Melinda's Swan Song to SuperNationals
By Melinda J. Matthews   
April 16, 2013
If you’ve never been to a SuperNationals, words cannot properly describe the palpable energy, excitement, and tension generated by over 5,300 hopefuls, their families, coaches, friends, staff, and other supporters.  It’s an electrifying experience unlike any other.  And it’s fitting that the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center, a glittery, rambling edifice that feels like a small city, should play host to this grandiose and wildly ambitious tournament welcoming kindergarten through high school players from all over the country.  
Inside the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, pre-tournament calm Photo: Fun Fong

SuperNationals V was Nicky’s second and final SuperNationals, and, shocking as it may seem, my first and only one.  Four years ago, Nicky traveled to SuperNationals IV with his father, David, because I’d just started a new job with no vacation time accrued.  In true David style, that particular trip and tournament became a wilderness adventure complete with cave explorations, hiking, and camping along the way.
Most players, like Nicky, experience only one or two SuperNationals during their scholastic chess lifetimes.  So I was impressed when, during the closing ceremonies, it was announced that five attendees had participated in four out of the five SuperNationals, meaning they’d played in kindergarten, fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades.  That’s a remarkable statistic, demonstrating an unusual tenacity and dedication to chess over a sixteen-year span (or longer).  And, making its own mark in the history books, SuperNationals V, with 5,335 participants, officially became the world's largest over-the-board rated chess tournament ever.

And the winners are…
Of course, 5,300+ players didn’t descend upon Nashville to gape at the Gaylord or to muse wistfully about the past.  They came to play, and most came with dreams of winning.

Atulya Shetty, seeded Number 1 on the K-12 advance entry list, won the tournament’s crown jewel, the K-12 Championship.  His starting seeding and stellar finish belie the drama in his ascent to the title.  A fifth round draw dropped him a half-point behind Luke Harmon-Velotti, who entered Round 7 with a perfect 6-0 score.  Shetty’s crucial last round must-win over Harmon-Velotti garnered him clear first, a spot on the World Youth Championship team, a USCF scholarship, and one of the three full tuition scholarships bestowed by the University of Texas at Dallas.
Atulya Shetty receives his UTD scholarship from Dr. Alexey Root, Photo Daniel Meirom for USCF

Because of the earlier start time, I was able to attend most of the K-1 awards ceremony, where top individual honors went to co-champions Chinguun Bayaraa and Drew Justice, both of whom finished with perfect 7-0 scores.  First place went to Chinguun on tie-breaks.
Drew Justice and Chinguun Bayaraa, K-1 co-champs

Other individual winners include K-9 champion Akshat Chandra, 6.5 points; K-8 champion Siddharth Banik, 6.5 points; K-6 champion David Peng, 6.5 points; K-5 champion Rayan Taghizadeh, 6.5 points; and K-3 champion Aydin Turgut, 7.0 points.  
Akshat Chandra, K-9 Champ

What’s particularly notable is that, except for K-1, each championship section had a clear first winner, and none of the winners finished with less than 6.5 points.  Given the fierce level of competition at this premier national scholastic event, such performances across the board (so to speak) indicate that the bar is being raised higher and higher each year. 

The K-12 team championship went to Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School.  Displaying true confidence and just a bit of bravado, they bounded onstage carrying a sign touting themselves as the best in the USA.
The enthusiastic team from Edward R. Murrow

 K-8 team honors went to J.R. Masterman, coached by Stephen Shutt and none other than IM Greg Shahade, founder of the US Chess School and the US Chess League.
K-8 Champion team from J.R. Masterman Photo: Daniel Meirom for USCF

Other top team trophies went to Newark Academy (K-9), Mission San Jose Elementary (K-6), Gomez Elementary (K-5), PS 41 (K-3), and Dalton (K-1). (see link for entire listing)

Pre-tournament festivities

Pre-tournament events kicked off with the always-popular bughouse, for which Nicky reunited with Epiphany Peters.  Epiphany hasn’t played much chess since moving from Michigan to Nashville, but she was happy to break her chess drought to team up with Nicky.  In a replay of last year’s tournament, they again finished tied for 3rd place, taking 4th on tie-breaks.  
Nicky and Epiphany with their trophies

Major bughouse kudos go to the long-term powerhouse team of Ryan Christianson and Jeremy Paul, who again won the national title (on tiebreaks, co-winning with Michael Omori and David Inglis).  Partners since 2004, Ryan and Jeremy have racked up an extraordinary five national wins and multiple top five finishes.  Because this was Ryan’s very last nationals, Jeremy traveled to Nashville only for bughouse, leaving immediately afterwards for a soccer commitment.  Ryan will enter college this fall (he’s currently weighing seven different offers), so perhaps Jeremy will be open to teammate suggestions next year?
Jeremy and Ryan, 2004 The first Nationals…
Photo: Jennifer Christianson

Jeremy and Ryan, 2013 …and the final Nationals Photo: Jennifer Christianson

Other bughouse winners included the K-9 team of Sun-Wang, ending with a perfect 12-0 score, and Team Hoyos in K-6.

As fellow hockey fanatics, Nicky and Epiphany were delighted to discover the Nashville Predators were in town playing one of Nicky’s favorite teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets, on Thursday night.  Torn between events, Nicky finally withdrew from blitz to attend the hockey game with Epiphany (Columbus won).  Somehow the blitz tournament survived without Nicky.  The high school championship ended in a three-way tie for first between Bryan Hu (1st on tiebreaks), Michael Brown (2nd on tiebreaks) and Sean Vibbert (3rd on tiebreaks).

Michael Brown, who took second on tie-breaks.

 Individual blitz winners were Joshua Sheng (K-9), Bruce Tiglon (K-6), and Christopher Shen (K-3).  Team winners included Catalina Foothills (K-12), Stuyvesant (K-9) and Greenbriar West Elementary (K-3).

Pre-tournament action also included a 37-player simul performed by the 12th Women’s World Champion, GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, who wore multiple hats as a special guest and as a chess mom whose daughter was participating in the event.  GM Kosteniuk won 36 games and drew 1, delighting her fans (and making new ones) with her charm and graciousness.

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk contemplating her next move. Photo: Fun Fong

Lectures and other side events
Without volunteering or staff duties tugging at me, I was able to attend a few of the many non-player activities.  I skipped the strictly analytical lectures, knowing they’d go right over my head, but I was interested in hearing some of the advice being offered to parents and coaches.

IM Danny Rensch spoke earnestly and enthusiastically about how to properly develop successful chess players based upon his own experiences, observations, and many years of teaching.  He stressed that it’s important for kids to learn ideas, not positions, and that chess at its core begins with pattern recognition.  He also discussed the best ways to support young players through tournaments (rest, food, emotional shoulder to lean on) and outside of tournaments (developing work ethic and critical thinking skills).  Throughout his talk, I recognized some of my own chess parenting missteps and (sort of) wished for a chance to do it all over again. 

A enthusiastic parent offers an animated, last-minute lesson Photo: Fun Fong

Dr. Alexey Root, the 1989 US women’s chess champion, gave a Saturday morning lecture about connecting chess to skills important to academic success.  Although I was unable to attend her talk, we spoke and emailed a little after the tournament; the role-playing aspect of her seminar sounds particularly intriguing (and slightly intimidating!).  She, too, wore multiple hats, traveling with the Denton High School team and representing the University of Texas at Dallas.
Dr. Root with her team from Denton High School: L to R: Jason Van Horn, Alex Elizalde, Luis Guevara, William Root, Austin McGregor, Photo Alexey Root

CLO editor Jen Shahade, Photo Fun Fong

CLO editor Jennifer Shahade presented a fun and entertaining look at the changing image of chess and how it’s begun to enter the mainstream. Jennifer interspersed her talk with clips showing recent examples of the friendlier, less esoteric ways in which chess has been showcased, from Magnus Carlsen’s witty and personable interview with Rainn Wilson on SoulPancake, to Maurice Ashley’s educational yet highly relatable TED Talk, to combination novelties such as Chess and Fashion, Chess and Reality TV, Chess Boxing, Hula Chess, and (my personal favorite), Chess and Yoga.

In the spirit of the moment: Assuming a yoga position to enjoy Jennifer’s chess lecture Photo: Fun Fong

I also had the opportunity to experience life on the other side of the interview when I joined Jennifer to discuss yoga and chess for a Chess Scoop video.  I’m definitely more comfortable asking than answering, but Jennifer and videographer Daniel Meirom made my on-camera debut as painless as possible.  Now I’m more than happy to retreat back behind my keyboard!

I was excited to learn that Brooklyn Castle was being screened during SuperNationals.  The buzz for this film has been incredibly positive, and even though it made its way to Miami briefly, we were unable to see it then because Nicky was (coincidentally) playing chess during show times.  The movie more than lived up to its hype.  
A very cool photo of Justus Williams, a star of Brooklyn Castle Photo: Fun Fong

Watching the movie was especially fun because the team members are close to Nicky‘s age, so he was actually playing in some of the featured tournaments. In fact, he made his movie debut in Brooklyn Castle: there he was, wearing his distinctive red-and-blue Florida Panther’s jersey, as the camera panned over the boards at the 2009 Grades Nationals in Dallas.

Post-screening, the discussion turned again to chess and education, led by Brookyn Castle’s executive producer and USCF marketing director, Robert McClellan, and IM Dmitry Schneider, with a surprise visit from charming Pobo Efekoro, another of the movie’s featured players.  In a few weeks, a new version of Brooklyn Castle will be released containing an educational component linking academics to chess.  The screening and discussion were the perfect warm-up to generate even more enthusiasm from teachers, coaches, and students.

Thoughts on chess and education

Opening ceremonies focused on chess as a mechanism for academic success, a theme that threaded in and through the entire tournament.  Thus, chess and academics were very much on my mind during the entire weekend, and I wound up asking other parents for their thoughts. 

I bonded with fellow chess mom, Lisa Alexander of New York, while waiting in line to purchase food between rounds.  Her two sons, August, age 11, and Ethan, age 8, began playing chess after school, which led to their participation in tournaments sponsored by the National Scholastic Chess Foundation (NSCF).  NSCF is a non-profit organization created to bring the benefits of chess education to children and is spearheaded by FM Sunil Weeramantry.

I asked Lisa whether chess has had a positive influence on her children’s education.  “Oh yes,” she responded immediately.  “Their math has skyrocketed.  They see the patterns and relationships in the numbers.”

Of course, when I asked August what he liked best about chess, academics were far from his mind: “I like seeing people coming from all over the country just to play seven games of chess.”
Ethan Alexander, 8, and August Alexander, 11

Another parent, Chai Palusa, spoke eagerly about the opportunities that come through chess, in particular, the chance to see the world and meet people from other cultures.  His son, Maurya, has been playing for two years and finished tied for 3rd in the 349-player K-1 championship division.   He’s hoping to qualify for the World Youth team one day soon.

Maurya Palusa, taking the proceedings very seriously

I also sought perspective from “seasoned” parent Martin Hughes, father to 11th grader John Hughes.  John and Nicky have been friends and friendly rivals ever since they met in 2008 while battling for the 7th grade national championship.  They drew that year, sharing the title with Andy Wang.  Two years later, they shared the title again (along with three other players)  in a reprise of their previous 7th round Board 1 showdown. 

Like Nicky, John came to chess relatively “late” – in fourth grade – and, like Nicky, he forsees chess figuring into his life long past high school.  Martin couldn’t find enough ways to praise chess’ positive influence: “ [Chess] broadens your perspective. It helps in setting goals and getting rid of preconceptions.  We’ve met so many great people and seen so many places.”  His only regret?  “I wish he’d started sooner!”  John sums up his feelings more succinctly: “I can’t imagine ever quitting.”

John Hughes, who ended the tournament in 6th place (tied for 2nd) with 6 points.

 Random bits and pieces
One unforeseen downside of hosting 5,300+ tech-savvy participants: accessing pairings online.  The en masse rush before each round apparently crashed the hotel’s server, so Nicky, like everyone else, was relegated to checking pairings the old-fashioned way: pushing through the crowd to peer anxiously at the posted list mere minutes before the round began. 

Therefore, Nicky walked in cold to most of his matches, having no time for even last-minute preparation against his opponent.  It all worked out, of course, because, conversely, his opponents had no time to prepare against him.

True to form, Nicky met some of his online chess friends for the first time at the tournament.  He seems to have a special affinity for US Chess League players named Nick.  In 2010, the Nick-of-the-moment was Nick Thompson of the Arizona Scorpions, one of Nicky’s USCL playoff opponents, who remains a good friend. This year, he met Nicky Korba from USCL’s LA Vibe, whom he played against in the 2012 season.  The two Nickys, plus Korba’s friend, Matt Shuben, instantly clicked, even meeting up quite late Friday night for a much-needed blitz fix.  The late hours didn’t seem to affect Nicky negatively as he won all three Saturday games (he finished the tournament with 5.5 points, tying for 9th place and taking 14th on tie-breaks).
Nicky and Nicky, who even sat next to each other for two rounds.

I was also happy to discover – albeit a little too late – that several colleges had set up booths in the chess store.  My brief encounter with the friendly Texas Tech folks was enlightening: I learned that attending a college with a strong chess program might be financially feasible for Nicky, should he choose that path, thanks to a combination of  potential scholarships and the opportunity for in-state tuition.  Chatting with GM Alex Onischuk about Texas Tech’s program was an unexpected, but slightly unnerving, bonus (I tend to get star-struck and tongue-tied).

Posted prominently in the store, and elsewhere, were signs offering used tournament sets – boards and pieces – for the bargain-basement price of $5.  Nicky and I decided to snap up five sets for his school because this year, for the first time since Nicky began high school, English teacher Ayodele Bain agreed to sponsor an after-school chess club.  Nicky’s been volunteering twice a week as their “coach” and hopes to bring a team to some local tournaments next year.  Since there’s no funding, they’ve been playing on whatever’s available – mostly undersized combination chess/checkers drug store sets – so these regulation-sized sets will be a great addition to our school’s fledgling chess program.

Grateful acknowledgements

Such an expansive tournament, of course, requires an eye for detail and dedicated staff members to make it feel seamless.  Patricia Smith was the organizing guru responsible for pulling the many disparate threads together.   It’s to her credit that the sections and side activities were well dispersed and managed so nothing felt too crowded or overwhelming. 

Chief Tournament Director, Franc Guadalupe, led a stellar group of TDs who worked tirelessly, yet who seemed to enjoy their roles. They interacted patiently with the players and often playfully with each other.
A moment of levity between Section Chief Susan Breeding and Chief TD, Franc Guadalupe Photo: Fun Fong

And I was thrilled to see my old friend from my volunteering days, Tom Nelson, exchanging the blue vest for the red one!
Tom Nelson as a tournament director Photo: Fun Fong

The TDs did the heavy lifting in keeping all sections running smoothly and on time. And by running, in some cases, I do mean running.  An old friend from Castle Chess camp, Fun Fong (also a super photographer as evidenced by some shots here), was a prime example of exceptional unstoppable energy, earning “bragging rights for taking the most results," according to Ryman Exhibit Hall Floor Chief Jeff Wiewel.  “I make little games out of my job as a floor TD,” Fun explained, more than living up to his name.
Two extraordinarily energetic and friendly people: Fun Fong and CLO editor Jennifer Shahade Photo: Frank Johnson

I found time to meet up with my own circle of chess friends, including Catalina Foothills mom, Debbie Gross, and Loraine Webster from Michigan.  We talked until my throat was ragged while indulging in some of my favorite foods:  a few too many coffees (mandatory), pastries (decadent), and slices of pizza (passable).  Post-tournament, Fun treated Georgia participant, Alex Little, and me to dinner outside of the Gaylord.  It felt wonderful to relax and remember that life existed beyond the hotel!  I mention these moments of camaraderie and friendship because I cherish them – they’re my oasis of sanity in this sometimes-insane tournament world.

And so, farewell…
Since Nicky began playing chess, we’ve been to the Gaylord for four national events.  Without fail, each and every time I’ve gotten lost, confused, and just plain frustrated as I attempted to negotiate my way through that cavernous structure. So I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a reprise, multiplied three times over, at SuperNationals. 

When we pulled up to the Gaylord, though, I was blindsided by a certain wistfulness: I suddenly realized my love-hate relationship with this unique hotel would end after this tournament.  Even though the Gaylord’s sheer size make me a little nuts, I have to admit it’s played a gracious host to some wonderful tournament memories that will last long past one or two (okay, multiple) wrong turns in the Cascades section.

And maybe the knowledge that this was my last visit to the Gaylord bestowed a much more forgiving outlook upon me.  Throughout the tournament’s frenetic and controlled chaos, the first line from the Desiderata continually echoed in my head: Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. It was, perhaps, a reminder to stay mindful of my own actions (and reactions).

I heeded the Deisderata’s advice and moved through the Gaylord calmly and deliberately, as though saying farewell to an old friend.  And guess what?  I didn’t get lost.  Not even once.

I’m sure each of the 5,335 participants took away their own powerful memories of SuperNationals V. For some, it marked the end of scholastic play; for others, it’s only the beginning.  As for me, I’m just glad I experienced one incredible SuperNationals, in all its exuberant hustle-bustle madness, before Nicky’s scholastic days sunset. 

Find full details and standings here
and find videos from the SuperNationals on our YouTube page. Also look for Melinda's upcoming Chess Life Magazine piece.