2015 Western Invitational Chess Camp

IM Cryptochess
Aug 3, 2015, 12:48 PM |

I'll admit that, when Robby asked me if I'd attend his camp this year, my initial state was one of confusion. Somehow flying (literally!) across the country for a jam-packed week of chess was a bit of an unusual proposition to me, but, of course, it's basically a dream come true for most chess players. After gratefully accepting the opportunity, I did some research into the camp (maybe these two things should have occurred in a different order...), some recaps of previous years, and quickly became excited for the upcoming trip. 

The driving force behind the whole production, IM-elect Robby Adamson, puts a tremendous amount of effort into the camp. Besides organizing the whole show, transporting campers in the colliquially-known "sketchy white van", and deflecting calls from Nicky Korba, he somehow also finds the time to add himself to the roster of instructors. This is all largely a personal effort by him, making it all the more impressive that the camp has grown to become the strongest in the country. By the way, the last part of that sentence isn't just rhetoric! The website flatly states "This is the strongest chess camp in the U.S.", and Robby's recruitment drive outdid itself this year: a whopping fourteen masters were in attendence. In fact, the camp was so strong that the top group stuck with the traditional 2100+ rating requirement, but had to split into two sub-groups because it was simply too large!

However, before you get the wrong idea, this camp is not exclusively focused on the top (the way that, for example, the USCS is): in addition to the top group, there were four other groups (or five rather, since the second group also had to be split). And in an interesting departure from the usual model, each group was treated to a rotating schedule of instructors, each of whom gave a ~1 hour lecture before moving on to another group. When all was said and done, each group had each instructor either 2 or 3 times, meaning that even the bottom group (which was hardly weak, consisting mostly of very young players) was treated to instruction by top GMs. 

The camp gets together for the dreaded camp photo

Group 1A (so named because of clear superiority to group 1B) kicked things off with a lecture by GM Alex Ipatov, the strongest instructor of the camp. A former World Junior champion (yes, that says "World"), he, like many of us, came to the camp immediately following the World Open. However, unlike many of us, he came to the camp immediately after tying for first at the World Open! Anyway, after warming up with a study, we moved on to a completely different topic, exploring the positional sacrifice. 

GM Ipatov analyzing an apparent Benoni gone wrong

Shortly after, GM Alejandro Ramirez, who doesn't exactly require an introduction, took over for the second lecture of the day.

GM Ramirez prefers chess to bowling!

His topic was perhaps one of the most practical of the camp: the importance of understanding theoretical moves in the opening. As he explained, the sometimes subtle nuances in the opening are often missed when simply studying the topical flavor of the month, even at the top level. It was also during this lecture that the "modern immortal" game GM Wei Yi - GM Bruzon made its first appearance of the camp, as GM Ramirez explained "how bad Bruzon's position really was that this Rxf7 sacrifice worked". Finally, the inimitable GM Julio Sadorra,

Tandem chess preparation: Robby practices getting carried

after some mental exercises, used one of his own games to... energetically demonstrate that "defense wins championships", as well as push the constant philosophy of "simple chess". 

After an exhausting morning of lectures, and a refueling period known to some as "lunch" and to others as "Chipotle run", the G/24+5 camp tournament began (one game per day). The strange-looking time control is designed to keep the games quick-rated only, which helps remove the pressure normally associated with tournament games. This, along with the fact that the games were subsequently reviewed by instructors, led to more enterprising play than one would expect from a typical tournament.

Tournament winner NM Leo "Quinn" Creger, aka Quinn "Quinn" Creger, who had just snagged top honors in the U2200 section of the World Open

NM Craig Hilby (left), coming off a monster performance at the World Open, had one too many draws

My technique was good enough to win the first round here, but totally failed me in the second

The top section of the camp tournament

After game review by the instructors, the groups assembled once more for the final lecture of the day; ours was by GM Melikset Khachiyan, another who requires no introduction. After analyzing his game with NM Isaac Martinez, a camper in our group, we worked on several puzzles, one of which (if memory serves) ended up in the following position:

But this was not yet the conclusion of the opening day! That night began the evening events, the first of which was the G/2 (I refuse to call this "bullet") tournament. For the second consecutive year, it was won by FM Alexander Velikanov with a perfect 10-0 score, though I might point out my plus score against him...

This was, of course, a lighthearted event...

where even the youngest got involved

NM Rosenthal, shortly before flagging me down a truckload of material

G/2 Tournament winner FM Alexander Velikanov taking down NM Craig Hilby

While Robby shows him how it's really done

The remaining days followed the same format: 3 lectures in the morning, a G/24+5 game (plus review) after lunch, one final lecture in the afternoon, and evening events following dinner. Such a jam-packed schedule didn't preclude other activities however, the most notable of which was the (many, many) tandem chess games played throughout the camp.

The instructors led the way in promoting the variant, which always drew quite a crowd!

The rules of the variant are quite simple: 2-man teams switch off making moves, with communication disallowed. This leads not only to issues with differing playstyles and opening repertoires, but also trepidation towards beginning combinations or deep maneuvers for fear that your partner might miss your idea! It's a lot of fun and, frankly, a much more productive use of time than bughouse is, so I highly recommend giving it a try the next time you have four people together. Of course, the more "traditional" variants of chess -- namely blitz and bughouse -- featured prominently throughout the camp, filling up most of the downtime between... well, anything.

Speaking of blitz, the second night's event was a bowling outing that involved surprisingly little bowling, as both students and instructors preferred the royal game to racking up Xs (or, as in most of our cases, zeros). 

The instructors preferred a mix of the two, combining bowling...

...with the more familiar game

Other students abandoned the lanes altogether

And some caught up on much-needed sleep!

It was also the second day that the top group was introduced to the remaining instructors: IM John Bartholomew,

IM Bartholomew getting his Starbucks fix (and doing some chess stuff too)

who went over instructive moments from his online chess games, while also encouraging us to play slower games online (fat chance), IM Danny Rensch

 IM Rensch, whose faux German accent was both glorious and terrifying

who spoke about applying an economics view to the game of chess, and finally -- last but definitely not least -- IM-elect Robby Adamson

The legend himself

Who was soooooooo bad. That afternoon completed the rotation, as FM Joel Banawa made his first appearance

FM Banawa was perhaps the most "traditional" of the instructors

On the third day, groups began to get instructors for the second time, which meant a greater emphasis on practical exercises rather than theoretical concerns. The instructors took varying approaches to the term "practical exercise", some opting for the traditional method of playing out key positions

White has some pressure, but how does he make sure it lasts?


while others used the time to focus on problem solving. GM Alejandro Ramirez had an especially unique approach to the concept, perhaps adapted from IM Greg Shahade's U.S. Chess School, in which we trained our intuition by "solving" 16 positions -- with less than a minute for each problem. 

Bughouse, the go-to choice of the younger generation, made an unsurprisingly prominent appearance during... well, everything.

What else would you do during a break from chess camp?

The copious amount of practices these kids did paid off on the third night of the camp, as the camp bughouse tournament rolled around. Teams were chosen in a rather interesting way: the lower rated campers, in order, got to select their partner. This made the event significantly more random and ensured no "super-teams" would dominate, and each round of selection was intense as we waited to see if kids would go for their high-rated compatriots or stick with their circle of friends. As the highest rated camper, I was selected pretty quickly, as was most of the top group (aided by Nate Kranjc's loud announcements of recent achievements)

I demonstrate that, even in bughouse, the king is a strong piece; my partner is not amused


Nate Kranjc tries a unique strategy...

Nicky Rosenthal and co. continued to dominate, as his team cruised to victory for the second consecutive year

Blitz didn't stay down for long, however, as it returned the following night for the camp-wide blitz tournament -- which, by virtue of the cash prizes, attracted most of the instructors as well. They were far from dominating the tournament, however, as upsets abounded early on: GM Melik Khachiyan couldn't get past the now-WIM Agata Bykovtsev without being nicked for half a point (a half-point he was lucky to achieve!), and GM Julio Sadorra was whitewashed by the dangerous NM Nicky Rosenthal. By the final rounds, however, the situation had mostly stabilized, and the key round 4 matchup was between GM Alex Ipatov and GM Alejandro Ramirez -- a match that went so far down to the wire, it required instant replay to decide. My play against GM Melik Khachiyan in that round was less than inspiring:

 In this position, I mixed up the move order of my preparation and played 1...cxd4??, promptly resigning after 2. Nc7+. Fortunately, I took my revenge in the second game of the mini-match!



In the end, the prizes were shared between GM Ipatov, GM Ramirez, and the "dark horse" IM-elect Robby Adamson, who snuck into the winner's circle by sweeping NM Albert Lu in the final round. 

After a long tiring week of chess, the following night brought the close of the 2015 edition of the camp, but not before some well-earned recognition was given. The coveted instructor awards, given to the "best" (collectively decided by the instructors) student(s) in each group, were given to NM Xiexin "Levi" Wang and NM Isaac Martinez, while NM Leo "Quinn" Creger was presented with a book for his victory in the camp tournament. Of course, awards were given to the top students in each of the remaining 6 groups as well!

The instructors on the final night... can you tell they're exhausted?

In perhaps the greatest testament to the camp's love of the game, many of the campers spent the majority of this awards dinner on the 64 squares.

And so concluded the 2015 Western Invitational Chess Camp, which I can authoritatively say was one of the best experiences of my life. Having been -- literally -- all over the country and back for various tournaments and competitions, I usually have something to criticize (especially during the events I've organized T.T), but in this case there was absolutely nothing to complain about. Indeed, on the evaluation sheets we were able to turn in at the end of the camp, the simple question "how can the camp be improved?" stumped nearly all of us*. If you have the opportunity to go to this camp, take it. That's not a suggestion.

*I lied; a tandem chess tournament was in heavy demand, and the grapevine tells me that next year's edition of the camp might be putting one together. One more reason to attend!

As a final note, the end of the camp coincides with the beginning of the Ye Olde Pueblo, a strong tournament that offers free entry to masters who attend the camp. It was quite well-attended this year, with most of the out-of-state players sticking around for the event (except those flying off to other tournaments that same weekend). The sole instructor to play, GM Julio Sadorra, won handily with a 4.5/5 score, defeating NM Nicky Korba and FM Alexander Velikanov to cruise to 4-0 before splitting the point with me. I noticed immediate effects from the camp's instruction on my play throughout that tournament, including these two critical moments that kept the tournament a net positive for me:

After drastically overestimating my initiative, I find myself down 2 pawns for basically nothing (oops). However, as GM Julio Sadorra tells us, defense wins championships, so I buckled down and focused on finding a way to make him work for it. The game continued 1... Qd3 2. f3 Qe3 3. Qc1 Qe7 4. Nc5 Nf6 5. Nd3, when I finally got the chance I was waiting for: 5... Qd6 6. Qf4 Qa6!

 which wins one of the pawns back. He tried the creative 7. Qb8 Kh7 8. Qb3!? Qd6 9. Ne5 Qd4 10. Qd3 Qd3 11. Nd3, but I held the resulting knight ending without too much trouble.



In such a short tournament, racking up the points is crucial, so the next round was basically a must win for me...

Black should be very happy with his position, as White's only real idea in these types of positions -- shoving through e4 -- has been completely stopped up, but it's unclear how Black should try and press the situation. Obviously, if the f7 pawn were on f5, the knight would have freedom of movement and the game would be basically over, but unfortunately all of Black's pieces are currently tied down to the defense of the e4-square. The solution is one that we spoke of multiple times throughout the camp: the creation of a second weakness. The queenside is permanently Black's territory, and all he needs is time to build up his pawn majority there, so operations on the kingside are necessary: 1... h5! Amazingly, White is basically helpless against the intrepid h-pawn; 2. h4 is met by 2... Qc7! when the queen enters the kingside with devastating effect; e.g. 3. e4 de 4. fe Qf4 5. e5 Ng4 and White is busted. Against any other move, such as the waiting 2. Qb1, black plays 2... h4! continuing the march. Now 3. h3 is bad in view of 3... Nh5, when the g3-square has been fatally weakened, so White must acquiesce to allowing black the move 3... h3, when White's kingside has been battered out of shape. After this, Black is tactically justified in moving the knight away, as after the example sequence 3. Qc2 h3 4. g3 Qb7 (to avoid d5 in the ensuing lines) 5. Qb1 Nd7 6. e4 de 7. fe f5! 8. ef Qg2!! wins (this works even if the queen is on c2). As before, the knight entering the game is simply deadly. Black went on to win.


I'd like to conclude this post by profusely thanking the legendary Robby Adamson for the opportunity to attend the camp, and also to thank all the instructors: GM Alex Ipatov, GM Alejandro Ramirez, GM Melikset Khachiyan, GM Julio Sadorra, IM John Bartholomew, IM Danny Rensch, IM-elect Robby Adamson (again!), and FM Joel Banawa for their invaluable -- and, evidently, immediately applicable -- lessons. I hope to be back next year!