"See, there was this bird..." Grade Nationals 2008
By Elizabeth Vicary   
December 18, 2008
Kathryn Wishart, Photo Betsy Dynako
Six-year-old Kathryn Wishart recently learned how to play chess; this was only her third tournament. Her parents and coach weren’t sure if she was ready for a national championship, but she was excited to try, so they registered her in the kindergarten section of the National Grade Championship (Orlando, Florida, Dec. 12-14). When she returned from round one triumphant, her school’s coach, Tim Tusing of Oak Hall, asked how the game went. Kathryn gave a puzzling explanation:
“See, there was this bird…  and then the kid told me he had switched the pieces …  and the TD said if I could put my opponent in check, I win!” 

Confused, Tim went to the tournament director and asked for an adult perspective.

“See,” the tournament director began, “there was this bird…”

It turns out that a bird was flying in the rafters of the room, and many of the young children, Kathryn included, became distracted watching it. When Kathryn’s interest returned to the board, her opponent informed her that she ought to pay more attention, as he had been moving the pieces around when she wasn’t looking. She raised her hand to get the TD, and her opponent repeated this story to the director. It turned out that the young man had misunderstood a warning from his coach, who, in order to stress the importance of paying attention during his game, had warned that opponents might alter the position if you don’t watch them carefully. The young man took this to mean that moving pieces around when your opponent wasn’t looking was standard practice in chess. He had no intention of doing anything unethical, and was very upset and sorry when it was explained that this was considered cheating. Despite his obvious regret, the TDs had no choice but to forfeit him and award the game to Kathryn.

Kathryn and her brother attend Oak Hall, a private school in Gainesville, Florida which won both the kindergarten and first grade sections, and placed third in second grade. Its chess program was begun by Tim Tusing ten years ago, when his own son was in third grade. Although the club started small, membership grew quickly when the six original members displayed their trophies at a school assembly. Soon many kids wanted to join “The Trophy Club” and membership now hovers around seventy students. An additional coach, John Salisbury, also works with the team.

William Radak and Winston Zeng, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

I thought that only six players tied for first in the second grade section, but Winston Zeng corrected me—the little green man (far right in the above photo) also shared top honors. Hunter won the team competition, holding on to a small lead to edge out Dalton by half a point. William Radak shares his second round victory, a Fried Liver Attack which features pawn checkmate in the middle of the board. He described the game for CLO: "This game was interesting because I was able to win a pawn using a sacrifice from the two knights opening. Later to win the game, I created a mating net after noticing that my opponent’s king was in the open."  William was pleased to hear that his opponent Claudia used this same tactic against another player to win a game.

William Graif, Photo Ted Wu

William Graif won the third grade section with 6.5/7, beating second place finisher Jonathan Chiang in the exciting last round game below. New York’s PS 116 won the 3rd grade team championship, a point ahead of the Village School of Houston.

Coach Brian Karen shared a story from the section:

A 3rd grader ran into my team room, threw down her score sheet, and announced in frustration "I lost, I was in terrible time pressure." Nothing unusual, except it was only 20 minutes into the round :).

Horace Mann dominated the fourth grade, scoring 18 out of a possible 21 points. They were led by section winner Matthew Zeitlin, who upset top seed Christopher Wu in the last round.

An amusing dispute arose in the fourth grade section. A National TD, Jon Shacter, was called over to rule on dispute in an endgame where White was easily winning, with a king, knight and two pawns versus Black ’s king and single pawn. Black was asking to be disqualified because his phone had gone off at the board prior to the beginning of the round. (you read that right) White strenuously objected to this, pointing out that his opponent had neither answered the phone nor even looked at it. After some thought, Shacter ruled that Black  should have requested to be forfeited at the time of the phone call and had lost the right to demand this when he continued the game.

GM Joel Benjamin, coaching for Columbia Grammar, was captured on video for the Internet Chess Club by Macauley Peterson:

Coach Lou, Ben, Max, Will, Tristan and Issay from Buckingham, Browne and Nichols
Photo courtesy Torsten Wiegand

Torsten Wiegand describes her son Max’s team:

Buckingham, Browne and Nichols is a small independent school in Cambridge.  My son started playing as a Kindergartner and went to Nationals for the first time in 1st grade.  He loved it so much we tried to convince a few more children to go so they could have a team.  The 4 boys (Max Wiegand, Tristan Young, Will Nemirovsky and Issay Matsumoto) went to K-12 and Elementary Nationals last year and this K-12 that just concluded.  Last year they were the little engine that could and finished 3rd in the 3rd grade section!  This year not quite so good - 12th.

Max finished with four points, including this well-orchestrated attack:


Kyle Shin, Photo Elizabeth Vicary
Kyle Shin won the fifth grade individual championship. His father described two hilarious stories from Kyle’s weekend:

One top board player asked Kyle how much chess he played each day. Kyle proudly said "an hour every day," which made the other boy laugh. Kyle asked him, "Why, how much do you play, 30 minutes per day?" The boy responded, "I play 7 hours per day: 2 hours before school work, 2 hour during school, 2 hours after school and then 1 hour before bedtime." Kyle said he suddenly felt an hour per day wasn't very much... and that his coach and father's insistence on his chess practice wasn't so demanding after all. Everything is relative, I guess.
Boys will be boys. Kyle (grade 5) and the top boards of grades 3 (Christopher Wu) and grade 6 (Jarod Pamatat) made a bet. They said if any of them got knocked off board one, he would be forced to do 20 pushups and 15 seconds of nuggies (on the head). Unfortunately, Jarod Pamatat lost round 5... then I noticed the Jarod doing his pushups and getting nuggies from Kyle, laughing and having fun. As a chess parent, it was great to see kids (even the "top kids" able to laugh and keep perspective -- which some chess parents need to learn from).

5th grader Justus Williams from CES 70 and 6th grader Joel Ogunremi from IS 318, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

Justus Williams of CES 70 in the Bronx hung out with my students during the tournament, and shared his ragged but energetic last-round Grand Prix attack:


The team competition in the fifth grade section was extraordinary. Going into the last round, no fewer than seven teams were within a point of the lead. When the dust settled three New York teams, Horace Mann, Mamaroneck Avenue School  in White Plains, and the Ramaz School were tied at the top with 14 points. Hunter and PS 6 finished a point out, tied for fourth.

Jacob Berman, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

Jacob Berman’s last round upset of Apurva Virkud propelled his team into a share of first. After winning a piece with a classic Cambridge Springs tactic, Berman allowed his opponent some dangerous counterplay in the form of two connected passed pawns. He immediately recognized the need to buckle down: “The four or five moves after my opponent got her two pawns, I used more than five minutes per move. I was looking at every single move she could make with her pawns and rook to see if she could do anything to win.”

Brian Wong, Photo Betsy Dynako
Brian Wong of PS 124 won the top Under 1200 prize in the fifth grade section, and shows his strength in this impressive kingside attack, upsetting a player almost 700 points above him. Coach Olga Sagalchik described the tournament as a breakthrough for Brian, who played up every round and showed remarkable consistency. “Anyone can play one good move or game,” she noted, “but Brian’s games were high quality thoughout, even his losses. Before the tournament, no one would have thought he could have performed like this, but he’s clearly emerged as our team’s new leader.”


Michael Bodek, Photo Polly Wright

Sixth seed Michael Bodek scored some upsets to win the sixth grade championship with 6.5/7. He chose his fifth round win over Maximilian Zinski as his favorite. Michael thought White went wrong with 9. g3 and should have preferred 9. Bd3. He was especially proud of his exchange sacrifice begun with 11… Qc4.

Caption: Natalie Berger Kyler McVay Julie Flammang Romy Vassilev with coach Michael Khodarkovsky, Photo Janine Lederman Flammang

Spence, an all-girls school from New York, placed seventh in sixth grade. Readers, does anyone know of an all-girls team having won a trophy before at Nationals? I think this may be a first! Below is Julie Flammang’s defeat of I.S. 318’s Jacob Kobaljo:

I was ecstatic that my students from IS 318 won clear first in the sixth and seventh grade sections, and tied with Horace Mann in the eighth grade. While other teams (notably Horace Mann last year) have won three sections before, I believe this is the first time a school has won every section it is eligible to play in. Pictured below are team leaders Shawn Swindell (1496, 5.5 in 6th grade), Myles Foster (1656, 5.0 in seventh grade), and Pobo Efekoro (1680, 4.0 in seventh grade).

Myles Foster, Shawn Swindell, Pobo Efekoro, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

Rochelle Ballantyne, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

Rochelle Ballantyne led our eighth grade team, upsetting Hibiki Sakai with an opening trap in a super-sharp Dragon. She was recently featured in a New York Times article for her impressive play against Kasparov. Also check out Rochelle's audio interview from the Grades with Macauley Peterson.

Black has just played 13… Bh6+. How should White respond?

Show Solution

Hengyi Wu, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

The top board of the eighth grade section featured a thrilling fight between the  top scorers of two teams in close contention for first. Hengyi won the game, and with it the tournament. At the same time, he also propelled his team into third place with 12.5 and prevented Horace Mann from overtaking I. S. 318 at 13 points. He was impressed Chiang’s 12. Qg2, but felt that 16. b3 was a mistake.


Darrian Robinson, Photo Elizabeth Vicary

Bob Siyuan Shao beat Darrian Robinson  in the last round to win clear first in ninth grade. Eve Litvak’s last round win over Joshua Abady propelled New Jersey’s Bergen County Academies, coached by GM Alex Stripunsky, into first place in the team standings, ahead of Solomon Schechter (Westchester)

In tenth grade, Alexander Heimann tied for first with Marc Tyler Arnold; they gave up only half a point -- to each other-- in a fifth round draw. Gilbert High (Arizona) and Bellaire High (Texas) shared first with 13.5.

Nikola Mathews, of Gilbert High, scored 3 in the 9th grade section.

Abby Marshall and Jeffrey Haskel rebounded from early upsets to share first in eleventh grade. Bellaire High beat out second place finishers the Canterbury School (Indiana) and Suncoast Polytechnical (Florida).

Abby Marshall, Photo Elizabeth Vicary
Toby Boas lost to Hiep Nyguen in the last round of the senior section, but this didn’t stop him winning clear first, having gone into the round with a 1.5 point lead (!) Columbus Alternative High School won top team.

Horace Mann and Gilbert High won the K-6 and K-12 blitz tournaments. Individual winners included David Adelberg, Gavin McClanahan, Brian Li, Joshua Colas (K-6) and Jared Tan (K-12).  Look for an upcoming Chess Life magazine article that will focus on games and stories from grades 9-12.

On a personal note, I would like to specially thank a few people whose hard work and generosity enabled my students’ success: Alex Lenderman, Nick Chatzilias, Miron Sher, Shaun Smith, Rose Williams, Greg Shahade, Dan Schmidt, John O’Brian, Glenn Wilson, and the Internet Chess Club.

Browse Grade Nationals final results here, and look for Elizabeth Vicary's April 2009 Chess Life Magazine article on the Grades.