GM Joel on the K-12s: Hail Columbia
By GM Joel Benjamin   
December 20, 2009
IM Marc Arnold, Photo Polly Wright
If Columbia Grammar and Prep (NY) wasn’t the best team at the National K-12 Championships, we were certainly the biggest, with thirty-one players.  At one end of the spectrum we had the legendary Marc Arnold, the strongest player the school has ever produced.  Already an IM, Marc is at a stage where many players would think scholastics were not worth their time.  Marc is certainly a team player; though we could send no one else in eleventh grade, he still wanted to represent.  He made it look easy, going 7-0 and finishing a point clear of second place.  I know he’s supposed to do that, but we all know how often upsets intrude on the expected course of events at the Nationals.

The two players who come closest to Marc’s rock star status are Linda Diaz (ninth grade) and Lilia Poteat (sixth grade).  The large majority of kids who go through our program are boys, but these girls have surpassed the achievements of any of the boys (excepting Marc of course).  Lilia (1687) was able to pull off one upset (Akshay Malholtra, 1929), but couldn’t get past the third, fifth, and eighth place finishers in the event.  Linda (1867) suffered her three losses to players rated over 2000.

The rest of our players are blue-collar workers.  In order for the team to win a grade, or for a player to win an individual trophy, we need someone to perform above his or her expected level.  That is just what fourth-grader Noah Rubinstein did.  Though rated just 1174, Noah defeated three players rated significantly higher, including Craig Hilby, 1684!  Earlier in the tournament, Hilby reached a typically lost king and pawn ending against another Columbia Grammarian, Jonathan Kogan.  Poor Jonathan overlooked a trick which queened a pawn for Hilby.  [Kogan did rebound nicely to score 4 ½]  The Rubinstein-Hilby game proceeded in virtually the same manner, with the same pawn ending again arising.  This time “Akiba” Rubinstein avoided the trick and claimed the whole point.  Just goes to show that you need to learn from your wins as well as your losses!

Before the last round I visited the Horace Mann team room, where my buddy Nick de Firmian had everything under control.  There is a great deal of synergy between the two schools, as Sophia Rohde oversees both programs.  In the room I met up with Amir Moazami, who has participated in classes and camps at Columbia Grammar.  When I heard he had 5/6 in fourth grade, I told him, “just don’t get paired with Noah Rubinstein.”  The pairing gods were surely listening, as that matchup came into being.  It did not go well for my team.  Amir tied for second and took fifth place, while Noah tied for sixteenth and placed twentieth on tiebreak.  Noah’s 5-2 score still garnered much admiration and about two hundred rating points.  We went into the last round with the lead, but the Village School from Houston, TX caught us and took the title on tiebreak.

The second grade team squeaked into the trophies, taking fifth place on tiebreak.  John MacArthur and I earned our money with this group, a wild and wonderful gang of eleven players.  Each one is capable of surprising us, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not.  All of our players were rated under 1000, so we didn’t know if anyone would be able to score five points, which we would probably need to take first place.  Jeremy Kogan, Jonathan’s little brother, paced the team with 4 ½ points, followed by Jack Kramer at 4.  But my choice for our most valuable player would be Ethan Hochstim.

Now Ethan had a fine tournament.  He was consistently paired against significantly higher ranked opponents, and scored three points, including a win over a player (Danial Asaria) more than four hundred points above Ethan’s 511 rating.

 One of Ethan’s early takedowns came in the following opening:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Nd4


Now I certainly don’t want my kids on the Black side of the Fried Liver Attack, which occurs after 5…Nxd5 6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.Qf3+.  Ethan had come to this move (the Fritz Variation) on his own.  I’m always a bit fearful to teach traps to young children.  They tend to expect every game of theirs will end that way, and start to play more from memory than observing what is happening on the board.  But since Ethan had come this far on his own, I decided to teach him a useful trap from this position:  

6.d6 Qxd6 7.Nxf7? Qc6 8.Nxh8 Qxg2 9.Rf1 Qe4+ 10.Be2 Nf3#


Lo and behold, Ethan’s next game went this way, with only the slight difference that White played  8.Nxe5 Qxg2 9.Rf1 Qe4+ 10.Qe2 (After 10.Be2 Black doesn’t have Nf3 mate in this line, but  10...Nxc2+ wins the queen) Nxe2 and Black shortly won.

Ethan’s score was only tied for sixth on the team, and Alexander Egol pulled off a bigger upset; his victim, Aishwarya Mitra (1229) was nearly twice Alex’s 649 rating!  But Ethan is my MVP because his mother saved John MacArthur’s life.

John is the hardest working man in the chess business.  He tends to overdo it, at the expense of his health.  You can’t get John to admit that he’s sick, but his coughing, sneezing, raspy voice and foggy appearance gave it away.  Ethan’s mom, Michelle, happens to be an ear nose and throat doctor.  Seeing his struggles, she got John to detail his symptoms and then called in a prescription to Walgreens for him.  Then Mr. Hochstim drove John and me to the pharmacy.  I just had a cold, but she recommended better medicine for my symptoms.  John, on the other hand, badly needed antibiotics to get through the weekend.

Sometimes when serendipity finds you, it takes a while to sink in.  Some of our best third graders did not travel to Dallas, but with three players we had just enough for a team.  They fought gamely, but were often overmatched.  In the first and third rounds, all three players lost.  The team was out of the trophy position for the whole tournament.  But in the last round, Jayrene Shaw, Amanda Palamar, and Jason Levine all won.  The third graders surged into trophy position at #5.  

Our ninth graders, the afore-mentioned Linda Diaz and Aaron Rohde (where have I heard that name before) were one warm body away from a trophy, finishing sixth (a third player scoring 1 ½ would have clinched fifth place).  Our fifth graders had to settle for eleventh place.  The ultimate balanced team (all four players scored three points) needed Ulrik Olsen to return from the land of Vikings and Magnus Carlsen to lead them to victory.

But Nathaniel Wayne had an instructive endgame in his first round game against Alexander Chen (1787), who went on to finish in sixth place.  Nathaniel was outplayed from the beginning.  He dropped pawns early, but dodged blows and hung in there.  Chen played the endgame sloppily, perhaps assuming his lower rated opponent (1172 on the wallchart) would fold his tent.  This is why Johnny Mac is fond of telling the kids, “never give up, never surrender:”
Black to play and draw!  Try your luck at this one.

Show Solution

Alas, Nathaniel did not find this miracle resource.  But he, like the other Columbians, will be back to the Nationals in the springtime.

Ohter tales from the Grade Nationals include Mark Schein's a "Sunday in Dallas: A Chess Dad's Decathlon" , Melinda Matthews'  Volunteer's Perspective on the K-12 and Todd Andrews, "View From Coaches Corner." GM Joel Benjamin also hosts an advice column on Chess Life Online. Ask him a question on anything from a tough endgame to scholastic chess at [email protected].