As the first twilight of the spring sun bore down through my window, I received an invitation from IM Greg Shahade to US Chess School’s online camp! I was delighted to start my summer chess season a few months early. I had just become the New York State MATHCOUNTS countdown champion, looking forward to the National competition and Junior Math Olympiad, when suddenly, COVID-19 came along and both events were cancelled. Down in the beautiful woods and blooming flowers of central park, gardens have been fenced off and converted into temporary hospitals. The birds, normally chirping with refreshed spring energy, were drowned out by rushing ambulances in the background. Being in New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19, I was excited to free my mind from the curfew by learning chess in the US Chess School.
The US Chess School’s remote instruction had many surprising features that were not prominent in physical lessons. We “saw” many people that we otherwise would have rarely seen in the local camps. It was as if this year’s US Chess School was a larger camp consisting of the regional camps in California, St. Louis, and New York! A big group meant that there would rarely be a position that stumps all 80+ campers. This position was the closest to accomplishing this feat:
Black to move
This position was from one of Dvoretsky’s books, and IM Greg Shahade assigned this on an intuition test during the first ever online US Chess School! Good job to Vincent Tsay for being the only one to get it correct.
It is shocking that a game between two strong grandmasters, in an equal position, would be over in as little as eight moves. The seemingly random 1….Bc2!! move surprised all but one of our campers. White wants to solidify by Rd1-d2, and by maneuvering the bishop to c2 and then to a4, black prevents this idea. A4 is also a much better square for the bishop because it halts white’s pawns, controls d1, and threatens to move to b5 at any moment.
The online US Chess School has also sparked the passion of coaches from all over the world to spread their love of chess through this platform. Quarantine and social distancing appears to have isolated us from one another, but the increased flexibility of the online school has expanded more than before. Almost every lesson so far has been taught by a different coach. The group of coaches includes IM Greg Shahade, GM Johan Hellsten, IM Alexander Ostrovskiy, IM Kostya Kavutskiy, GM Yaroslav Zerebukh, GM Jessie Karai, FM Aviv Friedman and more! GM Johan Hellsten gave his first lecture to us from Ecuador, a country almost three thousand miles away. It is no wonder that his lesson was titled flexibility, a theme that is present in even the simplest of endgames:
It turns out that no matter where White moves the king, black’s knight can always hop to a corresponding square to catch the pawn in a fork. However after white plays b6 he waits for black’s knight to pick a square, and after it does, his king can then choose a corresponding square to avoid a fork! For example, 1. Ka6 Nf4! (going to c5) 2. b6 Ne6 3. b7 Nc5+ and 1. Kc8 Ne3 (heading for d6 now) 2. b6 Nc4 3. b7 Nd6+ both draw while 1. b6!Ne3 2. Ka6! (the knight can’t get to c5 now) and 1. b6! Nf4 2. Kc8! (the knight can’t get to d6) both win for white.
IM Kostya Kavutskiy was my US Chess coach at the 2018 Pan-American Youth and it was great to see him again during his lecture on endgame decision making.
Among all the fun, I was shocked back to reality when news had come that Wesley Hellner, a good chess friend of mine from the Marshall Chess Club, and whom I had played the most over the board games with, had just passed away due to the COVID-19. I look back on my first time playing him as a seven-year old when he readily reviewed the game with me with love, passion, energy, and always a big smile on his face. Now, more than six years later, he still looks the same, and it almost seemed that he could play chess forever. He loved chess so much that if you went to the Marshall Chess Club at any time of the day, any day of the week, you were nearly guaranteed to see him there, playing or watching chess from the start of the first game to the end of the last game. Now that’s some true love! May he find more chess in heaven!
Wesley Hellner, sitting next to me during my game against IM Jay Bonin; quietly awaiting his game with FM Joshua Colas. (July 2017 at the Marshall Chess Club)
Anyone who loves chess will surely be happy when they solve this endgame study below. IM Alex Ostrovskiy left us with this puzzle as a homework exercise and don’t worry, the critical line is only 20 moves long.
White to move.
White has a narrow path to victory, but before you try to find it, take a rough guess at the evaluation of the position if the white a2 pawn were removed.
During some of the camp, I heard the daily 7pm applause in New York, dedicated to thank and cheer on the frontline workers, working day and night in high risk conditions, trying their utmost best to help the infected. They currently stand right in the most-virus contaminated hospitals, wearing minimal protection, and attending to new patients every minute of every day.
Article author, camper Davis Zong Jr.
Amidst all this however, I am still confident that chess players, and all people will continue to play and enjoy, if not thrive even more, because we have one thing that the virus doesn’t: love. US Chess School’s online program has disseminated to many more people than ever before, and by continuing to learn chess together, we will also continue to learn to love chess together even more. Even though COVID-19 seemed to pull the chess community apart, our resilience, our love towards the game and towards each other has allowed us to not only stay together, but also to strengthen our connection to chess and to each other. As I saw the world of black and white illuminate on the screen in front of me, I envisioned a vast playing hall all around me, and how we campers, after learning together for many months would one day meet on opposite ends of the boards as friends and opponents at the same time. Thank you so much to IM Greg Shahade, to all the coaches, to Dr. Jim Roberts, a long time supporter, and to Chessable, the sponsor to US Chess School, for making these online classes possible.