I never thought I would see a child doing squats at a chess camp. This and many other similar, crazy moments at the United States Chess School’s 34th camp are memories that I will cherish forever.
Since 2006, IM Greg Shahade has held training camps for some of the best young chess players in the country. I was lucky enough to help out at the camp held at the famous Marshall Chess Club earlier this summer. Most beginners like me would typically never get the opportunity to attend this sort of chess camp. After all, the standards to qualify for the camps are getting higher and higher every year as players are becoming stronger at younger ages. The camp I observed was on the higher end of the spectrum: every child that attended was rated at least 2200.
Among the talented group of students were the youngest master in United States history, Max Lu, and the youngest female master in United States history, Carissa Yip. In addition, the four girls who attended the camp are currently the top female chess players in the country under eighteen years old. During our camp, they were even interviewed by The New York Times for an article on the gender gap in chess. Although not every participant made the papers, each of the other children boasted their own similarly impressive achievements.
I’ll admit that when I first arrived at the Marshall, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I had a million worries, which increased as more and more kids came to the club. I felt out of place- too old to fit in with the kids, too young to chat up the parents, not qualified enough as a chess player, and an all-around foreigner to this chess scene.
Despite this inner turmoil, I had a job to do. I currently help Greg with social media for the organization, updating the nonprofit’s Twitter and Facebook accounts when there is chess news to be shared about past camp participants’ successes. At the camp, my obligations included taking pictures, as well. I was there for work, so I sucked up my intimidation, stammered out introductions, and struggled to match names to faces. Greg announced my part in the camp and told everyone to smile if I pointed a camera in their direction.
Greg launched right into a lesson, as almost all the kids had been to a USCS camp before. The puzzles presented were way over my head, as I was only a beginner. I watched the kids write down answers almost immediately and call Greg over to check their analyses. The room was soon full of voices shouting Greg’s name as the children discussed answers and variations. Amid the chaos I realized that their talent was coupled with enthusiasm, and a pattern emerged: the kids all wanted to be the first to answer questions (and to answer them correctly, of course).
Over the next four days, I learned that these kids “misbehaved” uniquely. Instead of being distracted and not paying attention or going on tangents as children traditionally do at school, these kids got in trouble for being too enthusiastic about lessons, about chess. Timeouts were necessary and way too common, especially on day three, the day I’ve dubbed “Stripunsky & Squats.” GM Alexander Stripunsky came to teach the class and punishment was implemented in the form of squats when the campers called out.
The children’s unique behavior continued well into lunchtime for the next few days. On the first day, I heard the kids cheering for 99 cents pizza, a tradition, as they crowded the doorway to leave for lunch. By day two, the kids were playing bughouse, blitz, and bullet during lunch “break.” Most of them didn’t take breaks from chess at all.
They just asked their parents to bring back pizza from the pizzeria because they simply didn’t want to leave their boards.
I doubt I will ever experience that dedicated atmosphere anywhere else. Magnus Carlsen, Irina Krush, and other top players have always inspired me, but I was infinitely more inspired by a group of ten to fifteen year olds. These kids embodied what it meant to truly work hard.
For seven hours a day, their mind was on chess and only chess. They were talented and dedicated. I think the moment that shocked me the most was that every kid was able to set up a position in their minds blindfold style and solve a puzzle. I watched an eleven year old checkmate with a bishop and knight vs a king, a checkmate that even past women’s world champions have failed, with only a few seconds on the clock.
I witnessed a twelve year old beating Greg in bullet.
It’s hard to look at these kids and think that they’re so accomplished. They’re all young. But they aren’t to be underestimated. These kids are all going to do amazing things in the future. Not all of them will be grandmasters, nor will all of them play chess professionally. It’s clear, however, that they have found a passion, that they all have potential, and that they have gained qualities due to their chess training that will help them achieve their future goals no matter the relation to chess. I wonder if the kids will think back to this camp when they are a lot older and remember it as a time where they were able to easily fit in with others and find their niche, to be with others that were as passionate as they, as well.
I myself found that I slowly interacted more with the kids, joked around during discussions. I laughed along with them, made references to the meat cleaver in the fridge, and had fun. In the end, I even got to play a few rounds of bughouse! I was quickly crushed by my superiors, but I had the time of my life.
I owe my boss, Greg Shahade, my sincerest thanks. He watched me complete tactic after tactic when I wasn’t required to be doing my job and encouraged my slow but obvious progress. More than that, Greg was a phenomenal teacher and the mastermind behind the US Chess School. The camp would have been completely different if not for the exact circumstances. Greg as the teacher was one part of it. The kids’ chemistry, the timing of the camp (just after the World Open, which many of the kids participated in), and the location ALL contributed to the camp’s success. Of course we had no shortage of issues, late starts, and sad goodbyes, but we easily overlooked them.
I cannot contain my excitement for next year’s New York camp. I’m sure it will be different as new kids bring their own brands of enthusiasm to the table, but it will be full of the same laughter, happiness, and inspiration I discovered this year. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.