Five Lessons From Scholastic Championships

Devi Sethu
Image Caption
Two of our scholastic annotators in action: Deviprasath (L) against Sethuraman (photo Caroline King)


While this author categorically rejects the premise that there can be such a thing as "too much chess," there certainly has been a lot of chess this spring. Between the 2023 FIDE World Chess Championship, the American Cup, and countless entertaining online events, it could be easy to overlook the three national scholastic championships held over the past two months.

Well, maybe the thousands of participants and their families did not find these events easy to overlook. But perhaps some of Chess Life Online's round-by-round annotations still slipped through the cracks.

So, as scholastic season comes to a close, we wanted to highlight some recurring themes that came up during our coverage of these events. Most of these games were annotated by FM-turned-IM Sandeep Sethuraman, with some others annotated by the K-12 Co-Champions. It is especially interesting to see what lessons these young, talented players were able to draw from games played by their peers. 


1. Tread lightly, trade carefully

The most frequent theme from all of the annotations is unsurprising: be very careful when you trade. Pieces that go off the board very rarely come back, and there are a number of reasons why a trade might be ill-advised (or necessary). 

For starters, here's one of my favorite positions from any of the games. White offers a pawn, and Black ascertains that capturing it with 21. ... Rxe5 will lead to the parting of material. However, as Sethuraman pointed out here, calculation is not the end of the story. We must also evaluate the resulting imbalances!



From the same event, here's another messy position. After 29. Bf5, White looked at one line that ended with Black's d8-rook hanging. But he failed to consider all the possible captures. More importantly, note Sethuraman's point that after the simple 29. Be4, White is up a pawn with lasting pressure. In other words, why was White looking for trades and tactics?  



Another illustration of the same general theme came from a decisive game in the K-12 Under 1900 section. Here, Black is under attack and follows the old adage that the defending side wants to trade pieces. But after exchanging knights, Black's king becomes even more exposed. But, as is often the case in sharp openings, this was only the beginning of an intense battle.



Finally, here's a reminder that sometimes questions about trading are purely evaluation. White's fantastic decision here was not enough to stave off an upset, but was indicative of Tao's playing strength. Simply put, the outside passed pawn will matter more without rooks. No calculation required!



2. Even long-range pieces need room to move

Eventual K-12 co-champ IM Jason Wang (an FM at the time of his victory) had a few come-from-behind moments throughout the event. FM Sharvesh Deviprasath had some fun annotating Wang's games (and vice versa), and one moment in particular stood out.



The key idea here is that long-range pieces are only as mobile as the pawn structure allows them to be. In other words, is that rook on b2 developed? Well, if Black can attack on f2, then yes. But if the rook is needed around its own king, then no, due to the way the board is 'cut' by the center pawns.

Below are a few more examples of 'mobility' in action, starting with an analysis position:



One of the coolest "magic tricks" in chess is developing a piece without touching it. Of course, it usually takes some help from the opponent. Here, a "hook" on h6 allows White to bring the h1-rook into the game.



3. Respect the bishops

Putting aside my personal reaction for what it felt like reading a 16-year-old contrasting his own style of play with "younger players," Sethuraman had a very interesting point here that many players were questioning the established dominance of the bishop pair. Read more below.




When it comes down to it, though, the better bishop has the better winning chances in the endgame. For instance:



4. Pawns can't go backwards

If you move a piece to the wrong square, you'll hopefully be able to correct that mistake later. But if you commit to a pawn structure, there's no going back. 

This is a really interesting example, where Black attempted to return an unfamiliar position into something resembling a more traditional King's Indian Defense. But look at how this permanently altered the dynamics of the position.



Speaking of King's Indians, let's remember that you can't get squares without giving them up. There's no guarantee that the ones you get will be better, either.



A wise man once said, "never play ... f6." This was a very unusual way for that move to be exploited, however.



5. Always play Nf5

The same wise man has been known to say this, but really it's remarkable how many cool tactics hinged on getting the pony to its dream square. Enjoy!





Check out all coverage of our 2023 Spring scholastic championships here.