Monday, June 28, 2010

Castle Chess Camp, Atlanta GA

Richie attended the Castle Chess Camp in Atlanta, GA a couple weeks ago. This camp is probably one of the pre-eminent chess camps in the country, judging by the sheer number of titled instructors.

At this year's camp, GMs Var Akobian, John Fedorowicz, Greg Serper, Julio Becerra, IMs Anna Zatonskih, Daniel Ludwig, Carlos Perdoma, and FMs Kazim Gulamali, Mike Klein and Alex Dunne led the instruction. The approximately 120 campers were divided into ratings categories and each assigned a "home" instructor.

The schedule was intensive but most campers didn't seem to struggle much at all with the load. Each morning was kicked off with an unrated slow tournament styles game. During this game instructors would go from board to board, observing play and making notes on what to address with each young player during the reviews. Immediately after the game each playing pair would go off to have their game analyzed by one of the instructors. Following that there would be three lessons spread out over the day, broken up by meals and a free play period. The first lesson was given each day by the home instructor while the other lessons would have rotating instructors. At then end of the day there was an optional quick tournament or event which took a different form each day (blitz, bughouse, endgame blitz, simul). The week is capped off with a normal rated tournament which many of the campers stayed to participate in. Each camper receives a final review and given some advice on how to improve their game.

Before I go into my thoughts on the camp, I would have to say that one of the things I found most impressive had nothing to do with chess instruction per se, but with the organization of the camp. The team of organizers, led by camp director Jennifer Christianson, the well prepared instructors and volunteer counselors put together a truly praise-worthy camp experience. Any parent that is thinking of sending their child to Castle Chess can rest easy that their child will be in good hands for the week.

Considering Richie's young age, we decided to attend as observers. It seemed that most campers under the age of 9 or so were either local commuters or attending with a parent. I was able to observer first-hand most of the camp activities and came away appreciating some things that I might not otherwise had noticed.

I'll start with the obvious though: 6 to 9 hours of chess related activities every day for 7 straight days is bound have some positive impact on your chess, no matter what your skill level. For children, the impact is probably magnified, even. But the big open question is how does a camp experience, and specifically, how is does the Castle Chess Camp experience compare with other chess activities like playing tournaments or taking lessons with a coach, or even other less structured non-overnight camps? The answer is simple in a way: people (and kids especially), learn better when they're having fun. Fun and enthusiasm are sort of infectious in a way. I don't think it's possible for a kid with even a moderate degree of interest in chess to not get really excited about chess during a camp like this.

Oddly enough, the single biggest bonding experiences for the kids that I saw (since we didn't stay in the dorms) were meal times and bughouse sessions. These social activities proved to be great enablers for of the formation of friendships at the camp. The subject of bughouse probably deserves a separate post, but suffice it to say that I wouldn't take bughouse away from Richie even if it held him back years in development (which I don't think it does).

You never know what's going to trigger a child's fascination but I think for Richie, seeing IM Daniel Ludwig win a blindfolded speed chess game against one of his friends left an indelible impression of what strong players are capable of. Watching Kazim Gulamali, live up to his reputation as one of the strongest bughouse players in the world as he played at a lightning pace against all comers was also a unique display of human talent.

The sheer amount of chess energy at this camp is something I've never witnessed before (even national tournaments with thousands of players don't compare). Of course Richie had a blast, and already has asked to return. The impact on his chess isn't totally obvious but there's a notable uptick in his keenness to play. Just a few things he did which would almost have been out of character before camp: He couldn't wait to show off Anna Zatonskih's impossible mate in one puzzle to his sister. He specifically asked me to help him prepare for an opening he had trouble against which was also something novel. And after a couple of his tournament games he actually told me he thinks he can play better.

As part of his review I learned something about Richie's play that I had not noticed so much before. (He often overlooks piece mobility and he needs to work on breadth of calculation, not necessarily depth). Knowing what to focus on in the immediate future is in itself pretty valuable. At least until we have made some decisions on chess instruction, I'll have something to try and practice with him.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fairfield County Chess Camp

I sat in on the first day of Fairfield County Chess Camp taught by NM Dan Lowinger. This camp is clearly just getting off the ground this year so some allowances need to be made, but overall I'm pleased with what I saw for reasons I'll briefly outline.

For balance, however, I'll start out with two minor criticisms. The venue (Just Dance Studios in Norwalk) leaves a lot to be desired compared to other locations I've seen chess classes held (typically schools or public community centers). It's a bit of a run-down building with a warehouse look and the room used for the lessons was an interior room with no natural light. It certainly made me appreciate places like the Norwalk Community College, and the Greenwich Civic Center where Richie has also attended clubs.

The second criticism is probably just a result of being new but there only five students had signed up (and on some days even fewer). I personally don't mind the small classes because it makes for more individualized experience but I think for the kids more is better.

Despite these criticisms, I am pleased with the camp. Based on what I saw, I think Dan is a talented instructor. He came well prepared with a planned curriculum and clear goals in mind for what he wanted the students to get out of each lesson and the week as a whole. On the day I was there he reviewed four games by Greco in the King's Gambit. Dan's approach is sort of standard game review approach where he uses a Socratic method where he uses an example game to pose questions about the position at hand. He's diligent about making sure all the students are participating, and basically polls the students for an answer and then reveals the winning tactic or strong move. Over the course of the four games it became clear that in the first lesson he was striving to convey a couple of key related themes that allowed the hero to win: each game was a clear example of early, purposeful development with tempo, immediate central control, and converting the position to a win through a tactical breakthrough. In some ways this is was really basic stuff that any 1000 rated player should have a firm grip on, but it never hurts to review the basics.

At one point in the lesson, he asked for each person to evaluate a position by giving a numerical rating from 0 to 10 with 10 being completely won for white. I found it interesting that to me the position looked completely won, but Richie only assigned a rating of 7. In the position in question white was just 2 or 3 moves from a decisive material advantage due to threats on both sides of the board, impending breakthrough to an uncastled king through the center, and no immediate counter threat from black. I'm pretty sure if he had said 'white to move and win' Richie would have found one of any number of winning continuations, but posed as an open ended question without any hint that white was on the brink of victory left the students unsure of themselves (answers ranged from 6 to 9).

In a way it's sort of surprising that he's sometimes able to play as well as I can when his "evaluation function" is so fuzzy. I've always been a little curious what he thinks during his games that he loses when he's been in a winning position. I'm not sure if he realizes the extent of his advantage.

Anyway, I really like the fact that there's an overarching theme to the lessons which hopefully provides a context that allows the students to really internalize the material being presented.

Of course, aside from my thoughts on the quality of instruction, Dan scores highly in my book for the simple reason that everyday I ask Richie if he had fun at chess camp and get a cheerful affirmative. I was even told by my wife that she saw Richie moving around pieces on a board by himself at home (apparently trying to figure something out after camp) which is actually something he rarely does, as surprising as that may be.
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