U.S. Chess School Comes to New Jersey
By Elizabeth Vicary   
August 19, 2008
back row: NM Daniel Yeager, GM Joel Benjamin, NM Evan Ju, NM Gregory Young, FM Sam Shankland, front row: FM Teddy Coleman, WFM Abby Marshall, NM Michael Lee, NM Victor Shen.

The US Chess School
met for the second time this summer from August 12-16 in Branchburg, New Jersey. In attendance were organizer IM Greg Shahade, instructor GM Joel Benjamin, students FM Sam Shankland, FM Teddy Coleman, NM Daniel Yeager, NM Evan Ju, NM Michael Lee, NM Victor Shen, NM Gregory Young, and WFM Abby Marshall, single-day visitor Andrew Ng, and myself (as observing reporter). This session was radically different from June’s meeting, as the students were stronger, older, and Joel’s style as a teacher is very different from Gregory Kaidanov’s. Joel’s lessons focused on improving the students’ skill at analysis, in contrast to the more structured, concept-oriented instruction of Kaidanov. The lessons were long, intensive, interactive game analysis sessions, with Joel’s role often more one of facilitator than of teacher.

I was amazed by the students’ stamina: many were still enthusiastic and sharp after nine hours of what was, for a weaker player like myself, mind-numbing work. “Some of them are chess machines,” agreed Greg Shahade. Sam Shankland suggested the stylistic difference was a consequence of Joel coming from an “old-school American perspective,” which Sam characterized as “less technical (than a more formally trained Soviet style--EV), much more middlegame-oriented.” It’s also likely that the difference was partially a result of the students being both older and more experienced players. Joel peppered the lessons with stories of his lengthy experience as a player; Gregory Young mentioned especially enjoying these light-hearted moments, as well as Joel’s comedic imitations of other top American players.

Joel Benjamin, sporting his New Jersey Knockouts hat.
Below I describe some of the moments/ discussions at this US Chess School that I found most enlightening. The second part of this article, which should appear at the end of the week, will profile the US Chess School participants, some of the top chess juniors in the country. It will also contain the solution to the quiz at the end of this article.

Many thanks to Jim Roberts, who, in conjunction with the AF4C, generously sponsors the US Chess School, and to Dean and Dawn Ippolito, for the use of the Dean of Chess Academy.

Abby’s Game

It’s traditional in the US Chess School for participants to provide a large part of the material: the group spends a significant chunk of time analyzing one or more games, usually losses, from each student. When they reached the diagram position in Abby Marshall’s game against Westley Russell, Joel asked the group to reflect for several moments on which exchanges white should aim for. Readers may wish to come up with their own answers before reading further, or may wish to read the group responses and see which student he/she agrees with most before getting to Joel’s thoughts.

Teddy Coleman: White would like to trade rooks. Especially good would be a single minor piece endgame, except for maybe white knight vs black bishop.

Gregory Young: Maybe go into a double rook endgame because of the weakness of the black king?

Abby Marshall: I agree with Gregory, but also want to keep the bishops on.

WFM Abby Marshall

Sam Shankland: White should avoid a single rook ending at all costs: this would be very hard to win. (Sam’s reply was significantly longer and more detailed than this, including some discussion of the effect of various trades on the white queenside pawns. I apologize for not catching it all.)

Evan Ju: White could try to trade the rooks, and can use her current initiative to do so.

A discussion then arose about whether white should prefer a bishop vs. knight endgame, or rook and bishop vs. rook and knight. Teddy opted for the simpler ending, while Abby Marshall prefer keeping one rook on in the unbalanced minor piece ending.

Joel’s comments:
1.    I think you guys have advanced beyond this point, but I do want to mention that it would be a mistake to think that all trades are helpful, just because you are up a pawn. They aren’t.
2.    Rooks in general are drawish pieces, so it’s important not to trade the minor pieces and leave the rooks on.
3.    As a general rule, any pawn-up endgame with equivalent minor pieces and sufficient pawns is likely to be a win, in the absence of overwhelming counterplay for the defending side.
4.    One ending I would be very wary of (for white) is white knight vs. black bishop. 
5.    An ending of white bishop vs. black knight should be pretty easy because this is the type of position most favorable to the bishop: pawns on both sides on the board, an open center, and invasion points in the center.
6.    In general, rook and bishop function together much better than rook and knight. Bobby Fischer was the master of this type of endgame; his games are the ones to study to see how this advantage can be converted.
7.    If white does retain the bishop, she needs to be careful not to put her pawns on dark squares. Always remember that it's very dangerous to put your pawns on the same color as your bishop in the endgame.
8.    Abby made the comment earlier that she had thought about trading the rooks, but didn’t see how she was going to win after this. This is a very common problem for players learning about endgames – the fear that you don’t know exactly how to win. The thing is, you really don’t have to know: you don’t have to have it all worked out. You only need to see how you are going to make progress.
9.    Gregory made an interesting point about the weakness of the black king, but I don’t think a double rook ending is what white wants, because black will always be offering a trade of rooks. If white could get both rooks on the seventh, then maybe, but I don’t see how that is possible here.

Here is how the game continued, and Joel's comments.


 Marshall,Abby - Russell,Westley
HS Nationals, 2008

1.Be5+ Kg6 2.Bc3 Bc7 3.g3 Ne7 4.Rfe1
with the idea of Re6 [4.Rfd1!?]
4...Nd5 5.Bd4 h5 6.Ne3
 Joel asked the group to analyze what would happen after 6. Ne5 6.Ne5+ Kf5 7.Nf7 (7.Nf3!? Michael Lee) 7...Rf8 (not 7...Rd7 8.Nh6+ Kg6 9.Re6+ Kh7 10.Nf5+-) 8.Nh6+ Kg6 9.Re6+ Kh7 and white's knight is trapped. Joel stops them here and remarks: "You do want to avoid overly complicated lines in a technically winning position. In this respect, Michael's idea of 7. Nf3 makes sense."
Joel: How should white recapture?

Position after 7.Bxe3

Joel: "Now white begins to have a problem because all her pawns are on dark squares." 7.fxe3 g4 Sam: "I like having a passed pawn" Joel: "You will get one at some point, but here you have at least one pawn that is fixed on a dark square and will be a problem." 7...Rd5 [7...g4!?] 8.Rad1 Rxd1 9.Rxd1 a6 10.Kg2 Be5 11.b4?
Position after11. b4

Joel: "11. b4 is a big mistake, after which the position may already be drawn. White must avoid placing her pawns on the same color squares as her bishop."   The game went on further and ended in a draw but the most instructive moments had already passed so it wasn't examined to it's completion.

Lee-Smith, Position after 7...Qd7

Joel: So the idea of Qd7 is clearly to play 8…b6 and put the bishop on b7 attempting to trade the c8 bishop for the bishop on g2. How do you think the exchange of light squared bishops will affect the position?
(Again, readers may wish to formulate their own answers before proceeding.)

Teddy: I think it will favor white, because with the light bishops gone, white can play e4, which increases the scope of his dark-squared bishop, now without blocking in the other one.
Daniel: I disagree: it’s good for black because it gets rid of white’s bishop pair.
Another student mentioned that it would weaken the white king, especially because e3 had been played.

Joel agreed with Daniel that the primary consideration here was that white would lose the bishop pair. How much value, he then asked the class, would they guess the computer program Rybka gave to the bishop pair when evaluating? (expressed in terms of a pawn = 1.0)

Student Guesses
Michael: 0.33
Gregory: 0.2
Teddy: 0.75

Joel: 0.5 “Keep in mind,” Joel added, “that these values are not estimates. They are set by rigorous testing: the analysis of thousands of games.”

He continued by asking the class what values they thought Rybka assigned to bishops and knights? Guesses ranged between 3 and 3.5.

 Joel: “They are both 3.15 or 3.2. Interestingly, both are equal, which shows that you cannot make the blanket assumption that bishops are better than knights. For all of the endgames where the bishop is better, there are positions where knights are superior or equal.” A general discussion followed of openings in which one side routinely trades a bishop for a knight in exchange for a structural concession (like doubled pawns). Very often, Joel noted, the side that does this looks for a way to quickly trade its remaining bishop, thus eliminating the opponent’s bishop-pair advantage.

Marovic- Benjamin

    Benjamin gave several tactics/ analysis problems from his own game, but the beautiful forcing idea in Marovic-Benjamin was almost everyone’s favorite. Be warned: it took the best students fifteen minutes to solve.
Position after 40.Ra2

Show Solution

King and pawn endgame

Black to Move and Win

The students solved many tricky king and pawn endgames. This one was taken from Charlie Hertan’s recent book Forcing Chess Moves.

Show Solution

Reader Quiz

How Winning Is Each Piece?

Joel posed this endgame question to students: If you have a pawn advantage of 4 vs 3 in the endgame, what are your winning chances in each of the following scenarios? The pawns are all on the same side of the board (e, f, g, h, vs. f, g, h) in an unfixed structure. Kings are on the back rank and equivalently placed. Rate your pawn-up winning chances from 0 to 10, with ten being completely winning and 0 being a dead draw. Login as a member and post your answers as a comment to this article: The first person with the answers closest to Joel's before the second part of this article is posted will receive a signed copy of Joel Benjamin's American Grandmaster.  

a.    Queen?
b.    Rook?
c.    Knight?
d.    Same-colored bishop?
e.    Opposite-colored bishop?
f.    Knight vs. bishop?
g.    Bishop vs. knight?
h.    Just kings?

U.S. Chess School Photo Gallery I.
Greg Shahade plays Sam Shankland, who gave him the toughest blitz competition at the camp

Teddy Coleman and Evan Ju take a frisbee break

The group at work

Gregory Young, Evan Ju and Michael Lee

Sam Shankland after an unfortunate Frisbee mishap.