As Grade Nationals was ending (had ended, if you consider the trophy ceremony as the finishing point), I didn’t really have a “story” for my final report. I hadn’t been active in trying to interview the winners (I don’t have the impression that kids are enthusiastic about that sort of thing), and didn’t make any effort to seek out their parents, who are usually happy to answer questions. I had some nice pictures, and an idea of who to highlight from the winners circle, but it was hardly the making of a memorable report.
My story not only came to me, but rather, pulled me out of my room where I was relaxing on Sunday evening. Everything was done: the coaching, the games, the pictures, the chatting with the many chess friends that Grade Nationals draws together. I was reading a chess book and had no intention of going anywhere, when I saw a text from one of our parents, who wanted to get back the chess set he’d loaned me for the weekend. He was in the hotel lounge with my fellow GM School coaches Giorgi and Tamaz and our other chess parents and kids. Given that he’d done me a favor by loaning the set, I didn’t have much of a choice than to get up and bring it to him.
So there I went, “forced” to socialize. Just as I got there, the kids began to pack their sets as the lounge was closed to children after 9 PM. I chatted a bit, but I was more drawn to where the kids had went, directly across the hall to the Pepper Market dining area, to begin games of bughouse. It began as a group of five kids, three of them our students and Maximillian Lu (the winner of the fourth grade section) and his friend Jack. I formed a team with our chess playing parent Keith, the loaner of the set. Later on, Max teamed up with IS 318 seventh grader Justin Dalhouse, who had won the bughouse championship a few days earlier. These two were definitely a formidable team! Max showed me the surprisingly strong opening line: 1.e4 d5 2.e5 Nf6!? Not to be recommended in classical games, but for bughouse this definitely seemed like a sensible strategy. I did feel rather out-prepared in the opening 🙂
Anyway, I felt very happy in this scene, playing bughouse with the kids. One of the parents there was Max Lu’s dad, and I asked him some questions about Max for my article. I learned that Max is 10 years old, has played in three World Youths (Al Ain 2013, Durban 2014, Greece 2015), and that this wasn’t his first Nationals win- he had won the first grade in 2012. In September, Max, who is from Connecticut, reached 2200 and broke the record for youngest ever US master, which uschess.org reported on here. His dad explained that for close to a year, he had stalled in the 1950-2050 range, but starting from this spring, as his knowledge had accumulated and the blunders that had been holding him back became fewer in number, his progress took off. Take a look at one of Max’s key victories from Orlando:
Max was having a good time with the bughouse; bantering with me and the other players came naturally to him. He was competitive, but if his team happened to lose, didn’t make a fuss over it. And it was clear to me he wasn’t intimidated by playing a GM (well, maybe that’s because it was bughouse and as he informed me in a good- natured, stating the facts kind of way ,“no offense, but GM’s just aren’t good at bughouse.”). More often, I see kids groan when they have to face a stronger player, instead of being excited at the opportunity. I would say that, if you’re looking to make your way up in chess, it’s important to replace fear with confidence. I got the feeling that Max simply enjoyed playing and didn’t care who was sitting in front of him, and that is definitely the best approach to any game you go into.
Jonathan Chen (2nd grade) and Nico Chasin (3rd grade) both repeated as their grade champions! (Last year, Jonathan won first grade and Nico won 2nd). It is definitely not easy to repeat as champion, and it’s a testament to their year’s work that they were able to make the progress necessary to stay at the top. Jonathan did not out rate his competition by much (he was actually the second seed in his section) but he scored a very convincing 7/7. I only observed him play in the final round, when he sat by the stage; he is fierce at the board! At only 7.5 years old, he played the championship game projecting confidence and determination. The first thing he did when his opponent resigned is run to his (now ecstatic, previously nervous) father for a hug. This was a great moment and it’s too bad I didn’t capture it.
Jonathan lives in California, and last year he missed the trophy ceremony in order to make his flight home. This year his flight too was scheduled for Sunday evening, but his dad said that this time he didn’t want to deprive him of the chance to get his trophy at the prizegiving, even if that meant missing their flight. Jonathan stayed to get his trophy, and…they were the last ones to board!
Nico Chasin came into his section a big rating favorite (2038, while the second seed was around 1800). However, in the third round he drew against fellow New Yorker Sean Kaloudis from the Hunter School.
I had no idea who this child was, but after the trophy ceremony, a boy with his parents stopped to introduce themselves to me, and mentioned he had drawn a player rated “2038”. Well, I was familiar with this particular number, so it was not hard to figure out I was meeting the boy who’d found the …Bxe5 resource! Really a nice tactic to spot, especially for this level. (Although 1278 was his official November supplement rating used for Grade Nationals, after Orlando Sean’s rating is at a much higher 1461).
So Nico had to play catch-up after this draw. Winning all his games did not guarantee that he would ever see a direct match-up with the leader, Andrew Chen (1747) of North Carolina. Andrew took over the lead in the fifth round, and entered the final round as the only perfect score. But it turned out perfectly for Nico, as some players had given up draws along the way, and as the highest rated 5.5 pointer, he got paired up to Andrew for the final game and had a chance to decide his own fate. Playing Black, he took over the initiative after the opening and won without too much trouble.
Of course, after round three, it was hard to see the lost half point as a “blessing”, when it may very well have given up the Championship. But with hindsight, it certainly was, because it set up a most valuable experience: finding the resilience to keep going after a setback, then playing the final game knowing only one result will do, and managing to snatch victory back into your hands at the end. From my own experience, I can say that competitive character isn’t built on smooth victories 🙂
And I should mention that Andrew, despite losing one important game, gave a very good impression of his competitive abilities as well. There are certain things you should find in a chess player: concentration, confidence, etc, and Andrew showed those qualities, which bodes well for his future progress.
I was most familiar with the players in Nico’s section, as out of the four players on the top two boards in the final round, three were regulars of the GM School classes/camps that we run at the Marshall Chess Club! On the second board, James Oh from Speyer Legacy and Jack Levine, Nico’s teammate from PS 41, also had a chance for 6.5 points and a share of first place, but their game ended in a draw, landing them in a big tie for second place. Nico and Jack’s high scores, along with a great result from Aeneas Merchant who added 5 points despite an official rating of only 1200 (now over 1400) helped propel PS 41 to the title of 3rd grade national team champions. Nico and Jack are both students of my coach and partner in the GM Chess School, GM Giorgi Kacheishvili. Jack has made big jumps recently: from 1500 at the beginning of September to over 1800 today! Yes, really, a gain of 300+ points in three months. We are really proud of our students!
We went to the airport on Monday morning with one of our favorite families, the Nakadas (older brother Akira placed third in the 7th grade section, second grader Johji placed 9th). Dad Peter mentioned something that I, despite having talked to David Lu for quite some time the previous evening, had no idea about: that actually, the Lu’s had a flight back on Sunday evening, and that they were on the way to the airport when Max’s dad realized his son was “sad” about leaving the tournament, and turned back to the hotel so Max could play more chess with his friends. Naturally this involved changing flight reservations, missing work/school the next day, trying to book another night at the hotel. I was quite amazed to hear of such an action. Turn the car around so your son can play more chess!? It was truly baffling, unheard of. Who in the world puts their child’s playing bughouse ahead of the practical demands of life? I knew immediately that this was my “story”, so I got in touch with Max’s dad to learn the details.
Here is his response:
“lol, yes that’s correct. Let me give some background, it will probably be more than you want to know, and apologies for my long winded answer. First and foremost Max plays chess because he has a lot of fun doing it.
You asked me if he feels pressure and I think he does and doesn’t. I read your story from Sunday and you’re so right about it being “everything to lose” for top seeds and it’s as much or more a mental challenge than a ratings challenge. I think for Max in particular this was magnified due to making master recently. It’s not parental pressure but it’s just the pressure of the situation as you noted. So it’s important for kids to be able to deal with it as you can’t eliminate it. I think emphasizing the fun and beauty of chess over counters this and things will fall into place in the long run if you can just ignore what other people think and give yourself the freedom to lose. The idea of keeping chess fun factored into making the decision to turn back.
I think kids in chess are a self-selecting group that share similar outlooks, temperaments and maturity and they can quickly form a bond (something you’ve probably experienced as a young chess player). In the way the Amateur Team tournaments are reunions for adult chess players, Nationals are a reunion for kids from around the country. I tried to give Max enough time to have fun with his friends and we came early so he could play in the bughouse and blitz tournaments on Thursday and have some time to see friends from distant parts of the country.
Max had been playing football after the tournament with his frivals and was looking forward to bughouse, but the award ceremony went on a bit long and he only got in a few rounds of bughouse before we had to rush to leave. In the cab I looked over at Max and I saw that he looked really sad and I was surprised . I asked him if it was because he wanted to go to Disney and he said no. When I asked if it was because he didn’t have enough time playing blitz and bughouse with his friends afterward, he didn’t answer. When I originally booked the ticket I didn’t think I’d be able to stay until Monday having already missed two days of work and Max two days of school.
I realized though that it meant a lot to him and it is an important part of a scholastic tournament for him, and further it was sure to be a lot of fun so I decided I was going to try to juggle things to make it happen. I immediately emailed my wife and asked her to work on the plane reservations and I started checking to see if someone could cover for me at work. This actually made him more sad as he didn’t want me to miss work and spend more money. My wife was able to work magic with the plane tickets, changing the flight so that it only cost us a few more frequent flier miles and I made Max promise to not worry about anything and just have a good time so we turned around and headed back. The Nakadas generously offered to share their room with us if the hotel was full but I fortunately was able to get a room.
It was great that a bunch of kids were still there and it was awesome that you joined in the fun as well. The best part was that it was just an unplanned spontaneous group of people sharing a love of chess.”
I couldn’t help but be inspired reading this. Usually when a person does something you see as “good”, you can set it as an example, and other things that fall short of it are “less good”. Turning back to the hotel had a price, of time, of money, of convenience. All of those things are at a premium in most people’s lives. I share this story not with the idea that others should emulate it, but with amazement that it exists at all, that even one person had the worldview to consider and take such an action. It’s not “practical”, yet it has its logic. The logic is just deeper and with a view towards the long run, and it requires some sacrifices to see it through. In chess terms, I would compare it to the positional exchange sacrifice, the value of which was proved time and again by its champion Petrosian. This is one of my favorite themes in chess, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I find this story so splendid. How often after all do we have the conviction to part with material? 🙂
I’ve always thought that Fischer’s “Chess is life” quote pretty much hits the mark, and there are few life situations that you can’t create a chess analogy for. My coach tells all of his students that chess is “harmony, time, and space” (it’s even written on our GM School tee-shirts!), with harmony (coordination of the pieces) being most important. There are positions where one wins because of the harmony factor, even when one doesn’t have the turn to move and is down a lot of material (space). Here too we see a sacrifice of time and space (in real life terms this would be money) for an improvement of the third factor, harmony. It’s the mark of a good player who realizes which factor is the most important of the three and plays accordingly!