queen. Notice how it pressures b3, a potential second weakness.
24.Qe3 Bf6 25.Rxc8 Rxc8 26.Rc1 Rd8!
I like the move Rd8 quite a bit. In general you want to use major pieces to attack isolated pawns and trade minor pieces. This is quite similar to Karpov's ...Rb6 move against Korchnoi. Admittedly if you run Rybka, it believes that trading rooks is superior, but I think that from a practical standpoint Mika's decision was a good one and showed solid understanding.-Greg Shahade

27.Rc5 is better
playing carefully
28.Rd1 Rc8 29.Rd2 b5
Just like in the Korchnoi game, we see black tying white's pieces down to the d pawn, and then probing for more weaknesses by expanding on the queenside and threatening ...e5
30.h3 Rd8 31.Rd1 a5 32.Rd2 e5! 33.fxe5
33.Kh2 exd4 34.Qd3 Re8
winning the exchange
34.Qd3 Bxd2 35.Qxd2 Qxe5 36.Kh2 Qe4 37.Qxa5 Qc2+ 38.Kg1 Qb1+ 39.Kg2 Qxb2+ 40.Kf3 Qxb3+ 41.Kf2 Qb2+ 42.Ke3 Qxd4+ 0-1
I want to mention how enormously impressed I was by Mika Brattain. Most kids start their thinking process with a move that jumps out at them; they see a specific idea and turn on their internal engines. Mika's responses in class often started with a general observation about the position. They would sound like this: "If you are thinking in terms of a queenside attack, maybe Rfb1" or "Black has an extra kingside pawn, so he ought to start advancing them."

The final lesson of the day was always "something light" from Aviv. Everyone's favorite was the alien story

Aviv's Alien Story

This is a story about an alien who came to earth and met a chess master. The alien was very curious about earth and earth people, so he asked the master many questions about everything. The chess master was in a big hurry to get to his job. He didn't want to stop and talk to the alien, but he was a very polite guy and so he slowed down to help him. The master answered question after question, until finally the alien asked,

"What do you do in your free time?"

OK, the master wasn't crazy about answering, but, you know, he's a very polite person, so he decided to say,

"Well, I am playing a certain game."

"What is the name of the game, sir?"

"It is called chess."

"Chess? On my planet we have no such game. Can you please tell me what is it?"

The master says to himself, oh my god, can you imagine what it is to explain to someone who has never heard about chess, what chess is? But again, the perfect host that he was, he started explaining that this is a board game, and he started telling the alien about the rules, the value of the pieces, how the pieces move, the chess board and the squares. The alien was fascinated like you couldn't believe. Never before had the master seen someone so enthusiastic about chess.

Eventually the alien said,
"You know what? I think I got it. I think I understand all the rules of the game. I think I understand all the value of the pieces. I'd like to play you a game."

The master rolled his eyes twice, because that's about the last thing he wanted to do. He thought by then he would have gotten rid of the unwelcome visitor.  But again he is very polite; he is very nice; and he said,
"Alright, I'll play you a game." Fine. So they play a game. It took a while, but after about an hour, an hour and a half, they reach this position.

The master is white and the unwelcome visitor, the alien, has the black pieces. So white's going up the board; black goes down.
As you can guess, in this position the master is winning easily. He's up a million pieces, and there's no really hope. As a matter of fact, the master looked at the position very carefully, and he all of a sudden got really pleased with himself. Because you know, there are a lot of moves that win here, maybe you can make a queen, maybe you can take the pawn on h2, all kinds of things. But he played the move Kc2 and he was extremely pleased with himself, because he realized that after the only move, which is promoting this pawn, he's going to play Bd4, checkmate.

Here the alien sank into a very long pause and the master was waiting and waiting and fidgeting, and he stood up, and was pacing, then eventually he got so impatient and he said,

"C'mon, you have only one legal move. It doesn't matter what move you make. It really is irrelevant. One is no better than another."

So the alien eventually, after some thought, said,

"Ok, I know what I want to do. h1 = King!"

The master said,

"No! What are you talking about? You can't do that!"

"Well, didn't you tell me that if I get my pawn to the 8th rank, I get any piece I want?"

"Yes, but not a king."

"Well, you didn't tell me that. You told me I could get any piece I want, and I want a king!"

The master knew that arguing about it was going to kill two more hours and he said to himself ok, I'm winning so much, it doesn't really matter. Let's just play on.

But then he had a brief dilemma. Because if he's going to go Bd4 checkmate, he's going to stalemate this king on h1, and how in the world is he going to explain about stalemate? What to do? After about forty minutes of thinking, he decided that he had a beautiful idea. He played a8, and made another black king! He promoted to a black king. Now we have three black kings!

Of course, the alien had nothing to say, because in the spirit of making a new king, you can make another king: no one can complain.  And now, of course, here the alien had a very easy decision: this king on a1 can't move, this king on h1 can't move, so he went Kb8. The master went h7, and again, the alien has only one legal move, he went Ka8, and the master went h8=Q, CHECKMATECHECKMATECHECKMATE!

Every camp includes a blitz tournament, this one was won by Justus Williams, with 8.5/10, followed by James Black (7.5/10), with Jonathan Chiang and Jeffrey Xiong tied for third (6.5). I was proud to come fifth, and especially happy to be outplayed by both of my students, James and Justus.
The US Chess School would not be possible without the generous sponsorship of Dr. Jim Roberts, in conjunction with the AF4C. Thanks also to our hosts, the Dallas Chess Club, especially manager Luis Salinas. For more information about the US Chess School, including how to be invited, click here.
Photo Gallery 

James Black: 2119, 11 years old
Jeffery Xiong: 2108, 9 years old
Sarah Chiang: 2106, 13 years old
Dachey Lin: 2103, 10 years old
Jeevan Karamsetty: 2050, 12 years old
Mika Brattain: 2024, 11 years old
Ruifeng Li: 1985, 8 years old
Tanuj Vasudeva: 1927, 8 years old
Jonathan Chiang: 1913, 10 years old

Justus Williams: 2154, 11 years old