Getting in the Zone in Arizona

NM Annalytical

I had heard about the Western Invitational Chess Camp before from friends—tales of informative lectures, wild bughouse, and hilariously embarrassing bowling nights. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to attend this year, I excitedly checked my calendar and confirmed with FM Robby Adamson that I would come. Robby, who has generously hosted me at his house through the duration of the week, is incredibly devoted to the organization of the camp. He prepares his own lectures, plans evening outings, and accommodates every need; for example, he drives campers around the Tucson area, multiple times per day, in a (slightly sketchy-looking) white van.

Before I say anything, I have to comment on the beautiful surroundings I’ve enjoyed over the past few days. Every morning, the coaches kindly take me along on a Starbucks run because we’re all coming from Robby’s house, and I get to marvel at the scenery during the twenty-minute car ride. The mountains are called the Catalina Foothills, Robby explained to me, which is where the name for the local high school comes from. Also, there are cacti everywhere. Coming from New Jersey— land of forests, grassy fields, snowy winters, hurricanes, and even tornadoes— every single cactus is just a miracle in itself. Of course, I’d rather not actually go near one, but I do like taking lots of pictures of them (as does the typical social media-addicted teenager). Here are a few photos that I’ve taken of the area—I couldn’t resist:               

the view from the Hilton El Conquistador

Alright! Moving on. Since Michael Vilenchuk gave such a thorough summary of the first day of camp (see the bottom of the page for the link), I’ll be focusing mainly on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday’s events. Every morning is structured with one lecture (1.5 hours) and a practical exercise. After lunch, there is a quick G/35 game for the camp tournament followed by instructor analysis and, at the end of the day, one final lecture. Then, in the evening, most campers participate in the planned event—the past three nights have consisted of bowling, a bughouse tournament, and a blitz tournament. After all the day’s learning and activities, I have no problems falling asleep.

On Monday, we had lectures from GM Melikset Khachiyan and IM Levon Altounian in the morning and GM-elect Mac Molner in the afternoon. Although they were all good, my favorite was probably Mac’s. He showed us one of his recent games in which he sacrificed not one, but two pawns out of the opening for compensation. Despite the fact that many of the minor pieces were exchanged and the position was slightly more simplified, black maintained a powerful initiative and—as tends to happen in such positions—the tactics presented themselves. Here is the game we looked at:


On Tuesday, we received lectures from Melik and Levon in the morning and Robby in the afternoon. Melik shared some theory, Levon discussed the positional value of exchange sacrifices, and Robby gave us puzzles from the World Open that recently concluded. This lecture was fun, naturally, because it allowed us to experience that “I see what a grandmaster missed!” feeling with many examples. There was one position that I particularly liked because it required very precise and brute-force calculation- Gelashvili found the line. See for yourself if you can solve:

On Wednesday, we got lectures from GM Josh Friedel and IM Daniel Rensch in the morning, followed by a Chessbase tutorial from Alejandro in the afternoon. Josh’s lecture focused on practical endgame play, and the importance of muddying the waters when worse. With Daniel, we had a session of group solitaire chess (yes, that oxymoron works) in which we learned strong middlegame ideas for black—employed by Karjakin— in the Breyer Ruy Lopez. In the afternoon, Alejandro’s Chessbase lecture covered a variety of useful and frequently unknown tools. Many of us in Group 1 didn’t know what to expect, since we have been using the software for years already. But Alejandro’s explanations of the differences between PGNs and CBHs, database management, preparation techniques, and Playchess were incredibly valuable! I’m so inspired to restructure my databases and make them as streamlined as possible, as well as up to date.

So that’s all for daytime activities! As for the evenings, every single one has been occupied by some sort of planned event. On Monday, we went bowling. Personally, I was looking forward to it, even though I knew that I’d likely get a terrible score because I hadn’t bowled since I was…nine? At a birthday party, I believe? Yes, it was going to be humiliating. But, swallowing back my fear, I strolled out toward the lane and achieved a dominating score of…26. Yes, that happened. After being the brunt of all jokes for approximately a half hour, however, I felt a new power surge through me. In the next game, I bowled a 124, scoring higher than everyone in our group and even Robby by one point. A 98-point turn-around? I think so! Here is the photographic evidence, as well as a few more pictures from the night.

Me standing proudly by my score of 124

Many actually chose to play blitz over bowling, which just goes to show how much the kids who attend Robby's camp love chess. Clockwise from bottom left: Richard Qi, Andrew Jacob, Alec Andersen, Sreekar Bommireddy

Left to right: NM Kevin Mo, Charles Yang, John Gurczak, Scott Treiman, and Likeke Aipa

Left to right: Sam Mason, Patrick Froehlich, Likeke Aipa, Josh Pennock, FM Robby Adamson, Kevin Mo, Michael Vilenchuk, Steven Pennock, and Justin Arnold

The next evening, there was a bughouse tournament at the hotel. In order for the teams to be fair, students from the lowest groups were allowed to select their partners. This meant that they could opt to play with a friend from their own group, or to choose a higher-rated player from in order to obtain better winning chances. I have to say, the selection process was as intense— if not more so— than senior year prom proposals.

The tournament was structured with four brackets, labeled A-D.  Matches were decided after two games, and the two highest scores in each bracket advanced to playoffs. Kevin Mo and Alex Deatrick, rated 2343 and 2045 respectively, took the tournament by storm and grabbed first place convincingly. In many cases, the bughouse brought together young and old, allowing more advanced players to mentor lower-rated kids. 

 NM John Williams and Cepheus Martinez

Andrew Tang and Nicholas Rosenthal

Camille Kao and Emily Nguyen


Lucas Johnston and Steven Pennock 

Left to right: Rick Sun, Charles Yang, IM John Bartholomew, and Shree Mohan

On Wednesday evening, campers buckled up and rode over to the Tucson Jewish Community Center for a blitz tournament. It was structured as follows: five rounds with two games each, one with white and one with black. The coaches played as well, and GM Josh Friedel won the event with an unbeatable 10/10. He was trailed by GM-elect Mac Molner, who scored 9/10. Nevertheless, there was a significant number of upsets by determined campers—especially notable was John Williams (rated 2197), who began the tournament with 6/6, defeating GM Melikset Khachiyan and IM Levon Altounian in the process. As for me, I scored a reasonable 6/10, winning all my games against lower-rated players and losing to higher-rated players.

GM-elect Mac Molner vs. GM Alejandro Ramirez on Board 1


Blitz tournament winner GM Josh Friedel

Well, this post has turned out to be much longer than I expected! Before I sign off, though, I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Robby and all the coaches for an amazing camp experience. Also, a big shout-out to my fellow campers—you guys have been fantastic company these past couple days, and I’m so glad I became friends with you. It’s the little things—sing-alongs during car rides, adventure-filled lunch breaks, and blitz in between lectures that make this camp so special. I know I’ll always remember my time in Arizona fondly.

For Michael Vilenchuk's recap "The Beginning":