Shahade Rises to Occasion at 19th US Chess School
By Kostya Kavutskiy   
August 16, 2012
Participants at the US Chess School in front of the World Chess Hall of Fame in STL

Currently I'm unaware if the following statement has ever been publicly expressed, but in my opinion IM Greg Shahade is America's best answer to Mark Dvoretsky, the famous Russian chess trainer. This became clear to me after attending the 19th US Chess School, held at the delightful Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. I'd like to thank Dr. Jim Roberts for being the main sponsor of the USCS, as well as the CCSCSL for not only hosting the camp but providing the participants with hotel rooms.

The camp very much emulated a training session at the world-renowned Dvoretsky-Yusupov chess school, where lots of time was devoted to endgame studies, analyzing personal mistakes, and dealing with the issues of practical chess. For a bio of all the students, check the bottom of this article.

Before we get into the various lectures, a tragicomedy - Originally GM Loek van Wely was going to be the instructor for USCS 19, but he ran into certain problems that even the Dutch super-GM could not have foreseen: When asked by the U.S. Immigration officers what his plans were for his trip to the United States, Loek casually mentioned that he was here for holidays, poker, playing chess, and lastly, teaching chess to kids. That last part, however innocuous, was viewed as an illegal working activity and poor Loek was detained and deported.

Due to the extreme short notice of the events, Greg was unable to find a replacement trainer in time and ended up teaching the camp himself. And while many of the students were disappointed to miss out on a week's worth of instruction from GM Van Wely, Greg prepared a variety of insightful and scintillating lectures. After the camp was over, Loek offered a complimentary private lesson to each participant, and his generosity was certainly appreciated by all.

Coincidentally, tragicomedies are the subject of Dvoretsky's latest published work!

With that, I'd like to present the readers with a synopsis of the instructional material presented at USCS 19.

Endgame Studies

Dvoretsky famously believed that solving endgame studies would improve certain skills, such as endgame calculation, finding the opponent's resources, and imagination. Greg was a believer in studies as well and had us solve six studies each day. Out of all the participants, Daniel Gurevich and Robert Perez stood out, solving a very high percentage of studies (although they openly confessed that they were already familiar with a number of studies, due to the significant time they each spend using's "Tactics Trainer")

For those unfamiliar, an endgame study is a composed problem where there is exactly one correct solution, and usually there are a few hidden tactical resources within the problem that make things tricky for the solver. Here are two of my favorites from the camp, they are both "White to Play and Win."

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Greg's Lectures

The lectures in the camp were connected by a specific theme-practical chess, or even chess psychology. Greg was very persistent in emphasizing that psychological mistakes are just as harmful to one's chess as mistakes in calculation or positional understanding, if not more so. To paraphrase one of my favorite tidbits from the camp , "A lot that goes into playing chess well has nothing to do with chess, just making good mental decisions". That statement is deceptively insightful, and after reading a detailed account of the various lectures given throughout the camp I hope you will be convinced of its truth.

What may surprise readers is that there wasn't much concrete knowledge discussed during the camp, (i.e. how to win a certain endgame, or what to do on move 9 in the Advance Caro-Kann). Although information like this is essential to strong chess players, it can be found in many books and other instructional materials. Instead, I am very happy that Greg decided to focus his lectures on the practical difficulties of high-level chess.

Analyzing Your Own Games

It is hard to believe that "playing actively" can be described as a critical psychological mistake, but Greg showed several instructive examples where his compulsion to "do something" in uncomplicated positions forced him to make very bad moves and give his opponents (who were in each case weaker than him), an easy time to find strong moves.

The main point of this lecture was not "active moves are bad, don't play them", but instead to compel students to critically examine their own games and determine weaknesses in their play that need correction, a topic explored in detail in Dvoretsky's writing.

Admitting Mistakes

It is one thing to admit you made a mistake post-mortem, it is another to do so during the actual game! The following comical example was taken from one of Dvoretsky's books:


The story behind this position is that Dolmatov, playing Black, picked up the rook to play Rd8 and only at the last second realized that this would simply lose a pawn after Bxa6. With this in mind the question was asked: You have already picked up the rook and must move it, but where to?

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In this situation it was important to swallow your pride and make the silly rook move to a7, but admitting your mistake would nevertheless save you half a point!


"I was going to buy him a tactics book after the game" - this was a thought that went through Greg's mind during the following game, when he assumed his opponent had overlooked a simple skewer. As a result of this assumption, Greg himself missed a simple trick and cost himself an important half point:


Now Greg played 24.Rfxd1? expecting 24...exd4 25.Bf5, winning the exchange. But instead came Rcd8! "At at this point I was thinking, hmm...It'd be great if I had played 24.Raxd1, having my rooks on d1 and f1, so that I could play 25.Bc6 Rd6 26.Bc5 Rxd1 which doesn't come with check, meaning White can play 27.Bxe7, with two bishops for the rook and a winning this point, realizing I had blown it, I went into the bathroom and contemplated suicide" - obviously a joke, but the point was clear: there are few things more depressing in chess than blowing a very simple win (and realizing it the very next move) 25.Rxa5 exd4 And Collins was able to draw the game without difficulty. ½-½

Fighting Spirit

This is another one of those problems that often plague young players, who against stronger players often give up in a bad position too early or don't try hard enough to convert an advantage. As Greg explained, even Grandmasters make mistakes in won positions, all the time. There is an endless supply of games where a GM failed to convert a winning advantage, which means that you should always fight on and make it difficult for your opponent to find a clear path to victory. This was a subject later touched upon by Eric Rosen, during his student lecture (covered below).

To inspire students to play hard and put pressure on their opponents, Greg presented the following game where super-GM Magnus Carlsen showed his fighting spirit against fellow superstar GM Ruslan Ponomariov:


Time Trouble

You cannot make good moves if you have no time! This was Greg's general thesis regarding the issue, and he believed that this was as serious a problem for many players as anything else. Greg talked about the symptoms of time trouble every day, and even devoted an entire lecture to showing games where he, or his opponent played well below their level during that crucial stage (move 30-40) where they really, really could have used a few extra minutes to figure out the complication position in front of them. Considering the number of games effectively decided between moves 30-40, avoiding time trouble is obviously a major goal to have.

A second major concern of time trouble was probably even more eye-opening. Everyone knows about the blunders that are made when a player has seconds left on their clock. Hang a rook, hang a queen, hang mate, we've all done it and will remember those blown games forever. But, there is a second, deadlier sin involved with time trouble, best illustrated with a hypothetical: when you're on move 20, and you have slightly less time than you'd like, for instance, 30 minutes, you're going to make natural looking moves that most likely aren't best just to play a simple move and save time for later. And therein lies the silent killer. Although most players don't realize it, it is often those "natural", "harmless", banal moves that spoil their position, and if they had more time, they would be able to find a stronger continuation instead of "cutting corners" with their play. Hopefully the students took away the lesson of the importance of not spending too much time in the opening or early middlegame, saving those precious minutes for the critical stage later on.

Opening Repertoires

One of Greg's lectures was devoted to opening preparation. Greg told us the story of his approach to studying openings when he decided to re-enter competitive chess. Regular CLO readers are probably aware of Greg's recent chess developments, as he has been writing detailed personal accounts of his tournaments since coming back to competitive chess in 2011. He described how he wanted to learn every major opening (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4 for White and almost every serious defense from Black's perspective), and then spent eight months doing so, studying diligently and utilizing a flash card software on his phone to help with memorizing key variations.

He then very impressively demonstrated this knowledge throughout the camp-at various times when a particular opening was discussed, he would (off the top of his head), cite a recent top-level game which took place in that opening and then literally give away some deep novelty he had prepared in that specific system. The most impressive of these occurrences, at least to me, was his extensive preparation in the 5.g3 Semi-Slav. I mean come on, who else has such extensive prep memorized in the 5.g3 Semi-Slav!?

His reasoning behind learning every opening was simple: Greg wanted to be a moving target, a versatile hawk who could play anything, and one who his opponents could never prepare for. But he also laid out the major drawback to this approach, which he realized during a post-mortem with a Danish IM. Although Greg was slightly higher rated, it was apparent that his opponent understood the nuances of his opening extremely well, and was thus able to hold off Greg's preparation with ease. The drawback was that playing every opening also meant never being fully comfortable with any particular system, as you could never get enough experience in any one line if you were constantly switching around. At this point, Greg decided to hone his opening repertoire to just a few systems, a fraction of his total opening knowledge, in order to become a major expert and fully understand the intricacies of each of his openings.

Whether or not this approach of zooming in on 3 or 4 openings is better than expanding your knowledge and learning everything is of course still up for debate, but I think the long and thought provoking discussion that occurred during the camp on this topic was greatly beneficial to the students' understanding of opening repertoires. In particular I'm sure some of the younger, less experienced students hadn't yet truly appreciated the importance of choosing and carefully studying openings, and were given a thorough introduction into the intensity of work put in by professional chess players.

Student Lectures

Victor Shen, Eric Rosen, and myself were each asked to pinch hit for Greg and prepare some lectures for the rest of the students. Continuing down the path of analyzing one's own games, we each presented several instructional examples where either our play was stellar, or, more often...far, far less than stellar, but nevertheless instructive.

Victor's Lectures

Victor gave three lectures, each time focusing on the importance of finding the right plan, as well as very practical topics such as how to get out of trouble in the opening, as well as the danger of overconfidence, humbly showing his losses in the recent U.S. Junior Championship against FM Alec Getz and NM Atulya Shetty (one of the participants in the camp!), where his overconfident attitude caused him to underestimate his opponent's resources.

My favorite example from Victor's lectures came from the following position:


It is White to move, who is down a pawn and will be in trouble if they are unable to muster up threats against the Black king. The solution is not a forced combination, but rather a strong move accompanied very deep plan, which according to Victor, even takes the almighty Houdini a very long time to correctly evaluate.

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This was just one of many examples where finding the right plan in a given position was of utmost importance. Kudos to Victor for his interesting lectures!

Eric's Lectures

Eric Rosen focused his lecture on the practice of "finding hidden resources". He showed examples where either he, or his opponent stopped their calculation short and overlooked a tactical possibility that would have saved them at least a half point. Eric also continued the path of modesty by showing one of his own errors:


This position comes from Eric's game against IM Darwin Yang, playing white. Here Eric confessed that he spent no more than 30 seconds calculating the consequences of Bxh2+ and discarded the whole variation after Kxh2 Ng4+ Kg3, not seeing any good continuation for Black and gave too much respect to his esteemed opponent, having thoughts like "Darwin would never allow such a sacrifice so early on". And while you should give respect to your opponent and never assume they overlooked something, it is also wrong to trust their analysis without calculating the variation for yourself. As a result, Eric played a different move when in fact the Bxh2 sacrifice was indeed quite good for Black. Can you figure out what it is that both Eric and Darwin had missed?

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To sum up Eric's lecture, which also included examples of saving defensive resources, "keep fighting, force your opponent to find the clear win, and never make things easy for them".

Kostya's Lectures

I decided to give my lecture on endgames where a minor piece, with the help of extra pawns, could outplay a rook. I figured that by showing the students a few examples of such endgames, it would help with their future evaluation of these tricky positions. Here is a problem that stumped all except for Eric Rosen, who impressively found the solution without much difficulty:


It's White to play, find the strongest continuation and the following winning plan.

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Individual Meetings

Greg met with each student for about 30 minutes to discuss study habits, future goals, and specific opening repertoire, as well as a detailed study plan for improvement. Although each meeting was private, I'm sure the students deeply appreciated the huge amount of effort that Greg put in to focusing on each student individually.

Extra Curricular Activities

No trip to the CCSCSL would be complete without a visit to the World Chess Hall of Fame, just across the street!

The blitz tournament was won by none other than Greg himself, who for some reason felt it was necessary to demonstrate his dominance in blitz over each student. Of course, it wasn't easy, as he only won the title through a blitz playoff over Robert Perez, the best student blitzer.

Casual Blitz- Quite a lot, especially during after hours at the CCSCSL and at the group hotel.
Bullet Bughouse - ...the horror, the horror.

Generally the camp was a lot of fun, the students all felt comfortable with each other and it didn't take long for everyone to establish a comedic rapport.

The Students

Awonder Liang

The 2011 World Youth U-8 Champion, from Wisconsin has been coached by GMs Sam Palatnik & Mesgen Amanov. Awonder has a very bright future ahead of him and impressed us all with his presence in the camp. His positional understanding and maturity was clear and it was a great joy to work with him. Directly after the camp, he managed to set yet another record, becoming the youngest U.S. chess player ever to defeat a Grandmaster in a tournament game, after beating GM Larry Kaufman in the recently concluded Washington International.

Cameron Wheeler

12 years old from Cupertino, California, this was Cameron's second USCS session. Formerly coached by IM Steven Zierk, he now works with FM Elliot Liu. He has attended the World Youth twice, coming in 5th and 19th place, a 3-time member of the All-American team and has won four national scholastic tournaments. Cameron did not speak much during the camp, but when he did speak up and answer questions or suggest lines, he would mostly be correct, signaling his maturity. Apart from chess he also enjoys math and basketball.

Daniel Gurevich

Daniel is 14, from Atlanta, and this was his third USCS. Readers are probably already familiar with Daniel as he is a regular contributor to CLO and has his own column in Chess Life for Kids. Currently home-schooled and in 9th grade, Daniel will soon be taking classes at Oglethorpe University and apart from chess he plays piano, studies math and science, and writes computer code.

Varun Krishnan

Varun is 14 from San Diego, CA and is no stranger to the USCS,  having attended a few times before. He is currently being coached by IM Cyrus Lakdawala and IM Armen Ambartsoumian. Outside of chess his hobbies include tennis, math, and computer games. Varun's love for combinational chess is very clear, he often gets excited during analysis, especially when he can sacrifice a piece (or three) for one of the sides, but his enthusiasm for tactics was appreciated by all. Immediately after the USCS Varun tied for first with IM Jack Peters in the Southern California State Championship!

Michael Brown

Michael, 14, from Southern California is coached by IM Armen Ambartsoumian and had attended the USCS once before. He competed in the 2009 and 2011 World Youth Championships and is a former Barber Co-champion and K9 Co-Champion. Michael is a good all around player and has been making steady progress for a few years now. He has quite a deep understanding of certain positional concepts and definitely has a good future ahead of him.

Kevin Cao

Kevin is 15, from St. Louis, Missouri, and coached by GM Ben Finegold. This was his third USCS and outside of chess, he enjoys playing basketball and soccer. He became a life master at age 14 and is a 2-time All American team member. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to interact with him much but he seems to be a nice young fellow who is pretty darn good at chess.

Robert Perez

Robert is 16, from Miami Beach, Florida, and is coached by GM Julio Becerra. This was his third USCS and a major accomplishment of his is tying for first in the 2011 World Open u2400 section. Currently Robert is a junior at MIT, which is actually unsurprising once you get to know him-his personality definitely reminds me of a mathematician/scientist super genius.

Atulya Shetty

Atulya is 16, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had attended the USCS for the first time back in 2008. He has participated in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 World Youth Championships and is coached by GM Gregory Kaidanov. Other than chess he plays sports and is a percussionist. Atulya was quite active throughout the camp, solving many studies, answering lecture questions and crushing many in blitz-not long after the camp he was able to tie for first in the 2012 Denker tournament, winning on tiebreak over IM Darwin Yang!

Tommy Ulrich

Tommy is 17, from Appleton, Wisconsin, and is coached by GM Mesgen Amanov. This was his first USCS session and was the only participant willing to admit that he spends lots of time studying chess! When he is not studying, Tommy's interests include sports, reading books, and the piano. Although Tommy has never qualified for the World Youth, he comes from a very talented family, as two of his younger sisters have qualified in the past!

Eric Rosen

Eric is 18, from Illinois and coached by GM Dmitry Gurevich. He won the 2011 National High School Championships with a perfect 7-0 score and has made steady rating gains ever since to be one of the top juniors in the country. Other than chess, Eric enjoys forgetting to send a personal bio to certain a CLO author!

Victor Shen

Victor recently became an IM-elect and earned his first GM norm at the 2012 New York International. He is from Edison, New Jersey but attends college in New York. Although Victor has no coach he has been to four USCS sessions and is obviously a rising star in U.S. chess.

Kostya Kavutskiy

Currently I'm 19, living in Los Angeles, CA, and am coached by GM Varuzhan Akobian. This was my second USCS session, and hopefully I can attend again with the role of student/lecturer/journalist!

Once again, on behalf of USCS 19, I'd like to express gratitude to Greg, Dr. Jim Roberts and the CCSCSL for their generous support in making this camp possible.

Find out more about the US Chess School and the Saint Louis Chess Club on the official websites. Kostya won Best of CLO #3 this year for his piece on "Breaking 2366."