Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer Doldrums Intervention!

If the last couple of years can be taken as precedent, without active planning we'll be heading for another lazy summer with little chess activity. This year, however, I've got some strategies to keep the ember burning a little better than previous years. We're planning to try out several of the local and not so local chess camps. If they are anything like the Go camp we attended last year Richie will have lots of fun and learn a lot too.

I have found several chess camps and programs within the greater NYC area that are of interest + one camp that is well known nationally.

Darien HS Chess Summer Camps (Darien, CT)
Fairfield County Chess Club (Norwalk, CT)
National Scholastic Chess Foundation (Westchester, NY)
NYChessKids (New York, NY)
Chess-in-the-Schools (New York, NY)
Castle Chess Camp (Atlanta, GA)

These vary in terms of the average strength of the players and seriousness with the Atlanta Camp being on one extreme and the Darien HS at the other.

The first one to kick off in our area is the Fairfield County Chess Club which is starting out before school even ends. I like the idea of this one because it seems to incorporate some of the history of the game as part of the program which would be a nice change. Incidentally, FCCC is apparently opening a new dedicated chess facility in the area which, as far as I know, will be the only one of it's kind in the state of CT.

I am most excited this year about going to the Castle Chess Camp in Atlanta which we learned about during the last nationals. Richie saw some videos of the Grandmasters on the website and became very excited to go. We heard good things about the camp so we decided to try it out and see how an immersive chess experience goes over with Richie. (The nearby Red Wall Studios offers Art Camp at the same time which seems perfect for Alyssa).

After that we're not sure what our plans are but assuming Richie is up for it we may even try some of the other camps listed above. I'll also be on the lookout for interesting local tournaments--preferably those in locations that make for a fun trip and which will give Richie experience with longer time controls.

If all goes well Richie should have plenty of opportunity to play in fun environments. Unlike previous summers, I hope he will be able to maintain and even increase his playing level this summer even without dedicated coaching.

Speaking of dedicated coaching, sadly it has become apparent to me that even my best efforts are likely to slow his development down from this point relative to having a dedicated chess coach. We're still not sure if a professional coach is the way to go yet but it's clear that if he is going to aim to stay near the top of his age group he'll need more help than I can give him.

I am still on the fence about coaching, however, because I do find it somewhat perverse to for a six or seven year old kid to have a professional coach. But on the other hand it seems like that's what it takes barring exceptional self-motivation or talent. At this point, I still don't know where Richie stands in those two dimensions. I believe with work he'll become quite strong, but I have no idea if he'll want to put in the effort later on in life to bring himself to say the master level. But on the off chance that he does turn into a serious chess player for the duration of his scholastic years, I would probably regret it if I didn't give him the same opportunities as I see other kids getting.

Decisions, decisions. More later on this one.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nationals Round-Up (Continued)

Richie finished the event strongly, picking up wins in all his remaining games to end up with 6.0/7.0 points and a tie for 3rd place (10th on tie-breaks). Overall his play was not bad but I think that if he had to face the top players (a fate he avoided by having the early loss) he may have struggled to win. Even as it was, his final round against none other than Alexander Medina (the kindergartener from the Grade Nationals who played a 2-hour final with Joaquin Perkins), was only won through a terrible oversight by his opponent in a won position. At every Nationals I hear so many stories of games that were given away in won positions that I wonder if parents realize that in virtually every game, each player gives up "wins" multiple times, and it's really just the player who makes the penultimate egregious error that emerges victorious. This is especially true at the lower scholastic levels which can to have more in common with roulette than grandmaster chess. In Richie's case this event was similar to the prior nationals: he was swindled in round 2, and he swindled in round 7 so I guess it balanced out. Even more interesting, from the standpoint of karmic neutrality at least, was that his 7th round swindle was almost the exact same situation with roles reversed--his opponent was up material but with queens on the board still and he maneuvered his queen to a position that seemed to offer a trade of queens or a mating attack, but in fact, simply forced Richie to execute his own mating attack first. Had his opponent thought for a just a few seconds about where Richie was going to move his queen if he didn't want to lose the game on the next move, he would have seen that his own King was perilously close to being mated and he could have avoided the upset easily.

At any rate, Alexander's play until that point was commendable. He played an uncommon opening which Richie handled poorly and built up a sizeable advantage. I can see why he's had good results at these large events and is certainly capable of being a dangerous opponent.

I witnessed another fascinating quick skittles game between Max Roberts and Richie. It's a joy to watch them play because their play always seems to create devilish complications with unexpected and creative solutions being found at nearly every turn.

Kindergartener Praveer Sharan from Oregon emerged victorious with the only perfect score for the event. This was all the more impressive when you consider that the field had at least 20 higher rated and older players include a handful with current ratings over 1200 and he defeated at least three experienced 1000+ players on route to victory. So congratulations to Praveer! Update: It turns out that Praveer's pre-event rating may have been as high as 1300 in the Northwest Scholastic system which put him in among the top seeds but of course doesn't diminish his accomplishment at all. I expect we'll see more of Praveer in upcoming events.

+ Atlanta venue was great. Even though we stayed in the overflow hotel (Marriott
Marquis) it was connected by covered walkways through the Peachtree Centermall.
+ Kudos to the organizers and volunteers. Job well done!
+ Comeback kid.
+ iPad. Perfect place for an iPad for many, many reasons.
+ Mary Mac's Tea Room.
+ My that's a really big aquarium.

- Swindle and re-Swindle? I hope he outgrows that soon.
- Lazy until it's too late. Richie didn't want to warm-up with tactics or review until after his first loss.
- Alyssa didn't do 2/3rds of her homework because she didn't have a ruler(??). C'mon...

=/= Hibaaaachiiii. We went to Benihana the first night and it was great. The kids loved the fried rice, so we were back again for an after-event celebration with our friends. But the 2nd chef overcooked my steak which lessened my enthusiasm for the place.
=/= Paying for the first bag on the airplane. But I guess that's just part of the new world order.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Nationals Update and The Importance of Tictacs

After four rounds (out of seven) Richie has a score of 3.0/4.0. His early loss in the tournament was a bit of Deja vu from his last appearance at nationals. He obtained an objectively winning position up the exchange with just a queen and rook versus queen and bishop for the endgame but blundered badly and lost his rook. I think strategically he had the right plan to trade off the queens and shutdown his opponents counterplay, but he overlooked a simple response by his opponent in an almost forced position. This kind of blunder is probably one of the most common reasons for losing and I think the main reason for it is the natural human bias towards egotism. In a winning position we become fixated on our own attacking prospects and a little over confident. It's easy to stop looking at our opponents tactical resources and blunder away the game.

Every player knows the importance of tactics in chess. Some would argue that tactics is the single most important thing to practice to improve at the early stages of development.

The title of this post wasn't a typo. I've seen many different tactical training programs and books and the all have one thing in common: the vast majority of puzzles are posed as attacking motifs where you are looking for the best move for your side. That is to say the board is arranged from the point of view of the person to play.

I've often wondered why Richie can sometimes find really difficult tactical solutions when he is the aggressor but will overlook even simple tactics for his opponent. I think the problem has to do with not being adept at putting himself in his opponents shoes.

I decided to conduct an experiment with the help of's excellent tactics app for the iPhone/iPad. In addition to having a great selection of problems (not just mate in N, but also winning material) with this software you can flip the board to view the problem as if you had just blundered (I.e. If this was a candidate move the tactical refutation would be a reason to discard the candidate). Plus it has a score keeping mechansim that punishes incorrect guesses and gauges tactical strength. Interestingly i found that both Richie and I consistently score about 100 points lower on average just by flipping the board around. And just experientially it really feels harder to find the tactics (or tictacs as we took to calling them) when the board is "upside down."

So for developing players I highly recommend flipping the board once in awhile to improve your awareness of tactical danger which hopefully will translate into better move selection and fewer blunders in real games.
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