Q&A with Coach Heisman Jan 18, 2013

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Tonight's show was a lively one and I think one of the best. It's always fun when I get to do a little story-telling to enhance an answer. Moreover, the good questions from the audience led to an interesting show - when it was over I was quite satisfied that it had been entertaining.

The viewers did get a little prodding from me not to ask too open-ended questions like "I'm 1300; how do I get to be 1500?" - this led me to suggest that, for these questioners, a prerequisite for the show could be to read My Top Tips for Chess Improvement, which was beaten out by another of my columns, Don't Know What to Do? for "Best Instruction" for 2012 by the Chess Journalists of America.

A player related a story where he visited a chess club and two players alleged offered him a scam where he would play someone for money and they would relay the moves to him and then split the winnings, a "can't miss" proposition. He wondered if that happened often. As a former organizer and TD, I did not think it did, but there's no doubt of occasional cheating. In New York a few years ago NM Jon Jacobs hosted a big seminar on what steps to take about detecting and preventing computer cheating at big money tournaments. My son Delen was playing in a big money tournament and, while he was out of the room, his opponent moved a knight two squares diagonally (This was a fairly strong section, I believe U1800; this coupled with the fact that he "happened" to do it while Delen was out of the room adds up to purposeful cheating). In any case Delen came back and, without blinking an eye, won the game. Afterwards I brought up the fact that his opponent had made an illegal move. Del's answer: "Yeah, I know, but it did not help him that much and I was still winning, so I just won the game!Wink" [Saturday morning addition to last night's posting].

We also got the "trolling" question (I paraphrase since I can't remember it exactly): "What gives you the right to talk about GMs when your highest titled student is an FM?" Sometimes I think I should pay them to ask these leading questions Smile - I would like to give the questioner the benefit of the doubt that this type of question is not being asked to be malicious. My first reaction was "Anyone can talk about GMs - you can too!"

Because I started so late in serious chess (age 16), I've had quite a few students become stronger than I was and, possibly not coincidentally, they all started tournament play at a younger age than I did. Let's consider my first strong student, Dan Benjamin, as an example. Dan was born within a year of Josh Waitzkin but, unlike Josh, started playing seriously only at age 11 when Dan achieved a rating about 1400. At 12 Dan was 1700 and then at 13, with the additional help of IM Bruce Rind, shot up to 2300, joining Josh as the only two US-born masters of that age (at that time). I think Dan only played seriously for about one more year although he did play sporadically after that. Today Dan is a well respected Economics Professor at Cornell. Now from my chess teaching career perspective, it may seem that I could avoid those trolling questions if instead Dan had become a GM (I think he could have, but we'll never know). If he had, that would "good" for me, but I have to admit that I am awfully proud of Dan. If all my students got their PhD from Harvard and taught in the Ivy League, I don't think that would make me a failure as a coach - and most parents, at least in the US, might be happier with that career than if their son became a GM... That parental expectation definitely has an effect, and it's usually helpful for their children, if not for my chess teaching resume.

As many readers know, most of my students are adults, but occasionally I get a talented youngster. I don't get asked to work with the US Youth teams, so all of my students are either local or hand-pick me through the internet, as 2012-13 US K-12 Sixth Grade Champion Marcell Szabo (and father) did. Matt Traldi became the US Co-Cadet (U16) champion and Dan Yeager possibly did Matt one better by sweeping the US High School Championship 7-0 and getting a cherry on top by winning the Denker that year, too. Currently Dan Y is trying to become a professional poker player. Unlike Dan B, Matt, and Dan Y, I only worked with Will Fisher a short time after he was already a strong 1800+ player. But in the next year he quickly rose to 2300+ and is now hanging over 2400 after a very strong showing in the World Youth U18 this year. I don't see Will much since he moved to New York, but I still follow his ongoing career closely.

Like any coach, I can't take massive credit for these players great strides. Like any individuals who improve that much, they do the work. We'll never be able to measure my effect on them - maybe I helped greatly (they do give me some credit) - or maybe I held them backSmile. I have estimated my first 700 students gained, very roughly, about 100,000 rating points (about 140 points per person) during the time I was teaching them. That includes youngsters who gain 1000 points by themselves and short-term students who may have gained or lost a little in that short period. And yes, as someone gleefully pointed out in the Comments to In Defense of Chess Instruction, some of my adult students, even the ones who were kind enough to act as references, actually lost more than a few rating points after I stopped giving them lessons. Was that because they lost the "boost" of my lessons? Stopped taking chess so seriously? Got older? It could be a combination of these and other factors, but adult players do generally get weaker (and older!) if they are no longer studying...

One final note: If someone doesn't think my advice is very helpful, why read my blogs? Why listen to my show? Seems like a big waste of time if they don't think I can help them. I guess we could reason that they want to ask this type of question on the show so they can "save" the other listeners from my "bad" advice - I'll let my other viewers decide if this is their altruistic basis, and whether my advice is for them helpful or not. There's lots of other good advice on so there's plenty to go around. I just try to be helpful Smile.

I got asked a few personal questions. One was "What was my best and worse game?". I showed the viewers a position where FM Mike Shahade, father of IM Greg and two-time US Woman's Champion Jennifer, pinned my queen to my king in the opening. Ouch! No, that wasn't my best game. From a purely "computer analysis" point of view, my best game was one in 1999 against NM Richard Pariseau that I annotated in the Appendix of Elements of Positional Evaluation. Rich was no longer a super strong player, although he was younger than I am now when we played this game! But the computer thought my tough decisions were all reasonable (at least until I had a completely won game). Here is the game, with a couple possible side variations:

Another question was "Why do you like the English and Sicilian so much?" I did not know I "liked" any openings that much; I save my likes for people, food, movies, and pets Smile. But I have played the English quite a bit as I got older because I could put my arms around it and did not have to keep up with a lot of complicated theory. Not that I really like it better than my original pick of 1.e4. And I think most GMs, even if they don't play it, "like" the Sicilian quite a bit since it a counterattacking, unbalanced, opening that gives them winning chances against 1.e4. I have played many variations of the Sicilian in my career: O'Kelly, Dragon, Najdorf, Scheveningen, Accelerated Dragon, Lowenthal, Qb6, and Sicilian Four Knights! I think I even played a Classical Sicilian once against NM Harvey Bradlow in the Gr Phila Invitational Championship, and probably transposed into a Sveshnikov from a Sicilian Four Knights once or twice (by accident). That's way more than half of the popular Open Sicilians!

Another question was "What separates classical from modern chess?" I interpreted that one as being about the Hypermodern revolution, which happened around the time of World War I. One of its key aspects was the Hypermoderns, led by Aron Nimzovich, Richard Reti, and Julius Breyer, accented central control rather than central occupation. See my earlier blogs on Classical and Hypermodern. Not too many remember Julius Breyer, who died young in World War I, but his popular variation of the Closed Ruy Lopez was the rage in the late 1960's, and recently I saw a game or two where a guy named Magnus Carlsen took up that defense. I highlighted this interesting variation, and in particular 9...Nb8, when discussing what was and wasn't "development" in Elements of Positional Evaluation. The tabiya (standard opening moves for this line) are:

Someone asked me about chess engines. It is easy to Google various rating lists. The one I quickly found was the CCRL 40/40 list, which listed Houdini 3.0 at about 3250.

Another question was the difference between zugzwang and zwischenzug (If you have not guess, "zug" is the German word for "move"). Here are the two definitions from my website's Definition page:

  • Zugzwang           When one side has to move, but any move is bad. Note: Some contend it is not true zugzwang unless the opponent could not win without this compulsion (in other words, if the player to move could pass but your opponent can still win then, although any move is bad, it is not a true zugzwang).
  • zwischenzug      An in-between move.  For example, after a capture, instead of re-capturing, you give a check first. Sometimes called an "intermezzo". Until you are a strong player, zwischenzugs are very dangerous and the source of many blunders. On the show I gave an example of a "bad" zwischenzug:
Hope you enjoyed the show. Shows for "all members" are always available for replay on demand: go to "More| TV|Videos" (on the right next to "Chat") and pick out the show for the date you want. Cya next time!

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