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Monday, August 17, 2009

Who Would Have Thought?

Over at my Chess Examiner site, I've been writing about the U.S. Chess School that just concluded in St. Louis.

A sudden controversy erupted over an article I wrote, to which Elizabeth Vicary took exception. She wrote an angry blog post, to which I felt obligated to respond.

I can accept some of Elizabeth's arguments (at least her comments show thoughtful analysis), but some of her cult following clearly have too much time on their hands.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Being a Female Chess Player

On day 2 of the U.S. Chess School in St. Louis, Elizabeth Vicary began the discussion, addressing issues of being a female chessplayer in this strongly male-dominated activity. She described the "weirdness" of being one of only a few women, or perhaps the only woman, at a chess tournament.

"People treat you strangely because you're the only female," she said. "This can have an effect on how a person develops as a chess player. There's a feeling of being watched, and wondering if people are thinking, 'she must not be very strong.'"

Vicary asked if the girls felt as if people were paying special attention to them at tournaments. Some agreed, others weren't aware of this occurring. One girl specifically said that she avoids large tournaments because she feels more pressure of being observed; smaller tournaments are less of a problem in this respect.

Another girl noted with consternation that often a low-rated player will be watching, and offer suggestions after the game. "The little girl must be stupid," she assumes the observer is thinking. "I don't think this would happen if I was a guy," she said.

Vicary has had similar experiences, and noted that perhaps a grandmaster or international master might be able to quickly glance at a game that she has spent hours poring over, and offer useful comments. But anyone less than an IM, she thought, even a regular master, would be unable to do so.

At this point, Gregory Kaidanov pointed out that in many cases it may just be a matter of a boy wanting to talk to the girl, and not knowing what else to say. "What else is he going to talk about?" Kaidanov asked.

Nevertheless, one girl said, "If it's condescending, it's annoying when they're trying to tell you what you should have done."


Lessons From a Chess Grandmaster, Part 2

More of grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov's instruction at the U.S. Chess School:

For the initial part of the camp, all students were scheduled to play a rated game with another student. Kaidanov asked that for this game, each player have in mind one specific aspect to concentrate on, and that this be written down, but kept private. It will be shared with Greg Shahade, but not other students. This one aspect can be anything of the student's choosing, or can be one of several that Kaidanov offered:

1) Ask every move, "what is my opponent's next move?"
2) Calculate as many candidate moves as possible.
3) Calculate as deep as possible.
4) Don't fall behind my opponent on time, too much.
5) Fight hard and maintain concentration regardless of the position on the board, whether winning or lost.
6) Constantly keep track of my and my opponent's good and bad pieces; make sure that I have every piece "in the game"; be aware of which pieces to keep and which to trade.
7) Be careful about every trade and make sure that every trade is either forced or is good for me.

Elizabeth Vicary asked if more than one such goal could be written down and stressed for this game. "The answer is no," Kaidanov said, "and I'll tell you the reason. It is very difficult to really concentrate on more than one of these at a time."

The key, though, is not to pick a subject area that you are good at! "Pick something that you are not so good at," Kaidanov said.

He also mentioned the importance of maintaining a chess journal of some sort - a notebook or Word file. Not just a record of games, but a record of all chess activity, including your thoughts during games. He advises writing down the date and even the time, noting what you did. For example, you might say, "I worked on solving puzzles, and I solved this one but not that one". Or "I went over this Anand game, and I especially liked this move." Or, "I have no clue why this move was played." Or "Spent three hours on chess, but concentration was very bad."

The result, Kaidanov explained, is that "If you keep this diary, you will know how hard you study, exactly what you know. Your parents will know, your coach will know; it's a wonderful tool. Using something like ChessBase, diagrams can be put into a Word file to help you remember a specific game."

He then brought up a sometimes-difficult-to-understand concept. "Many people have this false impression that chess improvement comes after learning a lot of stuff, that improvement will come in the knowledge area. This is a misconception."

Kaidanov compares the situation to a doctor or lawyer, who must accumulate a huge knowledge base. For example, a doctor needs to know that with a given set of symptoms, the illness is such and such. And for a different set of symptoms, the illness is something else. "With chess, this is completely different," he stressed. "Knowledge doesn't hurt. But even if you memorize every opening book, you will not become much stronger. The same with endgames. I'm not sure your rating will go up big time."

"Improvement will come in different areas. The biggest improvement will come if you will study your own games and know your own weaknesses. Combine some kind of study at home, with focus on certain things during your tournament games. This will take pressure off the result." He doesn't want the player to be focusing on winning a specific game, winning a title, winning money, etc. "Most of us do not handle pressure well, when there is a lot at stake." So to take pressure off, he stresses thinking about other things, such as one of the seven focus points mentioned above. Again, this might be concentrating on asking yourself what your opponent's next move is likely to be, or one of the other points Kaidanov suggested.

"The same mistake could be made for different reasons," he said. "Unless you find out the reason why you made this mistake, you won't be able to improve on it. You're going to make the same mistakes again and again." The whole idea of getting better is to eliminate the mistakes you make.

By maintaining a well-written chess journal containing your thoughts during a game, monitoring time use (Kaidanov also advises recording the clock time for each of your moves), and focusing on just one specific area at a time, a player can not only identify his or her weak spots, but work to eliminate them.


Lessons From a Chess Grandmaster, Part 1

The 10th session of the U.S. Chess School, founded by international master Greg Shahade, begin in an interesting manner. Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov is the primary instructor, with Shahade and WFM Elizabeth Vicary assisting, and Vicary took the floor first. Eight players, all girls (ages 12-19), were encouraged to relate three "facts" about themselves, two true and one false. The other girls were to try to guess in each case which statements were true and which were not.

Some interesting "facts" came out - "I'm a second-degree black belt," "I was bit on the foot by another person," "I'm half-Russian." But it wasn't always easy to identify truth from fiction - the kids told good stories.

Even Gregory Kaidanov got in the act. His three statements:
1) "I was once thrown in jail for a day for protesting the Communist government in Russia."
2) "I once played a chess game in which I sacrificed, in order, a pawn, a minor piece, a rook and a queen."
3) "I once flew to England just to attend a rock concert, then flew back home."

Which of these do you think are true, and which is a fabrication?

Next, Kaidanov got up to speak, and kept the players at rapt attention. He utilized a variety of both true and fictitious stories to get across his message and was quite effective. You need to listen carefully or you might miss his story about floating aliens learning to walk.

He stressed that a player can play chess without any serious study, but will eventually reach a ceiling, at which time his improvement stops. To move forward, hard effort is required. Even memorization of reams of opening material or endgame positions will not likely yield a significant rating increase, he said.

Instead, he stressed, what is required is to identify your weaknesses, and go to work on those specific areas. That is why some players might spend a large amount of time working on chess, but have little to show for it. "They're not working on what they're supposed to be working on," Kaidanov explained.

So analyzing one's own games, and focusing on your own weaknesses, is the path to improvement. And he commented that it is important to write down your thoughts about the game afterwards. He also stressed the importance of "talking to yourself" during a game, for example, "She just moved there to avoid the threat I had created," etc.

Sometimes, psychological factors may play as big a part as perpetual time trouble or calculation errors. Kaidanov presented a case of a young player who was advancing rapidly, but started playing poorly when his rating reached 2180. His problem? He was so fixated on breaking the 2200 level, as several of his friends had done, that he lost the concentration and focus that had brought him to the brink of being a master. Kaidanov told him that he will not be much different as a 2200 player than he is as a 2180 player, but to the young man, it was a massive, almost insurmountable, difference.

Kaidanov noted that his presentations during this chess camp are meant to be discussions, not lectures. He encouraged as much participation as possible, and commented that what students will learn from the camp is commensurate with how involved they are in these discussions.

Oh, and those "facts" from Kaidanov? Some in the audience guessed he had not actually ever sacrificed pawn, minor piece, rook and queen, in that order. Others guessed that he would not have actually flown to England just for a concert. But all agreed that it sounded "too normal" that he might have spent a day in a Russian prison for protesting the communist government. In fact, that was his false statement!


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

U.S. Chess School Begins in St. Louis!

It was an incredible first day at chess camp - more info to follow, but here are some pictures from Day 1! Participants include:

Abby Marshall
Darrian Robinson
Amanda Mateer
Sarah Chiang
Megan Lee
Eve Litvak
Rochelle Ballantyne
Linda Diaz


Monday, August 10, 2009

Eric Rosen Has a Fantastic U.S. Open

Eric Rosen; photo: Betsy Dynako

What a U.S. Open Eric Rosen had! First he drew with grandmaster Jesse Kraai, then defeated 2008 U.S. Junior Champion Tyler Hughes. To top it all off, he finished the tournament with a stunning 16-move victory over GM John Fedorowicz.

Read more at my Chess Examiner site.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Abby wins!

Abby Marshall; photo: Elizabeth Vicary

It took 97 moves, and Abby reports that she barely had any time on her clock for the final hour (this is the benefit of the increment/delay time clock) but she was able to hold a draw in a difficult situation. She finished with a score of 5.5/6 to top the field and become the first female to win the Denker Tournament of High School Champions.

Congratulations, Abby! And not bad work by the rest of the field, either! There were a lot of good, hard-fought games.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Female Phenom Leads the Way

Abby Marshall; photo: Elizabeth Vicary

Abby Marshall, one of the very few female players in the Denker Tournament of High School Champions, has had a tremendous tournament, going five-for-five so far. One round remains on Tuesday, where she plays Michael Yang, just a half-point behind.

You can read a bit more over at my chess site.


Denker Tournament Heating Up

The annual Denker Tournament of High School Champions is heating up, with two perfect scores after three rounds. Both Patrick Tae and Abby Marshall head the field of 48 players with their 3/3 scores.

The tournament crosstable is available here, and you can read more at my Examiner chess site.


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