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Rising Stars Chess Camp
GM Alex Lenderman. Image by GMBartek - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15412834

Rising Stars Chess Camp

mkkuhner
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9

In the early summer things got interesting in my day job.  My boss' scientific paper came back from the reviewers with positive reviews, but they wanted to see an experiment to show that the computational method worked.  Unfortunately, the experiment promptly showed that it did not.  I was asked to investigate, found that there were big problems with the statistical approach, redesigned it completely, conducted massive tests to verify the new method worked, and rewrote much of the paper.  I worked evenings and weekends for over a month. 

I really needed a break after that.  I would have liked to go to outdoors summer camp, but COVID and money were issues.  I received an email inviting me to online chess summer camp, and thought, hm, are adults allowed?  I went to a mostly-kids summer camp a few years ago, and it was fun except for one day with kid issues.  Probably Zoom would head off the worst of the kid issues?  It was expensive, but my household has a tacit agreement that the money I make coaching chess can be spent on chess.  And the closer the date got, the more I felt I needed a complete break from work.  So I went ahead and signed up.

I sent the sponsoring organization, GMI, a note along the lines of "Um, by the way, I'm an adult" and got back a snap response "Lifetime learning is fun."  I found out later that, not only was I the only adult in this section, I was the only adult who had ever attended one of their camps....  The other students seemed to be 8-14 years old:  nine boys and two girls.  The section was nominally for USCF 1900+, but due to the pandemic, the organizers were not strictly enforcing this:  most of us were in the 1800's.

The camp had two parts which were fairly disconnected:  a seven day G/30 tournament and five days of lecture sessions.  While they were happening on the same days, they didn't really interact, except that the tournament games made the long days even longer.  I'll write about the lectures in this blog entry and cover the tournament separately.

Opening Preparation:  GM Elshad Moradiabadi

GM Moradiabadi
GM Moradiabadi. Photo by Andreas Kontokanis from Piraeus, Greece, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

For the first three days, the first lecture was to cover opening preparation; on Thursday and Friday we would instead have brief one-on-one sessions with the GMs, ostensibly to help us prepare for that day's tournament opponent.  The organizers had sent out a survey on what openings we wanted to cover: it made me laugh, because of the four specific openings mentioned in the survey, two were Sicilians!  But in fact there was little coverage of any specific opening, so the survey seemed irrelevant.

I have recently realized I need to prioritize openings, and also that I don't know how.  So I was initially excited by this topic.  GM Moradiabadi presented an approach based on first looking at master games in your opening (both classical and recent) and then constructing an elaborate .pgn file of variations, relying heavily on ChessBase.  In fact, the first lecture was mainly a ChessBase tech demo, which was frustrating for me as a Linux user with no access to this software (I use Chessx for game manipulation and online databases to find games).  GM Moradiabadi was distressed for me and made various suggestions about how I could build my games database; I am sorry to say I am not really planning to build a big database, though, so I didn't have much use for this advice.

On Monday he asked for an opening to use as a paradigm and I suggested the French Winawer, hoping to improve my knowledge of my most theoretical opening.  But he used it only as an example, and rather briefly.  He covered a few other openings equally briefly, but the focus was not on learning an opening but on learning an opening-preparation system.  (He spent some time, each session, typing up this system into a Word document; I couldn't help feeling this could have been done in advance.)

A bigger frustration, though, was that the Dutch Defense, my current most problematic opening, just does not lend itself to a big .pgn of variations.  White can adopt any of a wide variety of plans, and Black has multiple systems to try as well (to Stonewall or not to Stonewall?) while move order is far from fixed.  On Monday I asked how to prepare such an opening, and Moradiabadi said that it was a great question which he would tackle on Tuesday.  But alas, there never seemed to be time, and I still don't know what he would have recommended.

I also felt that the material presented had probably been meant for the "Norm Seekers" camp (players around master strength).  Class A players are probably better served by working on basic principles in the openings than by constructing elaborate move order trees; at least, I know several players in this class who have tried that with poor results.  And trying to prepare for specific opponents when you are in Class A is seldom really feasible.

On Thursday I got to do a one on one prep session with Moradiabadi.  The opponent I was supposedly preparing for was 8 years old and had essentially no online records (two games from when she won the Kindergarten championship).  So I instead chatted briefly with the GM about how to prep the Dutch, but I didn't get anything concrete out of it.

On Friday I had a similar chat with GM Lenderman.  It immediately became apparent that he knew my entire opening repertoire!  I found this quite startling, and asked him how he knew.  He laughed and said that he had coached Sophie and Stephanie Velea, my WCM arch-rivals, and they had been so annoyed by their many losses to me that they had spent a lot of time prepping for me.  So I'd been playing Lenderman, rather than Sophie and Stephanie, in those opening skirmishes.  (Sophie still hasn't beaten me, which must be very frustrating for her given the number of times she's gotten a better position.)

He showed me a couple lines of the Giuoco Pianissimo.  I wondered, but did not have time to ask, what happens in those lines if Black does not castle but instead immediately attacks on the kingside.  As it turned out, I should have asked.... (You'll see why in the post on the camp tournament.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.)

Middlegame Attack and Defense:  GM Rafael Leitao

GM Leitao
GM Leitao. Image by Stefan64 - CC BY-SA 3.0

The publicity for the camp said that we would analyze campers' tournament games.  In fact there was no provision for this in the schedule.  GM Leitao had a pre-selected group of positions which he asked us to analyze in detail, first going as far as we could without anyone moving the pieces, and then walking through students' ideas.

Here the Zoom format proved unexpectedly strong.  When I have been at similar events face to face, the quickest, strongest, or most confident kids would blurt out lines, and everyone else would sit and listen.  In this camp we were not allowed to say anything (the younger kids struggled a little with this at first) but had to type all our ideas in private chat to the coach.  This gave the session a dynamic rather close to a private lesson (maybe it's a "private lesson simul"?)  I would come up with an idea and type it in, and get a brief immediate feedback, also in chat.  I think the more shy kids were helped by not having the rest of us hear their errors.  To be honest, I kind of liked that too.  I made plenty of errors!

It is hard to summarize this kind of material.  At 1800 one already knows many general principles of attack and defense, but the devil is in the details.  We looked at several positions where one side's attack seemed initially overwhelming but the opponent had hidden defensive resources.  It was intense, challenging, and (for someone who loves the topic) really fun.  I can't point to specific things I learned, but it felt like a good stretch of my attack/defense skills.

On Friday we had a little competition, and I did decently.  As usual I am better at seeing moves for myself than my opponent, and this is true both in offense and defense.

Endgames:  GM Alex Lenderman

GM Lenderman
GM Lenderman. Image by GMBartek, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Northwest players have become quite familiar with GM Lenderman, as he has won a substantial proportion of our online pandemic events.  Most of those games end up in Northwest Chess, so I was familiar with his style.

He handled his lectures much like GM Leitao:  he gave us positions of various degrees of difficulty and asked us to analyze and respond by chat.  One lecture was on R+P endgames, one on K+P, one on Q+P (brutally difficult) and one on complex endgames.  On Friday we did another little competition, but I was so tired by that point that I couldn't think straight.

I have been working on R+P with my coach for probably two years now.  It was immediately obvious that this had made a difference:  I was as good as any of the campers at these, but struggled with K+P.  After camp I told my coach it was time to work on K+P, and we have been going through Lenderman's .pgn of studies and game positions from the camp.  So this material has been of significant long-term use.  While the middlegame sessions were a bit more fun, the endgame sessions were probably the most immediately practical part of the camp for me.

One revealing moment came in the Q+P session, where Lenderman showed a game of his own where he was trying to win a probably drawn endgame by pushing his king forward to help the passed pawn.  And then he pushed it forward...into a mate in one.  I don't know if this is reassuring (even GMs make mistakes, you could beat one!) or horrifying (you will never stop blundering no matter how good you get).  Chess is just very hard for humans. 

Final Thoughts

I had fun, and it was the break I needed from my overwhelming work situation.  The Zoom format was surprisingly good for me--I don't know how the kids felt about it--and I got a lot out of Leitao's and Lenderman's sessions.  The openings prep was not really directed at where I am, but when you prepare for a bunch of unknown students you're just not going to please them all.

Combining the camp with a tournament did not seem to add that much, since we never discussed the tournament games except in the two one-on-one opening sessions, which were only 15 minutes each.  The GM who annotated the tournament games was not otherwise involved in the camp, so there was no real cross-fertilization.  Given the difficulty of arranging tournament games with players from both the East and West Coast, and the extra fatigue of having to play every day, I'm not sure it was an ideal arrangement.

An anonymous person identified only as "GMI Admin" did a tremendous amount of work organizing the Zooms, running the tournament, bugging people to schedule their tournament games and report the results, rescheduling when one of the GMs had a power outage, and generally making the whole thing work.  At the end of the camp they asked for feedback and I sent 4-5 pages of detailed notes.  I got back a very kind letter saying that it was like pulling teeth to get more than 1-2 lines from the kids, and would I like an extra GM annotation as a reward?  So I have GM notes on all 7 of my games rather than the expected 6.  I also found out who the anonymous organizer was:  Ellen Zhang.  Shout-out to her for a tough job well done.

My biggest beef with the camp was actually their publicity material, which made a number of claims that just weren't true.  I don't know if the camp has evolved away from its description, or the GMs just like to do their own thing...but it would be better to be accurate.

Ellen told me that I was the only adult they'd ever had.  I would actually recommend the experience to other adults.  The Zoom format prevents a lot of kid issues and the training was both entertaining and useful.  But you will have to budget an entire week and be prepared to work quite hard to keep up with the little guys.