Winning the U.S. Amateur Team East

When I first played at the U.S. Amateur Team East (also known as World Amateur Team) three years ago, I had never played a tournament with 285 players, let alone 285 teams. I never imagined my team, no matter how strong, could be the one to win the whole thing, let alone 6-0. There were always too many teams!

Still, the tournament was so fun that I went back every year despite the (many) inconveniences, but the the world’s largest team tournament continues to grow. This year, there were 324 teams, meaning the pairings would have to be drastically accelerated to just determine a winner. Just one draw could knock a team out of serious contention.

In 2017, Carnegie Mellon sent one of its strongest ever teams, rated 2154. We made it to 4.5/5 before falling apart in the last round, although we managed to win the Top College prize. After that, Grant and I started to more seriously scope out teams that could potentially take it all. It’s difficult enough to find four eligible strong players who are free for 3-4 days; even more so when limiting the selection to CMU students! We were lucky to pick up NM David Itkin, a first-year grad student from Canada. Ryan, an expert, who along with Grant and I had plenty of USATE experience, gave us a dream team with the maximum 2199.75 average! So our lineup for the tournament was

  • Board 1: NM Grant Xu (2403 USCF)
  • Board 2: NM David Itkin (2247 USCF)
  • Board 3: NM Beilin Li (2093 USCF)
  • Board 4: Ryan Christianson (2056 USCF)

Despite being the top seed (excluding ties), we couldn’t really expect to win, because there were so many strong teams (I’d estimate about 50 legitimate contenders out of 324 total teams). However, we knew Ryan was a very strong Board 4 and that David was likely underrated as he’s rated well over 2200 FIDE and 2300 CFC (Canada). As for myself, by USATE time I was on my way out of a slump, so I suspected I could perform a lot better than 2093 USCF. We accepted Grant might have the toughest time, but he has a lot of experience against opponents as strong as the ones he faced at USATE.

Day 1: Smooth Start

Rest and confidence are sacred in a tournament as long as the USATE. Besides simply winning, it was important that we didn’t end up totally exhausted by Round 3 and fall to the first team over 2100. Fortunately, we won our first two matches easily.

Despite a scare from Ryan in a sharp French line, we swept the first round 4-0. I scored a relatively quick, nice win on Board 3.

Li – Kupersmith, 1-0

My second game was stranger, consisting of 17 moves of theory, a few checks, and two moves where I spent 80 minutes trying to find a win before accepting a perpetual (apologies to my bored opponent!). It turns out the position was indeed a dead draw in every conceivable way. Fortunately, that was our worst game of the match; everyone else won to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Changolkar – Li, 1/2-1/2 

Day 2: Competition Heats Up

Day 2 was a massive snowstorm, which made everything non-chess pretty miserable. Over the board, we stayed perfect against increasingly tougher teams, ending the day 4-0 alongside 6 other teams.

We woke up to find ourselves paired against the “Stable Geniuses,” led by my friend IM Alexander Katz, who surprised Grant with 1…c5 to induce the Smith-Morra (are they the only two 2400+ players with extensive Smith-Morra backgrounds?). Unfortunately, Grant messed up the move order and had a miserable game, but that was his only loss of the tournament. We snagged two victories from Ryan, who had a nice rating edge on Board 4, and David, who beat NM Andrew Ardito in the 4. h4 Advance Caro-Kann.

Ardito – Itkin, 0-1

However, this nice win was overshadowed by my extremely sketchy save on Board 3. I played a questionable opening and was totally busted, but my opponent overcomplicated matters by sacrificing a piece and I managed to slip out when time trouble got to him.

Li – Klein, 1-0

Apparently, this was the only USATE game published on U.S. Chess. I guess it was our most critical game (the closest we came to not winning a match), though I wasn’t exactly proud at the time!

Our competition got tougher on paper, as every team we played after that was rated 2190+. However, my game in Round 4 was settled fairly quickly after my young expert opponent blundered the Exchange on move 15. Soon after, David’s master opponent flagged in a complex position, and Grant clinched the match with a win over FM Brandon Jacobson before Ryan drew out to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Jacobson – Grant Xu, 0-1

Day 3: Deciding the Winners

Going into Round 5, there were 7(!) teams at 4-0. I had no idea how they planned to make a winner from two more rounds, but all we could do was try to keep winning. Our next opponents looked pretty tough, though – two 2400s and two 1900s. My opponent was my 2nd-lowest rated of the event, but was 4-0 (he ended up 5-1 against mostly experts, gaining over 100 rating points). However, I was able to get one of my favorite Closed Sicilian lines and he soon developed too many weaknesses to hold on.

Li – Espinosa, 1-0

On the next board, Ryan faced a scary-looking piece sac out of the opening, but managed to consolidate despite time pressure. After we won, David decided to force a draw in a complicated position against FM Levy Rozman to clinch the match. IM Alexandr Ostrovskiy fought hard for a win against Grant, but he held and we won the match 3-0.

This left CMU, “Very Fine People On Both Sides,” and MIT tied at 5-0. MIT was the odd one out, and had to play the strange lineup of GM Oliver Barbosa, two 2400s, and a 900. Meanwhile, we seemed fairly evenly matched against our very fine opponents, and as is often the case, much of the match looked a lot closer than the final score suggested.

Ryan converted a good knight vs. bad bishop position without too much trouble, but David looked equal against his slightly lower-rated opponent, and Grant seemed to be in trouble against IM Jan van de Mortel. I ended up choosing the Hedgehog despite not playing it seriously before. Despite my inexperience, it seemed like I had the right ideas and had built up a nice advantage, when I missed a simple tactic and was very lucky to not be much worse. However, my opponent soon missed a tactic of his own a few moves later, and ended up flagging in time pressure.

Fiske – Li, 0-1

Not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but 29…Qa8! was a nice way to top a great individual performance. Ryan won as expected, and David managed to outplay his opponent in the end. As a bonus, Grant managed to survive against van de Mortel, officially putting us at 6-0 for the weekend.

MIT, the only remaining perfect team, lost a close match to GM Barbosa’s team, who took clear 2nd. Tough luck for MIT on the last round pairing – it would have been extremely difficult for us to beat that kind of lineup. Congrats to both teams as well as VFPOBS on their strong performances!

There wasn’t too much to do after that, since we had to grab food and drive 5.5 hours back to Pittsburgh that night. However, we did realize that if Grant had lost all his games, we would have still won every match – either Grant is useless (nah), or that’s a lot of dominance for such an intense team event! David, Ryan, and I scored 5.5/6 individually, and Grant “only” scored 4/6, but performed well over 2500.

Aside from simply being a strong team, we can attribute our victory to a number of less obvious factors. We recognized our chances early on and prioritized things like proper rest a little more than usual (e.g. skipping the bughouse tournament for the first time in years!). Our exceptional team bond as students and friends from the same school was predictable, but critical to our success and enjoying the long event. David (probably the MVP if we had to pick one) was an incredible addition to our team, overperforming in a tough position and gaining 43 rating points, which is insane for someone of his rating.

For me, it was the ultimate highlight of my last year competing with CMU. I’d like to extend thanks not only to my 2018 teammates, but to everyone who’s competed with me at USATE over the last 4 years, as well as the perpetual organizers of the tournament. It’s never easy to manage any event with 1200 people!

Chess-wise personally, it was a very welcome boost. Since becoming a master 10 months ago, it’s been kind of a tough road as I’ve slipped in ways I didn’t foresee after such a big achievement. Earlier this month, I rebounded with a nice victory in Baltimore, but I didn’t quite get the feeling that everything was coming together. After a string of great results in such a long tournament, it’s starting to feel that way as I’ve gained 42 rating points (my largest gain in a serious event) to end at 2159. I’m not back to 2200, but for the first time in a while, I’m on the right track!

Finally, as the Team East champions, we’ll be playing in the National Playoff against the winners of the U.S. Amateur Team West, North, and South (probably in late March or early April) on ICC. They’re also very strong teams who won big over a long weekend, so it should be a great match!

* Credit to Vanessa Sun for our team picture

Confidence and Patience

Teaching chess takes a set of skills. Teaching chess to kids takes a completely different set of skills.

When kids 6-10 years old first picks up chess, two typical scenarios are:

Group A: ‘Oh Oh Oh Oh, I know this’. They’ll react instantly, want to get to the answers immediately, and keep going forward with the argument until there is not much left.

Group B: think, search, think, search, and think for more to get to the right answers, and still not sure how to respond.

We’ll call A Confidence, and B Patience.

Both wants to win or solve the puzzle, but they go from different routes.


Group A are willing to try things, and they are not afraid to be wrong.  They have 10 ideas in their head within 5 seconds.

This will help them become more creative as their chess vision expands.

For the patience Group B: they are detail orientated, they want to check all the possibilities.

Their meticulous calculations will help them analyze both deep variations and broadly as more than one variation is possible.


On the flip side, these same strengths are often what give parents the most headaches.

Group A misses many opportunities. They often choose second best options, or worse, completely irrelevant ideas.

Group B becomes very indecisive that it feels paralyzing. And the thought of playing chess with a clock is unbearable.

How to improve

The best way is to have both. Telling Group A to slowdown is probably unfruitful. Try ask them to calculate the variations deeper or ask if there are other possibilities instead.

Similarly, telling Group B ‘just make a decision’ will introduce more anxiety.

Instead, ask what you have calculated, and what outcomes did you see in your calculations. Did you make the decision faster than last time?

In the end, we want to have both, confident but also patient. It will take practice, but learning chess will be more fun.

Pittsburgh Gets a Point in Super Saturday; Clinches Playoff Berth

The Pawngrabbers are in! With 19.5 points and a 4th place finish the Pawngrabbers are guaranteed a spot in the 2018 PRO Chess League Playoffs! On a day that featured a Pittsburgh Line-up without GM Alexander Shabalov and IM Atulya Shetty, the Pawngrabbers squad showed how deep their roster is with over-performing Board 3/4 displays from NM Mika Brattain(3.5/8) and FM Edward Song (6.5/8). GM Awonder Liang (4.5/8) and IM Tuan Minh Lê (5/8) starred on Boards 1 and 2 to bring home the result. The Pawngrabbers unit clinched the win half way through Round 7 with 5 games remaining in the competition.

Fielded against teams from the Central and Eastern Divisions, Pittsburgh had 32 games scheduled, and things got out to a fast start when Awonder and Mika both put together big wins against the Volga Stormbringers, 3.5-0.5. GM Eugene Perelshteyn stopped by to give us his thoughts on the two games.

Next up was the Mumbai Movers, and even without the Former World Champion (or Current Rapid World Champion!) Vishy Anand on their line-up, the GM Baskaran Adhiban-led squad squeaked by Pittsburgh 2.5-1.5. Even with the head-to-head loss, Pittsburgh’s fast start kept them ahead of the pack, and were propelled into the the next round with this tactical shot and conversion from FM Edward Song.

Notable absences from European Division teams proved to be their downfall, and a Marseilles Migraines team without Maxime Vachier-Lagrave or Etienne Bacrot proved to be particularly toothless, only scoring 5/32 and finishing dead last in the event. Pittsburgh cruised by with a perfect 4-0 score, thanks to Awonder’s win over GM Jean-Marc Degraeve.

In what proved to be a growing theme of the day, Awonder punished another risky opening choice! Awonder followed this attacking win by crushing GM Luka Lenic from the Ljubljana Turtles. Lenic was one of the League’s top scorers going into Super Saturday, so the win, along with a 3-1 score in favor of Pittsburgh was a big achievement for the Pawngrabbers.

Following a 2-2 draw with Cannes, Pittsburgh was solidly in the top six in the standings, and solidified their position with a 3-1 head-to-head victory over the Reykjavik Puffins. Awonder once again played a great game, but it was Minh Lê from Board 2 that gave Pittsburgh the nicest moment of the round with this crushing blow against GM Helgi Olafsson:

Did you see that coming? From Board 2 Minh held his own, scoring 5/8 playing from Hanoi against higher rated opposition. The 22 year old has proven himself to be a strong free agent behind Awonder, as he’s scored an impressive 8.5/16 in his rookie season against a Grandmaster-level schedule.

Now three hours into the match, fatigue began to play a factor as Pittsburgh fell 1.5-2.5 to the Armenia Eagles. However, even with the loss, Ed’s win over the Eagles’ manager CM Artak Manukyan was enough to clinch the win and playoff bid. Ed put together a 24 move miniature with mate on the board.

Pittsburgh dropped the last round to the Delhi Dynamite 1-3 with draws from Mika and Ed, totaling 19.5 points for the team and clincing 4th place behind St Louis (24 points), Chengdu (23 points), and Montclair (21.5). If you missed the commentary, you can watch it with NM David Itkin and CM Isaac Steincamp in full here:

With the Playoff Picture set, Pittsburgh fans had to wait to see how Atlantic heavyweights Webster and Minnesota stacked up. Losing to the Norway Gnomes in the last round, Webster finished with 19.5 points with a 4th place finish and a win, but Minnesota was jumped last second by the Estonia Horses on tiebreaks, leaving the Blizzard with only a half-point on the day. With Minnesota slipping, Pittsburgh got some breathing room in the standings, sitting at clear second by a full point:


Pittsburgh has little time before the all-Atlantic clash on Wednesday night with the Webster Windmills (5:55 PM EST). While both teams have claimed spots in the playoffs, the match will likely decide 1st place in the Atlantic Division and serve as a litmus test for Pittsburgh before the postseason.


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When to Go for It

You see a fancy shot… to play it or not to play it? It looks deadly, but it’s very complicated. You aren’t sure what to do, and you’ve already invested some serious time in the position. Or maybe you see a lot of tactical shots floating in the air and sense you might be winning. What to do??

Been there, done that. After the game, it’s easy to see what the computer says and nod along, but in the heat of the moment it’s hard. It’s not only calculation that’s involved, it’s also nerves.

If you see a forced win, play it! Well duh… What I mean to say is that if the win is forced with no room for intuition, and you’ve double-checked your calculation, then do it. What’s much harder, however, are situations where your opponent simply has too many possibilities for you to be able to calculate out to the end.

A failure

Miyasaka, Marcus (2245 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2317 USCF) New York International 2015


Black to move

The opening had gone very well for me, and I was enjoying this fantastic position with black after only 18 moves. How to proceed? I burned a lot of time here thinking about 18… Qc5. White obviously can’t take the rook because of mate, and he has to somehow protect the c2-pawn. 19.Bc1 runs into 19… Rxc2 20.Bxa3 Qxa3 21.Kxc2 Qxa2+ 22.Kd3 Ne5+ 23.Kxd4 Nf3+, winning the queen, and if white goes 22.Kc1, then he will get mated after simply 22… 0-0!. Naturally, finding these variations was far from intuitive. I ran into a barrier, however, when I saw that white can play 19.c3!?, and after 19… dxc3 20.bxc4, he’s grabbed the rook. I looked at a lot of variations and couldn’t find a forced win.

This kind of situation is definitely classified as a critical moment, and this is the kind of position where you should invest a lot of time. I’m NOT saying that you should spend a lot of time in every position where there are variations to calculate, but I’m saying that here, 18…Qc5 could be winning, and it’s up to you to investigate.

Ultimately, I chickened out and played 18… 0-0?. 18… Qc5 truly was winning, and black does have semi-forced wins after 19.c3. I could have, however, just concluded that “white’s position is a mess/disaster and I’ll definitely have more than enough compensation there.” That’s what I see looking at this position two and a half years later, but that’s not what I saw at the board. Instead, I ended up playing a subpar alternative, and the game ended in a draw.

What’s the moral of the story? There doesn’t have to be a forced win! An intuitive judgement that your opponent’s position is bad accompanied with a few variations is good enough.

A (missed) golden opportunity

I guess I like showing my failures, and here’s another one.

Brodsky, David (2388 USCF) – Bora, Safal (2499 USCF) World Open 2016


White to move

This position looks like total chaos. My rook on h7 and my queen are hanging, and my d4-knight is inconveniently pinned. 28.Rbh3 leads to a perpetual check on the h-file. There’s another move, 28.Rh4, which is plain beautiful. Black can’t take the queen or rook because he gets mated! Next up I want to mate him. But how…

After a long think, I ended up playing 28.Rbh3? and agreeing to a draw after 28… gxf4 29.Rh8+. 28.Rh4!! was winning. Defending on the 7th rank with 28… Qa7 runs into 29.Rbh3!, and 28… Be8 loses in multiple ways. 29.Rg3 Bg6 30.Rxg5! fxg5 31.Qxg5 is deadly, and so is 29.Rbh3 Bg6 30.Qf2. So why did I not play Rh4? I saw it but I chickened out. Since the move I played led to a draw, sitting there thinking felt like considering a draw offer.

The tournament situation also had an effect. Now, if I needed to win to get a norm, I’m 100% sure I would have played Rh4. It was round 7 of the World Open. Though I wasn’t really in norm contention, I was still doing well. I had, however, lost my morning game in a somewhat depressing fashion, and losing two games in one day sucks. If I played Rh4 I was risking another loss. I didn’t mistakenly see a refutation to Rh4, but I just didn’t play it on general grounds. Ok, I chickened out.

What’s the moral of the story? In both examples I’ve shown you, I saw a tempting tactical idea but ended up backing out because I didn’t see a forced win. Should I have followed my heart instead of my brain? In those two examples yes, but not everywhere. Don’t lose your sense of reality, or you could easily blunder. What I’m saying is that if it feels right and you can’t bust it, then it probably is right. This doesn’t have to only apply to positions where you feel you may have a win. If you’re worse and you see a tactical shot that looks like it forces a draw, then do the same.

Enough philosophical rambling. It’s time for some puzzles! As usual, I’ll publish the answers over the weekend.

Puzzle 1


White to move

Is 19.Nxh6+ a good idea for white? Does he have more than a draw there?

Puzzle 2


White to move

I played the adventurous 17.Nb5 with the idea of going Nbd6 and met 17…f5 with 18.Rd1. Was 17.Nb5 a good idea, or should I have done something normal?

Puzzle 3


Black to move

Can black survive this endgame, and if so how?

Over the Board with Dan Schultz – Michael Gladis

Welcome to the second episode of Over the Board! This week I have the privilege of interviewing my good friend, one who I’ve lost MANY a game to, Michael Gladis. While most recognized for his performance as Paul Kinsey in Mad Men, Mike has also made appearances on Law and Order, House, Eagleheart, and many…MANY more shows. Mike has also showcased his acting skills on stage and in blockbusters such as K-19 and Terminator Genisys. In short, you have certainly seen him somewhere, even a chess catalog! As if that’s not enough, Mike makes time to play guitar, work on projects with his fiancée (actress Beth Behrs), and continue to play a damn good chess game! I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time and I’m happy to share it.

I know you started playing chess around the age of 5 or 6, but what passion came first, acting or chess?

Definitely Chess. I didn’t start acting until I was in High School.

I also learned how to play from my dad when I was about 6, I think that’s one of the reasons why I love the game so much. Your goal was initially to beat your dad at chess, which you did around 15 years old. Do you two still play from time to time or talk about the game?

Yes, we still play occasionally, either online or when I’m at home. He gave me a beautiful wooden board and set when I first beat him, and bought me a USCF membership, which he still renews for me to this day!

That’s and awesome dad! In an interview you said chess isn’t just a game but “THE game,” a sentiment our readers and I can’t agree enough with. What do you think makes chess so great?

One of the things I love about the game is that it’s a conversation in the abstract- a language of its own. Whenever I travel abroad I look for chess players- whether it be people playing on a large lawn-type chess set in Amsterdam, a little old man with a board in front of him at a café in Paris at 2am, or some guys playing in the bitter cold and snow while drinking vodka on Arbat Street in Moscow- It’s always so satisfying to play a few games with someone who comes from a completely different culture, who might not speak the same language as you, but after a few games of chess you can look up at each other and feel like you just had a genuine interaction- a conversation- a debate. There are arguments, rebuttals, and even jokes on the board. You get a sense of that person’s personality from their play. I love that.

I love that explanation! Maybe not as deep a topic as the unspoken language of chess, but would you mind telling the story of how you modeled for the Chess Life catalog?

One time at a party in college, I got to talking to a woman my friend had brought with her and asked her what she did. She replied that she was the head graphic designer for a magazine, and when I asked which one she replied, “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it.” I pressed, and she replied, “Chess Life.” Well, of course I flipped and start gushing about how much I love playing chess, and how my dad bought me my USCF membership when I first beat him, and how he still renews it to this day, and on and on and on… and she tells me that she sometimes pays some of the other actors in the Theater Department (like her friend who brought her to the party) to model for the Chess Life catalogue, and that it doesn’t pay much but if I’m interested she’d love to have me come down. Well, $100 bucks buys a lot of beer when you’re a poor college student, plus it was a chance to go check out the USCF headquarters (which was in Newburgh, NY back then).
So I arrive at the photo shoot (I did a few)- and I had a plan in mind. The pics in the USCF catalog of people at chess sets always bugged me because they looked SO phony- the “player” was always sitting ramrod straight at the board, with a goofy smile on their face, holding a chest piece just-so above the board with one hand, and it looked so fake. So I wanted to bring some veritas to the photo shoot- some gravitas, even! I wanted to be hunched over, face twisted into agonized concentration, fingers tearing out my hair, they wouldn’t let me smoke but I would have if they had- etc.


So the photo shoot goes on and I’m modeling a Chess tie or some bullsh*t, and finally they bring up the board. This is my chance! So I set up a position from a famous game (I don’t remember which one) just in case there are fellow nerds out there who might appreciate that, and I summon all of my young acting abilities and scrunch myself up into position, face twisting and hair pulling galore, and the photographer says, “Michael, could you straighten up a little bit? And smile? But not raise your eyebrows too much? And pick up a piece? And hold it up just a little bit? And slide your elbow over?” and SNAP! The picture’s taken and it’s the same bullsh*t photo that I had been trying to avoid taking. You gotta laugh.
There was one photo they took of me at a board with my friend Laura sitting on my lap- y’know, how chess players always play chess, and I heard later they had to pull it from future catalogs because people were complaining it was too risqué!
That graphic designer, Jamie, became a good friend, though. She was always very kind, and I got to play some GM’s at the USCF because of her. I once brought Arthur Bisguier a bottle of Dewar’s and he played me all afternoon. I don’t think I ever gave him anything resembling a challenge. Eventually he was spotting me a rook and still crushing me so badly it seemed like a magic trick. Jamie later gave me the board and the House Of Staunton set we played on that afternoon- I still have it to this day.


Outstanding! So, why do you think chess has stuck with you for so long?

I love it because it never gets boring, it’s always a challenge, and I’m just good enough to want to get better, but never nearly as good at it as I want to be.

You and I play chess on just about a daily basis and I know you’re quite busy with your career and plenty of travel, so how does chess fit into your daily routine?

I recently started using one of those apps that tracks your phone usage, and I’m pretty much spending most of my phone time either on or twitter. I’m gonna try to wean myself off of twitter, but I consider Chess to be calisthenics for my brain. I play a lot of 3 min blitz, and then usually have a few longer daily games going. I play like everyone else. If I’m in the waiting room of an audition, or the dentist, sitting on the couch watching TV and a commercial comes on, or (sorry) at a long red light, I’ll pick up the phone and make a move.

I have the same habit, you’re not alone. What does your fiancée think of your chess obsession? Does she play?

I think she thinks it’s a healthy mental exercise. It’s a better way to spend phone-time than social media or candy crush (which I’ve never played). I was really flattered to learn that when we first started dating she made a stab at learning the game, without telling me, in hopes of being able to play with me, but it didn’t take and she let it go.


That’s awesome! My wife picked up the game when she saw how passionate I was for it. It really meant a lot to me as well. Now, thanks to you’ve I’ve fallen in love with Yasser Seirawan’s Play Winning Chess; it’s pretty much become my Catcher in the Rye and the number one book I recommend to all players I talk to or work with. Are there any other books or content you would recommend for players looking to improve?

That’s the chess book I’ve recommended to (and bought for) SO many people looking to learn the game. Yasser’s writing style is so accessible, and so readable, and his love for the game is evident on every page- so I’d go on to recommend all the rest of his books in that series (Winning Chess Tactics, Winning Chess Strategies, etc.) How To Reassess Your Chess by Silman is another great book.

So you had the opportunity to play with and learn from the renowned hustler “Russian Paul” in Washington Sq, NYC. What was that experience like and how do you think learning the game from a player of that caliber effects your own playing style?

I played with Paul every day in the summer of 2001, just after shooting my first big Hollywood film- so I had money and time. I’d make my way to the park almost every afternoon and sit with him for a while. I also played him and on and off the whole time I lived in NYC. I would pay him $10 for 3 5min blitz games, but eventually he’d ignore the clock and start analyzing positions as they came up, showing me possible moves/lines etc. He’s a really strong player- and very Russian about it. Very matter-of-fact, usually smoking a cigarette. I don’t know that it affected my style that much, I probably wasn’t that great a student. But I do quote some of the hustlers I used to play in Washington Sq. back in the day once in a while: “The pin wins!”
I still find Paul up in Union Sq. when I travel back to NYC, and pay him for a few games. He still slaughters me. He says I’m not as good as I used to be – which is probably true. I used to play over the board every day when I lived in NYC. Now it’s only on the phone, so when I play on a real board in person I make a lot of mistakes I probably shouldn’t.

I know we talked about it but I’ll be headed to NYC this summer to do a chess tour of the town. Where do you think people should stop in the city to get a game or learn more about the history of chess there?

There are still players in Washington Square Park, so go there just because it’s a pretty place to play, and a part of NYC chess history. Unfortunately a lot of the good hustlers (like Paul) all moved up to Union Square and play on milk crates and folding tables because there’s so much more foot traffic (and business) for them there – so go there, as well. Bryant Sq. has some strong hustlers, and that’s right near the NY Public Library, which you should also check out (not for chess, just because it’s cool). I also like to go up to the Chess & Checkers pavilion in Central Park, but it can be a little tough to get a game there. The same old crusty dudes have been meeting up to play each other there for decades, and they’re not always eager to include strangers, but you can ask. It’s a great place to play if you already have a partner. You can even rent boards/pieces there I believe. There’s some chess tables in the park area in the center of Stuyvesant Town- there are some surprisingly strong players in there (I used to play on one of their BAL chess teams). Also, definitely try to make it to the Marshall Chess club. It’s a beautiful, historical place. Play in a tourney there if they’re having one!

Any interesting chess stories?

I was living in NYC on 9-11, and, like everyone, woke up to a world in chaos. I had seen the 2nd plane hit the Towers on TV, and I was living just outside Times Sq. at the time, so I thought to myself “Where would I hit next if I was them?” and decided it wasn’t safe to stay in my apartment. I walked down 9th Avenue, saw the Towers fall, stood with groups of strangers around pickup trucks with radios blaring trying to get information, bought water for and tries to comfort the people covered in ash, covered my face with my t-shirt when the air got too bad to breathe… eventually I made my way to my best friend’s father’s apartment. Donald lived on Washington Place in the West Village. He was a dear friend himself, so it was the place I felt safest in the city. After 4 or 5 hours of staring at the TV, I had to get out and take a walk, get some air, clear my head and try to process what the hell was happening. Washington Place borders Washington Square Park, so, almost instinctively, I walked over to the SW corner of the park where the chess tables are. All the hustlers were there. Paul was drinking vodka, and I think I actually asked him if he wanted a game. He said no, but one of the other hustlers piped up and said “I’ll play.” So, I remember sitting down and playing this guy- playing a game of chess during the apocalypse- and of course we were playing badly and making all sorts of stupid mistakes and eventually we looked up at each other, and I think I actually said out loud “What the hell are we doing??” and we both stood up and abandoned the game and I took a swig of Paul’s vodka and went on my way, out into a different world.

Wow…that’s a powerful story. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. So, what’s your next chess goal?

I’d like to start playing in tournaments this year. Someday I want to do what you’re doing – actually take lessons from a Master or GM and really buckle down and study and try for a title.

I’ve also thought about competing in a Chess Boxing match (I like to work out at boxing gyms), but I’m a way better chess player than I am a boxer, and my face is so pretty, and I’m not in the best shape, and I just hit 40 so… sanity will probably prevail and I won’t.

Well, if you do take up Chess Boxing I’ll be right there in the front row! If you need a cutman, I’m your guy! So, outside of acting, chess, and playing guitar, any other hobbies or passions?

I recently acquired an old Toyota Land Cruiser that I’m working to fix up and using to explore SoCal and the South West- I love camping and getting off road. I also like to take photos, so those two hobbies go hand in hand.

Are you working on any projects presently that you’re really excited about?
Working with my fiancée on producing our own projects, which is very exciting, and potentially a lot more fulfilling than waiting around for acting auditions. I’m also starting to write, which is challenging, to say the least.

Mike, thank you so much for your time! We’ll definitely be looking forward to what comes next, on and off the board. I’ve had the honor losing many a match to Mike, but I always learn something and we always have a laugh – the whole point of the game.


The Art of Balance:  High School and Chess

This week, I’m going to take a small detour to discuss something I think many of you have either already experienced or will experience in the future.  Specifically, I will be discussing the concept because I am currently experiencing it – junior year of high school and how it affects chess.

Junior year, or 11th grade, is arguably the hardest and most stressful year of high school.  In freshman and sophomore year, the workload is relatively light – most students aren’t at the point of multiple college-level courses yet, and classes are easier in difficulty in general.  Also, students have “chiller” classes like P.E.

Most of this changes when a student hits junior year.  Firstly, classes become somewhat harder, but the main point is that students take more of these college-level classes.  Thus, homework and studying take longer.  Additionally, in junior year, students have to take standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT in order to prepare for college.  These tests take weeks or even months of preparation, and for many students, the weekends are the only viable time to study for them.  Lastly, students have to start thinking about college, especially what schools they want to apply to, how they are going to manage applications, and maybe even what they will write their essays on.  While one might predict that senior year would be more difficult than any year past, from what I have heard, the answer is both yes and no.  Sure, the difficulty of classes may still increase.  However, by the end of first quarter or about ¾ of the way through the first semester, college applications are done, and from that point, students usually do not need to put as much effort into classes as they did earlier – put in just enough to maintain the grades earned last year, and the student will be fine.  Thus, in short, junior year in high school is very involved and time-consuming, at least more so than any year experienced thus far.

For chess players, this prospect can possibly be daunting.  I’ll use myself as a case study since I am currently in the middle of this junior year.  Up until last year, I would play in every tournament that came around and would just work on homework in between rounds or before/after the tournament.  And, almost every time, I would be able to finish it all while still being able to play in the entire tournament.  Very rarely did I have to take a last round bye or, worst case, skip a tournament due to workload.  Even then, that was only during sophomore year.  I find the situation very different this year.

Last year, I was aware that there would have to be more time put into school this year.  Yet, I still naively believed that I would have time to do everything that school required and play in chess tournaments at the same time.  Oh, was I wrong!  Since the school year started in late August of 2017, I have only played in three actual tournaments, and one of them was the K-12 Nationals down in Florida.  I’ve found that I have had to skip many tournaments either due to school work alone or having to study for the SAT/ACT.  Even now, the USATE is happening this weekend in New Jersey, which I’m skipping; next weekend is another open tournament that I will likely be skipping; and, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to play in the VA State Championships because it is the weekend before the SAT in March, and this is a tournament that I have attended every year since I started playing chess in 2010.

This brings me to my point about what someone can do once they reach junior year in order to balance school and chess as much as possible.  Although I have only played in three actual tournaments since the year started, I have still been able to play at least a game or two a month through the DC Chess League and NVA Chess League, both of which have matches once a month.  Playing in these leagues has allowed me to at least keep somewhat in touch with the game in the middle of everything else that is going on.  So, upon reaching junior year, if a chess player is able to play in leagues or even clubs that have single-day events, then it could be extremely beneficial.  One day or one night could be dedicated to chess, and the rest of the weekend could be used for doing homework and studying for standardized tests.  In this way, a respected amount of time can be allocated to each area.

As for the future, I took the ACT this February, and hopefully, after the SAT in March, I will be done with standardized testing.  At that point, I hope I can go back to playing in tournaments on a more normal basis.  But, until then, I hope that my experience and thoughts regarding balancing junior year in high school and chess will help those who have yet to experience it.  Thanks for reading, and, as always, I’ll see you next time!

Winning The Baltimore Open U2100

Having recently fallen back into the <2100 club, I decided to give the money sections one last try at the Baltimore Open last weekend, in case I wasn’t doomed to being embarrassed by 1800-rated kids!

I played in the fast schedule (Rounds 1-2 G/45+inc/30, Rounds 3-5 40/90 SD/30 inc/30) and went 4.5/5 for clear first. Overall the accommodations were pretty good and it made for a good U.S. Amateur Team East warmup. It was also an interesting throwback to my 1900 days, but I have learned a lot since then and it showed in a lot of the critical moments. The clearest example was the losing ending I defended in Round 3 (seemingly forever while down an hour of time) that I don’t think I would have contested as seriously 2-3 years ago. More than any other group I’ve observed, 1800-2100 sections seem to favor who avoids blundering in the wrong moments (and not necessarily the least). I still don’t get it.

Sidenote: so many kids! I was told there would be lots of old people (I think those were the 2000s who dropped off the map in Rounds 3-4), but only one of my opponents was age 16+.

Here are the games:

Round 1: Li – Chong

In Round 1, I won a (very) clean pawn early but time trouble made matters much more interesting than it should have. My opponent actually had a draw at one point, but alas he was low on time too and missed it. Most of the game was pretty squarely in my corner – too bad my technique leaves so much to be desired!

Round 2: Power – Li

The second round was even more embarrassing as I was apparently -7 (Stockfish) at one point. Some of these Caro-Kann lines are the stuff of nightmares and a good example of not blindly regurgitating thematic opening ideas. Even though I was down a few minutes to 20-30 throughout some dangerous positions, I managed to escape. Again, if you get a dire-looking position in the middlegame, don’t worry about your mistakes and keep a level head – my opponent had the win in his sights, but got too impatient at the critical moment.

Round 3: Li – Shoykhet

Unfortunately, my good luck had to come to an end… or did it? In the span of one game, I showed I still don’t understand the Closed Sicilian, then got a won position, then found myself in a lost ending with no time left. Somehow I survived time control at move 40 and then dug myself to equality in 25 moves, ending the day tied with five others at 2.5/3.

Round 4: Gorti – Li

Day 2 ended up a lot smoother because the end was near(er) and I didn’t mess up! I was paired against Atmika Gorti (FM Akshita’s sister), who despite being one of the lowest players was also undefeated. I got to execute the “normal” plans in a very familiar opening – structurally favorable Exchange Caro-Kann – so there weren’t too many surprises.

Round 5: Zhao – Li

Going into the last round, three of us had 3.5/4, including my opponent from Round 3. As the highest rated of the three, I faced off against my last co-leader. In the end, both of them just self-destructed — I was lucky to get a simple, positionally superior position in another familiar opening (Caro-Kann Panov), and my opponent just didn’t get any chances to unravel. On Board 2, Mr. Shoykhet – who had played a great tournament – played a bad opening and was lost early – too bad. The player who wins these sections is often the one that’s able to keep a straight face the whole time!

State of Mind: Fighting Your Inner Demons

As you know, lately I’ve been drowning in school work since the conclusion of the Cardinal Open. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about chess – in fact, today I wanted to share the most informal chess lesson I’ve ever received. Consider this:

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My January bullet rating graph (NapoleonBonaparteIV)

In my bouts of procrastination, my roommate and fellow Chess^Summit columnist, Beilin, noticed that in a week my bullet rating had atrophied by over 100 points. After watching me play, Beilin commented that I flagged a lot in winning positions, simply because I got too excited when I had less than 10 seconds left in a game. Hmm… time to make adjustments.

Then this happened:

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My current bullet rating graph (NapoleonBonaparteIV)

In the course of one evening, I regained 100 rating points. It’s amazing what objectivity can do for your chess. By simply ignoring how I felt about the position until the end of the game, I saved precious seconds on my clock and won a lot more. Is this a meaningful lesson for chess in longterm time controls?

Ok, first a disclaimer – bullet is not a replacement for proper chess training. So the takeaway from this article should not be to play more bullet, but rather to realize that the psychological factors in both may not be so different. From there we can start the discussion of this article.

This general ‘nervousness’ I had in bullet is similar to the feeling that haunts us in tournament games because we let it affect our objectivity. We’ve already talked about managing time, so today I want to talk about how our emotions can get in the way of our objectivity in winning positions.

Let’s start with an example from a recent tournament game I shared:

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Samuelson–Steincamp, position after 41. Nc1

Here I have a decisive advantage – the knight on h6 is trapped, and if I can consolidate quickly, White will not have enough compensation for the piece. However, the game isn’t over and I should have lost after 41…Qa8? 42. Nd3 Qb8 because White had the decisive blow 43. Nxf4! +-  Bxf4 44. Rd6+ Ne6 45. Qxf4+ with mate coming soon. Luckily my opponent erred with 43. Nxe5? and after some complications, I managed to win the game.

Honestly, I played 41…Qa8? quickly, without realizing the true dangers in the position. I remember feeling optimistic, and confident in my ability to pull the upset. But my level of excitement should have been punished – in adapting the mindset like the game was over, I stopped playing for one move. And in chess, we know how much of an impact one mistake can make…

Correct would have been 41…Qc2, but after some analysis, I decided here that I needed to have really spent some time here. The act of regrouping isn’t easy here, and I haven’t won until I’ve done so – material alone won’t cut it.

After thinking about this game, I realized I’ve actually made this mistake a few times before. Take this position from my most recent Pittsburgh Chess League match-up:

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Yaskolko–Steincamp, position after 36. h3

Out of a Berlin sideline, I’ve played really well to get this position. I’ve kept the bishop pair, and White is relatively passive in this position. All Black needs to do is keep pressure on the queenside while holding off the kingside expansion.

Already thinking I couldn’t lose this position, I played 36…Ra8? expecting to play …gxf4 at the right moment and bring my rook to the g-file. But just like the last example, confidence like this leads to blindness. I missed 37. g4! and White was no longer worse. In fact, the dramatic switch in initiative proved too much for me to recover from, and I lost ten moves later.

The more I looked through some of my previous games, the more I realized this is actually a really common weakness for both me and my opponents. Take this dramatic example from a game I played in the Czech Republic last year:

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Duda–Steincamp, position after 26…Kf8

White is a lot better after a terrible opening display on my end, and my continuation here was one out of inertia than a belief I could salvage a draw. But my 2100 rated opponent showed how simple it is to lose a game with 27. g4?? Nf3+, and now I’m completely winning. Sure this is a horrendous blunder, but goes to show that once we let our guard down, our brain also tells us to stop looking at counterplay.

This isn’t just an amateur/expert-level phenomenon either, as we’ve seen it creep up in the games of professionals too. I can think of no better than Nakamura’s outing against Carlsen in the 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge. Going into this game, Nakamura had never beaten Magnus, with an unusually poor record of 0-8 (excluding draws), but after 33. Rxh2, that all seemed to be going away as Hikaru had a completely crushing attack:

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Nakamura–Carlsen, position after 33. Rxh2

Magnus was forced into 33…Qg6 34. Nf5 Re8, and after some thought, Hikaru repeated the position with 35. Qg4 (threatening Rh2-h6, trapping the queen) Qb6 36. Qh3 Qg6. And now Nakamura needed to find the win:

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Nakamura–Carlsen, position after 36…Qg6

Trying to block out the emotions, Nakamura pushed through with 37. d6?, missing a critical detail. After Magnus’ 37…Nxd6 38. Nxd6 Rd8!, Nakamura realized that his first rank wasn’t defended, leaving his king open to attack. Hikaru tried to bail out with 39. Nc4, but it was already too late. After 39…Qxe4, Hikaru couldn’t adjust to the new position and played 40. Qh5?, going on to lose the game.

It’s not hard to put yourself in Hikaru’s shoes. So close to winning against his rival for the first time, Hikaru relaxed for one moment and botched a two move calculation. As it turns out, d5-d6 is the correct idea, but a 37. Rh1 or a 37. Ka2 needed to be inserted first to reduce the power of Black’s counterplay. 37. Qf1 is also completely winning.

So now we see how dangerous it is to think “I’m going to win” during a game. Just like how I learned in bullet this week, push that feeling to the end of the game and remain calm until the desired result is secured. While this mentality in bullet is to prevent your opponent from having counterplay on the clock, thinking like this will limit your opponent’s counterplay on the board.

Chess Programs: How to Learn Actively

As chess gets popular in the United States, the opportunity to participate in chess camps or school programs also have increased.

Parents and coaches can us the information from this post to encourage students to actively learn in chess.

Chess programs can be grouped by age or, more commonly, chess levels. Here are three common chess levels:

1. True beginner:  learning the rules for the first time
2. Play-at-home level: knows the rules; ready to learn basic tactics and strategies
3. Tournament-play level: competed in tournaments; has been working on chess study; wants to increase chess rating.

Regardless of a student’s chess level, the following five points should be the focus to get the most out of a chess chess program.

 Asking Questions
• Playing Games
• Trying New Ideas
• Teaching Others
• Making Friends

Asking questions

Schools are moving toward more instruction and less interaction. Chess programs should not follow this pattern. Instead, questions during a lecture will bring ideas both for the students and the instructor.

It helps to encourage students to answer instructor’s questions without being afraid of being wrong. Questions can be general ones, like questions about chess world champions, chess history, etc.  Or they can be knowledge-based, such as how to checkmate with two bishops.

Playing games

Like many other activities, chess is a numbers game. Grandmasters generally play many more games than a beginner. Chess programs is an opportunity to play multiple games in a day.

A beginner should learn to not be afraid to play against stronger players. This is the chance to train and ask questions. At the same time, playing against less-experienced players is a chance for your child to teach what they know.

Either way, they can use the camp to increase their chess experiences.

Trying new ideas

In my lessons, I ask students to try out ideas at home (online), then learn from these experiences and apply them in tournaments.

Camp or school clubs are the best time to test ideas. If they want to learn a new opening, they can try it during these programs. Then they can ask questions about it.

Not only is this a low-stake environment (results don’t matter as much as in tournaments), but they can also immediately ask for feedback.

Teaching others

                                    If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

–Albert Einstein

Encourage a child to teach what they know. We live in an era where knowledge has become more of a commodity, and information can be easily found on the internet.

Not only are they helping others to learn new ideas, they’ll also clarify their own thoughts in the idea. For example, once they have learned how to checkmate with two bishops, showing others the process will only help them to understand it better.

Making new friends

This may be the most important of all. Going to chess camp or club will give a child the opportunity to make new friends with other chess players.

After all, chess is a game that shows off the competitive spirit on the board, and friendships off the board.

When a child  interacts with other kids and works with them to solve problems, it will help them work during the camp, and more importantly, form a friendship for their chess careers to come.

Whether your kids are just picking up the game or are ready for tournament play, I hope this post will help you and them to gain the most from any chess programs.

Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers Upset Defending Champs St. Louis Archbishops

Pittsburgh couldn’t have had a more exciting win last night, toppling none other than the St. Louis Archbishops, last year’s champion team, 8.5-7.5. gave Pittsburgh only an 11% chance of winning the match (and even worse at halftime)!

St. Louis went all in on Boards 1-3 (GMs Caruana, Fedoseev, Ramirez), outrating Pittsburgh by more than 150 points on each board. The downside of that was having to play NM Forest Chen (rated under 2000 FIDE/2300 USCF) on Board 4, placing undeniable pressure on all the top boards to compensate. Chen’s score of 1/4 wasn’t the end of the world, but that probably should have been 0/4, and the top boards simply did not perform as they should have.

Of course, it’s hard to argue against playing GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Vladimir Fedoseev, both rated over 2700 FIDE. But to truly help the team, they really needed to run up the score against their (significantly) lower-rated opponents, and they didn’t quite get enough. The Pawngrabbers had a clear, if not easy, goal of picking points off NM Chen and holding down Caruana and Fedoseev a bit. This left GM Alejandro Ramirez as the deciding factor, and unfortunately for the Archbishops, he did not do so well last night.

Crucially, Pittsburgh managed to avoid the early disasters from the last two matches and kept the match close in the first half, losing the first matchup 1.5-2.5 and tying the second 2-2. They completely turned around the match by sweeping the third quarter 3.5-0.5, and picked off the last 1.5 points from a selection of good positions.

As a result, Pittsburgh is still 3rd in the Atlantic Division (behind Webster and Minnesota), but has widened its lead over its nearest competitors, including St. Louis. There are still a few tough matches, but last night’s victory bodes well for the Pawngrabbers’ playoff prospects.

Highlights of the night, in no particular order:

1. Awonder Liang defeats Fabiano Caruana

Awonder, somehow, remains undefeated outside of Super Saturday, scoring 3-1 for the night. Evidently, Awonder was not content with beating GM Hikaru Nakamura last weekend – he had to beat Fabiano Caruana as well.

He’s actually looking a lot like Candidates material…

2. Alexander Shabalov defeats Vladimir Fedoseev

GM Shabalov has been less consistent, although his worst performances are scoring even against slightly lower-rated players. When he is on form, he is easily one of the most appreciated players, at least among the commentators! Shaba delivered a surprising demolition of a 2731-rated Fedoseev in Round 3:.

3. Atulya Shetty defeats Alejandro Ramirez

Atulya scored a solid 2-2 for the night, and was well-rewarded for smoothly outplaying GM Ramirez from a seemingly equal middlegame. This game gave Pittsburgh a little peace of mind, bringing them to the safe 8 points.

4. Safal Bora swindles Alejandro Ramirez

Getting swindled by Forest Chen and difficulties over Caruana and Fedoseev did not make for a great night, but Safal was resourceful enough to snag what ended up a critical half point from a beyond hopeless-looking position. You never know when a lucky half point is going to decide a match!

The Pawngrabbers are all the better for this monumental upset. Our next match will be in one week, on February 14 against the Montclair Sopranos. Don’t forget to tune in on Isaac’s live comments!

-Beilin Li, Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers co-manager