Sunday, April 19, 2009


We visited Washington Square Park. It was our first time back since Richie was 4. The last time he was there he was just learning how to move the pieces! What a difference a year makes. I asked Richie to play a game against "Cornbread." I'm not sure what his strength is, but he pretty easily beat me through simple positional play when we went into a knight vs. bishop endgame and I ran low on time so I presume he's around my strength or higher. Richie was reluctant at first. So I played went for his weakness: he had recently depleted his savings on a trip to Target, as he loaded up on Bakugan accessories. So I offered him an exorbitant prize to see if that would get him in the saddle. I was 100% sure he would lose to be honest because Cornbread was obviously pretty strong at speed chess. Then Richie pulled a fast one on me and exclaimed "No time!" before sitting down to play. Cornbread was eager to earn his $2 fee so he agreed and put away the clock.

Richie went into his zone and played quite literally the best game I've ever seen him play. It's a shame that I didn't record the moves so all I can do is give the eyewitness account. The game started out unusually, with Cornbread as black avoiding any standard double king pawn formation and instead opting for a somewhat cramped but solid development. Richie reacted with an early Queen foray to b3, and I sighed inwardly when I saw it because I assumed that Cornbread would find some way to exploit it later. Richie placed his pieces well, however, and found away to establish the e4-e5 pawn duo after first pinning and exchanging one of Cornbread's centralized pieces. When Richie found the d3-d4 advance after spending a full minute in contemplation, Cornbread smiled knowingly and seemed to realize that he was in for a sterner challenge then he had imagined. A lot of kids can learn how to develop all their pieces--they often do so by rote, knights to c3 and f3, bishops to c4 or f4, etc. Finding a good plan at the start of the middle game takes a much more complete chess understanding and calculation ability. At this point, Cornbread tucked his King away but Richie's firm hold on the center probably gave him a small advantage, though material was still even. Richie's clear 3rd rank allowed for a transfer of his Queen to the Kingside, obligating Cornbread to shift some of pieces to avoid any tactics on f7. Then Richie doubled up his rooks on the c-file even though it was pretty clear that nothing could come of it immediately as Cornbread countered by defending his c-pawn with a rook. After another long pause, Richie seemed to think that he was ready for the attack, and many many games of playing the King's gambit, led him to a bold decision, f4! Cornbread seemed unfazed and even said that he thought Richie might have given him "the chance he needed" as he moved his Queen with check to the g1-a7 diagonal. I knew Richie was really serious about winning when he spent a good 30 seconds deciding how to handle the check, eventually opting correctly for a move to h8. Cornbread had already lost his dark-squared bishop so it would be difficult for him to find any mate on h7 for instance. A few moves later and Cornbread was induced to lose his e-pawn to prevent the f5 push and also weaken his kingside castle with g6. Then Richie found a really nice sequence of queen maneuvers. First he repositioned to bring in another minor piece to the attack. Cornbread defended deftly, but after Richie switched the focus to the queenside by eyeing the rook on c8 with his bishop, Cornbread was forced to abandon defense of his c-pawn or lose the exchange. Richie picked up the c-pawn gaining a concrete material advantage and control of the c-file. The rest was pure Art of Attack-like. First he penetrated his rook to the 7th rank. Then after bringing his queen back to the kingside, he spotted a puzzle-like mate-in-3 combination that was led off by a rook sacrifice. The game lasted a full 30 minutes and I was surprised to find a small crowd had gathered and were giving Richie an ovation. He smiled shyly but I knew that he was very proud of his game. Most chess lovers know the thrill of playing a game where your opponent avoids obvious blunders but you manage to convert several minor advantages into a decisive attack. If the finale is a sacrificial mating attack, it's really chess heaven. I think this game may mark a new turning point for Richie. I hope he realizes that games that are won "fairly" are more interesting and enjoyable than games that are won by unsound tactical tricks. If so I think he is going to get much more out of chess in the future.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Supernationals IV

We had a great time at the Supernationals. The Opryland resort was quite a spectacle and was much larger than I had imagined. Richie competed in the K-1 Open section, but as a Pre-K he was at a bit of a disadvantage versus the field. He managed to garner 4.0/7.0 but he lost his first two rounds which meant that all of his remaining games were against lower rated opponents. That was a little unfortunate because I was hoping he'd get a chance to play some stronger players. I was a little surprised at how well his opponents rated around 300 to 600 played. To their credit they appeared to be playing much stronger than their ratings suggested they would. I guess most of the kids do some amount of preparation leading into the event and also they've had the benefit of a full academic year to strengthen their skills. Some are probably under-rated because they don't play in rated events that often as well. This seems to be less of a factor early in the year but towards the end there's more of a chance it seems that players will be mis-rated.My main goal for the trip was to spend some quality father-son time with Richie so we spent the time between rounds watching cartoons (Hikaru no Go, of course!), wandering the site, getting snacks, etc. rather than playing chess or preparing. I suppose if I were more serious I would have made more effort to make sure he was well rested and I would have asked him to play games or do tactics, but I felt it was more important this trip to make it more play and less work.

We did enter one of the simultaneous events given by Grandmaster Yuri Shulman. This turned out to be a nice experience. Richie and I had a little "last longer" wager which he won. He played a great sicilian with some nice thematic maneuvers that gave him surprisingly good counterplay against a Shulman's kingside assault before he lost to some tactics. Whereas I bungled the opening of my game and ended up being completely tied up and strategically lost by move 12 I'd say.

We played several games of Plunder Chess between rounds and Richie really took a liking to it. Of course we ended up coming home with a set. I don't really object to chess variants in general. I think they help in some ways because they force you to think creatively because you can't rely on the crutch of known patterns.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Heading to Supernationals IV

Richie and I are off to the Supernationals IV tomorrow. It's actually a bit of an accident that we're even going at all. I had made reservations for the Opryland hotel just in case we decided to go but I was 90% sure we wouldn't. The main reason I wasn't interested in going this year was that Richie is still in Kindergarten. (Actually he I should probably refer to him as Pre-K since he will be entering Kindergarten next year) but they only have a K-1 section. He has pretty much no shot at winning and only a small chance of getting the all important trophy so I was inclined to pass and just wait for next year. But, and let this be a lesson to myself for the future, I naively listened to the booking agent who originally told me I could cancel with 48 hours notice. That's apparently true for normal hotel reservations but not for conventions like the Supernationals. So I was basically stuck with the reservation and had to scramble to make other arrangements so it didn't go to waste.

It's nice though to go to the tournament just for the experience (at 5000 players it's the biggest chess tournament in history). I won't be so concerned about preparation because the results are not as meaningful this time and I can focus on making sure Richie is getting an enjoyable and edifying chess experience. It's actually awful that I care so much about the results at tournaments to begin with but to be perfectly honest with myself, they always matter to some degree. Having said that, the most uplifting chess parent moment I've had recently was when I showed Alyssa a grandmaster game that involved opposite side castling and a spectacular double edged race to land the first blow. At the end of it she said, "that game was so cool, I like that one a lot." She's always been more of an artistically minded person, so I had hoped that the creative side of chess would appeal to her, and it seems like the seeds of chess appreciation are taking root.

CT State K-1 Open Champion

Richie recently competed in the Connecticut State Scholastic Chess Championships and was fortunate enough to take the K-1 title. He scored 3.5/4.0 in the preliminaries and 3.0/4.0 in the finals. Due to the limited number of participants, however, he was playing in a combined K-3 group and ended up finishing with the highest score for Kindergarten or 1st graders. He won on a sort of technicality, however, because the actual highest 1st grade finisher (Julian Wang), was awarded the K-3 Open title which left Richie as the next highest finisher.

After it was all over, I guess it was worthwhile but I have to admit I had my doubts after the preliminary round. Unlike last year, which attracted probably over 200 players and was held at Yale University in a single day, this year's event was curiously split into two rounds. Only the top five resident finishers (and players rated higher than a pre-determined rating cutoff) were eligible for the finals. Also the finals were held in Storrs, CT which was quite a long way from home. I'm not sure if it was the tournament structure, or the effect of the recession, or what, but sadly the state championship only had about 60 players in all age groups. It was actually smaller than an ordinary weekend tournament in NY. The kindergarten and 1st grade sections had only six players (!) in the preliminaries which almost assured Richie of making the finals. Thankfully in the finals they combined his age group with older kids so at least he got to play a couple of rounds with opponents rated near his level.

He did have an enjoyable time, in part because a few of the players from his chess club (Alex Zarikos, Julian Wang) also did well.

As for his playing, I would have to say that it was a mixed result. He still appears to be unable to compete with 1000+ rated players. I'm curious to see what changes will occur in the next few months that will make him stronger than 1000 in practice. I already believe firmly that he is playing at a level at least on par with some of those kids but he doesn't seem to put it together during a tournament for some reason. His playing style is becoming more of an attacking, slash and burn style which is good against unrated opponents who offer little resistance, but some the soundness of his attacks is often more strictly tested by the slightly more seasoned 1000+ players.

In a warm up tournament in NYC, Richie had his first perfect score in a Reserve section tournament (for players rated over 800). In his play, I saw some more confident attacking skills coming into play like purposeful exchange sacrifices and creation of open lines with pawn moves. I would definitely characterize him right now as dangerous. Certain types of positions he can probably play like a 1200 player but clearly other types of games expose big holes in his knowledge base.

It will be interesting to see how he fares at the upcoming Supernationals.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide