12 Questions for America's most Influential Chess Mentor
Michael Aigner in Venice, Italy.

12 Questions for America's most Influential Chess Mentor

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I'm delighted to have the opportunity to interview my dear friend and great chess mentor, Michael Aigner. Through his support I went from a 1900-2000 to a solid master and above rating. On Chess.com he is @fpawn.


National Life Master Michael Aigner is a successful chess coach for aspiring youth and has mentored many youngsters to the GM title. These include strong GMs, Zierk, Naroditsky and Shankland. His peak FIDE rating was just short of the FIDE master title: 2298. A redoubtable player, he has had unpredictable results by employing his aggressive Dutch Defense and occasionally Birds Opening. His sparkling brand of chess crushed many GMs (among them his students!) Blatny, Yermolinsky, Akobian, and Naroditsky. Despite his prowess in the opening, he can be a very solid player and endgame grinder. He wisely focuses on game analysis and endgame study with his students which certainly plays a pivotal role in the long term success of so many of his dedicated pupils. He is also extremely well educated and has a masters degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University (this is the hardest university to get into in the nation, 4.3% acceptance rate). He has won the Sacramento Championship many times and competed in the 2007 US championship. A deep, patient researcher, as of May 2020 he sports a 2233 Daily chess rating which places him near the top 50 US correspondence players on Chess.com.
Aigner with Shankland.

Aigner has blogged on his website for over a decade, the archive is excellent if you're interested in Bay Area chess news. The link to his website is https://fpawn.blogspot.com/ . Here's another memorable Aigner moment below.
Michael Aigner "fpawn" takes on blitz demon Walter Brown at the Mechanics Institute in Northern California. Michael employed the Caro-Kann defense. Walter Browne was a top player in the 1980's and died in 2015.
Michael also is a strong blitz player, especially in his early years! I've witnessed him achieve second place in a Reno tournament a few years ago with a ton of quick youngsters. On chess.com he has a highly respectable rating range of 2250-2400 on blitz.
Interesting fact: Aigner has crushed Eric Schiller, a renowned opening specialist, twice with the Dutch defense.  Here are the beautiful games.
and also
Win like Aigner!

Interview
Q1: How did you improve as a player to reach the NM title?
"To make a long story short, I became a master by competing frequently at both chess clubs and weekend
tournaments. My home club has always been the Sacramento Chess Club, but over the years, I also
sharpened my skills at Davis, Stanford, Burlingame and the historic Mechanics Institute in San Francisco.
Instead of studying many books or taking formal lessons, I picked up bits of advice while crossing swords
with strong opponents. For example, one friend, just an 1800 player himself, presented me with weekly
compositions that trained my calculation skill. As far as actual studying went, I did occasionally prepare
for specific openings, primarily by referencing Modern Chess Openings (MCO).

Admittedly, my approach was sometimes demoralizing. I can personally attest that a chess master loses
more games than an amateur. While rated about 1500, I joined a group of adult enthusiasts to play over-
the-board blitz in Sacramento or Davis at least one evening of every week. These opponents, mostly
rated 1800 to 2100, showed me no mercy, but politely explained where I went astray. At first, winning a
single game was a mini success. Eventually, my nightly scores improved. Indeed, whatever doesn't kill
you, makes you stronger.

I was rated 2100 when I transferred to Stanford for graduate school. There I regularly faced the young
masters of the Bay Area, notably Adrian Keatinge-Clay, Philip Wang and Jordy Mont-Reynaud. I spent
Friday nights blitzing versus wily veterans like Mike Arne and Mike Splane, scoring more points than
against the teenagers. These masters all challenged me further and, while it took another two years, I
finally earned the NM title."
Q2: Who are your chess idols?

"I do not have any chess idols, but routinely follow games of top modern Grandmasters. While climbing the rating ladder, I enjoyed watching Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand and Gata Kamsky. Arguably my favorite player was Alexei Shirov. Two of the few chess books that I carefully read were his twin anthologies Fire On Board. 

Easily the chess highlight of my years at Stanford was meeting and introducing reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in April 1999. Defeated by Deep Blue, Kasparov participated in a panel discussion about the future of computers in chess. However, what I remember most clearly was analysis of his immortal game against Veselin Topalov, played just months earlier, before an audience of talented juniors."

Q3: Please present me with your best game.
Q4: How did you balance chess and university?

"Although I played chess at least once evening per week, college was my top priority. Consistently, I completed my assignments prior to pushing wood. Work goes before play. Procrastination was not allowed! I actually noticed a trend of superior test results on Fridays, presumably because I studied before chess club on Thursday evening instead of burning the midnight oil."

Q5: What is the most annoying response to the Dutch defense?

"What??? I refuse to spill all of my beans! 

No doubt, the main lines of the Dutch where White plays d4, c4 and develops normally are objectively preferred. However, Black is usually well versed in the pawn structures and maneuvers that commonly arise. On the other hand, the anti-Dutch, notably the aggressive Staunton Gambit (2. e4) and the flexible 2. Nc3 with 3. Bg5 system, offer sufficient strategic opportunities for a creative White player to stir up trouble. At times, playing the Dutch as Black seems akin to fiddling with matches - you might accidentally burn yourself!"

Q6: As a great chess mentor, how do you inspire your students to pursue chess passionately and work diligently to achieve their goals?
"The foremost responsibility of any teacher is to cultivate an appreciation, indeed a passion, for the subject
matter. If the student does not enjoy chess, then he or she will not improve quickly.
My job is to unlock the mysteries of the chessboard for my students in a fun way. At times, I become the
professor, illustrating the games of masters past and present. Other times, I morph into the drill sergeant,
bombarding pupils with tactical puzzles and calculation exercises. Perhaps my most important role is the
sports psychologist, offering unlimited encouragement even in the face of defeat.
Advanced students have already bought into the doctrine of Caissa. To progress further, they should take
personal initiative to study independently. One assignment I gave was to prepare to battle my favorite
openings, including (ahem!) the Dutch. I still have bruises from blitz sessions against my star protégés."
Q7: Do you recommend a young talent to devote more time memorizing elite opening variations or less time to openings and try to reach a playable game they are comfortable with and try to win by superior tactics, endgames, etc?
"Grandmasters may disagree, but I firmly believe the opening is merely a third of the battle in chess. What
good is preparing the Catalan if your technique is insufficient to win the superior endgame? Indeed, I
consider studying endgame technique as a simplified laboratory for developing skills required for mastery
in all three phases of the game. Pupils should complete a course in pawn and rook endgames before
memorizing complex Sicilian theory. Admittedly, the opening takes on more significance as the student's
skill and rating increases."
 
Q8: What are your interests outside of the chess world?
 
"My academic interests lie in mathematics, science and mechanical engineering. I completed degrees
from UC Davis and Stanford in both engineering and math. My favorite leisure activities include watching
professional and college sports (baseball, basketball, football and soccer) and traveling around the world.
Thanks to the pandemic, I am currently stuck with chess."
Q9: Which aspects do you value most in teaching chess to young players?
I enjoy watching children rise to their potential against challenging opponents. Those broad smiles suffice.
Hopefully, students will recall fondly the hours and days spent at the chessboard many years from now,
after they graduate from college, launch a successful career and start a family. "
Q10: Do you have general advice for a player who has stagnated in improvement? 
"Chess improvement follows a nonlinear path of two steps forward and one step backwards. Especially
frustrating is dedicating effort to chess study without reaping an immediate reward. Indeed, the brain often
requires weeks or months to subconsciously process novel concepts, and only then does everything click.
In a nutshell, a player who has stagnated must change something to break the rut. These changes might
be subtle, such as a different attitude, or more substantial like a new opening repertoire. For example,
someone who relies on their endgame technique by liquidating advantageous positions should instead
seek sharp play and resist trading queens. As one chess proverb says: to break a drawing streak, you
should lose a game (by taking increased risks)."
 
Q11: Can you recommend some must-read chess books you studied?

"I am definitely not the person to consult while building a chess library.

The book that influenced me the most is ABCs of Chess by Bruce Pandolfini, which I devoured at age 9.
Aside from the two Fire On Board game collections, I have read few other chess books from cover to
cover. The one classic that I recommend as summer reading for advanced students is Life and Games by
Mikhail Tal - a source of inspiration for young and creative minds."

Q12: What do you love the most about playing chess and teaching chess?
As a physically disabled chess player in a wheelchair, the royal game is my sport. I compete against
opponents around the world, all speaking the same language of forks, skewers and checkmates. In a
single tournament, I played against and later analyzed with Grandmasters born in the Soviet Union,
Czechoslovakia, the Philippines and Peru, all without leaving my home state of California. Teaching lets
me to pay it forward by sharing my enthusiasm for chess with the next generation.