US Chess School in San Fran: Sam Takes the Chocolate

Back row: (left to right): Vyom Vidyarthi, Derek Wu, Rochelle Wu, Nastassja Matus, Adrian Kondakov, Robert Shlyakhtenko (for some reason I’m smiling), Eric Li; Front row: Ronen Wilson, Rui Yang Yan, Shawnak Shivakumar, Kevin Pan, Sriram Krishnakumar.

I was honored to be a participant in the 46th US Chess School. Held in San Francisco from August 7-10, this was an invitational 12-player camp with ratings ranging from 1950 through 2300, and was organized by IM Greg Shahade. The camp itself was located at the historic Mechanics Institute, which was founded 154 years ago. Rumor has it that my hotel was last painted at around that time.

The 95-step winding staircase at the Mechanics Institute. Yes, I counted.

This year’s camp had an additional surprise: It was taught by the reigning U.S. Champion, GM Sam Shankland. For those who have spent the last few months under a rock, Sam recently won three super-tournaments in a row, went more than 60 games undefeated, entered the Top 30 in the world, and raised his rating to an all-time high of 2727 FIDE. He’s now in Batumi to defend the United States gold medal performance. 

What follows from here is a day-to day account of the camp.

Day 1:
Almost every day started the same way. Sam would give us about 45 minutes to find the best continuation in six positions. Most of the time the positions were complicated middlegames where one would have to calculate some forced variation, but there were always a couple of endgame positions as well. The test was extremely difficult; Sam shared with us that even he incorrectly solved one position. I didn’t do so well on the first day and scored 2.5/6.

An amazing sight: Kids paying attention.

After that Sam set up an endgame position for us to discuss in groups. When we believed we had found the right idea (either to draw with white or to win with black), we had to choose a color and play against him.

My game was rather eventful. Playing as the pawn-up side, I found the right moves up to a point but got very low on time (it was a 3 minute game). I made a few terrible moves and the game slipped into a draw, at which point I blundered and let his pawn reach the promotion square (yes, I lost. Don’t laugh).

Sam Shankland’s Greatest Quotes, #1:

You know, I’m very impressed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much nonsense in ten seconds” — upon hearing me discuss the endgame position with someone.

After lunch we played a clock simul against Sam. He only acquiesced two draws, to Shawnak Shivakumar and your author.

Shawnak’s game was even much better at some point. My game was far more modest:

The simul in progress.

Also deserving mention was Derek Wu, who achieved a close-to-winning position but decided to “do a Robert” and lose it: thinking that he would queen one of his pawns, he sacrificed a rook only to realize that the pawn could be stopped.

Day 2
On this day we found at that my hotel’s food was older than the paint on the walls, and about as tasty.

Sam gave us six positions to solve again, except with a little bit more time. One puzzle was especially tough: Once you see the move, it looks incredibly simple, but there are so many tempting continuations that no one in the camp found the move:

We had an endgame challenge again, which I believe everyone failed, though a few people were very close.

Eric Li, Rui Yang Yan, and Adrian Kondakov attempt the endgame challenge while I pretend to concentrate in the background.

In the afternoon Greg took us to a chocolate store nearby; Everyone got free samples and Greg bought a box of chocolates for the winner of the blitz tournament. As any of the cashiers would tell you, there is nothing more frightening than having twelve kids walk into your store all at once; when leaving, I heard one of them sigh: “Oh my Lord…”

Once we got back to the camp, Sam showed us a series of positions entitled “Beat Sam”, in which his opponents were either winning or at least had a serious advantage, but missed the correct continuation and failed to convert. My favorite was the following one:

Sam Shankland’s Great Quotes, #2:

See, if this knucklehead can solve it, you can too.  — after I solved the puzzle. Sure enough, four other people soon joined the Knucklehead Club.

Day 3:
Sam announced that this day’s morning test would be much harder than the previous ones, so we got an additional 15 minutes. Surprisingly, I finished with 3.5/6, a higher score than on either of the two previous days. This might have been because of the scoring system: If you found the first move correctly, you would get half a point, and on a few of the puzzles the first move was not so difficult to find.

Probably my favorite position was the following:

Sam Shankland’s Greatest Quotes, #3:

Bouncy Bouncy Bouncy! — whenever someone got bounced i.e. gave an incorrect solution.

In the afternoon we visited HeyZap, a video game advertising company. Some kids played basketball, others ping pong, still more played blindfold/time odds games versus the center’s employees, while a few simply watched TV.

 

Then it was time for the blitz tournament (I suggested a 1 second with 1 second increment tournament, but Greg thought that the potential medical costs would be far too high for such an endeavor). Instead of the traditional knockout format, we did a “ladder tournament”. Basically, the rules are as follows:

There are 6 boards. Every time you win, you move up a board; every time you lose, you move down a board (in case of a draw the black player stays). If you win on board 6, you get 1 point; if you win on board 5, you get 2 points, if you win on board 4, you get 3 points, and so on.

Some people complained that they had to play the same opponents over and over again. Personally, I much preferred this format over the knockout. In a knockout tournament, a single loss puts you out of the tournament; in a ladder format you at least get to play every round.

After a slow start, Rochelle Wu soon took the lead, with me and Derek Wu not far behind. However, in the middle of tournament she fell back, and suddenly Vyom Vidyarthi catapulted to the lead after winning several games in a row.
Some amazing luck gave me the top spot going into the final round: In one game I was down a knight and two pawns (in an endgame with limited material, no less!) and yet managed to win the game.

Standings going into the final round were as follows: I led with 28 points, with Vyom a close second with 26 points. Derek Wu was next behind but out of contention with 20 points.

Vyom was white against me and needed a win to take the tournament (and thus the box of chocolates), and he almost achieved it. After a bad mistake in the opening my pawn structure was irreparably ruined, but somehow I found counterplay and kept the game going. Eventually both sides got into huge time pressure; my opponent made a mistake and I converted an ending of R + 2P vs. R.

Thus Vyom placed second and I, rather fortunately, took the box of chocolates.

Day 4
Instead of a test, we started with a training game on the theme of active defense. Nobody found the correct continuation, and nor did white in the game:

After lunch we had a Q&A session with Sam. He talked a lot about the importance of physical exercise and proper nutrition for chessplayers, but luckily my mother wasn’t within earshot.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to exploiting Sam. First he was forced to simul three players at once at a fairly short time control (3|2), causing him to lose several won positions on time.

Then each person played a game vs. Sam at a bullet time control for yet another bag of chocolates (predictably, everyone lost). Sam gave the chocolates to his mother for her 60th birthday, which was celebrated that day.

More videos from the camp are posted on Greg Shahade’s youtube channel.

Kevin Pan, Rochelle Wu, Shawnak Shivakumar, and Sriram Krishnakumar all beat Sam in the blitz simul and were thus awarded his new book, Small Steps to Giant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess (available on US Chess Sales).

A group photo was taken and suddenly I realized that the camp was at an end; thus ended one of my best chess-related experiences ever.

As a final quiz, here are several studies I saw at the camp:

Study 1: 

White to Move

The main theme of Sam’s book is that any pawn move is permanent and thus should be made after great deliberation. I was reminded of this when I saw the following study in S.Tkachenko’s book, One King Saves the Day:

Many thanks to Greg Shahade for organizing, Sam Shankland for teaching, and to generous donor Dr. Jim Roberts for making these camps possible. It was amazing.

Find out more about the US Chess School here, and see articles on other USCS summer camps by Priya Trakru, David Zong Jr. and Ricky Wang. Buy US Champion Sam Shankland’s book here. 

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